The “Old Bike Australasia” biography

Here is the text of the article published in “Old Bike Australasia” in February 2009. My great thanks to Jim Scaysbrook for making it available to me in its entirity.

25 years ago, Australia lost perhaps its most popular rider when Kenny Blake crashed in the 1981 Isle of Man Senior TT. It was a tragic end for a gutsy rider who had just received the biggest break if his career – a factory Endurance contract to ride for Honda.

No matter what size bike he was on, Ken Blake, or Blakey to one and all, always seemed dwarfed by the machine. He was no giant, it is true, but it was just that Kenny seemed to wrap himself around the motorcycle to such an extent hat he all but disappeared into it. One thing was undisputable; that Kenny Blake had one of the biggest hearts in motorcycling. As the old adage went, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

Born in Strathalbyn in the Adelaide Hills in 1948, Kenny swapped his push bike for a Honda 125 Benly as soon as he turned 16. To pay for it, he worked odd jobs in addition to his apprenticeship as a panelbeater; picking grapes, tossing hay, whatever was going. With his mates, Ken used to thrash the Honda around a 322 kilometre circuit of public roads, but it wasn’t long before he was hankering for more power. A series of Triumph Bonnevilles followed (he had four in all) and the road runs grew to the point that the local police used to escort the rides. In time the group formalised itself into the Phoenix Motorcycle Club. As well as commuting (rapidly) between his home and panelbeating job at Gilbert Motors in Adelaide, 50 kilometres away, he soon developed a yearning to go racing, so with clip-on handlebars and rear set footrests fitted to the Triumph, he headed to Mallala. In his first race, in early 1966, he fell off on the second lap. “I was pretty depressed because my beautiful road bike was a bent and twisted mess”. Without allowing him time to grope with his misery, Ken’s mates straightened out the Triumph and he was back on track later in the day for his second-ever race, the South Australian Unlimited TT. He finished third! The near standard Triumph contested seven meetings that year, four at Mallala and three at McNamara Park in Mount gambier. By the year’s end he was an A-grader.

Over the next two years the Adelaide tuning duo Les and Deane Jesser stepped in and developed the Bonneville into quite a rapid machine, and with Kenny’s growing prowess in the saddle, results started to come their way. After conquering most of the local South Australian events, Ken and Les loaded the Triumph and set off for Queensland, 1700 kilometres away, to contest the 1969 Australian TT at the newly-built Surfers Paradise International Raceway. His opposition came from Jack Ahearn on Brian Coomber’s Triumph, Ron Toombs on his new TR3 Yamaha, and local star John Warrian. Both Ahearn and Toombs were slow away from the start, so Ken and Warrian began a race-long duel that was decided by less than a bike’s length – in Blake’s favour. It was the first of his eight Australian TT wins. Two weeks later Blake and the Triumph were at Calder for the prestigious Harvey Wiltshire Memorial, but the Bonneville gave up the ghost in practice. In stepped Ron Angel with the offer of a 250cc A1R Kawasaki for the race, and Ken grabbed the opportunity with both hands. He slotted himself into second place as Peter Jones steamed away on the rapid little TR250 Suzuki and looked to finish in that position until the Suzuki broke its crankshaft. Kenny and the Angel Kawasaki took the chequered flag – the beginnings of a memorable partnership. There was however, still life in the Jesser Triumph, and Kenny emphatically proved on 4th January, 1970 at a windswept Phillip Island – the second occasion that the circuit had hosted the Australian TT. By now, Toombs and Bryan Hindle with their TR3s had been winning everything that mattered, but on this day, nobody saw which way Blakey and the bellowing 730cc British twin went. His winning margin over the country’s two top riders was a staggering 15 seconds, and one week later he had a contract to ride for Kawasaki in his hands.

Packing his worldly possessions, he moved from Adelaide to Melbourne, where he took up residence at the Angel premises, supposedly for a few weeks, which became two years. He also secured a job across the road at Dutton’s.  As well as a 250 and one of the quirky A7R 350 racers, Angel provided a new H1R 3-cylinder air-cooled 500 which arrived just in time for the Easter meeting at Bathurst. The triple had a reputation for evil handling but Kenny refused to be intimidated. From the push-start in the Unlimited Grand Prix, Blake simply streaked away, setting a new outright lap record of 2.38.0. Jack Ahearn, in his 24th year of racing at Bathurst, brought his sister H1R (owned by Jack Forrest) home in second place, edging out Toombs’s Yamaha.  The 10-lap Bathurst Bi-Centenary GP, held later in the day, looked certain to be a Blake benefit, and another lap record – a sensational 2.35.0 (143.35 km/h) – went into the books as he rocketed away. But with the race in the bag, the Kawasaki snapped its rear chain. At Hume Weir, the H1R seized, throwing Ken down the road and leaving him with multiple injuries that kept him out of the saddle for several months. Making his comeback at the somewhat lack-lustre 1971 Australian TT at Symmons Plains, he added another Australian title to his CV by winning the 500TT.

But as so often happens, 1971 turned out to be a horror year. At Bathurst, he crashed the H1R on oil at high speed while well in the lead in the Unlimited GP. The bike followed him into the fence, inflicting broken ribs and a punctured lung. He was scarcely back to full fitness when he repeated the stunt at the Australian GP at Lakeside, breaking a leg in the process. About this time, Angel imported the Ducati 750 ridden by Bruno Spaggiari to 2nd place in the Imola 200. Kenny was given the ride and although the bike suffered its share of problems, it was a real crowd puller wherever it appeared.

The following year, Ken struck up a friendship with Jack Walters, the wealthy motel owner and arch-enthusiast from Bendigo. A former racer of some note, Walters had sponsored a long line of riders on quality machinery, and provided Ken with a new 250 and 350 Yamaha for the 1972 season. The new machinery gave Ken an equal footing with all the other stars of the day, but as a true professional racer in a sea of amateurs, he was always ready to ride anything, anywhere.

Since the first Castrol Six Hour race at Amaroo Park in 1970, Production Racing quickly took  over as the most lucrative form of the sport in Australia. Ken was in from the beginning – his 1970 ride demonstrating the absolute determination of the man. Aboard an H1 Kawasaki with Kal Carrick as co-rider, Ken rode the vast majority of the race, including the final hour with the handlebars broken in the middle. Somehow Ken manhandle the bike home to third place in the 500 class. The following year, he rode a 750 Ducati on his own, finishing third outright. By 1973, the Castrol Six Hour was the biggest and most financially rewarding event in a crowded national schedule. Fresh from a double 125/250 win at Bathurst at Easter, Blake entered the Six Hour aboard one of the newly-released Z1 Kawasakis, again riding solo. Circulating quickly and smoothly, he squeezed two hours out of each tank of fuel to beat Warren Willing’s thirstier H2 Kawasaki by 30 seconds.  He capped the year by winning the Australian 250 Grand Prix title after six arduous rounds across the continent. The following year he won the Castrol Six Hour again, this time teaming with Len Atlee on a Z1. It was a somewhat lucky win however after the disqualification of the first three placegetters due to machine irregularities. The year also brought him the national 350 and 500 titles. After making his American debut in 1975 at Daytona on a Walters-sponsored TZ750, a crash at Bathurst left him with more injuries, although he recovered to bring his 900 BMW home second in the Castrol Six hour, again riding without a partner. No doubt he would have continued his lone-wolf role, had not a rule been introduced for 1976 demanding a minimum of two riders per team.

But if his career had seemed to plateau, the best was yet to come. In February 1976, the biggest-ever invasion of international stars arrived for the Australian TT, to be held at Laverton Air Force base outside Melbourne. Heading the list was Giacomo Agostini on a two-year old 500 MV Agusta. It also marked the local debut of the new RG500 Suzuki, no fewer than eight of which lined up for the 500 TT. Courtesy of Jack Walters, Blake had got his hands on one of the new Suzukis, but it was New Zealander Stuart Avant who took his RG500 to an immediate lead and ran away with the race. Passing Agostini at half distance, Kenny had settled into second when with three laps remaining, Avant’s Suzuki seized and chucked him down the road. To rapturous applause from the enormous crowd, Kenny took the flag ahead of the MV and Greg Johnson’s RG500. The victory catapulted Kenny to the top of the local hit parade, and made headlines in Britain and Europe.

His third victory in the Castrol Six Hour, again on a BMW came in 1977, and the prizemoney he earned persuaded him to take the plunge in Europe. He had met Englishman Chas Mortimer in New Zealand the previous year during the popular Marlboro International Series, and with Mortimer’s help he lined up a full schedule for the 1978 European season. At age 33, he reckoned it was now or never. A year-old TZ250 formed the basis of his kit, with 350 and 352cc barrels enabling the machine to do service in a number of classes. Ken packed 32 meetings into the year and was back for the 1979 season with a new TZ350. At the Isle of Man he finished all three classes he entered, recording 8th place in both the 500 and Unlimited TTs.

A few months later a rare lucky break came Kenny’s way. After scoring an against-the-odds win in the Suzuka 8 Hour Race on a race-kitted CB900 Honda, Australians Tony Hatton and Michael Cole were offered a factory RSC 1000 Honda for the Bol d’or in France. But Cole dropped the bike in practice, breaking his leg, and Kenny got the phone call he’d always dreamed of. Anxious to make the best impression, Kenny displayed the skills that had taken him to the top in Australian endurance racing, lapping quickly and consistently despite battling a disintegrating gearbox. Then, in fourth place with just 50 minutes to go, the gearbox locked up and Ken bit the dust.

Despite the non-finish, Honda was sufficiently impressed to offer both Hatton and Blake a deal to contest the World Endurance Championship in 1980. Hatton declined, deciding instead to return to Australia to set up a business. By this stage, Ken was also thinking about retirement and a career outside racing, but decided to take the offer to bolster his meagre resources. He was signed with Americans Mike Baldwin and Dave Aldana as team mates, but despite Ken doing the majority of the testing and development work, the Stateside duo did most of the racing.

The TT was once again his chance for a good pay-cheque and in the 1980 250TT he achieved his best result; a fourth place. Honda France once again offered a contract for the 1981 Endurance series, this time as reserve rider to the star pairing of Christian Leon and Jean Claude Chemarin, and Ken accepted. Returning to Australia in the off season at the end of 1980, he told friends that he would give it one more year (in Europe) before settling down for good back home.

Once again, Ken saw the 1981 Isle of Man TT as a chance to bank some decent money, and set second fastest time in early qualifying for the Senior TT on his TZ350 with a lap of 111.5 mph. He was due to start from number 26, but as he took his place in the line-up down Glencrutchery Road, officials noticed fuel pouring from a carburettor due to a stuck float valve. He was ordered off the grid, but with the problem fixed, permitted to start at the tail of the 111-strong field. The weather was typical of the Island; varying from sunshine to intermittent showers. By the end of the fifth lap, Kenny was up to eighth place, and clearly his dander was up after the start-line fracas. Head down and tail up, he tore into the final lap, but just five kilometres out at Ballagarey Curve, a flat-out right hander just past Union Mills, he struck a stream of water running across the road. The Yamaha flicked sideways, hurling Kenny into a concrete fence post and killing him instantly.

Motorcycle racing is a dangerous pastime, but it still shocks when a rider of Kenny Blake’s ability and standing loses his life. And while Ken’s demise occurred in a distant foreign land, where so many before him had perished, the news of his death made headlines back home. In a tribute entitled ‘Farewell to a Champion and a Gentleman’, the editor of Revs Motorcycle News, Brian Cowan wrote, “To the riders he competed against in the 15 years of his career, he was an adversary you could never discount; a tough, aggressive but not foolish opponent. …Above all, there was Kenny’s overwhelming liking for people. Quiet, unassuming, modest almost to a fault, he was at the same time an immensely sociable person. His friendliness was neither brash, nor intrusive, nor selective. Everyone he dealt with received the same courteous attention and interest. Kenny Blake was more than a talented road-racer, a good conversationalist, a friendly socialiser. In a world where it can sometimes be hard to find yourself, he was a very complete person, and gently at peace with that completeness.”

His body was cremated on the Isle of Man and the ashes flown back to Australia for a service in Melbourne on June 24, 1981. It was an occasion of a massive outpouring of grief. Always a gentleman, lover of a good party, and a brilliant sportsman who never gave less than 100 per cent, Blakey’s passing left a huge void in the ranks of Australia’s motorcycle fraternity. The Kenny Blake Foundation was set up to assist young riders, and even now, a quarter of a century on, fans gather in Melbourne on June 9th, the anniversary of his death, to share memories and celebrate the short life of one of the most popular riders in Australia’s history.”