Yes, my very first visit to Brno did teach me about life behind the Iron Curtain, just how dangerous the old road circuit was, keeping your thoughts to yourself when queuing for hours between the machine gun posts to cross the border from Austria, that sidecar driver George O’Dell was the contact for the cheapest crystal glasses, Russian champagne tasted ok and how to drink tea without milk. Far more important than any of these great experiences though, it taught me you must pick the right moment to ask a difficult question.
South African Jon Ekerold was quite simply the hardest motorcycle racer I’ve ever met. He’d arrived at Brno with a massive chance of clinching the 1980 350 cc World Championship he so richly deserved after a season long battle with Toni Mang. It was the penultimate round and he led Mang by 14 points as they lined up for the 13-lap race round the 10.920 km road circuit. Typically, Jon had taken everything fate could throw at him. His two mechanics Gregg Irvine and Keith Petersen had been barred entry to the communist country because of their South African passports and Jon had only obtained the necessary visa using the Norwegian passport he’d inherited from his father.
He was the privateer of all privateers riding the Yamaha based Bimota twin and started on the front row as they prepared to race between the houses and through the cornfields. I was already planning the words of my World Championship winning story as Jon was happy to sit behind leader Mang with just a few forays to the front to keep the chasing pack at a safe distance. Six laps to go and I’d already written the headline ‘The Privateer of all Privateers’ when it started to go horribly wrong. Jon started to slow with a broken piston ring as Mang piled on the pace at the front. With a lap to go he was still the 1980 350 cc World Champion in third place but his pace was that of a Tour de France cyclist not of a Grand Prix motorcycle racer. The snarling pack picked him off one by one and he limped across the line in tenth place with a single World Championship point. Eckerold and Mang would arrive at the Nurburgring seven short days later equal on points.
Up stepped the new reporter in his first Grand Prix season. As a shattered Ekerold coasted to a halt in the paddock, there was an ominous silence as he took off his helmet. Everybody realised this was not the exact moment to speak and certainly ask questions, apart from a person proudly wearing his Motor Cycle Weekly t-shirt. To say he was not happy with my enquiry about what had gone wrong would be a vast understatement. I rightly got the works from a man that had dedicated his life to winning the World Championship. On a scorching hot afternoon in Czechoslovakia, that dream had disappeared in the heat haze.
Fast forward five days and as I walked into the Nurburgring paddock for the final showdown, Jon Ekerold was waiting for me at the gate. Nervously I walked up to him expecting another deserved outburst but before I could speak he put out his hand and apologised for his anger, which he told me was unjustified and unfair to somebody who was only trying to do his job.
What a man and I was able to write the Privateer of all Privateers story on Sunday afternoon when he beat Toni Mang in an epic encounter round the old road circuit to bring that 350 cc World title to South Africa.
Thanks Jon, it’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.