Her Majesty’s forces aren’t all about guns, tank, badass planes and trying to kill the Taliban. The RAF, Navy and Army folk go racing, too…
ALASTAIR ‘A-FORCE’ FAGAN
Usually fighting together, now they’re scrapping each other...
Whether you agree with the barrage of contentious wars and the aftermath that George tWat Bush created, or you think it’s all is irrelevant, one thing you can’t overlook is the effort of our valiant soldiers and members of the armed forces. From frontliners in Afghanistan to bailing-out the G4S’s cock-up at the Olympics, their presence is essential worldwide. Thankfully, Fast Bikes is one of the only decent magazines available to these soldiers in the Naafi and we receive regular letters from the boys out in Ass-Crack’istan and other war zones. It’s time we gave something back.
Very few know there’s also a battle being fought here on UK soil, or rather Tarmac. 2012 saw the first fully-fledged military championship, run in conjunction with Thundersport GB. After a gathering of the competition secretaries sat down with Thundersport bosses to thrash out a few ideas, and how the series should be run, the Motodex Combined Military Championship was born. Dave Stewart (not him from the Eurhythmics, but Thundersport GB boss), went to the ACU and had it recognised as an official championship. The next aim is to promote it as a registered series in the combined military ranks, alongside the vast ranks of sports that require just the one ball...
Of course, not all of the boys racing at Thundersport GB are frontline terrorist killers, snipers or national heroes. Everything from mechanics, chefs, and the officers compete. All of the forces actively encourage sporting participation, either as a hobby/semi-profession or post-injury, and some bases brag their own individual motorsport clubs.
As well as RAF vs Army vs Navy, there’s also an individual’s championship that works on a different format to the usual point-scoring system. With riders in various classes, the only impartial way of points tally is a simple one – for example, if Sergeant Bilko was racing 25 other racers and beat 20 of them, he’d be awarded 21 points: 1 for finishing and 20 for the guys/gals he’d beaten. The four best rounds count to allow for the inevitable postings and deployments abroad.
There’s a common misconception that just because this racing isn’t in the BSB paddock, it’s ‘just’ club racing. It isn’t. Thundersport GB brandishes the tag of ‘sportsman’ racing – a cut above club level and a feeder series for the future of British talent – and the televised coverage on Motors TV adds some glamour, not to mention keeping sponsors happy. It’s fun, but then things get bloody serious, too. We were chatting to a guy (who shall remain anonymous due to a potential beating from the wife) who traveled back from Afghanistan and went straight from his base to Mallory Park, forfeiting the chance to spend the weekend with his wife and kids – who he hadn’t seen in months...
The inaugural Team Challenge was won by the RAF. We say won, it was more of a pummeling that involved lots of pummeling then some beating. Trailing the RAF by nearly half was the Army who, in turn, scraped second place by a measly 76 points from the Navy. It could have gone either way heading into the final round at Mallory Park. Fast Bikes caught up with all the forces and settled the score with the shirt-lifter theories.
Chatting to the Army lads, it’s clear this is a hardcore bunch of soldiers. The BBC programme ‘My War’ truly opened my eyes (and another few million others) as to what really happens on frontline duty. Frankly, it scared the shit out of me and my respect and admiration for these boys more than doubled. The five fallen comrades adorning the front of Luke Harrison’s Gixer add to the story. These are the very same frontline boys racing at Thundersport GB, except an Army cadet instructor who was brought in to the team as a ringer.
Rob Chisholm is Team Army’s chief. He wasn’t at Mallory as his squadron had just returned from Afghan, and Rob was busy ‘sorting weapons’. Sounds like a badass excuse – better than the norm we hear...
This is the first year an Army motorcycle team has been recognised in an official capacity. The British Army Motorsport Association (BAMA) then feeds into a British Army Motorcycle Road Racing Team, and funding works quite differently to the other forces. There was a few grand raised for an awning and some identical (apart from size) snazzy Richa leathers but generally, racing is self-funded bar some diesel, and lots of enthusiasm.
Thankfully, K-Tech suspension has been supporting the team with the bouncy bits, as has Hampshire M/C Centre and Stadium Garage in Doncaster. The Army boys are currently on the look out for sponsors for 2013 where, as well as Thundersport GB duties, there are plans to do the Manx GP and other pure road racing. Get involved.
The Royal Air Force Motor Sports Association (RAFMSA) was formed in 1962 and, over the years, has seen various Air Force members race under the banner. The most noticeable would have to be Les Graham – a serving navigator in the second world war signed up through national service, and went on to become the first ever 500cc World Champion. He was a works Velocette and AJS rider before being killed at Bray Hill on the Isle of Man.
50 years later, the RAF is still doing the biz. As well as winning the team event, they filled the podium spots in the military individual riders’ championship. Stephan Kaplan, Simon Critchlow and Mick Riddle trounced the opposition and, if it weren’t for various deployments and work duties, would have been Thundersport GB championship contenders in their respective classes.
As well as Thundersport GB duties, the RAF Reserves has a team in the British Superbike paddock. Ex-Thundersporter, Lee Hardy, runs a Honda-supported Fireblade in the ultra-competitive National superstock championship.
Gordon Blackley was another well-known RAF rider who won the 1998 Senior Manx Grand Prix and went on to race the TT-proper with a few top-ten finishes. Gordon was an engineer who also raced in the BSB Championship.
The Navy boys take presentation seriously. The team’s (African-looking) awning is immaculately displayed and Team Navy’s boss, Bill Callister is running things. According to sources, Bill has a nasty habit of attaching limpet mines to enemy craft, so rivals are advised to check the contents of their belly pans before a track sortie. Of course, racing is supposed to be fun but you can tell these boys have a serious side, especially Bill. Anyone who races an ageing CBR600RR in the GP1 class with a horde of pukka superbikes has to be slightly, er, mad.
In previous years, car racers and bike racers, serving in the Navy or Marines, ran under individual organisations. Now there is a universal committee called the Royal Navy Royal Marine Motor Sports Association (RNRMMSA) that helps support serving racers. The mission statement involves promoting fitness and motorsport competition, developing team spirit and assisting its members to compete at national level. But it goes much further than that.
As the Motodex Combined Services is a recognised championship, the Navy boys receive ‘on duty’ status as they’re representing, which means free transport and MOD insurance. Various grants help finance personal expenditure (licenses and entry fees etc), equipment and running costs. Nice, if you can get it!
Team Navy is dominated by a raft of 600s competing in the novice-friendly Pre-National series and the RLR Elite 600s.
As well as subsidising entry fees for the forces, Thundersport GB provided the chance for a potential WWIII to ignite in Leicestershire. The last ever race of the 2012 Thundersport GB season was a Motodex Combined Military Services head-to-head. There was a hell of lot of pre-race smack talk, even though the race might have been cancelled due to impending rain, but it was a chance for all the riders who have previously been spread across the race program to congregate on the grid. The race was an über close affair with the Navy’s veteran Bill Callister taking the victory from the RAF’s duo of Steve Kaplan and Paul Cunvin.
Thundersport GB’s chief, Dave Stewart, has a personal relevance to the forces. We’ll leave it to Dave for the final say. “Our original idea of offering discounts to active MOD personnel was to recognise that they could have their championship aspirations disrupted at a moment’s notice. This being due to being posted off to dangerous places in order to defend the rights we often take for granted. Having been sent to the Lebanon back in the early 1980s, I know that the people you are sent to protect and defend are often ungrateful, hostile and sometimes even dangerous. You don’t have to agree with the political decisions that create the conflicts – and often I personally don’t – but the individuals concerned are nonetheless putting themselves in danger and discomfort in order to uphold our rights to freely express our thoughts on that and any other subject we chose.
“We wanted to show that we were grateful for their sacrifices and thus created a championship within a championship to enable them compete against each other for the honour of their branch of the services.
“The championship enabled each rider to pick as few as four, or as many as nine rounds to contest, with each riders’ top four scores being counted towards their final points total. The rivalry and individual team spirit has been an absolute revelation in the paddock and on track and it adds yet another special and unequaled element to the Thundersport GB events.”