From apprentice mechanic to 500cc GP race winner, Kevin Magee built his career from scratch. We run you through his life from start to current. Photos: Lou Martin & BikeReview Archives.
It was a picture of Kenny Roberts Snr on the black and yellow Yamaha. I don’t reckon I ever walked past that poster without stopping to look at it. Nobody was ever going to stop the kid from Horsham in Western Victoria. Not once Kevin Magee had the clippers on…
It’s a warm Monday arvo and Tony Hatton (Suzuka 8-Hour winner, Aussie endurance, GP and production racing legend from the 1970s and 1980s) are sharing a beer with Kevin Magee in his local pub, a short walk from his harbourside home in the town of Vaucluse, the most exclusive millionaires only suburb in Sydney. I ask him where it all started. He pauses for a moment…
“There was a poster on the wall in the smoko (lunch) room at the bike shop I worked at during my apprenticeship. It was a picture of Kenny Roberts Snr on the black and yellow Yamaha. One of those above shots. I don’t reckon I ever walked past that poster without stopping to look at it. I was always checking out the tacho to try and work out how fast he was going… I was dreaming. But I knew that’s where I wanted to be…”
Kevin Magee was just an ordinary teenager who loved motorbikes. A dreamer from a small town. But there was a bit more spark in his eye than the average kid. The difference between Magee and most others was sheer guts and determination…
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There are very few riders in the world who have come through the ranks the way Kevin Magee did. So few, in fact, that those were the very riders he ended up competing against in 500 grand prix. For Magee, it was always going to happen. Nobody was ever going to stop the kid from Horsham in Western Victoria…
One of five boys and three girls in a family of 10, Magee spent his early years chasing his older brothers around the family property in Horsham, Victoria. A bit of a late starter in motorcycling terms (at least by today’s standards), Magee, coincidentally just like Beattie and Gardner, didn’t start mucking around with anything motorised until aged 10 when he acquired a Honda Dax minibike. But that wasn’t the first petrol-powered experience young Magee had…
“A bit of a late starter in motorcycling terms, Magee, just like Beattie and Gardner, didn’t start mucking around with anything motorised until aged 10…”
“The first contact I had with a motor was a minibike my brother Damien built. We used wheelbarrow wheels and put a chassis together using water pipe and bolted in one of those old Villiers V-belt two-stroke singles. We shared it, and being the youngest at the time I was always chasing them around for a fang”…
It wasn’t a great success, but Magee’s Dad could see what the boys wanted and that’s when he decided to get the Honda Dax minibike for them, one Sunday arvo from Peter Irwin… Magee’s other brother, Tim purchased a Honda CB125S road bike.
“Back then we even had a watch one with an actual second hand on it,” Magee grins, “So things began to get competitive. We’d time each other around the dam and the back paddock. It was a case of ‘I can do better’ and it was great fun”…
Tim moved to Naracootie in SA and bought an XR75 and started racing. The Dax was wrecked by now and Kev had lost the tips of two fingers while trying to push start it. Knowing this, and thinking Kev would do well, Tim took young Kevin to a few races and told him that he reckoned he’d be good at it himself. Kevin approached his parents and eventually a YZ80C replaced the Dax…
“Mum used to say I was never in the house unless I was asleep or had my head in the fridge”…
“My first race was at Edenhope MiniBike Club. I won a few races and would have won the last race but, with a big lead, slowed on a berm and fell over because I was going too slow to go up high… Riding gear on the day included desert boots, jeans, jumper, helmet, no goggles, and my brother’s winter road gloves the ones that reach your elbow’s, with rabbit fur inside!”
Later that year, just before Christmas, Magee’s father passed away. Kevin was only 16 years old at the time. Magee continued to ride that YZ until he was 17. The usual routine was, get up and have breakfast, ride the YZ, have another breakfast and then go to school. Come home and ride the YZ until it was too dark. It never got a piston in its life until it totally blew up, and Magee’s mate Damien Albury rescued Kev by rebuilding it…
The young Magee landed a job at a servo pumping petrol, cutting wood and mowing the lawns after school. This was to help him maintain his YZ and perhaps get another bike, but first he had to get transport. He managed to save up $135 to buy himself a pushbike.
At around the same time Magee had his first ride on a 125. His mate Russell ‘Jagg’s’ Jagger had a CR125 and gave Magee a ride at a Horsham club day. Magee smashed ‘em, and decided it was time to get a bigger bike… Meanwhile, his brother Tim had bought him a CB360 to muck about on in the dirt! Magee reckons that he was the first person in the world to have a dirt bike with a front disc brake! Work experience as a mechanic at Center Point Motorcycles came next.
He had his sights set on an RM370 at the shop, and had put a $50 deposit down. But one weekend while riding with his bosses Baulch and Niewand, Magee impressed the B grade MX riders on 250s by catching them and checking out on mate Kym’s YZ125F. They soon convinced Magee to forget the 370 and by a new RM125N. Kevin borrowed some money from his Mum and bought the bike at cost price. He never looked back. Magee left school and started an apprenticeship as a mechanic at Irwin Motors, a Yamaha dealer and farmers supermarket. He started racing every weekend…
“I raced that RM with success for a long time, then one day Phil Needham invited me out to Mac Park for a ride day. I took the RM. We fitted some tyres to it and out I went. I had no gearing, so I was coming onto the straight in top gear on the rev limit! But it was great fun dicing to get second last, not last! I soon got a loan from Mum and bought myself and RD250F. I was on my Ls, but I didn’t have a car. So to get to work I’d get up, toolbox on my knees, ride to work, flick the stand down and lift the toolbox off my knees so as to not scratch the tank, then start work”…
“I remember the first time I rode in the rain,” recalls Magee, “I asked Phil if I have to go slower in the wet. He said, ‘Yeah, a fair bit’. I knew I was doing 110km/h into turn one. So I slowed it down to 100km/h. Needless to say I ended up on my arse”!
Magee had spent 1980 getting the hang of the whole road race thing, and liked it, particularly how you came off clean at the end of the day – not covered in mud! He was determined to do more in 1981. There was plenty of hype around a new series for the equally as exciting RD250LC. It was called the Millage RD250LC Championship (sponsored by Doug Rober, of Stihl equipment) and Kevin was dead keen to be in it. He pestered his employers, Peter and Gordon, until they eventually gave in and sold him an LC at cost, $1600.00.
“I won the championship using second-hand tyres. Jagg’s and I would sleep in his bench seat FC Sedan at Benalla Caravan Park and scab tyres out of the bin on Sunday nights! I remember that I really needed a front slick for Winton but couldn’t afford it, so Niewand and I put the rear slick off the TZ on the front of the LC and made a new mudguard to fit over the monster tyre. Everyone bagged it, then I torched them…”
Magee also raced it in 250 to 1000cc open races and did well in those. It was push start in those days, and he could start the LC with one nudge. It’d take the TZs until the last lap to catch him. Magee won a YZR30 pocket bike for his efforts, and he’s still got one! In 1982 Magee started to think about racing a bit more seriously. It was at about this time that the Kenny Roberts poster started to get his mind ticking. He realised that he could do something with this…
“At the time, Young Magee was watching the likes of Rob Phillis, Malcom ‘Wally’ Campbell and Andrew ‘AJ’ Johnston, and aspired to the factory guys…”
“I bought a 1976 TZ350C for $1000 with rims for wets from Niewand… I crashed the thing but thought, where next? I needed to get to A grade… At the time I was racing in anything I could, 250 – 1000cc events and all that. I raced a borrowed 350LC and won the again, and I got to A grade on the TZ”.
At the time, Young Magee was watching the likes of Rob Phillis, Malcom ‘Wally’ Campbell and Andrew ‘AJ’ Johnston, and aspired to the factory guys mainly because he wanted to ride the bikes and test himself against the best. Magee broke the outright lap record at Mt Gambier, which had been set by Rob Phillis on a Mick Hone’s GSX. He also beat Paul Feeney in a reverse direction wet race at Winton. Feeney was on full wets, Magee on an RD350LC on proddie tyres…
“In 1982 Magee started to think about racing a bit more seriously. It was at about this time that the Kenny Roberts poster started to get his mind ticking.”
In August or September 1982, at the final round of the Millage RD350LC series, Magee was in the pits hand fitting a front tyre to his LC. He’d been getting front chatter and was dead set on beating John Harmen for the title. Magee continues the story…
“I was busy with tyre levers and all that, and I looked up and there’s this guy looking over my shoulder. I shrugged him off watching and kept working. Then he came back and introduced himself as Bob Brown. He told me he needed a rider for his Ducati for the Swann Series. It was a Friday and that afternoon I was on the bike testing. I went 2.5-seconds faster than the fastest guy! “
Read our full interview on Magee riding the Bob Brown Ducati here...
Magee went on that weekend to take the LC series and also race the Bob Brown Ducati, winning both races from Peter Muir at Swann Series at Sandown Series. It was the start of an incredible decade for Kevin Magee, and the biggest turning point in his racing career.
Next, we look at Kevin’s years on the Bob Brown Ducati, and how he and Bob wrote themselves into the motorcycle racing history books by taking on the big guns on factory backed machinery…
Kevin Magee GP Career Stats
500 GRAND PRIX
- 1st x 1- 1988 SPA
- 3rd x 2 –1987 POR. 1988 POR
- 4th x 6 – 1988 NL. 1989 AUS, USA, YUG, NL. 1990 JAP
- 5th x 9 – 1988 NAT, WGER, YUG, GB. 1989 JAP, AUT, FRA, SWE. 1991 MAL
- 6th x 5 – 1988 AUT, SWE, BRA. 1989 GB, BRA
- 7th x 4 – 1988 JAP. 1989 WGER, BEL, CZE
- 9th x 2 –1988 FRA. 1993 JAP
- 10th x 1 – 1987 NL
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS
- 1987 15th/11pts (Yamaha)
- 1988 5th/138pts (Yamaha)
- 1989 5th/138.5pts (Yamaha)
- 1990 21st/13pts (Suzuki)
- 1991 19th/19pts (Suzuki/Yamaha)
- 1993 25th/7pts (Yamaha)
OTHER MAJOR RESULTS
- 1981 Millage RD250LC State Champion (Vic)
- 1982 Millage RD350LC State Champion (Vic)
- 1983 Victorian Thunderbike Champion
- 1983 NSW Formula European Champion
- 1985 2nd NZ superbike race, Bob Brown Ducati
- 1985 9th Suzuka 8 Hour with Rob Phillis
- 1985 RZ Master Series State and National winner
- 1985 TZ750 top ten Swann Series
- 1985 1st place Nippon Denso 500, Winton
- 1985 3rd Castrol 6 Hour
- 1986 2nd Suzuka 8 Hour (on domestic Yamaha Superbike with Mike Dowson)
- 1986 1st Castrol 6 Hour
- 1986 1st Arai 500
- 1986 1st Lakeside Hub 300
- 1986 2nd TTF1, Sugo, Japan
- 1986 2nd Swann Series on YZR500
- 1987 All Japan TTF1 Champion, won every race
- 1987 1st Suzuka 8 Hour with Martin Wimmer
- 1987 1st Castrol 6 Hour
- 1987 1st Swann Series
- 1988 1st Suzuka 8 Hour with Wayne Rainey
- 1988 1st TBC Big Race, Sugo, Japan
- 1989 1st TBC Big Race, Sugo, Japan
- 1991 2nd Suzuka 8 Hour
- 1991 2nd / 5th World Superbike, Sugo, Japan
- 1991 1st / 2nd World Superbike, Phillip Island
- 1992 2nd All Japan 500 Championship
- 1992 2nd Suzuka 8 Hour
Kevin Magee is the only rider ever to have finished on top of the podium in the four premier class World Championships – World 500cc Grand Prix
- World TT Formula One
- World Superbikes
- World Endurance
With World TT Formula One now redundant, this milestone can never be broken.
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