Smutty had the world at his feet

Neil Robinson with his F1 works Skoal Bandit Suzuki in 1986. Picture: Trevor Armstrong.
Neil Robinson with his F1 works Skoal Bandit Suzuki in 1986. Picture: Trevor Armstrong.

The former manager of Neil ‘Smutty’ Robinson has paid a powerful tribute to the gifted racer on the 30th anniversary of his tragic death.

The happy-go-lucky Cullybackey rider lost his life in a crash during practice in 1986 at Oliver’s Mount in Scarborough – weeks after he famously won the Formula 1 race on the Skoal Bandit Suzuki at the Ulster Grand Prix.

It was a heart-breaking end to the young Ulsterman’s flourishing career, with Robinson denied the opportunity to take up a factory ride with Suzuki in 1987 after signing a deal with the manufacturer following his impressive performances throughout 1986.

Robinson’s potential had been spotted by Suzuki manager Rex White at the Isle of Man TT and he was offered the chance to fill in for the injured Chris Martin in the F1 World Championship on the Skoal Bandit machines.

It was a chance he seized with both hands and although Smutty was plagued by bad luck in the run up to the Ulster GP, he had already shown enough to convince Suzuki that he was a star in the making.

His manager, Broughshane man John Smyth, told the News Letter he had no doubt Robinson had all the credentials to become a world champion and reflected on that awful day 30 years ago on September 13, 1986 when his young charge was killed during his very first appearance at Oliver’s Mount.

“It’s incredible to believe it was 30 years ago but I remember it all like it was yesterday. Neil could’ve gone all the way, but sadly that’s not how it turned out and his life was cut short unfortunately.

“Someone new always comes along and back then, Neil was the new kid on the block and I think Joey [Dunlop] felt he would be the one who could take over the mantle,” Smyth said.

“His big chance came in 1986, but it turned out to be a terrible season in terms of luck. Ian King from Royal Cars sponsored Neil that year with a Formula 1 bike and a production bike – both Suzukis. He had been racing at various places in England and was doing quite well, although it was taking some time to get the bikes sorted as they were brand new basically and just out of the box.

“When Neil went to the Isle of Man TT, Rex White, who was the team manager for Suzuki, noticed his talent and approached Neil to see if he wanted to race at Assen. Chris Martin had been riding for Suzuki but was ruled out for a few months through injury and Neil was given the chance to replace him.

“Once he got into the team, he impressed so much that everyone was totally amazed by him – except me! I knew what Neil was capable of because I’d watched him progress from the beginning,” he added.

“I stopped racing myself in about 1980 and gave Neil my 350cc Yamaha and told him to ride away at it. I helped him out a bit and then as things moved on, I became his manager. I went to school with his brother Donny, or Don as I called him, and that’s how I became involved with Neil. Donny of course was a fantastic rider as well and it was awful how it ended for Don too [killed at North West 200 in 1999 after making a racing comeback].”

Recalling Robinson’s impact on the Formula 1 World Championship that season, Smyth remembers a run of poor fortune that cost him a coveted victory, although he finally made his mark in the last round with a dominant win at the Ulster Grand Prix.

“Neil got the works ride on the Skoal Bandit Suzuki for the Formula 1 race at Assen in Holland and was running at the front with Kevin Schwantz and Joey and then the chain broke.

“After that, the next round was at Jerez in Spain and I was over at that race. It was extremely hot and the heat got to Neil. It was actually Graeme McGregor who won the race on the Ducati.

“I think Neil finished third and after that it was off to a roads circuit at Villa Real in Portugal,” he said.

“Neil was shown around the course by Joey, who gave him some advice because it was a dangerous old place. He may have been emerging as the man to beat Joey, but that didn’t stop Joey telling him everything that he knew – you wouldn’t see that happening much nowadays.

“Neil was leading in Portugal but the fairing came loose and we had to cut it from the bike. In the end I think he finished fifth but the bad luck was really costing us.

“We then went to Finland and Neil was leading again until he sustained a puncture, so that dropped him back to third place.”

It seemed lady luck had deserted Smutty but everything finally fell into place at Dundrod and he produced a masterful ride to seal a commanding win in the Formula 1 race, leaving a lasting impression on everyone who witnessed him in action that day.

“By the time we got to the Ulster Grand Prix in 1986, Joey had the championship sewn up,” Smyth said.

“He had an absolutely superb bike in the Rothmans Honda and there weren’t too many people who were going to beat him in a straight race. It turned out wet at Dundrod and Neil went out with no expectations at all and he won.

“We’d that much bad luck that year that the title was beyond us but Suzuki saw the potential in Neil and it wasn’t long before they called us over to headquarters and we got a contract signed and sealed for the Formula 1 World Championship in 1987 plus some wages for Neil, which wasn’t an awful lot back then compared to nowadays, but we were really happy with how things turned out.”

It should only have been the first chapter in Smutty’s career, but sadly there would be no happy ending as Robinson lost his life after crashing in practice at Scarborough weeks later.

“Trevor Armstrong [Chairman the 90 Club that supported Neil] and me tried to persuade Neil not to go to Scarborough but he was so grateful to Suzuki for the opportunity they had given him that he felt he wanted to go.

“It was his first time there and I remember he said if he didn’t like it, he would just pull in. Sadly, in practice he lost his life and it was just an awful tragedy.

“I don’t know far Neil would’ve gone in the sport, but I feel he would’ve gone a long way. I’ve no doubt he’d have been a world champion in 1987. We had planned to maybe try and get Neil into the 500cc Grand Prix World Championship and I had talked about this with Wayne Gardner, who spotted his talent and took him under his wing,” he added.

“I’ve no doubt he could’ve done it and I think he could’ve been up there with Mick Doohan and those boys – he was really that good.

“Everybody really loved Neil – he was a cheeky chappy and the girls loved him, everyone did. He was such a nice fella and he had all the cards to be a world class rider.”

He had all the ability and he was a cut above the rest. It’s so tragic the way it turned out but as we all know this sport can be very cruel at times.”