For almost a quarter of a century, the Honda Ron Haslam Race School has been a British institution and one of the great days out for British motorcyclists.
Based predominantly at Donington Park (save for a few years at Silverstone when its spiritual home was being redeveloped) the school has taught everyone from top line racers and A list celebrities, through to complete novices taking their first steps into motorcycling, but it’s the everyday British biker that’s been the cornerstone of the school’s success, with some 86,000 of us undergoing Ron and his team’s tutelage over the past 24 years.
Unfortunately all good things must come to an end and this October will see the Carole Nash-backed school put its final pupils through their paces as the school closes its doors. It certainly won’t be the end for race legend Ron though, as he vows to continue to teaching into 2021 and beyond. Insidebikes spoke to Ron and wife Ann to talk about the beginnings of the school and what the future might bring.
Ron Haslam became one of Britain’s most famous racers in the late 1970s, winning the 1979 British TT Formula One title and going on to enjoy great success during the 1980s. As a factory Honda rider he was at the centre of the controversial 1981 Formula One Isle of Man TT, where he crossed the line as the winner but was sensationally put back to second when Suzuki’s Graeme Crosby was awarded the win. The New Zealander’s bike had been pulled off the grid with technical problems and he was forced to start from the back of the field, six minutes later. Officials advised that those six minutes would not be credited back and Ron rode accordingly. Behind him, Crosby broke the race record and the FIM jury declared that the initial decision to dock him six minutes was incorrect, and that Croz was the winner. The Honda team only found out that they’d been denied the win at the evening prizegiving ceremony, and the aftermath would become one of the most famous in TT history. “I rode to my signals, didn’t stress the bike and did what I had to do to win the race,” said Ron. “I could have ridden faster if needed but we had been told that Suzuki wouldn’t be given the time back. We were under the impression that we’d won the race and it was only at the prizegiving ceremony in the evening that we were told we hadn’t.”
The situation led to the infamous Honda ‘black’ protest. Incensed, Honda Britain threatened to pull out of the rest of TT week, but instead painted their bikes black and had their riders don black leathers for the Classic TT at the end of the week in protest. Ron was voted as MCN’s prestigious ‘Man of the Year’ in 1981 and returned to the Isle of Man in 1982 to win the Formula One TT outright.
Ron spent the majority of the 1980s as a Honda 500cc Grand Prix rider, scoring eight third places between 1983 and 1987, when he finished a career best fourth in the world, before spells at Suzuki and Cagiva brought Haslam’s full-time Grand Prix career to a close at the end of 1990.
Ron the coach
The 1990s saw Ron return to Blighty, riding the fearsome JPS Norton rotary and fronting up Team Great Britain, a new initiative run by the ACU and Donington Park’s Robert Fearnall. Team Great Britain aimed to develop young riders and help get them onto the world stage, with Ron coaching and mentoring the next generation of talent.
Lack of funding meant that the Team Great Britain project never really fulfilled its potential but Fearnall and Haslam were to join forces with Honda and create a new programme: the Honda Ron Haslam Race School.
The race school was never planned to be a long term project, with the partners originally expecting it to run for just three years, but 24 years on the Haslam school is still on the bucket list for many riders at home and abroad.
“Bikes are my life and I never lost the passion for it,” says Ron. “Robert, Honda and myself said ‘why not run a school?’ I initially thought they meant it would be Honda’s school, with me just helping out, but they wanted me to actually run it.
“I don’t know anything about schools,” he added, “so Ann took on all the organising. It was a massive challenge as we didn’t know anything about business. Robert was running Donington Park and he put everything into place. Without him we could never have done it.”
Despite going on to become a British institution, the Haslams never really expected the school to dominate their lives for the next two and a half decades. “We thought it would last around three years,” said Ron. “We thought that after that time people would have had their fill of it and it would be second hand news, but instead it got bigger and bigger.
“We started off with 10 in a group, mostly using CBR600s but with Fireblades for return customers,” explains Ann.” Honda also wanted to get young people on to bikes, so we also ran a course for under 16s with 125s. Ron’s added a lot of new programmes and exercises over the years and we’ve always been about making it as easy as possible for new people to get into bikes. We provide the bikes, and all the equipment, and make it as inexpensive as possible. It’s not really about selling Fireblades, it’s about getting new people onto bikes as well.”
Based, naturally, at Donington, the school took the skills he’d learned from decades on the racetrack to the average road rider. The school has a structured system of levels, from virtual novice through to the Elite courses aimed at hardcore track day enthusiasts and club racers. Ron also coached a number of young racers, including son Leon, Jonathan Rea and Cal Crutchlow, whose dad Derek was a regular instructor at the school.
“We’ve been successful because of our staff. The mechanics, the girls in the office and the instructors,” Ron and Ann say in near unison. “A lot of them have been with us from the beginning and they all want the same as we do. We’re like a family and most of the instructors do it because they want to do it, and they love riding around on the bikes. People might look at the headcount coming to each school but for the work that’s involved there’s really not that much money in it. You’ve got to love what you do, which is possibly why we’ve been in business for the past 24 years.”
In recent years the school expanded its remit, offering courses in the Donington Park paddocks for complete novices as young as 12 on 125s, with the ‘On Track Experience’ giving youngsters giving novices an opportunity to lap the famous Donington Park race track. It’s also seen more than a few famous faces roll down pit lane, including X-Men stars Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy.
“James just pre-booked the same as any other customer,” says Ann with a smile. “I had to do a double take, although I knew him from Shameless and not X-Men. Danny John-Jules, Kelvin Fletcher and Rav Wilding have all been regulars, who like so many customers have become good friends. Keith Flint also came regularly and was an unbelievably good guy. We’ve had so many customers that you would call celebrities, but wouldn’t think of as bikers, over the years. We’ve had many famous chefs, drummers, boxers, even the person who made Peppa Pig!” As a keen pilot, Ron’s favourite memories are of the times when members of the RAF’s Red Arrows display team made their regular trips to the school. “As well as bikes, flying is my other passion,” says Ron. “It’s always good when the Red Arrows guys come along and we can talk about planes!”
As well as the course itself, Ron’s taxi rides of Donington Park are infamous, with the former Grand Prix and TT legend offering guests the chance to experience a lap or two of the circuit from the pillion seat of his Honda Fireblade.
Despite doing hundreds, probably thousands of pillion rides over the years, Ron says there’s only been one serious mishap over the years – and even that ended with smiles all round. “I had one young lad, a novice club racer,” he explains with a glint in his eye. “The lad wouldn’t lean the bike over far enough. He’d found his limit and we couldn’t get him to break it.
“I invited him to get on the back of the CB500 so I could show him around and show him that you could lean over further. I took it steady on the first lap and then started giving it some stick on the second lap. I didn’t realise it, but as we got to the Old Hairpin, it had been raining, but only at the hairpin! Down I went! I can see it to this day. It was dry everywhere else and the front went under me and we went down so gradually, sliding… we hit the gravel trap and I turned around to check if he was ok. We jumped up and I was thinking to myself that he’d be really upset, but far from it. He was like ‘wow! I just crashed at Donington Park!’ He’d never crashed before and was so excited.”
The current climate has hit the leisure industry hard and the Haslams have reluctantly accepted that the school will close at the end of the 2020 season. Donington Park have kindly agreed to provide 10 dates in August, September and October, several of which will run into the evening, to fill the hole created by the coronavirus cancellations, after which the latest chapter of the Haslam story will close.
“We’ve been blown away by the comments that were on social media when it was announced that we would be closing down,” said Ann. “At first we only thought the school would have a lifetime of around three years. It’s always been a three way thing between ourselves, Honda and Donington Park, and we’ve enjoyed great support from many other big names in the industry, including Carole Nash, who have supported us for many years.”
Whatever the future brings for the Haslams, one thing’s for sure – their desire to continue passing on knowledge to British bikers is as strong as it ever was.
“The school has never really been run for commercial reasons,” Ann continues. “We’re not a track day and we’re not like California Superbike School. We love what we do and it (the closure) is a shame for the industry rather than for Ann and Ron Haslam. Where else can you go to learn at any age? We provide everything and give an individual experience, but the format costs a lot to run. Unfortunately we need to look at the situation in the world right now and see if we can do something similar. It won’t be as big, that’s for sure. Our school got bigger and bigger over the years, so if we can do something it’ll need to be at a lower level. Our son Leon too is coming towards the end of his own racing career, so this might be something that he will want to become involved with in a few years’ time as well.”
Having spoken to Ann and Ron, it’s clear that they continue to have the passion to share their magic with British riders for years to come. Whatever comes next, we’re convinced this isn’t the end of the Ron Haslam Race School, simply the closing of a chapter in one of the nation’s favourite racing families.