A 76-year-old Huntingdonshire pensioner could be racing towards the record books – as one of the oldest motorbike racers in the country. This week, as he renewed his motorbike racing licence for his 60th year of competitive riding, Mad Bill Barley, from
A 76-year-old Huntingdonshire pensioner could be racing towards the record books - as one of the oldest motorbike racers in the country.
This week, as he renewed his motorbike racing licence for his 60th year of competitive riding, "Mad" Bill Barley, from Covington, started preparations for racing in Germany in the autumn.
Bill races vintage grass-track bikes all over the country, and travelled to Swindon on Sunday to compete in the 250cc and 500cc pre-1975 categories. Despite a disappointing weekend of mechanical problems, Bill was happy to be back racing after a winter of preparation.
"It's just the adrenaline off the start that keeps bringing me back every year," Bill said. "There's nothing like that feeling. Every year I think it'll be my last, then the forms drop through the door, and I think: well, one more year then."
During his racing prime, he was known for his fearless riding style. He earned the nickname Mad Bill after a spectacular crash, when he hit a bump but refused to ease up on the throttle, landing his bike in the branches of a tree.
His greatest success came in 1988, when he claimed the Vintage Speedway Championship at the age of 56 on a 1934 Rudge, but he remains proudest of winning at the Teterow circuit in the former East Germany, the year after the Berlin Wall came down.
The love affair began one day in 1946, when Bill caught his first glimpse of grass-track racing at Yelden, during his round as a butcher's boy, and was instantly hooked. "The smell, the noise, the atmosphere - I knew there and then that was what I wanted to do, and that I didn't want to be a butcher."
Bill quickly bought his first bike, a 1927 New Hudson, which could be started only by heating the carburettor with a blow-lamp, then jumping on the bike before it took off of its own accord. "I remember starting it once, and it was all I could do to hold on, as the bike reared up and crashed through next door's hedge. How I didn't blow myself up on that bike I shall never know."
He maintains his bikes at his Covington home where he has lived all his life, assisted by his son Lee, who is himself a multiple championship winner in three classes.
Mad Bill has more than lived up to his nickname over the years, but the danger of racing around oily grass tracks on bikes with a top speed of 70mph and no brakes has never put him off. A broken leg, foot, collarbone, nose and ribs, and a few missing teeth, are his rewards for a lifetime of competition. In 1998, Bill had a hip replacement after coming off his bike. Within eight weeks he was racing a sidecar again.
Bill has friends all over Europe, some of whom he has been competing against for decades. This autumn he will travel to Germany as part of a group of riders known as the Old Timers.
"There used to be 10 or 12 regular meetings around Covington every season, but now I have to travel across the country to race. I don't know if grass-track racing will still be here in 10 years, but I know I'll keep going as long as I can.