Kevin Magee sits down at the BBB with Alan Cathcart to chat about the Bob Brown Ducati they both raced back in the 80s... Words: Alan Cathcart Photos: Stephen Piper & AC Archives.
Victorian Kevin Magee lays valid claim to being “the world’s most versatile road racer of the modern era”, as the only man to have won World Championship rounds in the 500GP, World Superbike, World Endurance and World TT Formula 1 race series.
Head here to check out our Throwback Thursday on the Bob Brown Ducati…
Magee had a stellar career that was punctuated by his devastating crash on the factory Lucky Strike Suzuki in the 1990 500cc US GP at Laguna Seca, when he suffered injuries that saw him effectively die on the operating table. Brought back to life, he recovered sufficiently well to win World Superbike rounds in the two following years, as well as race in AMA, before announcing his retirement from racing – but not from the sport, with the former ‘Horsham Hurricane’ aka ‘Mad Dog’ Magee later a familiar face and especially voice with Australian fans, as co-commentator on Foxtel’s coverage of MotoGP and for the WSBK races, for a number of years alongside our very own editor Jeff.
After a promising debut season in 1981 on his Yamaha RD250LC road bike converted to a racer, Kevin got noticed by local tuner Bob Brown as a likely candidate to pedal the modified Ducati Pantah 500 that he’d punched out to 680cc – as Kevin recalled after a trip down memory lane riding what that bike eventually became at the 2013 Broadford Bike Bonanza. Here’s what he had to say.
“Riding Bob’s Ducati for the first time in over 25 years has certainly brought the memories back, big time – and all of them good! I hadn’t even seen it since 1986, so I was a bit apprehensive about what it’d be like to ride. But I certainly didn’t expect it to be yellow, and I reckon it looked much nicer the way I used to ride it, in the Castrol colours that just happened to be the same as the Italian ones!”
“I raced the Ducati for three years, first as a 680, then after Bob took it out to 750. Riding it again has reminded me what an easy bike it was to take to the limit – it’s so little and slim, just tiny, and that means you’re the boss, so you can just sling it around anywhere. It’s a bit like a four-stroke 250, only taller – really nimble, but with plenty of stick when you give it some.”
“It stops well, too – that was the thing, because you didn’t have any straightline speed compared to the fours, you had to make it up under braking and chucking it into the bend, except then as soon as you picked it up again onto the fat part of the skinny back tyre, then they’d hose you. Basically, the way I rode it was to brake absolutely as late as I could, and be as smooth as possible doing so – you absolutely couldn’t afford to get ragged on it.”
“I used to demolish rear brakes, but only so I could flick it into the bend in a two-wheel drift, control the drift with the rear brake, then just when you’re at the point in the corner when the front started to tuck and where you’re ready to pick it up to get traction, then you’d crack it wide open, but use the rear brake to control the power delivery.”
“That’d give you the jump out of the turn initially to get away from the fours, but you just hoped there wasn’t a long enough straight for them to get you back again. There was no Phillip Island in those days, so Bathurst was the only track where I was really screwed for speed – anywhere like Winton or Oran Park which had lots of corners would be good. It’s a pity I never raced it at Amaroo Park, it would have been excellent there.”
“Bob Brown first approached me at the end of ‘82 to ride in the Swann Series round at Sandown, and I won both Thunderbike races with no practice – I only did the warm-up lap, then got two wins! After that, he asked me if I wanted to ride in the Formula European races the next week at Oran Park in Sydney, so I got time off work and we went up there to practice on Friday, sat out Saturday Then raced on Sunday.” (Bob Brown is a Seventh Day Adventist, so never raced or worked on the bike on Saturdays).
“Normally it had a 9,500rpm ceiling, but Bob said to rev it to 10,500 in Race 1, where I was sitting comfortably right behind Gary Gleeson’s 600TT2, which was a proper factory-built racer whereas ours was a tuned up stock-framed Pantah. I had it all planned out and was confident of winning, but then the engine started rumbling, and it turned out the extra revs had lifted the top right off one of the pistons.“
“So we drove back to Melbourne through the night to be ready for work next morning, and on the way Bob said they’d told us not to bother coming back, because we’d never do any good up there against the ‘proper’ racers. Well, that got me cranky, so basically we teamed up properly next year, and went back to New South Wales with the same bike and won every race, except one where it rained and I was on the wrong tyres. Nice to prove a point!”
“Then Bob built it up as a full 750 with the Verlicchi frame, and we entered the Superbike class in 1984 against all the Japanese fours, and that was when the protests started coming in. The blokes with the four-cylinder bikes didn’t appreciate getting beaten by this little prick and his tuner on a bike that had half as many cylinders as they did, and was run out of the back of a ute.“
“They were looking for excuses to get us banned, so they were on about it not having the correct frame, because Ducati had only just started making the F1, and they said there weren’t enough of them brought into Australia yet, even though it was the only streetbike they were making at the time. I certainly wanted to race a four myself, but nobody would give me one, and I for sure didn’t have the money, so instead I rode the Ducati and beat them on it.“
“That’s how Warren Willing noticed me – he was running the Yamaha Dealer Team, and he was up at Winton one weekend with his brother Len, who I got on with pretty well. Warren saw me riding the Ducati, which chattered its head off into turns because we didn’t know anything about tuning the suspension – I just figured that was normal, and all part of racing, but at least I knew how it was going to react, so I could respond accordingly.”
“Warren apparently figured that if I could get through the turns so fast on an underpowered bike that handled like that, I must have a bit of promise! But of course that was why Ducati have been so successful for so long, because those tubular frames just talk to you – which explains they’re in the s**t they are now! The biggest regret I have in my whole career is turning down a place in the factory Ducati World Superbike team for 1993, which was just plain stupid – what was I thinking of?”
“But it was my performances on Bob’s bike that got me guest rides in 1985 on bikes like the Trevor Flood Suzuki, and with Mick Hone and Robbie Phillis in the Suzuka 8-Hours – all in between coming home and riding the Ducati. In three seasons of racing it I only ever crashed it once – and on those skinny tyres, too, which shows what a great bike it was to race. It’s just been a fabulous experience riding it again that many years later, because the Ducati’s part of how I am, and I’ll never forget that. Brilliant days on a brilliant bike.”