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My Greatest Race – David Thorpe

My Greatest Race – David Thorpe

David Thorpe is Great Britain’s most successful motocross racer with three 500cc World championship titles to his name, as well as a Veteran’s World title and multiple British championships.

Image courtesy of ‘Sir Jack’ Burnicle – The Citadel at Namur, Belgium 1989. Home hero Eric Geboers (#1) leads his factory HRC Honda teammate David Thorpe (#3) in one of their many epic battles. A battle that Thorpe says was his ‘Greatest’ ever. 

Words: Jeff Perrett

Anyone involved in motocross throughout the 1980’s would’ve either witnessed some of Dave’s epic battles with likes of Andre Malherbe, Eric Geboers or Georges Jobe to name a few for those world titles, either live with their own eyes or watching those marvellous Duke Marketing VHS tapes.

The King’ DT certainly has been involved with some monumental races in his illustrious career and no doubt, for a certain generation we’ve all got our opinion as to what was his ‘greatest race’ but here David talks us through the race he feels was his finest racing moment; and it’s probably not one you’d expect.

“I’ve had so many good, hard-fought battles that have been well documented, but I think the one that was my greatest race and had the most significance for me was with Eric (Geboers) in 1989 at Namur. I broke my hand there the year before when I was on track for another world title. That was the year that Carla (Hakan Carlqvist) stopped for a beer and we were romping away with it way out on front.

“Coming into Namur in 89 I had quite a serious knee injury and shouldn’t have been riding really, but I’d just pulled some points on Eric by winning the British GP at Farleigh and was determined to not let another world title slip away. I crashed the week before at the Beaucaire International on the uphill double and seriously damaged the Meniscus in my left knee. Fair play to him, Georges (Jobe) who was also at that international, bearing in mind he wasn’t quite in the battle with me and Eric but was there or thereabouts, he took me back to the hotel near the airport because we were both flying out the same day from the same airport. He carried me to and from the car and in the morning he got up and sorted my knee out the best he could because it looked like I had been on a battlefield and it was weeping blood. He then took me to the airport and carried me in and then went back to the hotel to go back to bed! Georges was very singled minded on the track, like I guess we all were but he was such a good guy off the track. He was the sort of guy that if you were in a real difficult situation he’d be one of the first to try and help.

“It was nip and tuck all year between me and Eric and Namur, like many I guess, held a special place for me. The track itself and the atmosphere the fans generated, it’s a real special place. I’d won there in 1985, the week after Farleigh I think and returned the favour to Andre (Malherbe) after he beat me at my home GP after I crashed on the first corner in a race that I’m guessing many would think was my greatest. I went 2-1 at Namur, like he did at Farleigh and honours were even. So that was also in my mind and extra motivation.

“After Dr. Hatfield had operated on my knee, I remember coming out of the hospital on the Monday and him telling me ‘at best you’re going to really struggle at the end of the week and may not be able to ride’. Generally, whatever he said was almost always spot on accurate. So, on the Tuesday myself and Richard Dye, who used to help me train at the time, lifted the seat on my bicycle so I could get full extension on my leg and we went for a light bike ride to keep it moving. I was cycling on tiptoe for a few days but by Thursday it was feeling okay all things considered.

“When we got to the Namur that weekend Rich said to me, ‘you know what? We’ve got lucky this weekend because it’s mostly right handed bends.’ So physiologically I wasn’t in as bad shape as I could’ve been after that. I tried a knee brace but I didn’t get on well with that so I ditched it after first practice and then Rich strapped my knee, he was good at that kind of thing. I went out in the next practice session and it’s wasn’t too bad, apart from a load of blood seeping from the operation wound, it didn’t look good, but in a strange way that kind of fired me up. I thought if I’m going to give blood to the cause I’ve got to make it count!’

“I think a couple of rounds before Namur was the US GP at Hollister Hills in California and I had a complete disaster. I had an 11th and DNF. I think Eric got a second and third, so I had lost points to him and he’d opened up a pretty good lead in the championship. I pulled out of the second race after a crap ride in the first and I don’t think I’d done that since I was a kid. When I got back to the awning my dad said ‘what’s the matter?’ I just told him the truth and said I really didn’t feel safe, like I felt something bad was going to happen. Steve Whitelock, who was my HRC manager said, ‘what’s the matter, you never pull out’, I said, ‘I know Steve, I just can’t explain it. Something is telling me to live to fight another day.’ The next day at the airport he said ‘Dave, I think you’ve f**ked up. You’re 27 points behind Eric now.’ And I remember saying to him with my back up a bit ‘Time will tell’.
“I thought about it on the flight most of the way home. Then when I got home and rested properly I really focused on the task ahead of me. I started running twice a day instead of once. I was so pissed off I was that far behind and had pulled out. I think the next race was San Marino and I went there determined to pull the gap back. It was rock hard and baked on the Saturday as that place usually is, but Saturday night it started raining hard. I can remember being woken up by a huge thunder storm in the middle of the night and being happy about it because I liked the mud and knew Eric didn’t. He had a poor first moto and sure enough I got points back there. Jeff Leisk won the opening moto and I got a third, but then I went on to win the next moto and that gave me a load of confidence going into my home GP at Farleigh because I knew it was another track that wasn’t one of Eric’s favourites. I won at Farleigh and got it done by finally winning both motos there and was back in the championship lead and confidence was right back up, but then of course I crashed at Beaucaire after that and done my knee in.

“Eric was always pretty strong at Namur so I knew I was back up against it and it might’ve turned in his favour again, but I have to say, when I got there and saw the amount of British fans it gave me a boost of confidence. There were loads of them lining the circuit and that second race was the key to me going on to win the championship I think. We were wheel to wheel and back and forth so many times and also many times within a lap because it’s such a long circuit. I remember passing Eric one time on the ridge leading up to that tricky downhill double on the corner. He tried to block me but I switched back and then he did too, but as he was doing that I had already planned to go back to where I was again. It was like slip streaming in car racing and I just managed to sneak through, but it was close. I can remember almost being eye to eye with a fan leaning over the fence. So, I got to that downhill double first and because Eric was jumping it every lap and I wasn’t I decided to ride it right in the middle and as slow as I could so he couldn’t jump it. I can remember thinking ‘I need to be in front of him here every lap so he can’t gain that advantage. Then I made a mistake right down the bottom of the circuit just before you come back up the long hill with the steps in it, but I then got a run on him coming up that hill and as we crested the middle step our lines came together and we touched bars and bounced off each other. I just managed to hold it together and hold it on long enough to pass him.

“We then dropped down that next hill and turned left up the hill into the Citadel. I will never forget coming over that jump on that lap. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a crowd roar like it in a motocross that I’ve been in before. It was like being at a football match when the home team scores. I could hear and see all the fans cheering out of my peripheral vision both for Eric and I and the commentator going crazy. It was such a shot of adrenalin. Even talking about it now makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

“Eric was a month older than me and we always got on really well, on and off the track and that continued until his unfortunate death. Like so many I was really saddened to hear that news, he was a good guy. To be fair Eric was always really fair and friendly on the track, he just wasn’t that type of rider. I learned a lesson with Eric in 1986 at the French GP at Chateau-de-Loir. I won the championship that year but it wasn’t what I would call a free flowing year, I found every race a grind. It was close between us in points at that time. In the first race I got the holeshot but threw it away in the first corner. Carlqvist hit me and we were all in a big heap on the ground, so that was an uphill race. In the second moto Eric passed me and I regrouped and caught him up with two laps to go. On the last corner I was desperate and went down the inside and made no attempt to turn and just nailed him. I remember getting back to the truck and said to Dad, ‘zip the awning down because it’s not going to be nice in here in a minute’. I quickly got my kit off and jumped in the shower and I could hear these Belgian fans, obviously pissed off, banging on the side of the van and I was thinking ‘God, I shouldn’t of done that!’ I didn’t see him again that day but a week later I went and found him and said ‘Look Eric, that won’t ever happen again. We’re friends and I shouldn’t of done that. I want to tell you that my back brake failed but you’re not going to believe me. He said, ‘would that have been true?’ I said ‘no, and I’m completely out of order!’ From that day onwards I never put a hard pass on Eric, and there were plenty of opportunities to do so. Our relationship was good and I needed to be fair like he was and I never wanted to make that mistake of damaging that relationship again.

“It’s been documented before that I structured my Honda deal around first place only so it wasn’t always easy not to run it in hard on Eric but I learned from that moment in France that I didn’t want to do it to him again. I didn’t get any bonus for second or third and people often said to me, ‘why do you look so miserable, you’re still on the podium?’ it was because I never got any money for those! I always used that as extra motivation.

“Going back to the race at Namur with Eric, what also made it some memorable for me was the intensity of it. Not just because what was on the line but the venue and the atmosphere. I’ve said before that Namur is like the Isle of Man TT for MX. It’s so mentally challenging. It’s such a long lap and there’s so many things to remember like tree roots sticking out, certain shadows where you can’t see the ground properly, patches that don’t dry out because of the shade, all these types of things to think about. So dealing with all that and racing wheel to wheel and thinking about your opposition is a lot to deal with. You’ve got to know exactly where to back off and roll over roots or square off to power over them, it was a unique track and race and there’s nothing else quite like it. All those things are hugely important because if you get it completely wrong you’re going to come up against a 50 year or more old tree and there’s only going to be one winner there! I think my first time there was 1981 and I remember thinking to myself ‘what is this all about?!’ I couldn’t quite remember where I was on the track for most of Saturday. I kept thinking ‘oh I’ve got it now’ and then realising I hadn’t and was on a completely different part of the track I thought I was on! It certainly took time to learn.

“I think it was 1985 and they had put in a little double jump not long before you turned onto the road past the bar. It wasn’t big but it wasn’t nice, it had a funny shaped take off and it was going to hurt if you got it wrong. I remember Kurt (Nicoll) chatting to me about it in the pits and asking me if I was doing it. Kurt wasn’t so much of a threat to me in ’85 but that changed the year later. Anyway, I said to him ‘I’m doing it, but I don’t like it. If I don’t do it I’m not in it’. So I offered him a tow over it. We did an out lap over it and next lap round I slowed down and gave him the thumbs up, he gave a thumbs up back and I led him over it. After I done it I looked back at him and it was like he had just won the race! All these little things are coming back to me now. I didn’t give him too many tows after that!

“That also reminds me of the battle I had there with Andre in ’85. On the penultimate lap we came through the corner just after that, before your turned onto the cobbles and I saw something in the corner of my eye. As I turned my head this hay bale hit me on my right shoulder and pulled my arm back and knocked me off balance but luckily not right off the bars. Some Belgian fans had thrown it at me. Talk about flaming a fire even more. The next lap around they weren’t there. Maybe the British fans had gone up there and sorted them out, I don’t know? I remember thinking for the rest of that lap, ‘should I mention it?’ and then I went past all the British fans outside the café bar again and I thought to myself ‘nah, better not, or there’ll be a riot!’

“It was just such a special place. The fans were so close to you around the whole circuit amongst the trees and it echoed the noise about, creating this fabulous atmosphere that you could only get there. You had this anticipation from the fans of the bikes coming and you hear them cheering before you’d even get to them. Then when you came into their view you’d get this wave of noise sweep over you.

“When Eric and I were racing in the second moto in ’89 as we went along the road past the café bar when I went through ahead of him someone was spraying a can of beer in my face. As I hit that jump at the end of the road I was thinking ‘bloody hell, why are they doing that, bloody idiots!’ Not only was I tasting the beer, which to be fair was quite refreshing I also had to pull a tear off and this was before the days of laminates so you had to be smart with them back then. After the race I was chatting to Eric and he said to me ‘those bloody British fans were spraying beer in my face!’ I said ‘no Eric, those Belgian fans were spraying beer in my face!’. We laughed about it. Carla did it right the year before and actually stopped to have one with them, but he was all out on his own and had time to do that, we didn’t!

It was an eventful and memorable weekend for me. I came away from Namur full of confidence that if I could beat Eric with a bad knee that was only going to get better and that I could go on and win the world championship again. I then won the remaining last four motos of the year and took my third world championship but in my mind I won it at Namur that day and after the disappointment of the injuries in ’87 and ’88, that’s why I class it as my greatest race.”

A memory from Sir Jack Burnicle – “I spent one moto down by the Monument Cafe, something I’d never done at Namur before. But Carla changed all that with the beer stop we all missed in ’88. It was a tricky place for pictures. The light was quite murky, you couldn’t move around without risking your neck and you only had a handful of opportunities so if you muffed one lap it was ages before you got another chance. ‘Bike’ magazine used a fabulous image I captured of David chasing Eric past the vast throng down there, shot from the rear on the outside of the road opposite the cafe. I never got the colour transparency back, so it lives on only in my fevered memory! I remember DT telling me that he and Eric were going at eleven-tenths the whole race, something he’d never done before…”