The Day The Yamaha XS1100 ‘Tourer’ Won The Castrol Six-Hour

From Yamaha Australia
Yamaha 50th anniversary: Looking to the future and honouring the past.

While Yamaha dominated the local grand prix classes throughout the 1970s, it had only limited success in production racing that had swept Australia. The Yamaha RD250 was the bike to have in the lightweight production class, but due to the lack of a large multi-cylinder muscle bike in its range, Yamaha could only watch as Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and even Ducati and BMW fought out the big-money endurance events like the Castrol Six-Hour.

In 1978, with the battle of the big-bore market booming and distributors and tyre importers pouring vast sums of money into production racing, the big guns had been brought out. Suzuki had released its GS1000 in 1978, while Yamaha unveiled its XS1100.

By mid-year, Honda launched its secret weapon, the six-cylinder Honda CBX1000. While the new CBX1000 and Suzuki were out and out sports bikes, the shaft-drive XS1100, affectionately called the “Xcessive’, was more of a muscle bike cum tourer. Heavier than and not as fast as its rivals, the XS1100 did have one particular ability – winning races.

In the lead up to the Six-Hour, the XS1100 had won the Adelaide Three-Hour, the Perth Four-Hour and the Surfers Three-Hour. The unlikely XS1100 and Pitman Yamaha rider Greg Pretty had upstaged the biggest, baddest production bikes around, confounding everyone.

The advertising copy writers had a field day. Greg Pretty was a big fan of the rock band The Who and said, “After we win a race, we go back, party on and listen to The Who.” The copy writers stole a line out one of Pretty’s favourite songs by the Who ’Won’t get fooled again’.

‘Meet the new Boss’ was the headline to a series of Yamaha ads that ran in the local motorcycle press rejoicing Pitman Yamaha’s extraordinary run of victories.

The new Honda CBX1000 spoilt the party, however, when it blitzed the Castrol Hour Two-Hour at Calder Park on debut in the hands of a young B-grader, Michael Cole. Shown live on the ABC, the new Honda had its rivals shaking in their boots heading into the Six-Hour.

Team Avon Tyres manager, Lindsay Walker, wasn’t so sure. His squad, including firebrand riders Jim Budd and Roger Heyes, had enjoyed considerable success on Kawasakis, winning the 1976 Castrol Six-Hour, but could see a sea change coming.

Having raced the Kawasaki Z1000 and Suzuki GS1000 in 1978 without much success, Team Avon had a big decision to make.

“With the race looking wide open, we debated for some time which machine to race and finally settled on the Yamaha,” said Walker at the time.

“We knew it wasn’t the fastest machine around Amaroo Park, but at the same time XS1100s had taken out nearly all the major production races in Australia.”

The Yamaha could do the six-hour in just three fuel stops against the Suzukis and Hondas that both needed four. Budd also said that the biggest problem with the Suzuki would be ground clearance, the collectors scraping and wearing away the muffler clamp.

While the Honda had the raw speed thanks to a claimed 103bhp from its 1047cc engine, and Graeme Crosby putting it on pole by 0.4sec ahead of Alan Hales’ Suzuki, there were question marks over the six-cylinder’s affect on tyre wear.

Budd also made one of the more prescient pre-race comments, the fruition of which would change the history of the six-hour forever.

“I know that several theories exist on this year’s race, but I think it will be the year of the fast wheel change.”

At 10:00am on Sunday, October 22, the flag was raised to signal the start of the 1978 Castrol Six-Hour. The riders sped across the front straight to their mounts, Crosby leading the charge up Bitupave Hill. Starting from third on the grid, Budd held a massive slide as he gunned the Avon XS1100 away from the Le Mans start and then blew a huge plume of smoke around the first lap, leading team-mate Heyes to exclaim: “Oh no, we’re going to be out on the first lap!”

Thankfully, the sump had simply been overfilled as the oil burnt off, but Budd had dropped back to ninth place as Crosby, Pretty and Hales made a break up front.

Having set a blistering pace, Crosby’s Honda ran into problems just laps into the race, signalling to his team that something was wrong as he flashed passed race control.

Crosby pitted at 10:12am, for what would be the first of several stops, saying the rear-wheel was locking on a trailing throttle. Co-rider Tony Hatton headed out but pitted the Honda after experiencing a huge slide, claiming the problem was due to a fuel quality problem. The Crosby/Hatton CBX1000 was retired 41 minutes into the race.

At the three-hour mark, Hales led and tried to put a lap on Heyes’ Avon XS1100, but dropped the Suzuki as he tipped into the Dunlop Loop, promoting the Neill/Cole CBX1000 into the lead.

Lying third, Heyes made a scheduled pit-stop at 1:12pm and the decision was made – the first strategic wheel/tyre change in Castrol Six-Hour history.

The job was completed by Malcolm and Dean Pitman, who carried their wheel changing gear up to the Avon pit following the retirement of the Pitman team bike after Pretty’s co-rider, Jeff Miller, decked the XS1100 at Mazda House corner at 12:28pm.

Heyes’s tyre didn’t appear too badly worn, but Walker believed a fresh rear Avon would give his riders a significant performance and psychological advantage for the back half of the race. The entire stop was captured live on ABC-TV and took 1m14sec, although the tyre change didn’t commence until almost 20 seconds after the bike stopped.

Dropping into the ‘59s, Budd was catching second place, Dave Robbins’ Yamaha XS1100, at a second a lap. The tyre change proved to be a master stroke. Inexorably, Budd whittled down Neill’s lead and he finally claimed position one at 2:31pm after one of the most inspiring rides in six-hour history.

Neill pitted the Honda at 2:47pm and his team was instructed by scrutineers to change the rear tyre due to safety concerns. The chain-drive Honda proved far more difficult to complete the change compared to the shaft-drive Yamaha, Neill speeding away after spending 4m10sec in the pits.

At the stroke of 4.00pm plus a lap, the XS1100 had done it again. A large dollar sign was displayed on Heyes’ pit board as he cruised to a comfortable victory, finishing one lap ahead of John Warrian and Terry Kelly’s Ducati 900SS with Neill’s CBX1000 in third.

According to the race report in REVS Motorcycle News, “The machine that ‘shouldn’t win production races’ has won another one.”

Indeed, the XS1100’s 1978 win set off a run of victories that would see Yamaha dominate the Castrol Six-Hour until the event’s demise in 1987.

Yamaha won a total of five Castrol Six-Hours, more than any other manufacturer. It is also the only manufacturer to ever have won the event outright on a two-stroke, and it also won with both the largest and smallest capacity engines – the Yamaha RZ500 (499cc) and the XS1100 (1102cc). It was also the only manufacturer to win the event with four different machines – XS1100, RZ500, FZ750 (‘85, ‘86) and FZR1000.

Kevin Magee and Michael Dowson were both duel Castrol Six-Hour winners with Yamaha in 1986 and ‘87, as was Richard Scott in 1984 (with Dowson) and 1985 (with Paul Feeney).

“The Castrol Six-Hour, and production racing in general, played an enormous role in developing road racing as a high profile sport in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Steve Cotterell, managing director, Yamaha Motor Australia.

“Being unique to Australia, it was incredibly competitive, and brought the best out of the manufacturers, tyre distributors, and riders in determining who the best was.”

The XS1100 proved in 1978 that it was unquestionably the most successful endurance machine in a year that boasted multi-cylinder, 1000cc offerings from all four Japanese manufacturers for the first time.

“Although Yamaha enjoyed success in the lightweight classes in the early years of the Castrol Six-Hour, it wasn’t until 1978 that it had a competitive machine that was capable of outright victory – the XS1100 was more capable than many people thought,” Mr Cotterell added.

The XS1100 was Yamaha’s first four-cylinder production bike, and became the fore-runner to the FJ1100 that was released in 1984. Now in 2005, the spirit of the XS1100 ‘Tourer’ lives on through the Yamaha FJR1300.

Rated as one of the best sports-tourers ever built, the FJR1300 has much of the XS1100 DNA including the ultra-reliable in-line four-cylinder engine, and shaft-drive.

The Castrol Six-Hour may be gone, but its legacy - like the XS1100 – lives on.

The Castrol Six-Hour
As Australia’s longest running endurance production event, the first of which was won in 1970 by Brian Hindle and Len Atlee on a Triumph 650, the Castrol Six-Hour became the single most important motorcycle race in Australia.

Normally held a few weeks after the Bathurst 500/1000km race in mid-October, the race was run at the unlikely venue of Amaroo Park.

Just 1.9km in length and located on the north-west outskirts of Sydney, Amaroo was a deceptive little track that made or broke some of the biggest names in the sport. It had a faster average speed than the Oran Park GP circuit.

The event attracted over 15,000 spectators and was covered live by the Seven Network for the entire six-hours, and probably a total of eight hours including preamble and post-race celebrations.

ABC-TV took over the coverage in 1976, which it continued through to the final Castrol Six-Hour in 1987 - the coverage mixing both delayed and live coverage from the early-80s onwards. The ABC’s coverage also included a top-ten shoot out on Saturday that started in 1981.

The 1984 Castrol Six Hour, run for the first time at Oran Park, was controversially stopped at 3:57pm, three minutes before its official finishing time, because the ABC had a commitment to cross to a golf tournament.

Michael Dowson and Richard Scott piloted their Toshiba Yamaha RZ500 to a five-second victory over the Honda VF1000 of Wayne Gardner and John Pace in the closest finish in six-hour history.

In addition to the leading Australian and New Zealand stars, many overseas riders competed in the Castrol Six-Hour including Percy Tait, Hurley Wilvert, Helmut Dahne, Mick Grant, Mike Hailwood, Wes Cooley, Ron Haslam, Dave Petersen and Niall Mackenzie.

The final Castrol Six-Hour was won in 1987 by Kevin Magee and Michael Dowson on a Yamaha FZR1000.

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Rolf Bannemann