Learning > Inspiration

What a ride it’s been for veteran racer Armstrong Alfred Harris, 83

83-year-old recalls glory days of motorbike racing - and its spills

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Rahimah Rashith on 14 Nov 2018

The Straits Times

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The air was once thick with exhaust, motor oil and excitement along part of Upper Thomson Road.

 

In the 1960s and 1970s, the former Upper Thomson Road Circuit played host to the original Singapore Grand Prix, which drew thousands of spectators each time.

 

Racing through the 4.8km circuit carved with sharp bends on a Norton Manx motorbike was speed chaser Armstrong Alfred Harris.

 

"Winning the race was not important," said Mr Armstrong, who took part several times from 1962. "It was exhilarating to just be there," said the 83-year-old, when asked if he had won any races.

 

Born to a Eurasian father and Chinese Singaporean mother, Mr Armstrong fell in love with the sport after becoming a pit crew member for his racer uncle Victor L. S. Lee.

 

Mr Armstrong, then in his early 20s, would wait by the tracks for his uncle to make a pit stop so he could help refuel the motorbike. He was also tasked with signalling to his uncle where the other racers were.

 

Mr Armstrong, an English and mathematics teacher before going on to teach woodwork and metal work, spent most of his time outside of work on the tracks.

 

"Watching my uncle ride the motorbike sparked a desire in me," he said. In the mid-1950s, he joined the former Singapore Motor Club with his uncle and started racing.

 

When the 1970s rolled in, Mr Armstrong traded the asphalt tracks of road circuits for the dirt tracks of the motocross world.

 

Riding his motorbike, he would skid and slide down dirt tracks and the rough terrain of the motocross race track in Changi.

 

When he became the competition secretary of the then Singapore Motor Sports Club, he started managing the logistics, setting up motocross races on the plot of land the club was allowed to use.

 

Still, he clung on to his motorbike.

 

With a group of bikers, Mr Armstrong often went on trail rides up to Malaysia and even Thailand. "During the school holidays, five or six of us would get on our bikes and ride all over Malaysia," he said. "We went fast but safety was always a priority. We had a system where we would look out for the rider behind us. No one got left behind."

 

Along the way, Mr Armstrong came across spectacular sights and sounds that still hold a special place in his memory. "I've seen an indigenous village. I've seen another village where they made batik cloths, I would just stop and watch them and talk to them," he said, adding that he brushed up on his conversational Malay while talking to villagers.

 

"At a coastal area, I saw big turtles laying eggs... I felt at peace."

 

A few times, they rode to Thailand. "It took us two to three days to get to southern Thailand," he said.

 

"There I watched the Thai people fly magnificent, colourful kites called Wao," he said, adding that the kites were easily 11/2 times bigger than a person. "Three or four people would be trying to get it into the air and sometimes you see some fellows flying along with the kite," he said with a chuckle.

 

His motoring passion was not with its dangers, however.

 

During a race in Malaysia in the 1950s, Mr Armstrong fell, broke his nose and injured his right leg. "I was racing and I felt like I got pushed off the track. I fell into a deep ditch and was taken to the hospital," he said.

 

While his injuries have long healed, his legs have become weaker with age. It has been four years since he last rode his bike.

 

These days, he takes walks - with the help of a cane - around Serangoon Garden Estate where he lives with his sister in a terraced house. Mr Armstrong, who last taught at Presbyterian High School before he retired in 1990, never married.

 

But do not be deceived by his change of pace; speed is still king for this veteran racer.

 

"Even though I have not ridden the past few years, I cannot stop thinking about it. Sometimes I still think I can go on the motorbike, but my friends and family are against it," he said with a laugh.

 

"It is not easy to let go of something that I enjoyed for so long."

 

Now, whenever he hears the roar of a motorcycle engine in the neighbourhood, his face lights up. "Even though I cannot do it anymore, it still calls out to me," said a smiling Mr Armstrong.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.