Ron Cheesman: A Life in Drag Racing
Published 2nd January 2015
I was born in crawley, in 1934. My dad had a shoe repair shop in the high street in Crawley, which has long since gone. He lost half a leg in the First World War, but never talked about what happened. When he came out they taught him how to be a cobbler.
His shop was a dingy little place and the room was always filled with leather dust. You had a job to see across the room, it was that bad. There was no air extraction at all and it was probably what gave him lung cancer.
I had lots of fun as a boy. Gatwick Airport was just a little circular airport at the time, and during the war it was used to repair vehicles and planes. There was a perimeter fence but we discovered that there were places where the bottom of the fence didn't reach the ground. So we would crawl through and run over to where there was a pair of planes parked. I think they were Dakotas. We were able to get inside them and pretend that we were pilots, looking straight out across the airport and the runway. You can imagine that for us young lads this was fantastic!
I remember walking through Crawley one morning and seeing that the Post Office had been bombed. I had to walk through broken glass to get to school. When I got there, nobody else was there, as they'd decided to close school for the day.
At the back of the Greyhound Pub, there was a run-down farm with a brick tower about three storeys high. As lads, we would go there to play. On the outside of the tower there was a vertical iron ladder, stretching from top to
bottom. The farmer must have been worried about us playing in the tower, and I remember us being at the top and seeing him come across the field, shaking his fist and shouting! He started climbing the concrete steps inside, so we all went down the ladder, and by the time he had reached the top we were at the bottom, waving goodbye!
I took my 11 plus exam, but I wasn't grammar school material, so I went to a technical school in Roffey for two or three years. They taught you mechanics, bricklaying, carpentry, metalwork and such things. I remember one of the carpentry teachers would throw a chunk of wood your way if you weren't paying attention.
Joan went to the all-girl school in Horsham. We met when I was 15 and she was 14. I saw Joan as she was on a train to Crawley, and she looked out at me on the platform. The next day we met at Horsham station and walked down the steps to the train together. We've been together ever since.
After school, I joined an apprenticeship scheme at Southern Counties Garage in Crawley. At that stage, Crawley was very small, as the new town hadn't really developed. I spent five years there and it was a good education for me. Once I had my driving licence I was driving all kinds of vehicles. I drove a Crawley Hospital ambulance, fire engines, police cars and sometimes I would even fill in as a driver for a local removals firm.
Everyone had to do National Service in those days, so I did my two years straight after the apprenticeship. By that time I was married and we had the first of our four children, Karen. During my service, I took a trade test and found that there was a vacancy in the army motorcycle shop. I slipped into that and ran it for 18 months.
When people brought in their army motorcycles to be repaired, you could refuse to fix them and send them back if they hadn't been cleaned properly, even if they were more senior officers.
I had two army Matchless motorbikes that I could use. After we had done our day's work of repairing bikes, we were allowed to go around the camp's perimeter road and test the bikes. It was like a proper road race track. You had to be careful when you were riding past the guard's room, but other than that you could enjoy yourself. This all helped me develop my skills in terms of repairing and riding bikes.
My first bike was a 350cc Royal Enfield and then after I married Joan we had a 500cc bike with a sidecar, which Joan and Karen would ride in when we went out at the weekend.
I was going to join the Army, so we could get a place in the barracks. But the commanding officer told me that I was not suited to a soldier's life, so we looked around for a place of our own. We found a place with two rooms within a big house, with a shared kitchen and shared toilet. I was paid £4-17-6d per week and the rent was £3- 10-6d. So we learnt how to budget and that has lasted us through our entire lives!
I went back to Southern Counties as a fully-fledged mechanic and stayed there for a long time, later becoming manager of the body shop. I was working one day and a chap came in late in the day with the cylinder head of a Goldstar scrambler that he needed repairing. It looked like an interesting job, so I stayed late to do it when everybody else went home. He was impressed, and asked if I would like to go scrambling with him and be his mechanic.
Gradually, I started to have a go riding at grass track races myself. I did fairly well and would often make it to the final. Before long, every weekend, we would load all the kids into the van and go racing, and they all loved it as much as Joan and I. There was always so much washing to be done by the time that we came home!
It was Keith Baker (featured in AAH for his Slinfold paint praying business, Classic Cycleworks) who wanted to take us to Santa Pod to see a drag racing meeting. He was only 16 and at the time was courting Karen. He was obsessed by all things American, as he still is, so we went along and watched the drag racing cars and bikes. For the first time, I thought about building a drag bike.
That year, my mum was killed when she was hit by a Lorry whilst crossing the road in Lowfield Heath. I went quiet and didn't do any grass track racing or scrambling that winter. Instead, I started building a drag racing bike.
Drag racing was a calling for us from 1972. A lot of drag racing is really down to how you develop the bike, and that is what gives me the most pleasure. I enjoy racing, but it is building the bikes that I enjoy the most.
During the seventies, we mainly ran 250cc bikes. At drag racing events, there were a lot of different categories. There was a junior bike category at the lower end of the power scale, and it went right up to big machines with twin power units. With a good 250cc bike, you could win the junior bike class and often also place well in the intermediate classes too.
What was good about drag racing was that if you didn't have much money, and we didn't, there was still a category for you. Usually, there were 16 or eight competitors in the class and each time you eliminated somebody you made a little bit of money. You also had 'pit gate money' as spectators would pay to be allowed into the paddock side of the strip. We were all encouraged to talk to the fans, and be drag racing ambassadors, I suppose. We were not running with the big bikes, but there was still some good money in it. There were so few husband and wife racers, that we became very well known.
We did dream about moving up to the top classes, but couldn't afford to do it. But we were all part of one big drag
racing family. Sometimes we would all camp out all weekend. The Blackbushe meetings were usually just one day, but the Santa Pod Easter meeting was held over a long weekend, with crowds of up to 40,000 people.
After a while Joan decided to join in. I remember the motorway had been finished at Pease Pottage, but had not yet opened, so we took the bike down there. It only held about a quarter of a pint of petrol because weight was so important with drag racing bikes. Joan didn't know how to stop, so she rode the bike until it ran out of fuel and then I went to pick her up. At Blackbushe on 7 April, 1974, she took part in her first drag race and as far as we know was the first woman to do so.
She also raced a green and gold metal flake Triumph Spitfire, and called herself the Green Goddess! One time she needed a group of Hells Angels to lift the car over the barriers and on to the track so she could compete! They said 'now go out and win!'
Joan also drove the family Escort estate and an altered Mini we called Moody Blue. There were sometimes days when you could run any car that you had, and youngsters would take on Joan's Escort. They didn't know it was suped-up and flew off the line! She even raced motorbikes despite not having a road licence to ride. Often, we were in the final two against each other but she never beat me, so we called my bike 'The Wife Beater.'
Joan had a car accident in 1979 and was not able to ride anymore. She was just round the corner from our home in Pease Pottage, on a morning when there was a lot of black ice. Another car veered off the road and hit her. It was very difficult time for her, and me too, as she helped me a lot with the business we had started.
As I was in charge of accident repairs at the garage, I often had to discuss costs with the insurance
companies and over the years I came to know a lot of them. One business in Crawley was up for sale, and the owner offered us the business, which we bought as a going concern. We called it D & S Cheeseman (Dad and Son) and we would go out and inspect cars all around Sussex, Surrey and Kent to assess damage for insurance firms.
The business was successful for some time, but because of technology, insurance companies reached the point where they didn't require us to go and assess cars, as they could do it through photos and videos. We were fortunate to sell the company still as a going concern. Not that we got much for it.
We've been able to enjoy a number of great trips abroad in later life, including seeing polar bears in Canada and watching the northern lights. We even went on a trip to see Haley's Comet, which included a talk by Patrick Moore. We had a brilliant time - not that we saw the comet!
Joan had always wanted to cuddle a panda, so she started writing to everybody she could think of to see if it could be done, but everybody she asked said 'no, it is impossible.' But nothing is impossible for Joan. We went to China in 2004 and managed to arrange transportation to a place high in the hills, where tourists do not normally get to go. We turned around to see a panda behind us being pushed in a wheelbarrow, which was unbelievable. So Joan was able to cuddle a panda!
For our 50th wedding anniversary, we staged a second wedding at the church in Slaugham where we were first married. I wore the suit I married in 50 years ago, and Joan wore her original wedding dress. The only difference was that we walked down the aisle to 'Too Young' by Nat King Cole as they tried to tell us we were too young all those years ago. We had actually tried to get married when we were 16, but we couldn't do it. We were 19 when we did marry.
I still take part in the occasional drag racing event, just for a bit of fun. So we've just never really stopped, and our two sons Vincent and Ricky both followed in our footsteps, taking part in both drag racing and hill climbing events.
In December we celebrated our Diamond Wedding anniversary with the whole family coming together to celebrate the amazing life we've had together.
Interview: Ben Morris
New Pictures: Toby Phillips