Remembering the Canadian GP

Story by Alan Cathcart// Photos by Bill Petro, Colin Fraser, Alex Bilo, and Ed Cunningham
February 14 2018

History repeats as a few of the original racers and some of the actual motorcycles take to the track at the 50th anniversary celebration of Canada’s only motorcycle Grand Prix

On September 30, 1967, the one and only Canadian road-racing Grand Prix ever staged took place on the 3.9 km Mosport circuit 100 km northeast of Toronto. Opened in 1961 and still in use today in essentially unchanged form, but with heaps of extra runoff and rebaptized as the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, this high-speed roller-coaster racetrack is one of the most challenging permanent circuits in the world. It features significant changes in elevation, copious blind apexes and an undulating main straight where top-gear wheelies are a matter of course.

From August 10-12, 2017, Canada’s Vintage Road Racing Association (VRRA) staged a commemorative event as part of its annual Mosport Vintage Festival. Alongside a full race program, this included a series of parades featuring some of the actual bikes and riders who took part in the Canadian GP meeting 50 years ago, as well as more modern road-racing stars like former 250 cc World Champion Rod Gould, and his 750 cc counterpart and three-time Canadian champion, Steve Baker, whose career was sadly ended in 1988 after a serious crash at Mosport.

Remembering Canada’s Grand Prix

Steve Baker on a YamahaWith Canada celebrating its 100th birthday as a nation in 1967, the Federal Centennial Commission underwrote the costs of bringing the world’s top riders and their machines to compete in the season-ending Canadian GP race: the final round in the 500 cc World Championship so closely contested by Honda four-mounted Mike Hailwood and his former teammate at MV Agusta, Giacomo Agostini on the Italian triple. The 125 cc and 250 cc races were also held, although in these classes, the Canadian GP was the penultimate round.  Yamaha’s Bill Ivy was cake-walking his way to the 125 cc world title under a factory-brokered prior agreement with teammate Phil Read, whose role instead was to focus on regaining the 250 cc world crown from reigning champion Hailwood and his six-cylinder Honda. All three races attracted many American entries from across the border, which actually outnumbered the local Canadian riders in the 125/250 cc grids.

Race day was cold but initially dry, though it attracted a poor crowd of just 5,000 spectators. The 125 cc race was first up, with the disappointingly small grid of just 19 riders, led by Ivy as the only GP regular to take part (teammate Read was saving himself for the 250 cc race immediately after). Ivy duly cruised to victory on his factory V4 Yamaha RA-31 by two laps after stopping to take on water – bike, not rider. Behind, Massachusetts club racer Bob Lusk – who immigrated soon after to the United Kingdom, where he’s still racing today in CRMC events – held second place for a long time on his Yamaha single, a converted YA125 streetbike complete with pressed steel frame, before slowing to be passed by Canadian Tim Coopey.

Lusk still finished third, and was present at the 50th anniversary celebrations, though riding a Ducati 250 four-stroke after the borrowed Yamaha he was racing at the meeting seized. “I remember the race seemed incredibly long, which at 25 laps and 45 minutes, it certainly was for the likes of us, who never did more than 10 laps of Mosport at a time!” he recalled. “It was also really cold, and I was really shivering at the 125 GP rostrum ceremony before getting ready for the 250 race immediately after. Still, I was nicely tuned up and managed to finish ninth in that – but my friend Frank Camillieri came home fifth, which was great because we both got World Championship points that day, which only went down to sixth place back then.” Camillieri was riding the same Yamaha TD1C twin in the 50th anniversary parades that he rode in the ’67 race, having retained ownership of it down the years.

Three-Race Day for Duhamel

Canadian GP TrophyDown in 11th and last place of the 125 GP finishers – six laps down on Ivy – was Canadian Yvon Duhamel on another Yamaha. Duhamel was the only rider to compete in all three races that day, including riding his fourth-place 250 cc TD1C in the 500 GP with a new set of number plates slapped over the old ones, only to unfortunately DNF in that. He no longer rides, and has sadly now lost almost all his hearing, which he only partly attributes to the unsilenced exhausts of the two-strokes he mostly spent his two-wheeled career riding. “The snowmobiles I raced in the winter were much worse,” Duhamel said. “They had stinger exhausts, too, but they were raised up right next to my helmet, instead of being down low and way back like on a motorcycle.” The 1967 Canadian 250 GP race had a 40-rider grid, and saw a superb tussle for victory between Hailwood on the screaming Honda six and Ivy – also nicely tuned up after his 125 cc win – on the bigger V4 Yamaha RD-05 stroker. The duo swapped the lead back and forth in what was undoubtedly the race of the day, which was only resolved in Hailwood’s favour when Ivy’s Yamaha stopped two laps from the end of the 32-lap, 50-minute race while in the lead, under suspicion of a dry fuel tank; teammate Read finished second, exactly one minute down on Hailwood’s victorious Honda, for reasons he was honest enough to own up to at the 50th anniversary celebrations, where he rode former Canadian champion Eddy Brunet’s tricked-out Yamaha TZ250. “I just couldn’t get on with the Mosport circuit,” Read said. “Mike and Bill were much faster, and I just let them get on with it. It’s a pity Bill stopped – for whatever reason – because Mike and I tied on points at the end of the season, and he only won the world title because he had one more win than me.” What might have been . . .

Canada’s First Road-Race Star

Bill Ivy Riding a Yamaha V4Duhamel scored his first of many World Championship points in the 250 GP race, finishing fourth two laps down on the victorious Hailwood, whose teammate Ralph Bryans, on his Honda six, separated him from fellow Yamaha rider Read. But equally as acclaimed was another local guest at the 50th anniversary event, the person who finished third in the 500 cc GP that day after starting from the back of the grid. Canadian Mike Duff was the country’s first star road racer – a GP race-winner and championship runner-up to Read, his teammate in the factory Yamaha squad. Mike has since become Michelle, and was present at Mosport to ride the very same Arter-Matchless G50 she took to the podium there 50 years ago. She was visibly moved to be reacquainted with the bike for the first time in five decades, as well as with the 350 cc Surtees 7R that provided the chassis template for the later Arter G50, and which she describes as “my favourite ever bike to ride.” Both bikes now belong to New York-based Team Obsolete, whose patron Rob Iannucci was present to see history live again.

“I’d had a really serious crash in Japan at the end of 1966, and took a long time to recover from that,” Duff recalled. “But I somehow or other had to be present on the grid for my country’s first-ever GP race, so Tom Arter kindly agreed to send me his G50 – there was no 350 cc race. But because of my injuries in those push-start days, there was no way I could start the bike for the race, so I had to start from the back of the grid with a pusher.” She continued, “There were 45 starters, so I had to ride really hard to thread my way through the field, as well as take care because it had started to drizzle.” Duff made it to third place, which she described as “a good victory.” Although that was her last trip to the GP podium, she noted that it “may be the one that gave me the most satisfaction. And I’m so grateful to Rob Iannucci for bringing the bike here for me to ride. It’s quite a feeling to be reunited with it.”

Back in 1967, ahead of Duff, Hailwood had tried to entice Agostini into a battle for victory, but the Italian was having none of that, knowing that he had only to finish in second place to retain his 500 cc world title. Riding an improved Honda four in the company’s last-ever 500 GP race until the 1979 debut of the oval-piston NR500, Hailwood then pulled away to win by 38 seconds over Agostini in the worsening downpour at the end of the 40-lap, 73-minute race. This meant that although both riders finished equal on points in the World Championship table, each with five race wins, Ago won the title by virtue of three second places to Hailwood’s two. Honda would have to wait until 1983 and Freddie Spencer to win a 500 GP rider’s title.

A Significant Race

The 500 cc Canadian GP was also notable for being the last time a Velocette scored World Championship points, with Andreas Georgeades fifth on his modified Thruxton, while down in 11th place, on his Manx Norton, was American Bob MacLean, a future team owner in AMA and GP racing, whose privateer WCM race team scored 500 GP victories thanks to Simon Crafar, Regis Laconi and Garry McCoy. Also in the race was British expat Ron Grant, riding a works Triumph, which was the actual machine that Gary Nixon had ridden to victory in the Daytona 200 that year.

Nixon was entered to ride it in the Canadian GP, but having just won the AMA No. 1 Plate, he decided to take a break from racing, with Grant taking over the ride. Unfortunately, after qualifying fifth, he threw it down the road in the race. Two Hansen Honda CR450 twins that had also raced at Daytona were obtained for Mike Manley and Don Haddow to ride, but after Manley had run third behind Hailwood and Agostini in the early stages, he crashed and was horrifically run over, an accident that left him in a coma for three months, though he eventually did recover. It was the only serious accident in the day’s racing.

After such a successful 50th tribute, which also included a gala banquet on the Saturday evening, where many of the riders regaled those present with memories of 1967, many are surely hoping the VRRA is already looking forward to repeating the commemoration 10 years from now, on the 60th anniversary of the day the Grand Prix circus came to Canada.


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