Knockhill, the sinuous 1.3-mile ribbon of tarmac settled in the Fife hills, is this weekend the mecca for bikers across Scotland.
But while it hosts the British Superbike Championship, for two Scots, whose lives will be forever intertwined, the meeting will bear special significance.
It’s ten years since double British Superbike champion and 11-times Isle of Man TT-winner Steve Hislop was tragically killed in a helicopter crash. ‘Hizzy’, as the 41-year-old was affectionately known, had already identified his successor: fellow Hawick racer Stuart Easton. The then 19-year-old had pocketed the British Supersport title as Hislop’s MonsterMob Ducati team-mate in 2002. The youngster was, naturally, devastated by his friend and mentor’s death.
This weekend he will pay tribute to Hislop by riding a replica of the Ducati which Hizzy rode to eight victories and his second BSB crown in 2002. But for Easton, the weekend has additional significance. It’s the first time he has raced in Scotland since his horrific crash just over two years ago.
Taking part in the North West 200 race on the roads of Northern Ireland, Easton was travelling at 130mph when he ploughed his Kawasaki into the back of team-mate Gary Mason’s bike.
The impact was explosive. Catapulted over his bike’s handlebars, the Scot’s ragdoll-like body finally came to a halt having cartwheeled 100 yards further down the road. His injuries were massive. Both his legs were broken, his pelvis was shattered, and he’d sustained life-threatening internal injuries, including a perforated bowel. He was also bleeding profusely inside.
Yesterday, as he prepared his Mar-Train Supersport 600 bike at Knockhll, he attempted to play down his injuries and focus on his life ahead.
“I remember everything about the crash, but I’ve dealt with that now, and life has moved on,” he stated matter-of-factly. “I’m feeling quite fit. You can still tell I’ve been injured, but fitness-wise I’m in the best condition I’ve ever been since the crash. We’re making the most of it.”
Making the most of it he certainly is. Four wins out of six races this season sees him start the first of this weekend’s Supersport double-headers just one point off the championship lead.
Pushed about the crash which changed his life forever, and which resulted in him spending six weeks in both Belfast Royal and Edinburgh Royal infirmaries, he reflects briefly.
“I was tucked in, at a half-lean angle, going through the Cromore Road section of the circuit,” Easton remembered. “I was accelerating fast up through the gears when it happened. Gary’s bike just stopped and in the split second I had very little time to react, so I hit the back of him.”
Much of Easton’s physical damage was done in the following split second when his leather-clad body slammed against the petrol tank and handlebars. “I can probably remember about 90 per cent of the accident. I was drifting in and out of consciousness, and I knew instantly that it was pretty bad. It was a bit of a worry,” he continued, in the most understated way possible. “I learned afterwards the medics gave me ketamine, the stuff they give to horses, so I was knocked out pretty well.”
Not surprisingly, he has next to no recollection of the following events. He was in an induced coma for two days, and then pumped so full of drugs that he was, he smiles, “rather dozy”.
Fast-forward two years, and he’s back at Knockhill, the circuit where he learned his craft. And he’s ready to break something else. “This will be the first time I’ve raced at Knockhill for three years, and I’m determined to break my run of never having won here,” he explained. “I’ve finished second in both Supersport and Superbike races, but this weekend I want to win.
“Winning here would definitely be really special given it’s my return, and we’re celebrating Steve’s life.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years: it makes me feel old. He was a real big influence in my career and a massive help.
“He helped me a lot when we were team-mates. I was at the stage of my career when I needed to learn and he helped me as much as he could. That was great for me.
“There are things he taught me then which I’ll use right through to the end of my career. It’ll be nice on Sunday to give him a tribute.”
There’s no doubt Hislop will be celebrated this weekend, but there will be thousands there too who will pay tribute to the undoubted strength, courage and determination which has put Easton back on track not only in his career, but in life.