The Classic Motorcycle Rally
JOSEPH ANTHONY “JOE” SARKIS
The Laughing Cavalier of the Race Tracks – Joe Sarkis.
by Jock Leyden
Practice at Kyalami was over. The riders turned into the pit area one by one and were followed by the usual crowd of fans, friends, mechanics and officials. Plugs were whipped out and examined, last minute adjustments made. And all around the keen-eyed enthusiasts milled, circulating from machine to machine. Of course the star riders drew most attention, their machines the last word in production racers.
Among the crowd was a slightly built man of over 50, noticeable at once for his high brow, friendly, slightly off-centre grin, a nose which was neither Grecian, Roman nor retroussé (distinctly a one-off model), alert twinkling eyes, all of which suggested life was well worth living. He passed through the crowds, nodding here and there in acknowledgment of greetings, and stopped beside a young novice rider kneeling beside his mount, red-faced and perspiring.
"I hope you don't mind me giving you some advice," apologised the little man, "but I've been watching you during practice and I noticed you changing down and braking while you're actually in the corners. You should do all your braking and gear-changing before you reach the corner. That way you'll be able to concentrate on the correct line and you'll be faster - and safer."
The novice turned a disdainful look on the stranger. "What do you know about it, anyway?" he asked, and scornfully turned his back. A quizzical frown showed slightly on the high brow, then, without a word, the little man disappeared in the crowd to examine the latest 7R's of Duncan and Burne. Big, massive-looking machines with their huge brakes, beautifully finned barrels and heads, streamlined fairings and?
Very much different from the things he first used to race, he mused. Yes, he did know something about the game.
It seemed only yesterday that he rode his first motorcycle, a two-stroke Excelsior. It was 1919. He was 14 years old and still at school in Pretoria. Remember the reception he got when he presented himself for his driving licence? The official took one look at him and bellowed, "Go home!" But little Joe did not go home till he had proved he was (a) old enough to hold a licence, (b) could ride a motorcycle, and (c) wise in rules of the road and their application. That Excelsior laid the foundation for his love of things mechanical, and a year later he presented himself at the garage of Meyer Wolson. There Joe served his apprenticeship, staying with him seven years. Among the many machines he rode in that time, one stood out - a "Voortrekker" - built by Wolson himself - powered by a Hobart engine of 250 cc it had belt drive and solid forks!
The little apprentice's personal model, by contrast, was a 1 000 cc twin Reading-Standard, a distant relative of the better known Indians. Perched high on this big twin, he rode in a speed trial on the Pretoria-Hartebeestpoort Road and clocked a highly creditable 70 mph. The winner was the then well-known Harley-Davidson star, Ted Murray.
Emboldened by his first taste of competition work, the lad then hied himself off to Alberton, where a circuit race was to be held. Well known RMCC (Rand Motor Cycling Club) official J W F Hoffman was in charge of proceedings and he nearly had a fit when the lad in short trousers presented himself on the starting line. "Go back to school at once!" he commanded. Joe burst into tears, while he explained that he was a mechanic, had a driving licence, had competed in a speed trial, and was therefore eligible.
Hoffie relented, but not without misgivings. If he felt that way before the start, imagine his feelings later when the news came back that the boy had run into a cow on the Heidelberg road and was being taken unconscious to hospital. For ten days he lay in a coma, and poor Hoffie was distressed beyond belief for he (wrongly) felt he was alone responsible for the near-tragedy. Fortunately for all concerned, the little chap had a strong constitution and recovered his health quickly, as youngsters do.
It was years later before he rode in a road race again, however, and what race did he decide to ride in? No less than the gruelling 400 mile Durban-Jo'burg race of 1924. Going down on his Raleigh—a 350 side-valve—in company with Alf Long and his brother, R S. Alf's Sunbeam was so reinforced with extra struts and stays, Joe said it looked more like a tractor than a motorbike. But Alf was a seasoned campaigner. He knew more about what was needed in those days than anybody. Had he not won both sidecar DJ's and broken the record for solo runs on his Indian?
On race day Joe must have thought again about reinforcing, for his saddle broke early on and he replaced it with a pillow. The roads in those days were appalling beyond words. Imagine what it was like riding without a saddle. Soon all the feathers flew out, and he sat on his jacket. You know what that meant? For nearly 200 miles he stood on the footrests! If anyone can think of a worse torture than that for a big race baptism, just name it.
Alf Long, on his Sunbeam "tractor", won that race in a fantastic 9 hrs 2 mins 6 secs, a time that stood as a class record for years. Joe retired when his forks broke and he wasn't sorry. It was months before he was able to forget this race, or to sit comfortably again.
If he reinforced anything on his bike the following year, it must have been the saddle-nose fixing. He found himself starting No 18 and was delighted to finish in fourth position behind Ginger Bower (350 s/v Douglas), Alf Long (350 s/v. Indian) and Baby Scott (172 2/str Francis Barnett), the limit man who had started No 1, off a 4 hr 42 min handicap. People who had seen the fiery little Pretorian manhandling his Raleigh on the rough stuff noted him down as a rider to be watched. He soon confirmed their predictions by winning the Bloemfontein Blue Riband - a 124-mile race run on a typical veld farm road circuit near the Free State capital.
Down to Port Elizabeth he took a 350 ohv Raleigh for his first appearance on the Kragga Kamma circuit, but he retired early in the SA Junior TT of 1926, and was screaming around in third place in the Senior event when the mag ceased to supply the fireworks.
Months later he almost pulled off a double in the Bloemfontein Blue Riband, only 23 seconds separating him from the winner, Len Cohen, who caught him in the last few miles. Changing to the new camshaft 350 Velocette, he notched a second Blue Riband, despite a close call when the Cape mail train disputed his right of way on a crossing. Baby Scott was second and Len Cohen third. That was 1927.
There were warnings aplenty from the police about inefficient silencers on race machines during the pre-Jo'burg race period, and several riders were prosecuted in Transvaal towns. But the police must have turned a deaf ear on race days, for Sid Flook chalked up another victory for the Douglas marque, Durban's volatile little Len Iggulden being runner-up on a 250 sv OK. Jimmy Lind, the one-eyed Rand rider of a side valve AJS, the same rider who was to give Joe many hard races in later years, was in third berth. Joe brought the leading ohc job home fourth.
His first bit of TT luck came at Port Elizabeth the following January, when his Velo, despite being slowed by bad vibration when the cylinder head stay broke, finished second to Len Cohen (AJS).
Just for the fun of it, he tacked a chair to a P&M and, with Vernon Melville as his passenger, won the Hendee Vase at Natal Spruit, a 5 mile dirt road circuit situated off the Heidelberg road. Later he piloted a Sunbeam outfit with freckle-faced Ginger Bower, the Durban-Jo'burg race winner, as gymnastic accompanist, and won again. The trophy was his for keeps. It is interesting to recall that this beautiful cup was first presented for the sidecar class of the Jo'burg race, Alf Long winning it on both occasions on which the race was run, in 1920 and 1921, piloting a big American Excelsior outfit.
Switching to OK machines in 1928, Joe started a run of successes that was to make him famous, and to put the Birmingham-made machine on the market in a big way in this country. Riding a crackly-barked two port 250 - the JAP engine had a special head, with the first down-draught carburettor to be fitted to a motor-cycle - Joe succeeded in breaking the class record for the DJ, despite having stopped near Colenso to assist another rider, Carlisle, who had crashed and suffered severe concussion. In the final estimate he was placed eighth.
There was a blinding hailstorm during the running of the Germiston GP that year. We were to discover that Joe Sarkis was in his element when conditions were such that cancellation of the race seemed to be the obvious and only answer. Little things like hail, rain, snow, thunder, lightning or earthquakes were just part of the fun for Joe. The tougher it was, the better he liked it. Nobody ever took chances like Joe Sarkis, and got away with them. Ted Murray, the scratch man on a 500 ohc AJS, gave Joe's 250 20 mins 30 secs start, and when the race was over he had been able to pull back only seven minutes of that, for Joe won in the proverbial canter.
Ideal weather – for Joe Sarkis!
Back to his happy hunting ground he went to collect his third Blue Riband in four years, with Lamprecht (AJS) and Brink (Levis) the placemen.
Not many people will recall the make he rode in the 1929 SA Junior TT, a New Hudson. This packed up with a broken frame (a not unusual complaint on the shocking roads of those days) and Joe bestrode a Rudge in the Senior. Here we were to see the shape of things to come on the famous Eastern Province circuit.
On lap one, Bunny Loader led on the ex-Jimmy Simpson AJS. The Rudge lay fourth. First in laps two and three was the flying 350 Velocette with Don Hall up; from fourth lap to eighth, Bill Kerr, the local hero, was in the van, and when his motor went sick, Lofty Beadon pushed his Norton to the front. So they went into the final lap. Beadon, five minutes ahead of the slowing Kerr, Sarkis on Bill's tail. It looked all over. Then the loudspeakers announced Beadon's retirement with a broken primary chain. Excited now, the crowd at the finish waited expectantly for the winner. Who would it be? A roar from Frame's Drift heralded the raucous four-valve Rudge's approach. Sarkis had won his first TT Because of his delay in the early laps, his race speed was not a record, but he had produced a staggering lap record of 16 mins 17 secs (73.69 mph).
With Don Hall, Joe was a natural choice as Springbok representatives for the 1929 Isle of Man TT races. He knew the Manx course was the most difficult in the world to memorise, 37¾ miles of it! So he went over six weeks before the race and did four to six laps every day. In addition he walked round to study it at close quarters. When practice started officially, his Lightweight times were such that Ernie Humphries, the OK Supreme chief, and the JAP engine big-wigs, called a conference and told Joe to ease up. He was faster than some of the Seniors! The result was that he was given a strict schedule to adhere to in order to guarantee a finisher—if possible. The conference must have done some good, for Joe finished fourth and took the Visitors' Cup for the best performance by an overseas rider. His practice had paid off.
Just for the stir it would cause, he entered the 250 in the Senior race. If it had finished it would have been a good advert. Joe was banking on bad weather, when he would have been as quick as the big 'uns. A 350 had won the Senior (Howard Davies on an AJS in 1921) but never a 250.
Anyway, it didn't work out that way, for he had to retire. That little gamble didn't pay off. But he went with the first British "Continental Circus" boys to Prague for the Czech TT and found everything just perfect. Rain, mud, cobbles. Everybody else thought it was plain lousy. Joe won the Lightweight by 17 minutes, the first "Colonial Rider" to win a Continental classic race in history. Not Ray Amm, not Gary Hocking, not Jim Redman—Joe Sarkis — the first. (Novice rider at Kyalami, please note.) The beautiful trophy he won is now his most treasured possession, for it is a real work of art. His time for the race, incidentally, was faster than Leo Davenport, who won the Junior on an AJS.
Later he competed in the fast Dutch TT, finishing runner-up to the great Walter Handley, who rode a Swiss Motosacoche. The Dutch treated him right royally, too, calling him their "white brother from South Africa".
The quest for the magnificent Woolavington Trophy, on which the Natal Banana Boys seemed to have a permanent hold, eluded him once again in the 1930 South African TT, for his 350 OK JAP went out early on when a valve dropped in. It was a different story in the Senior race, however. A record field of 25 lined up in the Deviation, and from the fall of the flag Joe took the lead into the seven mile flat-out blind along the Cape Road to Greenbushes, and startled everybody by completing his first lap in 15 mins 25 secs, fifty-two seconds faster than his old record—and from a standing start! Behind him screamed Jimmy Lind (AJS), Baby Scott (Rudge), Cohen (AJS), Hall on his 350 Velo, and the others strung out hidden in the long billowing cloud of yellow dust.
Next lap Hall's petrol pipe fractured and he dropped to 12th place. Away out in front the little Pretorian was giving his Rudge its head, and he circled Kragga Kamma in 15 mins 16 secs, another record. Lind was riding grimly, and Durban's Nobby Clarke on a 350 Velo had pushed his nose in among the leaders. Two laps later, Lind packed up, his AJS engine wrecked. Cohen moved up to second place. Clarke was then third, and Hall, who had been riding like a man possessed, was fourth.
But it was really a one-man show, for Joe went on to win in a new record time, beating Cohen by nearly nine minutes, Clarke surprising everyone by taking third place in his first TT, although he had done well in the Jo'burg race and in club events in Natal. The 250 race was another Sarkis benefit race. Joe's OK finished 12 minutes ahead of Lofty Beadon's Excelsior JAP.
Besides riding in all the classics, Joe performed with distinction in the Transvaal on the dirt, as well as on the one mile banked track at Auckland Park. He remembers these for several reasons, and not all happy memories either. His biggest pile-ups were on the dirt. Once, riding a "pea-shooter" Harley, he took avoiding action to miss a fallen rider and hit the board fence head-on. On another occasion his mount bucked and the steering damper smacked him full in the mouth, knocking the tops off five teeth. For a lad who laughed so much, that was a loss that he could not forget.
But his luckiest escape was in a midget car challenge race against a couple of Yankee stars. One cut him going into a corner, and Joe's midget climbed over the leader's skidding car and cleared the safety fence—upside down! How he stepped from that lot alive, he never knew. But he did know that the doctor at the hospital whither he was rushed refused to stitch him up, saying that fellows who raced looked for trouble and had no right to treatment in a free hospital. Joe felt pretty sore about this. Accident victims aren't usually consulted about these things when they're being whisked away by ambulance men. All Joe wanted was medical attention, having been brought up in the old tradition about a stitch in time. His ideas on that old proverb took a knock when he later had nine stitches put in his face!
On the motordrome he had some fine races on Velos and P&M machines. One race against Johnny Mynott, who was a top performer on Nortons and Rudges, stands out. But his most lasting memory of that track was the day he came off at speed and landed on his spine, got up and ran over 70 yards before collapsing unconscious.
For the 1930 Isle of Man races, OK Supreme produced a new camshaft 250. Only two were produced and these experimental jobs were entrusted to South Africa's two stars, Sarkis and Hall, who christened them the "coffee percolators" because at the top of the vertical shaft there was a little window to enable the rider to see if the oil was circulating. That these new jobs were quick was revealed during practice, when they were regularly on the leader board with fast lappery. The big snag was that there were no spare parts, and the big ends looked suspect.
There was a sensation on lap one of the race proper. Sarkis led from Franconi, the Swiss rider of a Universal (I'm writing this from memory 33 years later, so if anyone can prove me wrong I'll apologise and correct it!), Handley (Rex-Acme) and Don Hall on the second string OK. The big end of the latter's engine packed up on lap two, and Joe continued to lead the field for four laps before his went the same way. Joe was thus the first overseas rider ever to lead a TT race in any of its stages.
Is the Kyalami kid still listening? In the Senior he rode a 500 cc V-twin OK JAP. Pint-sized Joe found this a bit of a handful, for navigation wasn't exactly its best quality. When the engine seized solid on the approach to Hillberry, that famous super-fast right-hander, he reckoned he was lucky it happened on the straight and not while "ear-holing" it round the bend.
Back for the Bloemfontein Blue Riband. The handicappers treated Joe a bit roughly this time, for, though he gave a typical Sarkis performance, setting a new lap and race record on his 500 OK, he could do no better than fifth. A newcomer named McDonough, off the 33 minute mark, won, with Le Roux (Ariel) second, Thompson next on a Velo, and Durban's Charlie Payne (AJS) fourth.
It was the same Payne who shook the Transvaal, and Natal, too, for that matter, when he beat Sarkis for first spot in the Germiston GP. Payne was riding a new 350 cam AJS which the writer remembers as the raciest looking racer he ever clapped eyes on in South Africa! It had, apart from its other good looks, a huge diameter exhaust pipe with deliciously sinuous curves that would have made a snake charmer jealous.
"The Depression" that hit the world in the early 30s was obvious in the depleted entry list for the '31 South African TT. The promoters offered half stakes, and, believe it or not, the riders accepted. The sport meant more to them than the boodle. Can you imagine how many of today's stars of the track would do that?
Joe had his usual bad luck in the Junior event, which Len Cohen won, and he set off in the Senior on his Rudge as if he was going to show everybody who was the boss in these parts. And the boss was in a real hurry, for he knocked the lap record to smithereens from a standing start—14 mins 27 secs for the 20 miles (82.9 mph). Lind was lying second, and Natal's tall, lean Harry Adams, on the Rudge he had ridden into second place in the 1930 Durban-Jo'burg, was third. The cheeky little 350 Velo of Don Hall was snapping at the big 'uns' back wheels, waiting for them to make a slip.
First slip came on the next lap, when Adams stopped to change a plug and had a tough job doing it, for the sparker was located inaccessibly in the centre of the 4-valve head. (Note: If my memory serves me accurately, I think this was the occasion when the terminal fell in the plug hole and Harry had to up-end the machine to retrieve it.) Anyway, Harry lost 12 minutes on the job, which put him right back.
By the end of 100 miles, Sarkis was leading Lind by three minutes. But next time round he was seen to be slowing. Was it because he had been signalled to do so by Tom Mackie, his pit attendant? We should see. Lind was definitely cutting down the lead. Messages from control points were eagerly listened to. Then it came: "Sarkis out—broken rocker". Tough luck, for he was on his way to making the South African Senior one of the world's fastest motor-cycle races. But it was not to be. That's the racing game. Lind went into the lead, chased by Hall and another newcomer from the Cape, Alf Bertenshaw, riding a 350 cammy AJS with striking abandon, despite falling off on the last lap, one mile from the finish, and breaking his nose, was third. Harry Adams had the consolation of finishing behind this trio in fourth place.
The Lightweight race looked like being a real thriller. That Joe wasn't going to have it all his own way this year was apparent the moment Baby Scott wheeled his new 250 cam AJS on to the sandy road at the start of practice. Immediately he was surrounded by a crowd of riders, officials, press men and fans. Was this not the very machine that had given the great Jimmy Guthrie his first Isle of Man TT win? Yes, it was. Everything about it bore the stamp of a thoroughbred. Joe was going to have a job on his hands without doubt. Joe sent Tom Mackie out to do some secret timing on various spots, and his worst fears were confirmed. The AJS was about 10 mph quicker than the OK on the Cape Road! Here was going to be a battle of wits!
From the fall of the starter's flag on race day, Joe tucked in on Baby's tail—so close that he was looking up the carburettor intake to see how much throttle he was using! What he saw disturbed him, for, though he was full-bore, the Babe had a fistful up his sleeve! Most disturbing. But Joe hung on, using the AJS's slip-stream to give him a tow. So they went round, covered by the proverbial blanket until lap two, when the AJS plug cooked with pre-ignition, and Joe whipped past. Riding all he knew—and a little more, for he feared the AJS would catch him again once it got going. But it didn't. He carried on to get the checkered flag for his second Lightweight victory, winning from Scott by 1 min 13 secs, and this despite having to stop on the last lap to clear a choked jet. Bill Kerr, riding a Moto-Guzzi, was third.
If 1920 was the "Snowstorm DJ" and 1934 the "Hailstorm DJ", 1932 must have been the "Rainstorm TT", for rain fell in torrents during the whole week before the Junior race, and a conference of riders was called to discuss postponing the running of this event. Conditions were appalling. Riders were soaked before the start, and reports from round the course told of water running inches deep in parts. Nobody looked happy about it, except a fellow named Sarkis. As far as Joe was concerned, it was OK by him! So the race was started. Joe told me later he "just ducked his head—and went"! And that's precisely what he did do.
Nobody could hang on to him in the blinding rain. His only surprise was on the first lap. Going through The Willows on the back stretch, he was almost thrown off when the O.K. hit a hollow across the road which was a foot deep in water!
From then on it was all Sarkis. He loved it, and why not? He was on the way to achieving one of his greatest ambitions—winning the Woolavington Trophy for the first time from Natal. Watts, a young Cape Town rider, was second, and Eddie Schegar (AJS), an East Londoner, third.
Senior day dawned fair and fine, and it looked as if the sun would dry up the course. The start was delayed for half an hour to enable officials to remove a tree which, loosened by the floods, had fallen across the road—fortunately before the race started! Joe was on a Sunbeam reputed to have been timed at 114 mph. This was very fast in the early 30s and some doubted its accuracy, for the Rand riders used pre-race psychological warfare on each other, and Joe was a past master at it. (It usually resulted in someone rushing away to raise his compression ratio and blowing his motor up!)
But there was no doubt about Joe having the knots, for he set a new lap record on lap one, knocking 15 seconds off his previous flying lap time. Only Don Hall, on a Rudge which was giving him an uncomfortable ride, kept in the hunt. (I remember this race well, because Joe loaned me his winning Junior machine and I rode it round and round the course while the race was in progress, stopping to watch at various spots and draw sketches of incidents. Joe told me later that he saw me on every one of the ten laps. He couldn't miss me, he added, because my face got redder and redder with sunburn till it looked like a traffic light!)
In the 100 mile handicap which followed, the 250 cam OK (which Joe had by then made reliable) was runner-up to a new lad called Johnny Strydom (Velocette), of whom more was to be heard later on South African racing circuits. Don Hall was third.
Back in the Isle of Man, he finished 12th in the Junior, but was excluded from the official awards, and his Sunbeam failed in the Senior.
"The Depression" had sunk to its lowest ebb in 1933. The South African TT was abandoned because of lack of entries, so Joe's one big race was the Jo'burg, when he rode off the scratch mark with Cohen, Harris and Baby Scott. This little bunch kept together to Maritzburg, where they clocked in in 47¼ minutes. That must have been a sight worth seeing. Four past masters on the job. Joe was going well and lying well up at Volksrust when a valve broke, and that was that.
1934 was truly Sarkis's year, for at Port Elizabeth he made race history by scooping the pool. Four starts—four wins Junior, Senior, Lightweight and Handicap! The Junior started in threatening weather. To see the look on Joe's face, one would have thought the sun was shining—turned out lovely, it had—for him! Couldn't be better. It rained pushrods and wheelspokes! Joe walked it, after Don Hall had retired early on, and a new boy named Johnny Galway, riding in his first TT, showed promise of greater things to come by finishing second on a Norton. Joe beat Cohen's 1931 race record time, averaging 74.50 mph for the 200 miles.
The Lightweight was a repetition of the Junior. Sarkis all the way, from Strydom (Rudge) and Wegner (Guzzi), till the Rudge went out.
There was a surprise in the Senior race, however, when Baby Scott (Rudge) led the field into the Deviation at the end of the opening lap. Mickey Gammon, the likeable Rhodesian, on a Douglas, and Joe were in close pursuit, but the later was in his usual position at the head of the high-speed procession next time round. So it was to the end, with Scott, Anderson, Van Riet, Gammon, and Hall on his 350 barking behind. Joe got the checkered flag and the winner's laurels. Then, when he came to restart his Sunbeam he could not do so. A valve had burnt out! If that wasn't a bit of luck, what was?
So on to his 250 OK for the 100 mile handicap, which he also won as he pleased. And when that race was over he found his engine had a broken valve spring—truly this was his lucky day! But Joe deserved it and nobody grudged him his wins, for he won on merit.
It was valve trouble which plagued him in that year's Coast-Rand race, sidelining him at Estcourt. One day he hoped to get a straight run—and then?
In 1935 the first race to be run within the city boundaries was held—the Durban Grand Prix. The promoting club was Parkhill MCC and the venue—the Bluff circuit. This was won by the popular Jock Leishman on a 490 AJS from dashing little Alan Herschell, the ex-jockey (175 James) — a real flyer this side valve — Eric Schroenn on another mighty potent side valve Ariel of 557 cc, and then Sarkis on a 250 Sunbeam. Joe did get around. Wherever there was a race, there was the Laughing Cavalier of the race tracks, always with something potent under him, always riding like a demon and, till Sarkis was out, no race was ever over or won.
The Eastern Province MCC, having recovered from the Depression years, came back in 1936 with a new race, the PE 200, a handicap event — to replace the TT. The first of this new series drew 26 competitors and a crowd of 60 000 spectators round the famous TT course. There were so many race fans jamming the road from town that riders had great difficulty in reaching the start. Harold Brook's fuel and helmet just got there with 30 seconds to spare.
Joe was on scratch on his 500 Sunbeam, Leishman (AJS) and Galway (Norton) had 1 minute start. Galway did his first lap at 85 mph Joe countered with one at 86.1. Away in front the racers were going like a pack of angry bees. Prominent among them was that neatest of stylists, Harold Brook, on a 350 Velo, and as the race progressed the gents with the stop-watches, pencils and paper predicted the winner would be cither young Hal or old Jo. They were right, too. For Harold held his lead to win a well-deserved victory. What might have developed into a fight to a finish with Joe fizzled out when, on the penultimate lap, Joe lost his footrest and brake pedal. Despite that, he still had the honour of making fastest time for the distance, averaging 76.45 mph. Brook won from Schroenn, again on that super-fast s/v Ariel, and Johnny Strydom (Norton).
The last Durban-Johannesburg race was the 1936 event, and Joe entered a 500 Sunbeam. It was now or never if he was going to win a DJ, the only big race he had never won. But it was not to be, for though he tried as only Sarkis could, and for once his bike held together for the full 400 miles, he could do no better than fifth. He did have the satisfaction of setting a new 500 cc record for the race, knocking 21 minutes off the old time. The second fastest time ever done in the history of the race. Roy Hesketh, who finished second to Jarman, was 5 minutes faster than Joe, setting an all-time record for the course—6 hrs 5 mins 2 secs.
In the second PE 200, run on Boxing Day, there was another battle royal, Joe on a 350 Norton tailing the 500s of Strydom and Galway to the finishing post. Then just to show his class, he won every motor-cycle race held on the Earl Howe Circuit (now the Kelvin housing estate), near Johannesburg, in 1937, and that same year paid a visit to Maritzburg for the "Natal 100" held on the Alexandra Circuit. He finished 6th in the 1938 "100", putting up fastest time for the distance. On the Grosvenor GP course in Cape Town he had another duel with Galway, and though he put up fastest lap he had to be content with second place there.
He followed up with an unsuccessful outing in a 2 250 Willys, which he drove in the "Kimberley 100" car race, but reverted to his old love—motor cycles—for the third PE 200. This time he was on a springer Norton, but a broken down-tube put him out—a most unusual happening in 1938. H P Hall won on a James, Galway and Nathan Smith on 350 Nortons giving the crowds thrills as they lapped in close company at 90 mph.
As the Eastern Province MCC had given up the TT, permission was granted to hold the South African National Championships in Bloemfontein. The first race for 350s was over 75 miles and, riding with all his old fire and skill, he led all the way to win from Nathan Smith and local boy M Botha. The 500 cc event was more closely contested, for Nathan Smith hung on grimly and Joe just beat him by 13 second. Vic Proctor was third.
The 1939 PE retained its reputation as one of the fastest motor-cycle race circuits in the world. Barney Barnett (250 Francis Barnett) nicely treated by the handicappers, won from Doug Sutherland (350 Velo), Nathan Smith (500 Norton), Galway (500 Norton), Lesar (James) and Sarkis (500 Norton).
Truly this was a tremendous race to see, for the three Nortons broke the lap record again and again. Riding within yards of each other all the way, first Galway, then Sarkis would lead. Neither gave an inch without a battle. Galway recorded the fastest lap in 13 mins 5 secs. Sarkis and Smith were only fractionally slower. This was the fastest motor-cycle racing that had ever been seen in South Africa, and people were thinking in terms of 100 mph laps before the finish.
It all depended on who would refuel quickest, and there was great excitement as the machines were heard roaring up, from Frames, to start the last lap. Joe's pit attendant was busy. But what was this. Galway went straight through non-stop! Joe braked to a standstill, filled in seconds and was off in pursuit. That pit stop decided the fight between them, for Johnny averaged 94.6 mph in taking fourth place, .6 mph faster than Joe. Nathan Smith's time worked out at 91.1 mph.
Here was Joe, after 20 years in the game, holding his own with the younger stars. You had to raise your hat to the old master. It is of interest here to record that of all the many machines he raced, his Nortons were, in his opinion, the best—truly "unapproachable". With the war, Joe hung up his crash helmet after a career that was memorable from start to finish.
There will always be arguments about who was South Africa's greatest motor-cycle racer of all time, starting with Percy Flook, the first man to represent this country in the 1913 Isle of Man TT races, and coming right up to the present day racers. That is a question that can never be answered satisfactorily, but if you look at the record books you will find it difficult to dispute the claims of Joseph Anthony Sarkis to a place in the final ballot of three names. What do you think?
Nowadays in his work he does more flying than motoring, but, after motor-cycle racing, thinks it's tame!
P.S.—I hope that lad from Kyalami reads this—it isn't everybody who can say the great Joe Sarkis gave him a few tips at the outset of his career.
Copyright J. Leyden, 1964.