The Greater Challenge, the Greater Thrill!
“WE COULD never afford it!” My father’s softly spoken, yet frank, reply left me crestfallen. I wanted to be a racing motorcyclist and I had just told him so. From early childhood this had been my goal in life. But my father was being realistic, and I was just 14 years of age, young and inexperienced.
My interest in motorcycles stemmed from my father. A number of times, he had taken me to the Isle of Man to watch the TT Races.* But this year, 1950, was different. We stood there together to witness Geoff Duke win his first Senior Event, riding a Norton, with a record lap speed of 93.33 mph [150.20 km]—and then take second place in the Junior TT!
My ambition was fired to join in the thrill of racing on the Isle of Man. I was determined to make the grade. Little did I realize then that ten years later my dream would come true. But the challenge was not easy.
Mastering the Machine
There are three basic types of motorcycle racing. Speedway, on an oval dirt track, calls for much skill when the machines are turned broadside to allow the back wheels to slide. Motocross, still referred to in Britain as scrambling, is over a course of rough ground, the motorcycles fitted with special deep-tread tires. Road racing in the Isle of Man, on the other hand, pits the skills and experience of each rider against all competitors on a regular road surface. It is a race against the clock, with the fastest rider the winner.
When I started racing, a racing motorcycle cost about £480 ($860, U.S.). Today, a comparable machine will be in the region of £15,000 ($26,800, U.S.). And there are various capacities of engine, from 50 cc to 500 cc. But the secret to success lies not so much in the cost of a machine or in the power of its engine as in the skill with which it is tuned. On many occasions I have stayed up until two o’clock in the morning making adjustments to my machine.
Riding in a race is not as easy as it looks either. At race speed there is a tremendous buildup of pressure on the handlebars. To maneuver a powerful, heavy motorcycle traveling in excess of 100 mph [160 km] calls for a lot of physical stamina and strength. I usually lost five or six pounds in weight at the start of every season. There is also the intense anxiety involved.
Success and Dangers
In 1963, I turned professional, taking two firsts that year in Northern Ireland, riding Nortons. In the Zolder, Belgium, International Races, I also came first in both the 500 cc and 350 cc events. In 1966 and 1967, I enjoyed a thrilling partnership with the Paton motorcycles, beautifully crafted handmade machines. Under the sponsorship of Bill Hannah of Liverpool, I first rode the 350 cc prototype and later a 500 cc model.
Some of my best results of any season were in 1967, riding these machines. I came in first in both the 350 cc and 500 cc events of the North West 200 in Ireland, second in the 500 cc Austrian Grand Prix, third in the 500 cc Belgian Grand Prix, and fifth in the 500 cc class Isle of Man TT.
For nine years I competed in this prestigious TT and came in third on two occasions. In 1907, when the first race was run, the highest lap speed was 42.91 mph [69.06 km], but in the 1957 season, Bob McIntyre was the first rider to take it over the 100 mark—to 101.12 mph. [162.73 km] This has since been pushed close to 120 mph. [193 km]
With a field of one hundred riders or so, the Isle of Man TT is certainly a dangerous race, and this is one of the reasons why, from the 1977 season, it has been excluded from the world motorcycling Grand Prix table. In fact, it was in 1965 on this course that I experienced my worst accident. The rider on my tail was eager to pass me, but my rear brake was giving trouble, and I had to ease up on my speed as I came into the right and left bend. He did not know this, of course, and so did not allow for it. As a result, he clipped my rear wheel and tipped me off.
I hurtled down the road a long way but suffered only bruises and abrasions. Had I hit the boundary brick wall at speed, I do not care to think what would have happened to me. I was sad to learn afterward that my motorcycle, sliding on ahead of me, had smashed into a flag marshal, breaking both his legs and putting him in the hospital for many months.
Thrills and Death
By this time I was racing in the international Motorcycle Grand Prix. This involved attending some 20 race meetings each year, competing in up to 35 races in countries as far afield as Canada and Japan. I also traveled extensively in Europe—from Sweden and Finland in the north to Spain and Italy in the south, and my itinerary often took me to Eastern European countries. What a thrill it was to compete against the East German MZ machines, the well-respected Czechoslovakian Jawas, and the Vosticks from the U.S.S.R.!
Although prize money is given up to tenth place, the main objective of the Grand Prix is to gain as many credit points as possible. Then, at the end of each 12 months of racing, the points gained from the various Grand Prix events are totaled, and a table is published giving the world’s top six riders that year. My best result was in 1965 when I ranked fourth in the 500 cc World Championship.
Over the years a number of my competitors were killed in accidents. But it was part of the challenge of the sport, and all of us accepted that. There was one tragedy, however, that shook me badly. I was racing in Finland when a particularly close friend fell off his motorcycle and fractured his skull. He never regained consciousness. My wife, Grace, and I stayed with him and his wife until he died.
A Traveling Family
Grace and I were married in 1960. She liked motorcycling too and enjoyed riding pillion with me, accompanying me to race meetings until our first child was born in 1961. Then I traveled to the races alone. Looking back, it was a rather selfish life I led after Robert’s birth. I used to leave them both for months on end until Grace became so lonely that I insisted that she join me. We purchased a van and after that traveled everywhere as a family. Even when two other children came along, the pattern did not change.
A Change of Thinking
At the end of 1967, I decided to pull out of motorcycle racing and purchased a garage in Southport. The lure of racing a motorcar was next, in the shape of a single-seater Lotus Formula Ford. But I soon realized that riding a racing motorcycle and driving a racing car call for the development of entirely different techniques.
All of this presented me with a stimulating, fresh challenge. Grace, however, was unhappy about my new venture and took no interest in it whatever. So eventually, lacking the measure of family unity we had enjoyed so long while I was racing, I decided to quit the sport altogether.
It is a strange thing, but only later did I see that there was also an underlying reason. A fresh interest was beginning to give us a new set of values. Grace’s thinking—as well as mine—was changing, more than we realized.
Our New Interest
Grace and I were confirmed members of the Church of England, but with our doing so much traveling, religion was of necessity kept on the sidelines. So when Grace became interested in the preaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses as early as 1960, our nomadic way of life worked against that too. Ten years passed before we had any meaningful discussions about the Bible and its message for our day.
After we had had time to settle, Grace met Jehovah’s Witnesses again and arranged for me to sit in on a Bible discussion of ‘the sign of the times.’ It was all part of a special campaign—a six-month free home Bible study course using a little blue book entitled The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. I well remember reflecting as our first appointment loomed nearer: ‘What have we let ourselves in for? What a boring evening it is going to be!’ But I was wrong.
The one thing that stands out in my mind from that first encounter with Jehovah’s Witnesses is the Scriptural record at 2 Timothy 3:1-5. I can still recall my amazement at realizing that I did not know that such an accurate picture of ‘the sign of the times’ had been on record for nearly two thousand years. Grace and I were of the same mind, eager to learn, and within a year both of us were baptized.
I still had a young family of four children to care for, but Grace and I determined to put first things first. So, with her encouragement, I sold my business, took part-time employment, and started preaching full-time as a pioneer minister. (Matthew 6:33) My years of motorcycling had given me thrills beyond measure. But now, with a clearer view of the sacredness of life, I found myself facing a greater challenge. Little did I realize then that it would lead me to even greater thrills.
A Thrilling Challenge
Grace and I soon discovered that there is a different challenge each time we meet somebody in our Christian ministry. First we have to discern his or her spiritual needs and then seek to meet those needs by skillful use of the Bible. Can you imagine the thrill of seeing an avowed atheist change his thinking to become a dedicated servant of God? Grace and I have shared such an experience. It took us hours of patient reasoning and systematic Bible study with him and his wife, but what a joy it was to see both of them baptized!
When racing, so much rested on me, my experience, and my expertise. But I have had to learn that recourse to my own natural abilities in the ministry is not enough. Prayerful reliance on Jehovah’s spirit for guidance is essential.—2 Corinthians 4:7.
Over the years my family has enjoyed many fine privileges of service together and has been able to help a number of friends, relatives, and neighbors accept Bible truth. For four years we accepted the challenging assignment of spending our annual vacations traveling in the remote northeast of Scotland. We left many Bible study aids with the hospitable people there and started Bible studies.
Looking back, it is evident that by taking that initial step of pioneering, I set the best example for our four children. They all chose to enter full-time service when they left school and have continued in it ever since. The three who are now married have partners who share their vocation.
Two years ago, when our youngest daughter finished her schooling, Grace was able to join me as my pioneer companion. Then I was able to accept another privilege, an assignment to serve as a substitute circuit overseer. So now, traveling from our home, we often visit nearby congregations to help and encourage them.
We have a very full life, with Grace no longer just backing me up and looking on, as was the case when I was racing. Now, together, we share in the disciple-making work, and our happiness as a family is complete. Each day, we thank Jehovah for the challenge and the thrilling privilege of being active as his Witnesses.—As told by Fred Stevens.
“TT” stands for “Tourist Trophy.” The Isle of Man TT Races started in 1907 and have been an annual event (except in wartime) ever since. They remain among the world’s leading motorcycle races.
[Picture on page 18]
Fred and Grace Stevens