At lunch with… The Marlboro Men

Marlboro Men

by classic-bike |
Published on


Rob McElnea and Niall Mackenzie were factory GP riders when cigarettes bankrolled racing. But that’s not their abiding memory. No, what they’ll never forget are the Americans…


During the 1980s, two of the world’s best GP riders just so happened to be best mates. Rob McElnea and Niall Mackenzie surfed the wave of cigarette cash, spending their Sundays thrashing Skoal Bandit, Lucky Strike, HB and Marlboro sponsored 500s, and the rest of the time touring Europe in motorhomes of dubious quality and laughing a lot.

The latter still continues. “Marlboro gave him some money to paint his motorhome in their colours when he was riding for the factory team,” says Niall, deadpan. “But when they saw the state of it, they paid him to paint it beige again.”

“Yeah, that is true,” admits Rob, 65, as we drink coffee at a tennis centre while his teenage daughter has a training session. “I didn’t invest in an expensive motorhome because I didn’t know how long I’d be in the GP paddock. I honestly thought I was all wrong – I was too heavy, my background wasn’t like the Americans, I just felt so fortunate to be there. I never saw Kevin [Schwantz] or Wayne [Rainey] as genuine competitors – I’d just try and hang on to them for as long as I could. But Niall really could compete with them – he proved it with podiums. I was always pushing too hard and hanging on.”

I’m stunned that a GP racer who beat Rainey, Gardner, Spencer, Schwantz, Mamola and Lawson in their prime, and came fifth in the 1986 500cc World Championship could suffer from imposter syndrome. It seems that, despite them being mates for decades, Niall is slightly surprised too. “It’s funny Rob says that, because I was a couple of years behind him and he was an inspiration.

“I saw him going from club racing to a factory Suzuki and Yamaha ride, and for me that was very inspiring – it was proof that a normal person could do it. It always felt like Freddie [Spencer], Kenny [Roberts] and even Barry Sheene were born into it. And when I got to the GP paddock, Rob was one of them – he was mates with Eddie [Lawson] and Randy [Mamola] and I wasn’t. He’d made it.

“But I had the imposter syndrome too,” continues Niall, who’s now 63 – although like Rob, he’s living proof that racing vicious 500cc two-strokes actively slows the ageing process. “I had a few podiums [seven, to be exact, which we’d argue is more than a few – Ed] but I never won a GP – and in any paddock, if you’re not winning, you can’t have that extra feeling of confidence. You’re not quite doing what the best guys are doing.”

And, Rob points out, for most of the time, the best guys were the Americans. “I remember the first time I went on track with Ed [Lawson] at a test and he followed me and said afterwards: ‘My God Rob, you’ve got to change – I was waiting for you to be flying through the air’.

“I was pushing the front and carrying loads of corner speed and lean angle. When any of us Europeans – me, Niall, [Christian] Sarron – followed Ed, we’d nearly run into the back of him going into the corner. Then he’d get it turned and be gone. They never used to lose the front, because they were riding on the rear tyre.

“Also,” continues Rob, warming to his theme, “at first we were on Dunlops, which had loads of feel and would give you so much warning it was like sending a second-class letter – ‘you’ll be tucking the front at the next corner, so be ready’. Then we switched to Michelins. The front would stick, and then – boom, no warning – gone. The Americans weren’t bothered by the change, because they weren’t taking risks like we were.”

Niall even asked advice from the man who started the American dominance, Kenny Roberts. “All my results came from the front tyre. So when I could ride on the front tyre, I’d do well. Kenny had retired just when I started in GPs; I talked to him and he said: ‘Niall, pick it up and drive out’. I heard what he was saying, but I didn’t know what he meant. He was telling me to square the corner off and drive out. But I was still railing round the corner, then trying to pick it up at the end, which obviously didn’t work. They learned their skills as kids on dirt tracks – those skills were muscle memory. We couldn’t just learn that. We’d come up on trials bikes, and didn’t have those skills.”

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