On the 9th of June 1981, the famous Isle of Man races claimed the life of one of Australia’s greatest motorcycle racers. Ken Blake was born in South Australia, raced for most of his career out of Victoria and, during a short, but stellar career, won races in every important category of racing on the Australian scene. The following biography, by no means definitive, is drawn from many sources, and covers the highlights of Ken’s career.
Ken was described by Don Cox as “nature’s gentleman, national treasure lost at Isle of Man”. Don was Publicity Officer for the Aust GP’s at Bathurst, the Castrol 6 Hour Endurance races and the Swann International Series, He also was statistician and lap scorer on major motorcycle race telecasts on SBS. He is considered to be Australia’s leading writer and researcher on motorcycle road racing.
There is a Ken Blake Foundation in Melbourne, which provides a grant for promising riders. (Contact with this group has recently provided some of the information that appears in this article and a link is provided where contact with them them can be made) Not many would have raced with Ken, (head to head), but a great many would have seen him go by, as they were lapped.
He won at Sandown in 1969/70 on a Triumph sponsored by L&D Jesser of Adelaide, and also on this bike, the Australian Unlimited TT at Surfers Paradise and Phillip Island, of which the two latter were his first national successes.
Also, in March 1970, Blake campaigned an H1R 500 Kawasaki, winning the Bathurst Unlimited GP and taking 5 seconds off the lap record! I’m smiling warmly now, as will be any others of the more senile among us who remember the “snake on ice” feeling in approaching anything like racing speeds while cranked over on a H1 or H2. In 1971 he won the Australian 500cc TT on this Kawasaki at Symmons Plains, (TAS). As well, he also campaigned the ex-works Ducati 750SS, imported directly from Italy and with an illustrious pedigree. On Yamahas tuned by Ron Angel and sponsored by Jack Walters (who owned the motel in Bendigo), Ken won the 125/250 races at Bathurst, and the Australian 250 championship in 1973.
The Kawasaki Z1 900 was first successful in the 1973 Castrol 6 Hour Production bike race at Amaroo Park. Amaroo, now a housing estate for the rich and obnoxious, was a tight, twisty 1.9 km circuit that, in those days, had little or no run-off area and was universally hated by all riders. In the 1973 race, Ken rode the whole six hours solo. Ken had said later “I wasn’t too sure how to go about it at first”. The late Allen Hales, himself a Six Hour winner and considered to be a Six Hour specialist, reiterates, “Of the great 6 hour riders, Kenny is the outstanding one; if there had to be one hero it would have to be Kenny Blake…the 1973 win stands as one of the all-time great riding performances, the last of the big solo runs, and a superhuman effort.” High praise indeed from a man who knew just how hard it was to win just one Six Hour.
In 1974, as well as winning both the Australian 350cc and 500cc Championships, Blake was second to Gregg Hansford in the Unlimited Production race at Bathurst. A win or a place at Bathurst was earned hard. In 1974 Blake paired with Len Atlee and won again the Castrol 6 Hour Race at Amaroo Park again on the Kawasaki Z1 900. He then raced a Ducati “863” to win the Unlimited Production class at Bathurst in 1975, as well as finishing second in the Castrol 6 hour in both 1975 and 1976. Ken also raced a TZ750 at Daytona in 1975, and also in 1976 at Laverton Airbase, on an RG500, he beat Agostini’s works MV to win the Australian 500 TT. (see separate story.
The Castrol 6 hour was run at Amaroo from 1970 to 1983, thereafter at Oran Park. A measure of the Australian riding talent can be gauged from the fact that the Kiwi Graeme Crosby never ran a place there, (but was always spectacular), and that there were, over the years at Amaroo, many other internationals including names like Mike Hailwood, (9 times World Champion), Wes Cooley (American Superbike Champion who rode in 1979 on a Honda 900 Bol D’Or), English Champion and TT specialist Percy Tait, fellow Englishman Mick Grant, and, as mentioned, the flamboyant Graeme Crosby. “Rocket” Ron Haslam from GB actually teamed with Kenny in the 1980 Six Hours, but fell and bent the frame of the bike. Repairs were made and the bike finished, in twenty third place. Dave and Neville Hiscock, the racing NZ brothers also tried the Six Hours after conspicuous success in the NZ version of the same race but, excepting for the paired win in 1981 of Dave Hiscock (NZ) Dave Petersen (S Africa), Australian riders made the Castrol 6 Hour a clean sweep, and a very professional motorcycle race notwithstanding.
Blake’s record for the Castrol Six Hours races reads like this; He scored 3 wins (1973, riding solo, 1974, with Len Atlee, and 1977, with Joe Eastmure). He scored two second placings (1975, riding solo and 1976, with Tony Hatton) He scored two fourth placings (1972, solo on the Ducati, and 1978, with Dave Burgess). And he scored an 8th placing (1979, with John Warrian). Between 1972 and 1979 he was not once out of the top 10 placings. Says Hales of Kenny’s solo rides, “It was fitting that he did it, I don’t know of anyone else capable of doing it, he was just one of those kinds of people.He was probably the best rider Australia has ever had.” Since the demise of the race and the unlikely event of its resurrection, Blake’s record will stand for all time.
In the 1984 TV Feature, “6 Hours in History”, Brian Cowan said of Blake ” He did not run his own race – he responded to what was going on around him. If there was a dice he would rise to the occasion, or if he considered the other rider was too close to the ragged edge, he would sprint ahead, or drop back. He had the ability to pace himself, and pace his opposition.”
However, lest it be thought that Ken was a Production Bike specialist (though he certainly was without peer in the field), Ken excelled on any sort of machinery. He was a brilliant rider in the 125cc class, often borrowing machinery to put in his usual polished rides. He races both 250cc and 350cc machinery for Jack Walters and other entrants, and scored one of Australia’s most famous victories when he defeated the multiple World Champion, Giacomo Agostini at the Australian TT meeting at Laverton Air Force base in February 1976. For this meeting he rode a brand new Suzuki RG 500 similar to the bike on which Briton, Barry Sheene, would win the 1976 500cc World Title.
With this prize money and an association with former Works Yamaha 125 rider Chas Mortimer, Ken left Australia for Europe, where this “team” managed 32 race starts in the first season. Charles had the experience, the truck, the caravan, and the TZ350 and mechanic. About a month into the season Ken won the International 350 race at the Tulln Langenlebarn airfield (Austria), from Tom Herron and Reinhold Roth, and then not only got qualified for an entry and a start (!?), but finished 10th in the 1978 French 500cc GP, riding the Yamaha TZ350! (He used to swap the cylinder assemblies and exhaust chambers and pipes etc. between 250/350 so as to qualify to ride in the 250, or the 350 in its own, and the 500cc class). Incidentally, Warren Willing and other riders who were competing in the now-defunct 750cc World Championship, used to swap barrels on their TZ750’s and make them into 500’s so they could compete in the 500cc GP races.
The 1979 Belgian GP ended up boycotted, but until this was called by the Works riders due to the slippery track, Ken set a fastest race lap time 1.5 seconds better than Johnny Cecotto (Works 500cc Yamaha). The 1975 350cc Champion had, in fact, qualified on pole position, but Kenny bettered his time in the race!. The resurfacing on this track had only just been completed, and the bituminous oil from the tar was still coming to the surface, and this was very much in evidence, after the rain. Ken eventually finished second behind Kiwi, Dennis Ireland on an RG 500 Suzuki.
In 1979 Ken competed at the IoM and finished in eighth place in both the 500 and 1000cc TT’s on his TZ350, and finished 12th in the 250 TT.
Honda’s French Endurance team took note of his attitude and abilities in the 1979 Bol D’or, at Paul Ricard, southern France. (Endurance racing was HUGE during the 70’s in Europe, Ed). In 1979 Ken was teamed with fellow Aussie and ace tuner Tony Hatton, and Michael Cole, also from Australia, all works riders in Honda Endurance team. (see Tony Hatton’s excellent recollection of this race elsewhere) From here Ken was offered a ride with Honda (France).
In 1980, Aussies Gregg Hansford and Jim Budd were Kawasaki’s endurance riders, and in 1980 and again for 1981 Ken had a ride with the Honda (France) Endurance team, giving him some peace of mind with the assurance of some income while in Europe. (and so fuel, and perhaps food). Blake’s best finish for the Isle of Man circuit was 4th in 1980, 250 TT. Australian Graeme Macgregor was also at the IoM in 1981 and was offered a ride on Wayne Gardner’s Graeme Crosby backed Moriwaki-Kawasaki (Wayne would not ride the TT, or again, at Bathurst), and on which he diligently seized the gearbox 2 miles into the first practice lap. (He did a 112 mph lap later in practice week). He contested the 500cc race also, and remembers that, ” The 500 TT was dreadful, I backed right off after my 500cc Yamaha aquaplaned from one side of the road to the other at 260 kph near Greeba Castle.”
Ken was sharing a pit bay (garage) at IoM in 1981 with Barry Smith, (another Australian in Europe then), whose achievements at the IoM had parallels to Mike Hailwood’s. Barry, like Warren Willing, Kel Carruthers and Tony Hatton, was a top rider who also knew the black art of how to tune a two-stroke. Barry had a shop at Glen Waverley (Melbourne) in the ’70s. He had meticulously tuned a Yamaha DS7 virtually to Grand Prix TZ shape and squish with expansion chambers, had it all working with the compulsory small bore production 28mm carburettors. (In 1968/9 he had been teamed with Angel Neito, a slightly lesser god than Giacomo Agostini. He won at Ulster, the TT also, so was placed 1st in World TT F3 championship in 1981). Barry was over there for the F3 TT, which he did win on the 250, (so three years in a row), and then went on to the 500cc race also, and probably with the little Kangaroo on the front of his helmet like he always had.
Ken had the works ride with Honda endurance team for 1981; but was keen to reinforce their judgement, and recorded a TT practice lap average of 179.5 kph (111.5 mph) on his 1977 Yamaha TZ350, quite something for the tyres of that period, CONDITIONS notwithstanding! (As a yardstick, this is approx 40 sec a lap quicker than Joey Dunlop’s IoM Lap Record set in good conditions on the works Honda RS860R in the 1984 promotional film clip, “V” For Victory.”)
It had been wet over the mountain, but not in other parts (a common feature of the 38 mile mountain circuit. Ed). Both Barry and Ken were on slicks and it was “pretty dodgy”. Smith eventually pulled in and retired. To further increase the danger, Ken had been delayed on the start line with a fuel leak and had been forced to start in last place. However, by the time of his pit stop, 5 laps into the six lap event, Ken was running eighth, having passed 103 riders! Barry said, “I watched him pit but then fly back out, his bike snaking into the distance under acceleration. He never came back.”
Barry Smith never went back to the Island either.
(There are damp patches on the IoM circuit which are ever present and unpredictable, depending not on weather alone. They result from farm, commercial and domestic run-off. The motorcycle aquaplaned on one of these at Ballagarey Curve, 5 Kms into his last lap and went straight off. Ken hit a concrete post and was killed instantly. Tuesday June 9th 1981. IoM 500cc TT)
I remember seeing a small clipping in a news item once, must have been late 1980/81, that mentioned Ken planning to retire at the end of the 1981 season, which made things even more tragic. He was 33 when he left Australia for Europe, and had been road racing since 1966, and professionally for some 12 years at this time.
The photos page has a picture of Ken diligently grinding off the hero bumps on the pegs of what otherwise looks to be a fairly pristine Kawasaki 4-stroke. (This is a marvellous photo taken during Ken’s amazing Six Hours solo win in 1973)
A public meeting, organised by friends, to officially form the Ken Blake Foundation, was held at the New Boundary Hotel, 1133 Hoddle St, East Melbourne at 8:15pm on March 5th 1985. The purpose of the Foundation is to commemorate Ken in a positive way by financially assisting deserving race participants. His loss is still felt very deeply and the Foundation meets every year on the anniversary of his death, June 9th, to share memories and to renew acquaintances. All friends of Kenny are welcome. See the Link for details.
No doubt someone will dispute some of the details of this article. References and records sometimes need updating, because, although riders made it to and entered events and travelled overseas with leathers and hopes, circumstances may have been that nothing came of it. I apologise if details are not strictly correct and would welcome any correspondence involving corrections.
Thanks to Dave Quinn, I have obtained a copy of REVS magazine, dated July 9th 1981. Herewith, then, is Brian Cowan’s tribute to Kenny from that issue.