Three things tipped the balance in favour of our first ever visit to a grand prix. A Finnish rider by the name of Jarno Saarinen, the price of the trip and the promise of evening in Amsterdam which we’d been told was very different to rural Oxfordshire.
He might have been Finnish but Saarinen was our hero. We watched him take on the likes of Mike Hailwood and Barry Sheene at an international meeting at nearby Silverstone the previous year. In 1973 Yamaha picked him to spearhead their considerable efforts to ride their new 500 cc four-cylinder two-stroke to break the MV Agusta four-stroke domination of the premier class. He stunned the four-strokes by winning the first two grands prix. Every Sunday evening I’d tune into BBC Radio to check on his progress, even if it meant having the leave the cricket field in the middle of a game, much to the annoyance of my village team-mates.
0ver 20 coach loads of British fans made the trip and no wonder, with the price around 20 euroes. All you had to do was get to Dover and they provided the coach and ferry crossings to Assen and back. Four of us ventured into the unknown. My best friend and his wife, me and my girlfriend who I asked, despite the promise of the Amsterdam experience on the way back. I remember her father quizzing me where we would be sleeping for the two nights. I think I alleviated any of his fears by explaining for that price, it would be one night on a coach seat and the second on the deck of a ferry.
Just one month before our much anticipated trip, we and the rest of the racing world, were shattered by the death of Saarinen in the 250 cc race at Monza in Italy. In a dreadful day for the sport, he was killed together with Italian Renzo Pasolini. We decided to continue with our journey to Assen to honour our hero and we were not disappointed.
We soon realised that this was more than just a motorcycle race. Waking up in the coach up at five o'clock in the morning. the sun rising over the flat green Dutch countryside regularly interspersed by canals and rivers, surrounded by motor cycles of all shapes and sizes. Everybody going in one direction from all over Europe, it really did feel like we were on a pilgrimage to the cathedral. The massive smoky camping areas housing an army of fans, some who were preparing breakfast while others slept off the affects on the night before.
We could not believe you could get so close to the action. With the help of beer crate which we shared with some German fans before we fell out over football, we watched the action from a grass bank on the approach to the famous banked de Strubben corner. We’d never been in such a big enthusiastic and noisy crowd before. Fuelled by the delights of the local brewery, which tasted very different to the light ale we consumed at home in the Bear and Ragged Staff, we soon got into the spirit of the day despite that slight disagreement about football with our German friends. Our day was completed when Phil Read won the 500 cc race on the MV Augusta. How we wished we’d brought a Union Jack to wave. We made no such mistake on our return two years later, courtesy of the flag pole at Oxford Town Hall.
We also discovered the delights of chips and mayonnaise, which were a lot more tasty than the fish and chips wrapped in an old edition of the Oxford Mail we’d eat usually on the way back from watching the Oxford Cheetahs speedway team on a Thursday night.
Fired up by the racing and some more of the local brew, it was on into Amsterdam but under strict instructions to be on the coach in time to catch the midnight ferry to Dover. We’d never been anywhere like Amsterdam before. We thought we were getting free drinks when we didn’t have to pay at the bar. It was only when we were leaving to be presented with the bill we realised our mistake. Window shopping took on a completely new meaning but we made it to the coach on time.
The following year six of us made the trip to Spa Francorchamps for the Belgium grand prix but our hearts were really in Assen. We returned in 1975. Twenty of us hired a van from a local rental company telling them we were going to the Chelsea Flower Show in London for the weekend.
Instead, we crossed the north sea again to Assen, to witness Barry Sheene’s first 500 cc grand prix victory. This time we did have a Union Jack and also went to Amsterdam again , but that’s another story ???