I make no claim to any startling insights, nor of deep personal acquaintance with Ken. But, such was the man that, you only HAD to meet him once fro him to make you feel like he was your friend. Here’s some personal reflections.
Meeting him for the first time in the pits at Laverton, January 1976. Despite not knowing me from a bar of soap, he stopped working on the bike to talk to me and seemed so pleasant and laid back. For a long time afterwards I thought that all road racers were like this, and the shock at finding that they weren’t, was considerable.
Cheering myself hoarse at his win in the 500 TT (same meeting). I have put down, in more detail, my impressions of this meeting in a separate article.
Watching him duplicate the exact same lines, lap after lap, around the twisty corners of Amaroo Park in the Six Hours, 1976-1980. His ability to maintain concentration and lap times whether mixed up in traffic or not was uncanny.
Seeing him “ride the meeting” at Hume Weir, Albury, 1976. Ken borrowed a TA 125 Yamaha from another competitor. He came from last on the grid to the lead in the first few laps, then fell off in the walking pace Scrub Corner. He remounted, chased down the field and won. He then rode his own 350 Yamaha in the 350cc race finishing 2nd. And then, in the Harvie Wiltshire Trophy, he was well in contention until forced to retire with rear brake problems.
Suffering six hour’s of agony while hoping against hope that Ken and Joe Eastmure would rub the Kawasaki’s nose in the dirt at the Castrol Six Hour, 1977. Many who came to Amaroo that weekend were hoping the same thing as me. Don Wilson’s BMW team pit strategy was awesome and he somehow managed to keep secret until the race was well underway that the BMW would need one less pit stop than the teams running Japanese bikes thought they would. By the time the opposing teams realised that they would not, it was too late.
Watching Ken’s obvious embarrassment at the presentation ceremony. Despite all the success that had come his way in this, most public of sports, Ken shunned the limelight and I could sense that he couldn’t wait to get away from the hoopla and just wander through the pits and talk to his friends. The photographs of Ken at the presentation show not fatigue or elation, but a bemused expression as if he is really wondering just what all the fuss is about.
Spending time in the pits with Ken long after the 1977 Six Hours was over. Most had packed and gone home and the light was fading rapidly, but it is an enduring memory seeing him wandering through the pits, winner’s garland still around his neck and winner’s sash in his hand, chatting to anyone who wanted to talk to him as if they were his best friends (of course, you only had to meet Ken and you were already his friend – that was what most distinguished his character.)
A wonderful evening with Ken at a little coffee shop in Melbourne after Swann Series practice day at Sandown Park (November 1980) Others in that party were Len Smith, a fellow Canberran and brilliant photographer, Mick Hone, long time sponsor of Robbie Phillis, Ray Quincey, 1976 250/350/500 Australian Champion, and Mick Cole, Honda team-mate and super successful Endurance racer. Len and I were very much the “outsiders”, only being present because we were staying at Ray Quincey’s home. Ray had been invited to join the party and he invited us. With hindsight, I am very grateful that he did. Ken had, at this stage, just over six months left to live.
However, despite being the non-racers in the group, we were welcomed and we had a great night. I still remember the quiet, almost dignified, demeanour of Ken even at this very informal occasion. The conversation was lively and Ken’s contributions were witty and incisive, but never overbearing. Despite the fact that he was, by far, the elder statesman of the group, he never made any attempt to “top” the outrageous stories told by some of the others. He never had the air of someone to whom the others should give more respect, quite the contrary. While we did defer to him and listen carefully when he spoke, he did not dominate the conversation, but kept rather more in the background.
These are just a few memories, but they put the “flesh on the bones”. It is so easy to think of successful sports people as being somehow different, but, under all the trappings of success, they are still just people. While my memories of Ken are much concerned with his racing success, it is Ken, the man, that I remember and miss the most.
Ken used to have a nickname, “Snakey”. It sounds sinister, but it wasn’t given because of any deviousness of character. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was given because of Ken’s amazing ability to calculate and plan his races. He always walked the ragged edge, as every racer does, but he did so with a cunning that was awesome.
Brian Cowan, one of Australia’s most respected motorcycling journalists, summed up Ken like this and I can do no better than to quote him in conclusion. “Above all else, 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.”
He concluded his tribute in “Revs” June 1981 with these words, “Kenny Blake was more than a talented road racer, a good conversationalist, a friendly socialiser. In a world where it can be sometimes hard to find yourself, he was a very complete person, and gently at peace with that completeness.”
Ave atque Vale, Kenny Blake