Obituary: Denis Gallagher, engineering fitter and motorcycle racer

Denis Gallagher
Denis Gallagher
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Born: 15 February, 1938, in Glasgow. Died: 28 May, 2013, in Girvan, aged 75.

DENIS Gallagher was a motor­cycle racer who won accolades for his racing successes, yet never sought publicity. During a racing ­career that spanned 55 years, he won numerous Scottish and Irish championship titles. But when asked during a rare, late interview if he could list his many championships, his response was: “Just say multi-champion. That should cover things and keep it low-profile.” He just wanted to race.

In characteristic black leathers and green helmet, he was often thought to be Irish – but he was a proud Scot, born and raised in ­Gorbals, in Glasgow, by Irish parents. As a boy, his passion was swimming and when the father of one of his friends offered a prize of two shillings (10p) to the winner of a freestyle race, young Denis came first, later admitting that while it was the money that encouraged him, he had found the competitive element in winning thrilled him.

He saw his first motorcycle race in 1955 at Errol aerodrome, in Perthshire, and knew immediately that he wanted to be a racer. By working overtime and repairing motor­cycles for others in his spare time, he raised enough cash to buy his first motorbike two years later.

He began competitive motorcycling in 1957, when in his first race at the same circuit he came fifth. He rode the bike 160 miles from Glasgow to Errol and back, replacing the street-legal silencer with a racing ­exhaust system (strapped on his back for the journey) and removing registration plates before the race.

From then on, motorcycle racing ruled his life. The day job – he was an apprentice motorcycle mechanic – melded into evenings and weekends as he developed his bikes.

A gifted machinist, he fabricated components, modified ­engine internals and altered frame layouts, all the time ­improving their performance. He was forever grateful for the help given to him by others, especially Scotland’s legendary Bob McIntyre, his friend and mentor, who not only gave ­advice, but also passed on to Denis surplus accessories that McIntyre, as a factory rider, received free of charge. They shared the same neat riding style and poked fun at each other with their shared dry sense of humour. On the day of McIntyre’s fatal crash at Oulton Park in 1961, Gallagher was the last person to speak to his hero.

He took his first title, Border Champion, at Charterhall, in Berwickshire, in the early 1960s and in 1968 was double Scottish Champion, winning the 350cc and 500cc classes and continued amassing titles; the most recent in 2011.

No lover of smooth purpose-built short-circuit tracks, he preferred to compete on what he called “real roads”, claiming that the potential danger of kerbs and roadside walls “got the adrenalin going” – which is why he enjoyed racing so much in Ireland where events are held on closed public roads. His first Irish title, 100-mile Champion, was won at the Carrowdore 100 in 1965. Forty-five years later at the age of 72, he showed that the old touch was still there by winning the 350cc Irish Classic Road Race Championship.

He excelled at long races and loved racing on the Isle of Man, where, from an incredible 51 starts on the notorious Mountain Circuit, he gained a collection of silver and bronze ­trophies. His record of the fastest lap time for a 350cc Gold Star-engined racer still stands.

Gallagher lived for excitement. Scuba diving, paragliding and flying light aircraft were among his hobbies, but he also gave of his time for charity fundraising, recently raising more than £2,000 for Cancer Support Ayrshire by bungee-jumping above the River Garry, in Perthshire, becoming the then-oldest bungee-jumper in Scotland.

Some years previously at 64, he borrowed a push-bike and cycled the 37.73 miles of the Isle of Man circuit in support of the Helicopter Rescue Service – the same year he had his entry for the Manx GP refused because he exceeded the age limit.

Denis never failed to pay tribute to the people who sponsored and helped him, admitting that without them – mostly private individuals – he would not have achieved so much in his 55-year career. Nor could he have done it without the support of Phyllis, who he met in 1958 and married seven years later.

He was renowned and ­respected throughout the ­motorcycling racing community as a man who simply got on with it – and loved to race. When last season’s racing came to an end, his intention was to compete again in 2013 but he died on Tuesday in Girvan Community Hospital following a short illness.