For most of the time that Ken raced in Australia, his bikes were either owned or tuned by Ron Angel. Ron graciously gave me some of his time recently to talk about Ken as a racer and as a person. Here’s his recollections. I might add that Ron prefaced his remarks by saying that some of the details might be a bit” hazy” since the events recalled were so long ago. Well, they certainly didn’t come out very hazy at all, Ron’s memory appears to be as sharp and retentive as you’d like it to be.
“I first met Ken during the 1960’s. Ken used to come over from Adelaide to race the Jesser Triumph and he and his mates used to use my workshop in Malvern to work on the bike. I had the official Kawasaki race team in Australia at that stage and we were running a pair of A1R 250 two strokers. These were ridden by Dick Reed and myself.”
“One day at Calder, the Jesser Triumph expired and Ken was left without a ride. We had one of the A1R’s prepped for a lady rider to ride as a promotional effort for Kawasaki. I went to the race organisers and asked if they would give me permission to run the bike in the Unlimited race with Ken riding. They said yes, and Ken went out and won the race – on a 250!” “I then spoke to Dean Jesser and asked him if they would be OK with me putting Ken on the Kawasaki full-time and they said it would be, so Ken moved to Melbourne and stayed at my house while we ran him on the A1R “A”, the “works” or “factory” version of the 250’s that we were already entering.”
“Ken rode that for a year or so and won lots, but then we got an H1R, (the air-cooled 750cc triple). It was the worst bike ever, a pig of a thing. Ken won a lot of races on it, but he also crashed a lot as well. The bike had a dreadful appetite for crankshafts and the geometry was all wrong. We found that the rear sprocket was out of alignment with the front one and we eventually sawed off the rear sub-frame and completely rebuilt it so that the bike would steer properly.”
Around about this time, Ron was the Ducati importer for Australia and he went to Imola in 1972 to watch the famous “200” race. It was won by Paul Smart on the 750 Ducati but only after Bruno Spaggiari had led for most of the way and began to have fuel starvation problems on the last lap. He eventually finished 2nd. “I had a deal with Ducati that I could buy any one of the 7 bikes that they had at the track that weekend, but, when I went back to the factory the day after the race, the team manager was most upset because the factory, unbeknown to him, had already give the winning bike to Paul Smart.” (ED: Paul Smart is the father of current BSB competitor and BBC commentator, Scott. And Scott was Barry Sheene’s brother-in-law having married Barry’s sister). “However,” Ron went on, “It didn’t worry me because the Spaggiari bike was a better one that Paul’s and that was the one that I ended up buying and bringing back to Australia for Ken to ride.”
The Ducati should have dominated in Australian racing, but, at almost the same time as it arrived on our shores, so did the first TZ Yamahas. “I bought a TZ250 and a TZ350 for Ken to ride and he cleaned up, pretty much. Around this time, I lost the connection with Kawasaki and, from 1973 onwards, Ken only rode TZ’s as well as his production bike exploits. I also bought him a Tz700 and then a TZ750 because the top riders were all riding them, but I never thought Ken rode them as well as he did the smaller bikes. (ED: I wonder, in hindsight if this had something to do with Ken’s diminutive stature and slight fame) I took Ken to Daytona and to Venezuela where he raced the 700 but he crashed in Venezuela and hurt himself badly.”
“Then came the RG500. (ED: early 1976) The bike arrived on the Wednesday, we took it to Calder on Thursday, stripped it and prepared it on Friday and took it to Laverton on Saturday. The problem with the RG was mainly related to the front brakes. They had floating steel front disks and, at speed, these would hammer the pistons back into the calipers and the rider would arrive at the next corner and find he had no brakes. The rider had to “pump” the brakes before each corner in order to be able to slow down at all. So, when Ken beat Agostini that weekend he beat him with a damaged bike, not many people know that.”
“Of all the riders I sponsored, Ken wasn’t the best, but he was the easiest one to prep a bike for. While other riders would come into the pits and ask fort all manner of changes, Ken would be happy. I’d ask him if he wanted me to change some settings or something and Ken would just say, ‘No, just leave it, I’ll go out and try and ride better.’ He would always find a way of riding around a problem.” I asked Ron if this was due to a sort of mechanical sympathy” and he said that he didn’t think so, that Ken wasn’t a mechanic, but, as a rider he was probably a very “forgiving” one, giving the bike an easy time. Sometimes Ron thought that Ken was a bit TOO easy on the bike and could have ridden with more aggression, but that that would probably have taken away from his smoothness. Ron believes that Ken and the other riders of his era were better riders in many ways than today’s riders because they had to ride bikes that had many limitations in terms of suspension and tyres, especially. “Ken was a very precise rider as most of his era were. You could put a sixpence on the racing line and the first 20 riders would hit it, lap after lap. These days the riders don’t worry about lines, they are all over the place.”
As far as Production bikes were concerned, “Ken could ride anything.” Ron says. Ron has just purchased the S2 Kawasaki 350 triple that Ken rode in the Six Hour in 1971. A couple of hours from the end of the race, Ken crashed the bike and broke the handlebar in two, snapped it right through at the triple clamp. Now the S2, like many bikes of its time, had the electrical leads for indicators and horn, etc, routed THROUGH the bars so changing the bars was out of the question. “So, I taped a big screwdriver across the break and sent Ken back out and he rode the last 2 hours of the race like that.” (ED: and finished 6th in the 500cc Class).
“In 1972 Ken was entered by Ron again on a Ducati 750GT, paired with Jeff Curley. Ken rode the bike through the night from Melbourne to Sydney to run it in and then ended up racing solo as Jeff Curley crashed in practice and was declared unfit to ride on race day. Ken rode solo again and finished 3rd.”
“In 1973 he rode solo to win on the Kawasaki Z1 and in 1974 he won on a Z1 again, this time teamed with Len Atlee. In 1975 he rode solo again and finished 2nd on the BMW R90/S and, on a BMW again he finished 2nd in 1976, riding with Tony Hatton. Then in 1977 he won with Joe Eastmure on the R100/S.
“In the interim, Ken rode for me in other races (ED: Ken’s BMW rides were on bikes entered by Tom Byrne and BMW Australia – except 1975 which was a shared entry between Tom Byrne and Ron Angel) And it was in one of these races that I saw Ken ride the very best race of his life. I entered him at Bathurst on a Ducati 860 in the Production race. But on the Friday he crashed at the end of Conrod Straight. Hit a little patch of gravel or something and trashed the bike and himself. He was really badly injured but he started the race anyway. Being a kick start it was always going to be hard, but Ken had hurt himself down his right side so he had to kick start the bike with his left foot instead. As a result he was absolutely last away. But he ended up winning the race by more than half a lap, seriously injured though he was! At the end of the race we had been told that the first 3 placegetters would be scrutineered so, on the slow-down lap they motioned Ken into the back gate of the pits and one of the officials came up and said, ‘That bike is illegal, you can’t beat a field of 1000cc bikes with that.’ So we went to scrutineering and, of course, the bike was completely legal. There were lots of red faces that day.”
“Ken could ride anything,” Ron went on, “On the smaller TZ’s (250cc and 350cc) he was the best in Australia. On the bigger bikes he was probably the 3rd best (ED: behind Hansford and Willing). On a production bike he was the best. ”
“By the late 1970’s, Ken was losing interest in racing in Australia.” I asked Ron if that was because there wasn’t anything else really to win and he agreed that that was probably so. “So he went overseas on his own and hooked up with Chas Mortimer who showed him around and helped him to get entries. You have to remember that it was really hard for overseas riders to get entries in European races, most grids were over-subscribed at every meeting and the organisers could pick and choose. But I had a standing rule with all of my riders that they were never allowed to ride at the Isle of Man. Sadly, Ken wasn’t riding for me in 1981 because that was where he lost his life, of course.” “It is a little-known fact that Ken, just before he went to the Isle of Man, had signed up with Honda Europe to race the endurance races with them for the rest of 1981 and onwards.” I interrupted here to ask Ron if he had heard the story that Ken was planning to retire from racing at the end of 1981 as was reported in the various media outlets at the time of his death. “Nonsense,” was the reply, “If he was planning to retire, why sign up with Honda Europe, no, doesn’t make any sense at all.”
“I got Ken’s bike back after the accident and inspected it and I can tell you that that bike wouldn’t have lasted any more than 10 laps more, it was a wreck. You see, Ken wasn’t a mechanic. He knew how things worked but he didn’t know how to fix or fettle a bike, he relied on his mechanics to do that.”
I asked Ron if, given the same breaks that later Australian riders like Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan had been given, did he think that Ken would have ended up competing in the 500cc Grands Prix. “No,” was the reply, “You see, at the time of his death, Ken was already in his mid-30’s and teams were into hiring younger riders by then. Had he gone to Europe 10 years BEFORE, then, yes, I’m sure that he would have.”
In conclusion I asked Ron what Ken was like as a person. “He was a polite person, a thinker,” Ron answered after some reflection. “He managed, in a NICE way, to achieve his goals in life. He was a lot deeper person than what most gave him credit for. He was very happy and content in his own company but was also a good mixer and was a very sociable person.” I asked Ron if Ken was the sort of person with whom you always knew where you stood. “Oh yes, he had goals but he didn’t become overbearing with them.”
“As a social person, Ken was unique. In an era where racers and their crews were hard-living, hard-racing and hard-drinking, Ken was unusual, because he didn’t drink much at all. He knew how to party but he wasn’t a big boozer.”
In closing I quoted the obituary by Brian Cowan in REVS magazine. “Kenny Blake was more than a talented road racer, a good conversationalist, a friendly socialiser. I a world where it can be sometimes hard to find yourself, he was a complete person, and gently at peace with the completeness.”
“Yes, that pretty much sums him up,” was Ron’s reply.