Motorcycling: The `Pocket Rocket' rides into record books

Catherine Riley meets the youngest motorcyclist in tomorrow's Grand Prix
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The Independent Online
It is almost 20 years to the day that "Rocket" Ron Haslam's Suzuki went up in flames following a spectacular crash in the first mainland British motorcycling Grand Prix at Silverstone. But as he looks forward to tomorrow's meeting at Donington, Haslam is more nervous than in all his years of grand prix and TT racing, because, at the age of just 14, his son, Leon, will become the youngest rider ever in a senior event. He will take part in one of the support races, the Honda CB500 Cup.

"I didn't realise how much pressure is on - especially when it's your own son," Haslam said. "I'm pleased that he's going that way, but it's more frightening than I expected."

Leon is one of motorcycling's biggest hopes, hence the Auto Cycle Union's unprecedented decision to grant him a special licence to race at Donington. Following his success in the under-16 moto-cross championships, this season Leon moved up to the Carnell-Gilera scooter championship, in which he is 79 points clear of his nearest challengers.

"The 500cc bike is a big step up from the scooters," Haslam senior says. "From a scooter to a proper bike - with big wheels and quite a lot of power there - is a huge jump. I tested him on it for a couple of days at Donington and he handled it all right. I followed him and made sure he didn't get in any trouble and also made sure he could physically handle the bike, so we've worked pretty hard at that."

Leon, in all other respects a normal teenager, who likes playing football, swimming and running, is fairly relaxed about racing against adults at speeds of up to 115mph on a bike he will not be allowed to ride on the road for several years.

"I've been round bikes for most of my life and I've done moto-cross for many years. This year I've done the scooters and it's just natural to move up. It's a bit bigger than the bikes I've been on, but I cope with it OK."

But when pushed, the "Pocket Rocket", as he is known, will admit to being both nervous and excited. "We can't get him to leave the track," his father says. "We have to try and calm him down because his excitement is just building up and up. With his enthusiasm getting that high, it's easy for him to make mistakes, so we're trying to calm him down a bit and get him to go out there and simply enjoy it."

Leon is well aware of the dangers of the sport. Two years in succession he was leading the moto-cross championship going into the final round - and broke his leg both times.

"It's taught me to respect the bike. I feel my riding has been been a lot smoother since I broke my legs. It is really important in road racing to keep calm and keep your riding smooth. Breaking my legs made me think, and in a way it helped calm me down."

Leon has been riding since he was eight. "One day he said he wanted to have a go at moto-cross. That started the ball rolling and it's gone on from there," Haslam recalls. So he didn't push him into it? "I'm the one that holds him back - he can't get enough of it.

"My wife, Anne, and I have put restrictions on him. We don't expect him to be Einstein, but we do expect him to get average grades. The understanding is that as long as he achieves that then the bikes can carry on. If he falls below average, then we stop the bikes."

Grades permitting, what does Leon want to do next? "Carrying on with bikes is probably my aim for the next few years and try and get into grand prix, like my dad, or superbikes." His father is aiming a little lower. "Well, 125s next season - if he can get the licence."

And then? "I'll just let him go, to be honest, if he wants to do that. If it doesn't last then fair enough, but I can't see it. He'll want to go all the way with it and as he's had such an early start, hopefully he can do better than I did."

Ask Leon what he expects from his first major outing and the excited teenager is gone, in his place a determined professional. "When you're on the track you always give 100 per cent and try and push your hardest, but I'm hoping for a podium position - that would be a really good result."

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