Legend returns to grace Knockhill's superbike showpiece

NIALL Mackenzie may be happy to avoid the starting grid at Knockhill this weekend, but Scotland's legendary superbike champion admitted the blood will be pumping as he returns to his 'home' track with the Yamaha team to witness the biggest bike-racing event in the country.

Over 20,000 superbike fans from around the world will descend on Fife this weekend, glad no doubt to hear there are no planned roadworks for the Forth Road Bridge. The main event is the seventh round of the Bennets British Superbike (BSB) Championship and there is plenty of intrigue as the championship moves from Ireland to Scotland. Japan's reigning champion Ryuichi Kiyonari is striving to hold off Gregorio Lavilla, the former winner from Spain who has never won at Knockhill, and Ulsterman Jonathan Rea, who beat Lavilla last time out. Leon Haslam also won at Mondello Park and popular former champ Shane 'Shakey' Byrne is roaring back into contention.

Mackenzie, a former Grand Prix racer - the Formula 1 of bikes - and three-time BSB champion, has seen it all before and is happy to be commentating and spending time with the organisation THINK!, whose roadshow bids to raise awareness of the dangers of motorbikes and help road riders. 'Do not try this at home' is a common theme when it comes to the world of superbikes because these are not your average machines. Running up to 200mph, they have changed dramatically since Mackenzie first won at Knockhill in 1981, launching a career that was to take him all over the world and into some of the most heart-stopping confrontations ever witnessed in motorbike racing.

"I don't miss that horrible feeling on the starting grid, seconds before you go," he smiled, this week. "I had a good 20 years, but that bit sitting on the grid, hating everybody, preparing to lay everything on the line ... I stopped when I was 39 because enough is enough."

For those who witnessed Mackenzie's full throttle approach to life on the track such sentiments will not surprise. The Stirling man known as 'Spud' is acutely aware that he was fortunate to suffer only a broken leg from jousts with the world's top riders in GP and BSB racing.

None pushed him more than the late Steve Hislop, his fellow Scot, and while the pair famously did not see eye to eye, Mackenzie admits that he still feels a numbing shock nearly four years on from Hislop's death in a helicopter accident.

Against each other, the duo produced some of the most death-defying passing manoeuvres seen on British tracks, but also revelled in leading a Scottish attack on all-comers. Mackenzie now mentors young riders with the Virgin Media Yamaha Team, and tests the latest bikes.

He likes the look of Dave Paton from Loanhead, who is just 18, but regularly among the leaders in the R6 Cup for 600cc Yamahas. "Dave's talented and it would be great to see him get the chance to step up to the official Yamaha team next year," said Mackenzie. "It is a shame that there are not more Scots on the BSB grid right now, but we've got lots of youngsters who will come through at British and world level.

Events like this weekend's are a huge help. Knockhill is massive now and the teams take it very seriously. The big manufacturers like Yamaha and Suzuki sell a lot of bikes in Scotland, so this is great exposure for them."

The event, involving 444 riders, runs from 9am today until the final superstocks race at 5.15pm tomorrow. The weekend also includes freestyle stunt shows, two flights from the popular 'Go Fast Jet-Pack Man' and a spin for Mackenzie on Capirossi's 2006 GP Ducati. And Knockhill now has free on-site car parking, so if the Fife skies stay fair there may be a record crowd.

What are superbikes?

SUPERBIKE racing is effectively the 'sale-room' for the world's leading bike manufacturers. The bike equivalent of touring cars, Superbikes are viewed as the fastest, most exciting bikes the man in the street can buy.

But while the machines flying around the Knockhill track this weekend may look like the models in the car parks, they have had significant and expensive factory adjustments which ensure they handle differently and so can cope at speeds of up to 200mph.

The MotoGP circuit, which travels the world with Valentino Rossi invariably at the helm, is the Formula 1 of the sport - the best bikes, but wholly manufactured, theoretically, to suit the best tracks and not for sale.