UGP - Skill, Pride, Danger and Glory – The Early Years
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UGP - Skill, Pride, Danger and Glory – The Early Years
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Peter Moore looks back on some of the first races at the Ulster Grand Prix and wonders how today’s stars would cope if they had to ride in similar conditions

What goes through your mind when you watch road racers today? I know I am in awe. I ride a bike as often as I can, so I think I have some (albeit only a little) understanding of just how skilful the riders are today.

But compare the skill set of modern riders with that required in the early 20th Century, when technologies were not as advanced; especially the tyres, engine reliability and safety – I know I couldn’t do it, if I was lucky I’d be in the first available hedge (and that’s not a euphemism!).

In my last article, I wrote about the origins of the Ulster Grand Prix, in this piece I want to examine the men who took part in the early races.

Although there is some information for the races of the 1920’s, it is fairly vague compared to the post-war era.

However, what we do know is that the first race in October 1922 was a handicap event, and in a spirit of ‘health and safety…what health and safety?’ bikes were allowed to run on alcohol fuel!

There were 75 entries in four classes, out of which 72 started; eight 250cc machines, thirty-two 350cc, thirty-two 600cc and three over 600cc.

Hubert Hassell won the Handicap event and the 600cc event on a Norton, with Norman Metcalfe winning the unlimited class on a Brough-Superior.The fastest lap at the first Ulster Grand Prix was by Harry Langman aboard a 532cc Scott with a speed of 65.7mph.

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Wal Handley in 1937 (Georges Wander, 2014)

In 1923 the 250cc and Handicap races were won by Walter (Wal) Handley, a remarkable man who was killed in 1941, piloting an aircraft in WWII. 

Pictures of Handley, and most riders from this period, would be preposterous to try and recreate now, but the poses, complete with cigarettes, seem so natural to them.

In a story that could seemingly only come from that bygone era, during his first Isle of Man TT attempt (which he later went on to win four times), Handley accidentally took a wrong turn and started to take the course backwards!

In both 1924 and 1925, Stanley Woods won the over 600cc class of the Ulster Grand Prix aboard a New Imperial (which it is thought he named ‘Patricia’). Stanley was a rising star in motorcycle racing in the early 1920’s, winning the 1923 Junior TT on a Cotton-Blackburne.

Flush with some prize money, Woods wanted to purchase a larger machine for competition as well as personal use: “I actually went to the motorcycle show at Olympia in 1923 with the idea of purchasing a Brough Superior SS80.  This appeared to be, on paper, to be the most suitable motorcycle maker fitting the big JAP engine.  

“However, I was looking for a discount off the machine.  I had just won the Junior TT and had a big head. George Brough was not interested.”
(d’Orléans, 2014).

Woods rode a New Imperial as he was impressed with founder Norman Downs’ enthusiasm for racing.

Woods rode the New Imperial in other Irish road races, but found it was, quite unbelievably, too fast!

[Image: stanleywoods&newimperial.jpg]
Stanley Woods and his New Imperial

It was the next year (1924) that he won virtually all the Irish road races (including the Ulster Grand Prix), after which he tried to again convince George Brough to sell him the new SS100 model at a discount, this was again refused (Ibid).

In the 1925 600cc class, the Norton Works Team entered three local men: Jimmy Shaw, Alec Bennett and Joe Craig.

Craig won the race three minutes in front of Shaw and Bennett. Bennett, despite a puncture, managed third place, even creating a new lap record in the process!

Tales of a man in 1925 still setting fastest laps despite a puncture is almost laughably hard to comprehend; such a failure would, quite rightly, spell the end of a race on either the roads or short circuits for almost any modern rider/machine.

Sepia photographs and ‘foxed’ early programmes record an era of racing that represents some sort of halcyon time.

It was for adventurers and playboys driven by sheer enthusiasm and passion.

The very real mortal risks seemingly taken in a blazeé leather-pantalooned stride and caddish smile, but is this just romanticism with hindsight or are modern riders just the same?

In an age of camera-phones and ever-present social media, they aren’t as aloof and untouchable. Photographs of the early riders, even though posed, suggest an air of self-assuredness and bravado.

I can’t help but wonder how they’d fare on modern machines.
24-04-2015, 09:04 PM
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