Friday, 23 November 2012

Kork Talks - Ballington interviewed

Kork Ballington is instantly recognisable, yet somehow hard to place. Never a racing “poster boy” like Barry Sheene, the quietly spoken South African was four times a World Champion riding Kawasaki machinery (twice more than Sheene) and able to beat the great Wayne Rainey on identical machinery four years after retirement - as well as being the determined developer of the ultimately doomed KR500 GP bike.

Kork Reunited with his factory KR500

A relative stranger to UK shores since his retirement, Go Magazine took the chance to listen to the enigmatic South African - here is what he said.

 “It started when I was 10 years old in 1961 when an International GP circuit was built outside my home town, Pinetown, near Durban on South Africa's East Coast. One of the first events to take place was an International motorcycle race. This was my first experience of such a thing and the bikes blew me away. I knew instantly that I wanted race motorcycles one day. When my brother, Dozy, turned 16 he was eligible for a 50cc race licence. Dad bought him a well-used Maserati T2SS50, two-stroke which I eventually inherited.

Dozy soon graduated onto larger capacity bike and we turned the Honda he’d bought to replace the Maserati into a road racer. A strong 50cc racing class had developed and my goal was to race as soon as I was eligible for a competition licence at 16. Dozy was there helping me right from the beginning with his mechanical expertise. He had one go at racing but never took to it and stuck to wielding the spanners from then on.  

At the end of 1972, after I had been racing for about 4 years, an event for bikes up to 1000cc was organised at a circuit near Pietermaritzburg (about 80km inland from Durban). First prize was two air fares to England, sea freight for two bikes and equipment and about £200 spending money. I won the event on my 500cc three cylinder H1R Kawasaki.

Despite being hopelessly underfunded, and without competitive bikes, my girlfriend, Bronwyn, Dozy and I decided to make for England and Europe to have a go. Between us, we had only meagre savings to add to the £200 prize money. Quite honestly, we expected to see some interesting stuff, have the odd race and return home at the end of 1973 having had some fun. It turned out quite well and we ended up staying a decade!

Arriving in March of 1973, I found a cheap Bed & Breakfast in Earls Court while we set up a van and decided on how to take care of accommodation.

Ending up with a well-used Ford Transit, we made the big mistake of opting for a luxury tent rather than fork out just £50 more for a more useful old caravan. The bikes and equipment were cleared at Southampton docks so we raced there to pick it all up. Transit’s only having two seats; we bought a deck chair which just fitted between the front seats for Dozy to perch on. From there we went to a campsite near Brands Hatch to prepare for our first outing at Mettet in Belgium. Wondering why the campsite was empty, we found out soon enough by freezing our buns off!

While on the road we slept in the van. Dozy would lie across the front seats and Bronwyn and I could just fit between the bikes in the back. We were young and daft, having a lot of fun, but running out of money faster than we realised.

After five continental meetings, we retreated to England to try some short circuit racing and were kindly offered workshop facilities by Doug Aldridge so we rocked up and pitched our tent in a nearby field.

Dozy had our Yamaha TD2B going extremely well and we entered two races at Snetterton. I was 2nd in the 350 event (won by Roger Marshall) and easily won the 250cc event. During the remainder of the '73 season I placed very well in National and International British events, the best being 3rd in the 250cc event at the Hutchinson 100 International at Brands Hatch, 6th in the 250cc event at The Race of the Year and 2nd to Mick Grant at a Cadwell Park International.

Donington Park and Kork is on it

Apart from success on the little Yamaha’s, one of the bikes we brought to England was a Seeley with an H1R Kawasaki motor. We slipped an old 750cc H2 motor out of a crashed road bike into the frame and, with Dozy's expertise, turned it into an effective Superbike for the well supported MCN Superbike series of the time.

I had very good results against the factory Kawasaki’s, Suzuki’s, Triumphs, BSA’s and Norton’s in ‘73 and ‘74 which led to meeting Stan Shenton who ran the Kawasaki race team in England. Their race effort was very professional with Mick Grant and Barry Ditchburn doing well.

For the 1975 season, Stan arranged for me to have two '74 750cc H2Rs for the Superbike series. They were outpaced by the new TZ700 Yamahas so I found myself in a difficult spot. As fate turned out Birmingham business magnate, Sid Griffiths came onto the scene with new Yamahas. I started winning big time and became a prime candidate for a factory ride.

At the end of '77 Stan knocked on my caravan door at the Race of the South and invited me to an end of season party to talk about “something important”. Stan told me he was to run the 1978 factory effort out the Boyer’s of Bromley premises. The objective? win Grand Prix and World Titles with the KR series tandem twins.

Don't forget that I was a poor country boy from Natal, South Africa. To race overseas was a dream I’d had when I should have been listening to the maths teacher at school.

Being a professional factory rider was beyond my wildest imagination. Therefore every minute of the experience from when we set foot on English soil to when Kawasaki pulled out of GPs in 1982 was simply wonderful. It was fantastic to be able to start a Grand Prix on great little Kawasaki’s knowing I was in with a chance of beating the world's best and that I had the riding ability to answer any challenge.

It was no secret that the early KR250s had some issues but, by 1977, when Mick Grant, Kiyohara and Barry Ditchburn did a number of Grand Prix’s with great success, they were jets, as good as anything on the circuits. In 1978, the 250 in particular was a superb masterpiece as it had now had about 3 or 4 years of development behind it. The problems were few and far between but with the great team Stan had assembled it was formidable. Once it was set up and I learned how it wanted to be ridden it required very little major work.

The KR350 on the other hand, was hastily developed, possibly an afterthought. It presented a number of problems. Where the 250 was smooth, tractable and handled very well, the 350 was rough which could have side-lined it but for Dozy's ingenuity. The two bikes were like chalk and cheese but bloody hell were they were both fun to ride, unlike the KR500 which was never fully developed; a crying shame.

When the big KR was introduced it was as a prototype and was seen very much as a three year project. From day one the motor was fantastic. It had to be good as it was based on the KR250 which was the best of its time.

The biggest problem we had was the chassis. The designers decided to deviate from convention and went for a monocoque construction. The first KR500, the 1980 version, was long and a bit too heavy. On some circuits it proved that it had good straight line performance but in general its weight made it slow out of corners and the weight and length caused the rear tyre to overheat very early in a race punishing the rear shock absorber. The majority of GP circuits favoured handling over speed so we had quite a hard time.

The ‘81 and ’82 versions were successively better, but not perfect by any means. They were still too long and, although the weight kept being reduced, it always needed to shave a few more kilo’s to be pole position material. That said, I managed two third places on it in GPs at Imatra and Assen in 1981.

It was frustrating as the motor was so good but I simply could not keep up especially out of corners on an overheated tyre. I was the only person racing these prototypes in GP’s since Greg Hansford hurt himself on one at Spa in early '81. I guess one consolation - and confirmation that I was right - was that Eddie Lawson raced one in the States and was not happy with it. He got badly injured at Laguna Seca and stopped riding it.

Studio shot of Kork...without glasses

Finally, at the end of 1982, Kawasaki pulled out of racing on a global basis and I decided to hang up my leathers. I admit it was a premature retirement as I still had plenty of racing left in me and, perhaps, on reflection, I should have tried to get into another top team, but at the time I was just happy to head home.

Some four years later, I was invited to race in the States on a Honda NS500 by the top private team owned by Bob MacLean. It kindled a desire to have a go on a race bred bike with a pedigree of winning GPs and I had my first outing on a GP500 since the end of 1982 at Laguna Seca. Radial tyres were by then well developed, so I was dead keen to see how they compared with the cross plys of my day. As soon as I got onto the track and started getting a move on, I realised the difference between the KR500 and a fully developed racer like the NS500. It was small and light, it changed direction in a flash, had great response out of the corners and by God did those radials stick!

I felt like it would be impossible to fall off and when it started sliding you could feather it to keep the slide going or roll it off to bring the rear wheel back into line. On cross plys you were hard pressed to save yourself it she broke away! After about 60 laps I had bettered Wayne Rainey’s best time on the same bike.  The following weekend at Sears Point, I beat Rainey riding for Honda USA on a 1986 NS500, to win the opening National of the year. I was pumped!

I raced for MacLean Stateside until the end of 1988 when I had my last ride at Mid Ohio on 7 August on an RS250 Honda. I had raced hard for 21 years and loved every minute of it since 7 May 1967 when I had that first race on a little Honda 50cc C110.

Retirement to me meant that I would be moving into a new era which would not involve racing and it was very hard to decide exactly what to do in the early days.

Since we moved to Australia in 1998 I started a business, a fastener retail outlet, which has been going for 11 years now and it has gone from strength to strength. I found business a new challenge and have enjoyed watching it grow on the back of hard work by me and my team.

To be honest, I’ve have had very little contact with the bike world since moving to Australia and have no deep seated desire to attend and watch racing. Lately with the classic events in Europe gaining momentum I was invited to Spa in 2008 and 2009 and Assen in 2010 which has been absolutely wonderful. These events are a reunion of many old “warriors” from Grand Prix racing's illustrious past and a celebration of the fine history of GP racing. The cherry on top is that I have had the privilege of riding Chris Wilson’s beautiful KR500 which, by chance, I have been allowed to ride around the new Snetterton 300 circuit, the very place where we developed the original KR machines.

Back in the UK, a little more grey but no less fast

The KR500 is thirty odd years old now and, if you look at the lap times of modern 600cc bikes, shows just how far things have come on. That said, she’s a special beast and when we fired her up in the pit lane it did cause a bit of a commotion – even Roger Marshall was there to see it which was great.

We only had a couple of laps and I had not been round in a pace car so I took it easy to start with and let the temperature gauge nudge up a little – last thing I wanted to do was seize Chris’s irreplaceable GP bike!

With engine and tyres warm she went like a dream. I stayed clear of the red line while I got used to the new sections but gave her some berries on lap three just to blow out the cobwebs and try and cast my mind back a few decades. The old KR still has a distinct rasp to the exhausts and being long for a GP bike it sure holds a line. I must admit though, I am always happy to coast back into pit lane on someone else’s bike with no scuffs or scars – especially as I was out next on the new 2011 Ninja ZX-10R…and a Superstocker at that.

To start at the end, I had to apologise when I got back to the pit box after riding Howie Mainwaring’s ZX-10R Superstocker. The “F-word” simply fell from my lips (five times!). I could not believe how much road bikes have come on. It made my old GP bike seem tame by comparison and even pulled a wheelie down the back straight… in forth!

"Jeez that was fast" - Kork on a ZX-10R Superstocker

You’d expect all the power to be hard to control, but on treaded tyres, and with the traction control on the raciest setting, it was powerful yet controllable and had the same distinctive Kawasaki edge that makes these bikes differ from other manufacturer’s machines. It was a long, boring flight to the UK, but the chance to ride a Ninja ZX-10R at the circuit we actually developed the KR series race machines on was really exciting.

It just goes to show, all that effort that went into the radical KR500 all those years ago must have been worth it if the KHI engineer’s inquisitive minds and passion for performance eventually created the new Ninja ZX-10R – what a machine and what a privilege. It allowed a slow, old, retired racer to feel fleet-footed and fast once more!” 

Note: A shorter version of this article originally appeared in a shorter form in GO Magazine, the twice yearly publication of the Kawasaki Riders Club. For more information go to: Kawasaki Riders Club

1 comment:

  1. Great interview and it sure brings back the memories. I was one of the Pinetown-Pmburg biking hooligans of the late 70's and remember, vaguely (another Castle, anyone?) talking with Kork, Bronwyn, Dozy and (South African) Mike Grant and Maggie at a braai, put on by Mike and Maggie during the time when Kork was involved in the development of the KR500. Kork autographed a poster of himself on the KR500 - "To all pisscats", which I still have, to this day. Aaahhh, memories. Cedric Pearson, British Columbia, Canada. February 2015.