Leon and Ron Haslam: 'I've broken many bones but it does not make you fearful'

The Brian Viner Interview: The 'Pocket Rocket' riding in a legendary father's tyre tracks has found that painful bumps in the road have only fuelled his ambition to win a world championship
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The Independent Online

Bikes of the pedalling variety are suddenly all the rage, following the British cycling team's success at the Olympic Games. But not at Donington Park, not on Ron Haslam Race School day. To the dozens of men and boys walking around purposefully in full leathers the Olympics might as well be taking place on the far side of the moon, although Haslam's bright blue eyes find the middle distance when I ask whether he would like to see motorbike racing in the Olympics. "That would be fantastic," he says. "But in motor sport it's often what's under you what counts, not how good you are, so that's probably why they don't do it."

In "Rocket" Ron Haslam's racing career, it was more a case of how good he was, not what was under him. He won three world titles, and also won the perilous Isle of Man TT. He also lost half a finger to the sport of motorcycling and, more painfully by far, two older brothers. That's why he lied to his mother as she lay dying, telling her that he had decided to give up, and now he knows what she went through. His 25-year-old son Leon, the so-called "Pocket Rocket", is one of the stars of the British Superbikes scene, and is determined to emulate the old man by winning a world title.

Ron watches him in every race. "And I understand now why my mother was whittling all the time. Because I know what his lap times should be, so when he's even one second late coming round that corner, you can't believe the tension. The best feeling is when he crosses the flag at the end of the race, but it's unbelievable when he crosses it and he's winning, like at Knockhill last week [Leon's first win of the season]. I get as much fulfilment seeing him win as I got from winning. More because, being big-headed, I always knew I was going to win."

The word "whittling", incidentally, is in this context a Derbyshire colloquialism meaning "worrying". Haslam was the youngest of 10 children, born in the small mining town of Langley Mill to a long-suffering mother and an abusive, drunken father, whose main achievement in life was finding time to father all those kids between spells in prison. And yet this unpromising beginning spawned a world champion. It seems worth asking Haslam whether Leon has had it too cushy, having never known what it is like sharing a bedroom, and indeed a bed, with umpteen brothers in a council house. Does he have the same drive to succeed? "Yeah, because you get that drive from inside yourself. From the time he was eight I made him clean the van, clean the bikes, and I knew that would show me whether his heart was in it. By the time he was 12 ,I knew he really wanted it. It was him who had the drive, it wasn't me driving him."

By then Leon had come within minutes of having a leg amputated, after crashing in a motocross race in Ireland. Naturally, he couldn't wait to get back on his bike; he seemed to have imbibed his dad's fearlessness no less than his mother's milk.

He has joined us now, and I ask him whether he has ever known fear? "No, fear doesn't cross your mind at all," he says. "I've broke my femur, my tib and fib, I've had skin grafts, muscles removed, collarbones, wrists and arms broken, but it doesn't make you fearful, just determined not to make the same mistakes again." His father nods, approvingly. "You have so much self-belief you never think anything bad's going to happen," Ron says. And yet bad things do happen.

In 1974 his brother Phil was challenging Barry Sheene's burgeoning supremacy when he crashed, fatally, in a race in Scarborough. Ten years later, after a crash in the Netherlands, another brother, Terry, followed Phil to the crematorium.

"Phil was the third-youngest, and his death hit us all big time," Haslam recalls. "With Terry, I sponsored him, and if I hadn't then he wouldn't have been there. But I deal with that by saying that he was doing something he really wanted to do. He was 42, and Phil was only 24, but it doesn't matter how long you live, if you're doing what you want then it's a fulfilled life. You can live to be 100 but, if you never love what you're doing, you've never really lived."

He's an improbable but inspiring philosopher, this small man in leathers with the broadest of Derbyshire accents, and his life story – recounted in his newly published book Rocket Men – is compelling. Having never ridden more than a moped, and that with a constant knot of anxiety, I am fascinated by the inner forces that enable a man to direct a 500cc motorbike at full tilt into a wall of fog.

"Your confidence goes a bit," he explains. "It happened to me five or six times in the Isle of Man, especially in early morning practice when there's a lot of fog on the mountain. When you can't see hardly anything at 130mph, 140mph, you're going on rhythm. But once that rhythm gets broke, it becomes frightening. For instance, there's a kink in the road and normally you straight-line it, but in thick fog you take this kink as a corner. That breaks your rhythm and you panic for 20 or 30 seconds, but then you get your speed back and pick a tight corner up and your rhythm comes back."

It is Leon's turn to nod approvingly. He has never raced in the TT – circuits, not roads, are his speciality, and his only ambition on two wheels is to be world champion, and to break into the sport's top tier, MotoGP. "That's the ultimate class, but it's so political to get in there with the right machine," he says. First, he needs to make his mark in World Superbikes, to which end he will be back at Donington in a fortnight's time, competing in the WSB world championship. "Our lap times in the British [Superbikes] are pretty much the same [as WSB] but the world's best can repeat them more consistently, so that's what I'm aiming for," he says.

His aims in life are his father's aims too. Their relationship, he adds, feels more fraternal than anything else. "It's unique. We're definitely more like brothers. I'm only at home about one night a week, because of all my commitments, but whenever I am we go trialling for hours." Doesn't he ever get bollockings? "Not really. I used to, but I came to realise they were to help. I used to think he was a grumpy old git, but having someone with his experience in your corner is fantastic. Saying that, no matter how much advice someone gives, everyone in racing knows you've still got to twist that throttle yourself."

Leon still lives in an annexe to his mum and dad's farm, not that it seems to inhibit his social life. It is seven years since a double-page spread about him in the News of the World hinted at the female attention that a young motorbike star can expect, with the banner headline: "I Found Three Naked Girls In My Bed".

His father smiles happily when I refer to this, not that he ever sought such diversions himself, or so his book would have us believe. That was more the cup of tea, laced with vodka, of his most famous rival. "Sheene had a very different lifestyle to mine," he says. "I must admit that at first I thought he was a bit stuck-up, but I came to respect him a lot. He did so much for the sport."

Haslam's name has not transcended the sport as that of Sheene once did, but within motorcycling he still enjoys superstar status. I leave Donington Park with a gaggle of autograph hunters gathered around him, although his favourite part of the day – in which he and Leon offer tuition to bikers of all standards and ages – is when the two of them get out on the track for a "play" together. Can the old man keep up? "He's still very good, but I've got the edge now," says Leon. There is a glimmer of pride in "Rocket" Ron's eyes, as he nods in agreement.

'Rocket Men' is published by Bantam Press, priced £18.99