Dave Molyneux returns to the TT this year, very much favourite to continue from where he left off - leaving the opposition in his wake! I asked our Chairman, Roy Hanks, who was the man most likely to be the Manxman's nearest challenger - 'Ian Bell is quite capable of beating him' came the instant reply ….. and, so, I thought it was about time I interviewed the versatile Geordie, who has been a top-liner on two, as well as three, wheels.
Ok, so, I asked the obvious question first - 'when did it all begin?' - 'I first became interested in racing when we used to fly around on our push bikes, where big brother, Geoff, and me used to have some canny competitions and some canny crashes, like riding up into a woman's push-chair and getting attacked by her French stick - luckily her bairn wasn't in the chair at the time! Then Dad got a Honda Monkey Bike … great, no more
pedalling, just twist your right hand and away you go! I was about six at the time - Dad took us down to the local woods to have a bit of a fly around; it was mint, back home to show Mam …. 'Look at me ride this
Mam', as I shot down the path, smacked into the washing post and into the hedge…… somebody should have told me then that I wasn't cut out for bloody motorbikes!'
||Racing was in the family's blood, especially as Ian's Dad had been a sidecar competitor of the 1950s and 1960s - even a crash at Tower Bends in 1965 didn't put him off as he then started again with Geoff in the chair. Ian talks of his involvement 'I then took to the chair, nipping out for practice at Croft and
Sillouth. Dad was super smooth, as I found out when Geoff took the reins at Croft - I think we would have won or totalled ourselves if the clutch hadn't fallen off at the end of the first lap'.
The main turning point for Ian was in 1975 when the Bell family bought a bike shop….. Ian takes up the story, 'Dad soon got his eye on a Norton Commando-type racer thing; this was going to be the start of my solo racing career! Well, a few races after it had disintegrated itself once or twice,
Dad arranged for me to have a go on Bill Rae's Maxton 350 - absolutely mint; it was like getting off my push bike and on to the monkey bike all over again. Although we didn't have any money, we bought the 350 at the end of the season - Dad got a loan from a finance company; he was a bugger for going in at the deep end!'
Looking back, Ian considers the time spent on the 350 the most enjoyable, with packed grids and three heats before the final at most events. Ian continues, 'Bill Rae gave us the loan of a new 350 for Mallory and Cadwell and got top three placings at both meetings. We took the machine back to Bill's a bit mucky; Dad told him that we'd be back the following week to clean it up, but we forgot and so, Bill got a bit peed off with us. I was in a similar position when a had two bikes come back from the TT, one like new and other looking like a scrapper. I could never be a sponsor.' The only trouble for Ian with a 350 was that he was too big, but instead of going on a diet, he got a bigger bike. A TZ750 gave him some good times, but was not quite as enjoyable as the 350 - although, the 1979 Southern 100 does stand out. 'I'd done a couple of laps in the van, but in the first practice session I came into Stadium Corner flat out and missed the kerb on the exit by a couple of 'thou'; I even did the same the next lap! A few weeks later, I was approached by a man who said that he'd seen me in practice at the Southern and knew that I'd return home with a trophy or in a box…..he must have been at the Stadium.'
Ian never competed around the Mountain Course on a solo, but was asked over by Walter Radcliffe to have a look at the circuit - 'I never thought a Fiesta could go through the bottom of Baggarrow flat out; what a man - he should have started racing himself!' However, Ian did perform with credit on the 'roads', he explains, ' the best race I think I had on the 750 was at the '79 Scarborough International meeting, when 'international' meant 'international'. I was 4th in timed practice behind Barry
Sheene, Roger Marshall and Steve Manship, repeating the position in the first race. We even had Vince French looking at the plugs! He gave us a few tips for the next race and the bike went even better until the crank snapped over the last jump. You never needed laxatives riding such large capacity machines at Scarborough'.
Ian continued to ride consistently until a bad crash at Snetterton in 1982 proved to be a watershed in his racing career - Ian takes up the story, 'I remember waking up at the side of the track with somebody fondling around inside my leathers saying things like "we're losing him", I thought he was talking about me so I started wrestling around. Anyway, the next day when I woke up in hospital and tried to get up I found I had tubes coming out all over me. Dad was there, but I couldn't speak as one of the tubes was down my throat, so they gave me a pen and paper and wrote "foot tight" - Dad's reply was "it's ok son, your foot's still on". Dad never did mince his words. The last thing I really remembered as I lay there was dicing for the lead with Rob McElnea in the MCN Qualifier.'
That was really the end of solo racing for Ian as the shop was also on its last legs and by the time he got out of Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, he'd had enough of medical care to last a life-time. However, 'I did make a bit of a comeback in 1986 on a FZ750, winning the S100, but as my ankle was still giving me trouble I had surgery to fix my leg bones to my foot.'
So when did two wheels become three? 'I had a go on Geoff's outfit at Knockhill in 1984 with Nick Roach acting as ballast. Nick was class; I asked him what I should do at the first corner - he said, to go as fast as I could, I did, and we won. A couple more races and I decided to have a go at the 1995 TT. I wasn't too sure what the hardest part was to be - learn the circuit, prepare the machine or tell the wife. I think the latter! Just before the TT I put the outfit into the trees at Oulton Park and learnt the first lesson in sidecar racing - blame the passenger! I had actually enlisted Craig Hallam for my TT debut; I didn't know what he really thought about riding with a novice, but he gave me invaluable advice during practice. Naturally, we took the challenge of racing on the Mountain Course very seriously, going over a few weeks before hand with Geoff to learn the way around in a hired car. Despite a couple of scary moments during training, the races went really well, gaining two fifth positions with 105mph laps, as well as the Newcomer's Award'.
For 1996 Neil Carpenter, a man Ian holds in high regard, was recruited as full-time passenger. The TT came along but Neil didn't like it very much - 'but, he need not have worried as the bike was really sluggish that year; a lot of people thought I was taking it easy with Neil being there for the first time, but I was going as fast as I could. We finished 11th and 12th, averaging about the ton.'
With machine problems sorted out for 1997, our duo actually led Race 'A' for a short time after Rob Fisher had dropped out, but, unfortunately their rear Avon tyre fell apart and they were sidelined, too. Ian's best TT result to that date came about a few days later when a third place was secured. 'Neil was faultless, but, I, on the other hand, drove into the bank coming out of Ramsey Hairpin on the second lap. I'm not too sure to this day how I did it …. blame the passenger!'
Photo courtesy of Eric Whitehead.
1998 was considered by Ian to be his
worst TT - 'my mate Jacky Taylor came up with a most appropriate comment
when he said "if there was a bridge back home I'd be on it".
The bike was dreadful all week; on Thursday practice, I'd never driven
so hard, but still only managed 103mph. The one and only race that year
was as good as practice - the engine boiled up with all the leaves on
the grill; I pulled in at the end of the first lap'.
In 1999 Ian was equipped with a new Molyneux chasis
housing a 'mint' R6 engine. Unfortunately, by his own admission, he didn't tighten the chain adjusters up enough and so the inevitable happened at Ballaugh on the second circuit. Our Geordie friend gained his best ever result in Race 'B', riding steadily to finish second behind Rob Fisher. Ian made the journey across the Irish Sea in an optimistic mood last year - 'I knew we would do better because Moly wasn't competing and Ron Williams had sorted out the suspension for us. We had a good practice, finishing 3rd behind Rob and John Holden. In the first race we were lying 2nd behind Rob, but poor John had his usual rotten luck - what must he being doing to those fairies? - anyway, our luck was out as well, with the engine throwing a con whilst going over the Mountain. During the second race we led from the start; it was worth a million pounds when I first caught sight of Rob on the roads. On the last lap I was wondering how I was going to spend the prize money, when, coming out of Handley's Corner the engine stopped….it just stopped. Never mind, there's always 2001!'
Will Ian ever realise his ambition and stand on the top of the TT rostrum? 'Sometimes I think if it's meant to be, it's meant to be. I've always thought if we could string three 108mph laps together we'd be in with a good chance, but it's not the place to go scratching. I've got some bits where I go sideways, but when we get back I receive that stern look from Neil, as if to say, if you keep that up, I'm on the next boat home'.
As for the future of road racing, Ian is optimistic - 'it will continue; the TT will miss Joey, but he loved the place and would never want the racing stopped …. it was great to see a packed church for the Memorial Service at the Southern 100. Also, another point is that if the TT Organisers had dropped the sidecar class, F2 racing would die in Britain' The TT is so important in the racing calendar - those racers who haven't competed in the likes of the TT and the S100 don't know what they're missing!!'
Without doubt, Ian and Neil make a formidable team and have the talent, desire, determination and the necessary technical knowledge to win a TT race. Certainly, no-one in the happy-go-lucky, friendly sidecar fraternity would begrudge them the success that they richly deserve.