A DECADE after the helicopter crash in Teviothead that killed Steve Hislop at 41, just miles from his Hawick home, this weekend’s British Superbikes meeting at Knockhill has been dedicated to the honour of the greatest Scottish motorbike rider since the legendary 1930s racer Jimmie Guthrie or, from the 60s, Bob McIntyre, the first man to average over 100mph at the TT.
To mark the tenth anniversary of his former team-mate’s death, ex-British Superbike champion Niall Mackenzie will take to the track today on the Cadbury’s Boost Yamaha he rode when the two Scots were team-mates in 1998, while young compatriot Stuart Easton will ride a replica of the 2002 Monster Mob Ducati on which Hislop won eight races and his second British Superbike title.
It’s impossible not to wonder what “Hizzy” would have made of it all. Would he have simply smiled benignly at Scottish motorbiking’s moving tribute to his genius ten years after his death, or would he have been in extrovert mode, ebullient and warm, soaking up the adoration? There’s a passing chance that the notoriously perfectionist and frequently irascible Borderer would instead have been scowling and embarrassed at all the kerfuffle.
It was part of Hislop’s make-up, says Mackenzie, that, while he was always a star performer on the track, where he won the Isle of Man TT 11 times and the British Superbike Championship twice, off it he was mercurial and his own man. You simply never knew what you were likely to get from him.
“My first connection to Steve was through his brother Garry, and it was only later after Garry died that I got to know Steve,” says Mackenzie, right. “His career was a bit behind mine and he took himself off to the Isle of Man, but you could immediately see that he was going to be a star and ultimately his career came together very well.
“Steve was very Scottish, very proud – he was intelligent, talented and, although people say he was a flawed genius, I don’t really see it like that. Around the paddock he was very bouncy and friendly but sometimes he did and said things that alienated teams and sponsors and that’s why, despite being an immaculate, inch-perfect rider, he didn’t make the big impact on the world arena that he could have.
“When we were on the same team in 1998 we battled hard and exchanged paint on several occasions, which is why, despite the strange decisions he made in his career and, despite his self-destructive behaviour, the fans remember him so fondly.
“We never became friends and I kept my distance because he was a direct competitor but, to be honest, I understood him a whole lot better when I read his autobiography after his death and a lot of things fell into place. He was a man who had some dark times and who, on a bad day, couldn’t face the world but, when he got out of bed on the right side, he was unbeatable.”
The dedication of this round of the British Superbikes at Knockhill, which culminates with today’s proceedings, is a moving tribute to a man whose undoubted genius was sometimes obscured by a personality that was in many ways ill-suited for the peripheral demands of top level motorsport. Indeed, the peripherals – the need to smile for sponsors and play the game within the team – intruded so far that they were responsible for Hislop arguably failing to fulfil his promise on the wider world stage. Where other Scottish speedsters, from Colin McRae and David Coulthard to Guthrie and Jim Clark, or even Louise Aitken-Walker and Susie Wolff, have been sunny outgoing characters who soon left their own backyard for international acclaim, Hislop’s shyness, intensity and suffer-no-fools front were a drag on his wider ambitions.
With the natural reticence of a Borderer, Hislop’s character was further moulded by his upbringing in the small Borders village of Chesters, between Hawick and Jedburgh, where he shot pigeons, poached fish and scorched around the tight country lanes on two wheels with his younger brother Garry. Hislop may have become a self-confessed loner but, growing up, Garry was his constant companion and closest friend.
And then there was his father Sandy, a lifelong devotee of motorbike racing who fuelled his sons’ speed-obsessed dreams. Along with his mother Margaret, those were the twin pillars of his world and, when they were snatched away from him – Sandy had a heart attack and died in 17-year-old Hislop’s arms three years before 19-year-old Garry was killed racing at Silloth in 1982 – Hislop’s world fell apart. Alcohol and depression almost consumed him, and a succession of car crashes almost killed him.
Only a supreme effort by his mother brought him back on track, almost literally. From the age of five Hislop could list every bend, camber and bump at the Isle of Man TT and his was a childhood spent touring racing circuits the length and breadth of the country. When the black dog appeared, his self-administered cure was to go racing, with the Isle of Man his chosen venue. Throughout his childhood he and Garry had idolised TT winner Jimmie Guthrie, visiting his statue every time they went to Hawick and arguing over who would be Jimmie when they raced each other around Chesters, so it was little surprise when Hislop looked to Hawick’s favourite son for inspiration. Unbeknown to his mother or his friends, he finished second in the newcomers race at the Manx Grand Prix in 1983, just 12 months after Garry had won the same race.
It was on the Isle of Man that Hislop made the transition from talented tyro to superstar. The issues which were to bedevil him elsewhere – primarily his perfectionism and fastidious attention to detail, which often found an outlet through intolerance of team-mates and teams who didn’t meet his required standards – became strengths during the world’s most dangerous road race. The mechanical knowledge built up over eight years working at Jim Oliver’s garage in Denholm and his inch-by-inch knowledge of the circuit saw him excel. It also produced some of the most remarkable racing the grand old event has ever seen, most notably in 1992 when Hislop, above, on an unfancied Norton, and Yamaha’s Carl Fogarty staged a classic duel around the Snaefell Mountain course, smashing the times they had recorded the previous year and setting records which lasted for seven years.
There was certainly no doubting Hislop’s courage. After all, this was a man who broke his neck when he knocked himself unconscious at Brands Hatch in 2000, only to sign himself out of hospital to race at two meetings until the life-and-death nature of his injuries became clear. From then on, he rode with a titanium plate screwed into his neck but it never slowed him down. Hizzy refused to think about the downsides (he refused to go to the funerals of fallen racers) and thought about his broken neck as a racing rebirth. For a man who lived with death, the manner of his passing was supremely ironic. Like McRae, who also died in a helicopter crash – or like Formula One drivers Mike Hawthorn, who died when his car hit a lorry on a public road on the eve of his retirement, or Graham Hill, who perished when the plane he was piloting from Marseilles crashed as he landed at Elstree – he survived the dangers of high-octane racing only to meet a tragic and unexpectedly mundane end when mechanical failure saw his Robinson R4 helicopter plummet 2,500 feet in poor weather.
Indeed, Hislop had already decided to hang up his racing boots for a life in helicopters at the end of the season during which he died. But at least his legions of fans and family can console themselves with the fact that he may be gone, but he is unlikely to ever be forgotten.