Castrol Six Hour 1977

This is the text of the article that appeared in BMWWorld, the club magazine for BMW Victoria. I am indebted to Damien Cook for providing me with these excellent articles.

“This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of Kenny Blake and Joe Eastmure winning the Castrol 6 Hour riding an R 100 S. This was one of the great BMW achievements, not only in an Australian context but also in a race that was held in high esteem throughout the world.

This was production racing in its purest form. The bikes were as the customers purchased them. There were no modifications and the rules were taken to extremes. On race day all bikes had to be perfect, that is even down to foot pegs. If they had been worn down in practise they had to be replaced. This was a test of a rider, his team and a showroom condition motorcycle.

We have just had the MotoGP at Phillip Island, the elite of the world’s racers in the premier racing class. It gets a great deal of coverage in the media and of course motorcyclists are drawn to it. It is hard to imagine a bigger motorcycling event, but in the 70s and early 80s the Castrol 6 Hour was in many ways just that. It attracted a large crowd at the intimate Amaroo circuit in Sydney’s west, had full TV coverage on the ABC and it was discussed not only by motorcyclists but by the general public, in a similar manner to the Bathurst car race, at the time also run as a true production car race. It made celebrities of the winners, Joe Eastmure remembers being a guest on a children’s TV program, not bad publicity for motorcycling.

The event was born out of and/or fuelled the motorcycle boom of that time. As I have said before, the ‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda’ slogan changed motorcycling forever, it was the in-thing and not only the pastime of outlaws as often depicted in the press and movies.

The 6 Hour was not the result of a large corporation but was staged and promoted by the Willoughby District Motorcycle Club and with Castrol as the sponsor it was an instant success. It touched everyone in the motorcycle community.

BMW, although not the first word in performance, had been at the race since it began in 1970, when Len Atlee and Brian Hindle rode a Triumph Bonneville 650 to victory. In that first event, Bob Pressley and Jeff Lucas rode an R 75/5 and for the first half of the race were competitive. In 1973 Tony Hatton, riding solo, rode a short wheelbase (ideal for the tight circuit) R 75/5 into third place only two laps down on Ken Blake’s Z1 900 Kawasaki.

In September 1973, BMW released the R 90 S and /6 series at the Paris Motor Show, this and Hatton’s performance set BMW Australia and Sydney dealer Tom Byrne on a quest to take the top prize in Australia racing.

The R 90 S was ineligible because of its fairing, so in 1974 two R 90/6s were entered, Brian Hindle/Clive Knight and Gary Thomas/Graeme Kairl. This was a formidable line-up and on the track they caused a sensation with the Hindle/Knight combination greeting the chequered flag. This was as good as it could get for BMW, who reaped some great publicity. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the bikes that took eleven months to sort out. In the end both BMWs were disqualified due to an irregularity with the fork spacers. They were placed at the bottom of the fork legs and not at the top, as in the workshop manual. A victory in the showroom, but no name on the honour board.

In 1975 the fairing restriction was lifted and Ken Blake got second place on an R 90 S and in 1976 sharing with Tony Hatton again on the R 90 S, it was still second place.

In 1977, 40 bikes sat ready, parked next to the pit wall. Their riders on the infield ready for the gun and the Le Mans start. In the line up were two R 100 Ss, in the hands of Ken Blake/Joe Eastmure and Tony Hatton and the tall international Helmut Dähne. There was to be a third bike but during practise Brian Hindle suffered major engine disintegration due to piston failure. This was possibly caused by a faulty batch of pistons and Tom Byrne mechanic Don Wilson instructed all his riders to be careful and keep revs to below the red line. Don also prepared the gearboxes by pulling them apart and carefully matched and machined the cogs into a blueprinted unit. The gearbox was now its strength and not its achillies heel.

Dähne had trouble adjusting to the tight track but still managed to come to grips with Amaroo in practice. It was the Blake/Eastmure team that was the hope. Both men were light and small in stature and could ride in the modern style, hanging off the bike keeping the rockers covers off the deck. This meant that with a high and constant corner speed, ground clearance was not an insurmountable problem.

Eastmure had the first and last riding stints with Blake in control of the middle two hours. The 24 L tank gave the BMW an advantage over other bikes that had to fit in extra fuel stops. If everything went to plan this would be decisive.

It was thirty years ago but speaking to Joe Eastmure from his home in Queensland it is obvious that this victory still means a lot to him. It all came back and he was able to go through the races as it unfolded.

He made a steady start keeping out of trouble and working into the pace, not at the front but near enough. Rain began to fall into the second hour and after Jim Budd pitted on the Z1 B Kawasaki, Joe found himself in the number one spot. He was comfortable in the wet and made ground, at the end of his stint he put in a 59.0 second lap, as quick as anyone in the field. The first two hours were not without incident. As Joe described it he was flying and keeping the big twin at a constant high speed especially through the corners. He came up on a pedestrian Moto Guzzi Le Mans ridden by Mick Hone, he took the inside line as Hone decided to move in. He didn’t hit him but gave Hone a fright sending him into the dirt and out of the race. While Blake was out riding the middle two hours, Eastmure was called to front the stewards. The Hone protest was dismissed. Blake rode on unaware of the drama.

Kenny Blake came back in at the end of his two hours still in the lead; the fuel capacity was working in the BMW’s favour. However, Joe said that there was still a worry; were the rocker covers intact? Tony Hatton had just come in to replace one as he had holed it hitting a ripple-strip. He said it was the first thing he looked at when Blake stopped. No worries, only slight wear.

Back out for the run to the line with the Jim Budd/Neil Chivas Kawasaki only 30 seconds ahead but having to do another fuel stop. At 2.45 pm, with one hour to go the Kawasaki came in for fuel and Eastmure who had been making up time was now in the lead. By the time Jim Budd had taken over the bike the BMW lead was 30 seconds. It was race on.

For those of us that were watching, this was exciting and nerve racking, for Joe it was now or never and as he remembers it, he was struggling. He was obviously tired, out of the groove and Budd was flying. The BMW pit-board kept informing him of his situation, the Kawasaki was getting closer. Joe said that there was nothing he could do.

The saviour came riding a Kawasaki 650. Alan Hales was a lap down and battling hard to gain ground, trying desperately to unlap himself. This close-quarter action got Joe going again and lap times dropped. Joe was circulating as fast as he did early in the race; a good effort on tyres that were well past their best. Jim Budd was also now going faster, something had to give. It did. Jim Budd lost it at the back of the track running up an embankment but getting back on the track, settling down to second place.

Joe was now on song and continued to push hard, there was no slowing. This would be a victory to savour. The Holy Grail of Australian motorcycling was now in the hands of two of the great riders of the era and the R 100 S.

BMW had taken on the might of the big Japanese fours and won.

This all happened thirty years ago this month. As Joe Eastmure thought back, he couldn’t believe it was that long ago. The ’77 race was the last 6 Hour he rode; he was badly injured the next year ridding a Honda CBX 1000. He now lives in Queensland and is often out on his Honda CX 500 or one of Australia’s most famous machines, his Suzuki 315, on which he crossed the line in first position in the 1972 Castrol 6 Hour. It is now folklore that he was disqualified for not have the horn in place.

Ken Blake, the most popular and perhaps the most talented rider of the era was tragically killed in 1981 at the Isle of Man. As for the bike, no one seems to know where it went.

BMW never won the race again. In 1978 Ken Blake and Dave Burgess were fourth again on the R 100 S.

In 1984 the raced moved to Oran Park as the event began to lose its magic, perhaps due to the introduction of Super Bikes. The last race was held in 1987, with Kevin Magee and Michael Dowsen winning on a Yamaha FZR100.

The Castrol 6 Hour had passed into history, a history that in 1977 had BMW standing on top of the world.

* If this story has rekindled your interest in the Castrol 6 Hour keep an eye out early next year for a book on the history of the race written by Jim Scaysbrook. Jim rode in the ’77 race on a Ducati with legend Mike Hailwood and has written many books on motor racing and also is the editor of ‘Old Bike Australasia’.”