On a welcome dry clear morning, 100 riders dressed in black leather jackets and trousers sporting pudding basin style helmets lowered their goggles and prepared to make history. It was 72 years ago last Sunday (June 13, 1949) and the location a giant granite rock situated between the rugged coastlines of England and Northern Ireland.
The very first race in the World Motorcycle Racing Championship was about to start. The rumble and then roar of 350cc British single-cylinder motorcycle pierced the thin Manx air as the riders lined up on the Glencrutchery road in the Isle of Man. Seven laps of the most demanding test of man and machine in the World, the infamous 60.721 kms TT mountain circuit. The distance, a ‘mere’ 425 kms around an Island that had been staging motorcycle racing on its roads since 1909. When the British Government imposed a 32 kph speed limit on all roads the forward-thinking Manx Government realised that closing their roads for racing could have far-reaching consequences. They were right and the TT races on the Mountain circuit continue to this day. There could have been no better or worthy venue to stage that first World Championship race, a year ahead of the Formula One Championship that started at Silverstone in 1950.
It was just four years since the finish of the second World War when the FIM launched the World Championship. The six round Championship was held only on European circuits and consisted of four solo classes 125, 250, 350 and 500cc plus sidecars. The other tracks selected were Berne in Switzerland, Assen in Holland, Spa Francorchamps in Belgium, Clady in Ulster Northern Ireland and Monza in Italy.
The new World Championship grid looked very similar to those of the late thirties both in personnel and machinery. The biggest change mechanically was the banning of Supercharged engines and German-built machines.
In so many ways that very first 350cc TT race summed up what lay ahead for the next 72 years. Pure excitement and skill, drama, disappointment and tragedy all in one race. Former bomber pilot Les Graham – who had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in 1944 – led the way by 19 seconds at the end of the first lap, but a broken clutch brought his race to a premature halt less than a lap later. The AJS of Bill Doran took over until his gearbox broke on the last lap climbing the mountain section of the track. Freddie Frith riding the Velocette had no idea of Doran’s demise and set the fastest lap of the race on the last lap on route to a historic victory. Ulsterman Ernie Lyons made it a Velocette one-two with another Ulsterman Artie Bell third on the Norton. Graham’s bad luck continued in the 500cc race four days later when he broke down three kilometres from the finish when the magneto shaft shattered on his AJS. Typically, he pushed the stricken machine those final three kilometres to finish in tenth place. He was rewarded at the end of the season by being crowned the first 500cc World Champion.
Tragically TT regular Ben Drinkwater died in a crash at the eleventh milestone on the fourth lap of that opening 350cc race.
The World Championship was up and running but there was one big change from today. The seventy-five machines that finished that marathon 350cc seven lap race on that historic day were all British built – times have changed!