Derek “Nobby” Clark Dies At Age 81

The Rhodesian-born mechanic was at the center of Grand Prix motorcycle racing for half a lifetime

nobby clark portrait
Nobby ClarkKatharine Erwin

His name is known to everyone who has had more than a passing interest in motorcycle roadracing. In 1976, I saw members of Stan Shenton's UK Kawasaki team clowning on their way to the lunchroom at Circuit Paul Ricard. One of them sucked in his cheeks, saying "Who's this?" With one voice, the others shouted, "Nobby Clark!"

Why? In sum, Nobby was mechanic/tuner for 17 world championships by, among others, Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini, and Kenny Roberts. There is his easy-to-recognize gaunt face, time and again, in paddock photos from the decades following 1962. He was chosen and he was there.

Clark described being a roadrace mechanic trainee at Honda, where men were taught not only to do the work but to complete the various required tasks within specified time—roadrace flat-rate! As he worked, Nobby naturally learned Japanese (one of his several languages). One day, Mr. Honda himself burst in, just as Nobby was being taught something off-color. "I think you men have more important work than teaching this man dirty jokes," he said. "As you were."

Languages unlocked the world, especially for one whose passport was often non grata (Nobby was Rhodesian). Yet racing itself is a universal language. One dark night, the team transporter was on its way home from a race in Eastern Bloc Warsaw Pact territory when it ran out of diesel. This could have been very bad; nowhere was a Rhodesian passport less welcome than in the communist countries. Further, this was a situation in which the methods routinely effective at border crossings—“generosity” with team hats and T-shirts—would be powerless.

Nobby was able to locate a house with a phone and make a call, a mysterious one as it turned out. In an hour or so, a police car arrived, carrying enough fuel in a can to get them to a station that was locked and dark. No problem—the police had keys. The pumps were switched on and the transporter was tanked up with enough #2 to more than reach the border.

Explain it however you like. My version is that at some race Nobby was approached by a wide-eyed enthusiast delighted to be given a few moments of conversation. In parting, my imaginary person pressed a card into Nobby’s hand, saying, “If there is ever anything you need…” That man was a race fan. And a functionary of the security service, highly enough placed not to have his actions questioned by whispering flunkies. Remember the example often quoted regarding the old East German Sicherheitspolizei, that one-third of that nation’s population were its registered informers? Clearly, Nobby had kept the card. The police bid them good night and away rolled the transporter.

Nobby told me a story of being at a GP at which one of the Honda 125s failed to reach its normal revs. An engineer ordered its engine pulled and stripped. On its crankshaft at least one of its main needle bearing cages had been installed backward. The engineer grunted as he saw it. Mystery solved. He ordered a new crank checked and installed.

Those cages, Nobby said, were embossed with a chevron pattern, intended to pump oil out of the bearing. Anything beyond the thinnest film of oil in a rolling bearing produces heat and drag—think of how your car slows abruptly as your tires hit a water film on the pavement. Earlier this year, as I pulled just such a cage from just such a crank, there were the chevrons.

kevin cameron portrait

Cycle World Technical Editor Kevin Cameron answers your motorcycle engineering and mechanical questions

Why Do Motorcycles Make More Power Than They Did 40 Years Ago?

If you like, you can read about the AMA inducting Nobby into its Hall of Fame in 2012, and then un-inducting him. Accusations. Unpleasantness. Google “Nobby Clark” and page one is all about this, not about motorcycle racing history.

I set that aside because Nobby Clark was at the center of GP motorcycle racing for half a lifetime. I can go to the bookcases in my office and open volumes to his face, looking up from a historic chronology of exotic racing equipment. Doing the work.