21 Jul KILLARNEY CHARACTERS: MIKE CAMERON
In a career spanning only 11 years Mike Cameron achieved two Western Province 50cc championships and an interprovincial 100cc championship, a national 250cc title, the 1977 SA Production Motorcycle championship and a surprisingly successful 1979 international campaign after a desperately difficult debut season in the United Kingdom the year before.
Mike began his racing career at the age of 16 in 1971, when he took part in a demo day at Killarney’s karting circuit, designed to attract new riders to the sport. It must have been a very successful demo day – he won the WP 50cc championship in 1972 and 1973, and then took the 1973 interprovincial series on a Suzuki 100.
He also began racing a 250cc Suzuki on the main circuit that same year, finishing second in class in the regional motorcycle series. He was also runner-up in the 250cc class the following year, which brought him to the attention of the Suzuki importers, who offered him a partly sponsored ride in the 250cc class of the SA Production Bike Championship.
By 1976, just five years into his racing career, he had secured a fully sponsored ride with Team Suzuki Duckhams. He took that year’s 250cc National Production class title, finishing third overall in the SA Production Motorcycle Championship.
1977 marked the peak of Mike’s domestic racing career, at the age of just 22. He started the year racing a Yamaha RD400 sponsored by Shell SA but when the new GS750 (Suzuki’s first ever four-stroke model) arrived in South Africa in mid-year he moved up to the bigger class.
In what seems today almost a fairytale outcome, he won the SA Production Motorcycle Championship in his first season on a four-stroke multi-cylinder bike, riding a completely undeveloped machine. At the same time, he also found time to finish second in the 1977 SA 350cc Grand Prix series on a privateer Yamaha TZ350.
Ironically, it was that result, rather than his Production Motorcycle title, which convinced Mike to take the TZ to the UK in mid-1978 to compete in the Vladivar Vodka International Series.
His international debut, however, was a disaster. The Yamaha picked up a mechanical gremlin in his first race at Mallory Park, followed by a huge tumble at Snetterton in which he suffered a broken elbow that put him out for the rest of the season.
Nevertheless, Mike refused to give up and stayed on in the UK through the coldest winter in 16 years, working as a plumber’s mate and “living like a gypsey, freezing my plugs off in a caravan”.
His perseverance paid off, with an offer of a new chassis for the TZ from renowned frame builder Steve Harris, as well as assistance from two-stroke exhaust specialist Jim Lomas, for the 1979 season.
He competed in some 15 international races that year and never once finished lower than eighth, including wins at Donington Park and Brands Hatch.
Suddenly Mike Cameron was hot property; he was offered a Morbidelli 125 and a new-model Yamaha TZ250, along with sponsorship to go Grand Prix racing in 1980.
But by the time he returned from a trip home to Cape Town early the next year, one of his sponsors had gone bankrupt and the other had pulled out. All he had was the Harris-framed TZ350, its outdated engine by now well down on the latest models and no longer competitive, which meant he had to ride harder than ever.
The inevitable happened: a huge crash at Donington Park put a end to his international campaign. Flat broke and busted, he returned home to discover the ultimate irony – he’d been awarded Springbok colours for international achievement in his absence.
Back in Cape Town, Yamaha enthusiast Alan Turner bought Pete Ekerold’s ex-factory Yamaha TZ250 for Mike to race in the Grand Prix class, and he renewed his relationship with Suzuki SA aboard a GSX-R1100 in production racing.
With hindsight, however, he admits that the spark was probably already gone. Howling down the back straight at Killarney on the Gixer during a regional Superbike race in 1982, he suddenly found himself thinking “What am I doing this for?” and that was that.
As he puts it, “The balloon just went phutt” and he never raced a motorcycle again.
For some years after that he raced a Volkswagen Golf in Clubmans, then retired to become the Cape Town representative of an agency distributing motorcycle batteries and accessories, a position he holds to this day.