Friday, July 20, 2012

A conversation with Nobby Clark

Last night, vacation or not, a Classic Bike column deadline loomed. Not for the first time the AMA bailed me out by providing column fodder. I write of the 'Nobby Clark Affair,' of course.
The upside was, the AMA'd given me plenty to write about. The downside was, I pretty much had to call Nobby to discuss it. (Email was out of the question, as he doesn't own a computer.) 
I don't know Nobby; we've met, over the years, at a couple of motorcycle events where I figured him as a thin, soft-spoken guy with the remains of a British-empire accent; he was born in Rhodesia.
At the best of times I've got a bit of telephone anxiety, and I half expected him to tell me to fuck off; after all, I helped stir up memories of his criminal guilty plea (though in my defense, I only abetted Michael Gougis at Still, I had no idea whether I'd be bothering him or, would he want to talk?
He did. I caught him at his home, in the village of Dover Plains, which is about 90 miles north of New York City, near the border with Connecticut. This post is based on my notes of our conversation.
As it happened, I reached Nobby right after I got an email from the AMA announcing they would hold a special, supplemental ballot (in which all living Hall of Fame members would be given a vote) to determine whether Nobby should be inducted, as originally announced.

Nobby didn't seem particularly elated by that news, but there was more resignation than anger in his voice when he told me, "I think it's damned bad organization on their [the AMA's] part. The left hand doesn't know what the right hand's doing. I got a letter telling me that I was going to be inducted, then six weeks later, I got a phone call telling me it's been rescinded. They didn't even write to apologize. I told them, 'No matter what you say, people won't believe you,' since the AMA's already got a bad reputation."
Nowadays, he works for a guy over in CT, who restores primo vintage sports cars. On weekends, he wrenches for a couple of good AHRMA racers, Alex McLean and Bob McKeever. I should say, that's what he had been doing; he lost most of the last year to cancer surgery and chemotherapy. He just finished the last series of injections. 
He's been getting calls about the Hall of Fame debacle from all over the world; Germany, France, Holland, New Zealand... It occurred to me that, strangely, I've not seen him quoted here in the U.S. [Paul Carruthers of Cycle News interviewed him, but I missed it.]
Long after his race-tuning career was over, Nobby was working as a mechanic in a garage in South Africa when he got a call one night at midnight. It was Rob Iannucci.

 "He asked me if I still remembered how to assemble a Honda 250-six, and told me he'd bring me to New York for a couple of weeks, to put his together. I thought, two weeks in New York would be good, but once I saw the parts I realized it was going to be more like six months." That was almost 20 years ago. 
I asked him for his side of the story of the events that led to him pleading guilty to stealing parts from Iannucci and Team Obsolete, and he sighed. "We'll still be here talking at midnight." It didn't take until midnight, but we did have a long conversation that he asked me not to detail. Suffice to say, after hearing Nobby's side, I feel I was on the money when I first wrote about it. Something like 90% of all U.S. criminal cases end in plea bargains, and there are innocent people who realize that admitting guilt is the easiest (or only) way to escape a costly and dysfunctional criminal-justice system.
He also eventually escaped Brooklyn, to the much quieter environs of Dover Plains. "It was like living in a zoo, but without the cages," he told me of New York City. "At least in the bush, you know that the animals are wild and you keep your distance from them, but  in the city, you never know which ones are going to attack."
At the end of our conversation, I had to ask him which, of the many champion riders he worked with, had been his favorite. "I'd have to say the best was Mike Hailwood," he told me. "He was the most versatile; he'd ride four different bikes in four different classes and win on all of them. Agostini couldn't do that, I don't think Kenny could have done it. Read could ride two or three bikes and do well, but Mike just had so much talent."
"He looked after you, too. If you had to work all night, he'd have someone come over from the hotel with coffee. The other guys just said, 'See you at practice tomorrow.' And after the race, he'd just ask, 'What are you drinking?' and then pick up the bar tab." Hailwood partied before the races, too, that was they way they did it back then, but Nobby told me that it never affected his riding. He said that Mike tried to win every race he was in, whether he had a bike capable of winning or not. I got the feeling that Nobby thought less of most modern riders, who will ride for safe points if they feel a win's not in the cards.
He's about to go back to work at the garage. "My energy level is up, my endurance is back up," he told me. "I've gained back about 40 pounds I lost in chemo." And now, it seems that neither cancer nor the AMA's internal politics will prevent him from being inducted into the Hall of Fame while he's alive.
I am sure a full, open vote will see him inducted. He may not be the most famous member of the 'Class of 2012' but he'll be the most talked-about at this year's ceremony. I almost want to attend, just to applaud when they call him up. When I asked him how he'd feel when he finally saw his plaque on the wall, he sounded happy. "They asked me if I had any memorabilia to display at the museum," he said. "I don't have much, really, but I do have a nearly perfect pair of Honda coveralls from the '60s. I guess I'll loan them those."
I've said, all along, that the right thing for the AMA to do -- regardless of how the Nobby Clark Affair really started -- the only right thing to do is induct Nobby into the Hall of Fame. By putting it to the largest possible vote, the AMA has tacitly admitted that it fucked up. And that's the first step to making things better. 
Thanks, AMA. You're doing the right thing now. Maybe we can move forward.


  1. Well said and well written (as usual!), Mark. Thanks for giving us the inside line to what Nobby has to say about all of this mess. Great stuff as always!

  2. Nice piece Mark. I think the real right thing would have been to say, "Sorry, we made a couple of mistkes here." Tell Dean to calm down then put Clark in and refuse the resignations of the current HOF members but...that's me.