‘Just because you’re breathing doesn’t mean you’re alive’ Steve Parrish Interview

23rd October 2015


Championship-winning motorcycle racer, former race team manager, five-tonne truck driver, renowned practical joker and previous holder of the world record for “Fastest Speed Achieved in Reverse”. You name it, Steve Parrish has done it.

Sitting in London’s Royal Automobile Club (RAC), the exclusive private members club established 117 years ago with the aim of encouraging automobilism in Britain, it seems somewhat ironic that the man sitting opposite me is best known for his exploits on two wheels, not four.
“So, should I call you Steve or Stavros?” Perhaps not the ice-breaker you’d expect to ask the man who carved out a multi-championship-winning career in motorcycle racing, team management and truck racing, before going on to become one of motorsport’s most recognisable faces and voices as a highly respected commentator.
Of course, sitting opposite me is Steve Parrish, who explains that the nickname “Stavros” was coined by none other than the great Barry Sheene, alongside whom Parrish competed for the Suzuki team in his first season in the 1977 500cc World Championship. “Stavros” was a reference to Parrish’s apparent similarities – his black curly hair to be precise –to a character of the same name in the TV series Kojak, and it has stuck for the last 27 years. For the record, he is happy to be called Steve or Stavros, or even just Parrish!
Keen to delve into the early days of his career to find out what attracted Parrish to motorsport, it’s a surprise to hear that the 1978 500cc British champion, two-time Shell 500 champion and winner of a 1981 Superbike title may well have been better suited to racing cars.

“I truthfully believe I would have been a better car racer than bike racer, but bike racing was cheaper”

“I did club racing from the age of about 19,” he says. “I guess I was attracted by the speed. I loved a bit of speed and I truthfully believe that I would have been a better car racer than bike racer, but bike racing was cheaper and I didn’t have the money. You could buy a motorcycle cheaper, and build a motorcycle and transport a motorcycle much easier than you could a car. So, it was a combination of finances and that I just wanted to go fast.”
Just four years after joining the club racing scene, Parrish found himself riding for Suzuki alongside Barry Sheene, the two-time 500 cc World Champion and a true icon of motorcycle racing. He clearly wasn’t fazed by his rise to fame and became known on the circuit as a notorious practical joker, even posing as his teammate during a qualifying session on one occasion. But Parrish also achieved instant respect among his peers thanks to his impressive performances on track.

Looking back to that 1977 season, Parrish remembers: “My fondest ever memory was at the Belgian Grand Prix in Spa, and I still think back to that particular race and I remember battling it out with Giacomo Agostini. I was racing with my teammate, Barry Sheene, at the time and he was my hero as well, but there were also names like Tepi Länsivuori and Agostini, and I was having a real good ding-dong with him! “I kept passing Agostini and he kept passing me, and I kept smiling thinking he was probably wondering, ‘who the hell is this that’s giving me a hard time?’ And I did end up beating him in the end to finish fifth in the race.”

Almost four decades on from Parrish being thrust in to the limelight, the likes of Bradley Smith in MotoGP and Daniil Kvyat in Formula 1 will have recently experienced similar emotions racing alongside world champions such as Valentino Rossi and Sebastian Vettel. However, Parrish’s jovial spirit is momentarily dampened when asked about the obstacles facing other young racers who have the potential to break into motorsport. “Unfortunately, motorsport now fits very much into the category of you have to come from a privileged family. It’s expensive and so very few of the kids from a council house are going to come into motorsport.
It’s sad.” This is not to say that all of today’s young talents are from such backgrounds, and Parrish points out Scott Redding, who rides for GO&FUN Honda Gresini in MotoGP. “Scott has been one of the few, but generally it’s kids from privileged families that go into motor racing nowadays,” Parrish reiterates, “and I’m really not sure how you can get more people doing it.” Beyond motorcycle racing, Parrish does actually have great experience competing on four wheels, and not just from his Guinness World Record-breaking feat of recording the “Fastest Speed Achieved in Reverse” in a specially adapted Caterham, nor his spell racing in the Vauxhall Caterham Series.
In fact, after retiring from motorcycle racing in 1 986, Parrish forged a successful career as a truck racer, winning the 1987 British Open Truck Racing Championship and then winning both the British and European titles in 1990. He retained the British title for four years, and the European one for three, before regaining the European crown again in 1996.
“When truck racing turned up I had already done the odd celebrity car race in the ’70s and ’80s,” Parrish tells me. “I used to race against Barry (Sheene) and other bike racers, and generally I’d win the race.” With his close friend Sheene already signed up to race for DAF Trucks, Parrish put in a call to Mercedes Benz UK. “I said, ‘I’m faster than Barry Sheene, he’s driving for DAF, if you want me to drive your Mercedes I’ll have a go at it’. It was sort of serendipity, really. I just turned up and did it, and was successful at it.” So, just how difficult is the transition from a 160kg motorcycle to a five-tonne truck? “It wasn’t as serious because it wasn’t as dangerous,” Parrish reveals. “After racing motorcycles, when you know if you make a mistake you could easily die, racing a truck the penalty was far less . It seemed quite easy, actually. “You might be surprised, but the similarities of racing the two are quite close, because a motorcycle doesn’t want to go round corners, it wants to go in a straight line, so you have to coax it into corners, and a truck is very much the same.” With my time with Parrish edging to a close, I’m intrigued by his passion for cars, and can’t help but wonder which he prefers, two wheels or four?
His answer is certain: “Undoubtedly two”, largely because of the inherent risks involved and the guaranteed excitement in every race. “It’s interesting that here at the RAC Club and at the BDRC, all the car people love motorcycle racing,” he adds. “They are car people, but you can’t help but love motorcycle sport and the racing that’s going on.” I’m also keen to find out what he has planned for 2015, and whether a return toteam management could be tempting, especially considering the success he achieved with the UK Yamaha factory race team betwe
en 1987 and 1991, when he led them to three British Superbike Championship titles. As it happens, he “wouldn’t be averse” to a return to management in the future, but for now his intention is simply to carry on enjoying himself and to take opportunities as they

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