Steve Parrish: a great sport
PUBLISHED: 14:50 16 July 2018 | UPDATED: 14:50 16 July 2018
Prankster, rebel rouser and brilliant on a bike or in a truck, Royston's Steve Parrish is still in love with the track... and 'the sting'
To anyone who followed motorsport in the period leading up to the Millennium, the name Steve Parrish will conjure up memories of British Superbike Championship success with almost a decade on the Moto GP circuit, and a wealth of European Truck Racing titles.
These days, a younger generation of racing fans will know him more for his warm, flowing tones as a TV commentator for the BBC, ITV and others, most notably on the Isle of Man TT coverage – a race he competed in eight times.
‘Let’s be honest, it’s a face for radio – so I should be doing that,’ laughs Steve. ‘But I’m just delighted to still be involved in motorsport, and I enjoy it now every bit as much as I did then. In fact, I probably enjoy it more these days as I don’t have to worry about serious injury!’
Said half in jest, the likeable 65-year-old, who was raised in Royston and still lives in the north Herts town, makes a serious point. While the safety of F1 has transformed motorsport over the past two decades, there is only so much protection that can be put in place for a bike rider tearing around Silverstone at speeds approaching 200mph or, for that matter, on the streets of the Isle of Man. However, Steve believes bike racing has transformed too.
‘I’m fortunate that I was born into a wonderful era – I missed the war and went through the 1960s, 70s and 80s when it was sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and fun,’ he grins. ‘In terms of the sport, you could play around and do dangerous things…
‘And yes, I talk about this halcyon period, but lots of people didn’t make it. Racing was very dangerous, there was no health and safety and we all did crazy, mad things, whereas nowadays it seems you’re not allowed to, and that’s probably right. Mostly, I’m pleased I survived!’
Racers frequently arrived for testing and practice feeling the effects of the night before, and infamously in the sport, Steve once stepped in to ride his teammate, and great friend, Barry Sheene’s qualifying session at a domestic UK race.
‘Barry had been out the night before and was worse for wear, so I put on his helmet and overalls and did his lap. I then had to come back, jumped on my beautiful two-stroke 1979 RG500 Suzuki, put my overalls on, and rode it again… although annoyingly my own qualification was slower!
‘I got away with it mainly because people didn’t have phones and cameras and tracking systems and whatever transponders there are now, but we would have been in big trouble if caught.’
After retiring from racing superbikes in the mid-80s he began a five-year stint managing the Yamaha team he once rode for, winning four British championships between 1987 and 1991. He then switched sports, got back in the racing seat, and competed for 15 years at the top of the truck racing world, before switching to media duties.
‘Surprisingly, there is quite an affinity between trucks and bikes,’ Steve explains. ‘Timing, when driving each, is vitally important. A motorcycle doesn’t want to change direction quickly, and they have to be coaxed into corners very smoothly. A five-tonne truck has those same factors – kinetic energy that doesn’t want to shift around corners, and an awful lot of weight, so switching from one to the other was a perfect transition for me, and a lot of fun.’
These days, he’s back in Royston, and something of a mischevious celebrity based on his choice of vehicles – a fire engine, a hearse, and an ambulance he used to leave parked on double yellows with the doors open to visit the local bank.
‘I’ve had some eccentric vehicles over the years,’ he says. ‘They have made me laugh and, hopefully, other people as well. The thing about the hearse is we’re all going to be in one eventually – I just bought mine early! It even came with a coffin in it, so I’ve saved the wife a few bob...
‘That has probably been the most fun – I used to drive it around really slowly, getting lots of irate drivers lining up behind me bemoaning the fact they were going to be late for work. Then, out of the blue, I would just tear off up the road and leave them behind!’
Although Steve has travelled extensively, gliding across some of the smoothest, most welcoming tarmac in the world (his favourite track is the Spa circuit in Belgium), he has some choice spots right here at home.
‘My perfect weekend would be my mates coming around for a barbecue in the sunshine and then maybe we go for a bit of off-roading on the bikes,’ he says. ‘There are some great little trails around Royston – they are challenging but fun, and the scenery is spectacular in places.
‘I’ve also got a little aeroplane I like to take out for a spin. We live in such a beautiful, green county, and it’s great to get out and soak it up.’
Has he always been a man at peace with himself and his motors? ‘I never took it too seriously,’ he replies. ‘Yes I loved to win, but as long as something has an engine in it – one that worked – I was content.’
The only issue with attending one of Steve’s summer gatherings is you may end up on the wrong end of a Parrish prank. A notorious practical joker, he remains banned from parts of China following some overactive firecrackers, he burnt down a toilet block in Finland, sabotaged a rival team’s support car by undoing all the wheel nuts, and even appeared in an episode of trick TV show Beadle’s About.
Asked about his current favourite ‘sting’, he admits the ‘smashed window’ is the best, and he’s into double figures when it comes to his tally of victims.
‘If I have a friend come to visit me, I’ll grab their car keys when they’re not looking, wind a window down and place some broken windscreen glass over their seat, with a brick on it. When they see it, I talk about us having problems with vandals, I lend them some plastic and they tape it up before heading to the autoglass replacement centre to order a window – only to find it’s been wound down!
‘I sense word is getting round as recent visitors have kept their car keys buried deep in their pockets, so I might have to consider a new wind-up. I’ve got a few ready to go,’ he grins.
Steve Parrish’s new autobiography, Parrish Times: My Life as a Racer (Orion Books) is out now priced £18.99
• Steve began racing bikes at 19 after he ‘got too wild for the roads’.
• His first victory was the British Championship in 1976 on a TZ750 Yamaha, aged 22.
• Steve has won more European Truck Racing Championships (five) than anyone else.
• He was a teammate to Barry Sheene on a Suzuki in the 1977 500cc World Championship, finishing fifth overall.
• He was the 1978 500cc ACU ‘Gold Star’ Champion, won the British Shell 500 title in 1979 and 1980, and took the British Superbike Championship title in 1981.