If you run into a stumpy fellah, with a lightning-quick sense of humour, who can barely peer over the bar of any of the pubs around town, it’s probably Ian ‘Buster’ Saunders.
He loves a beer and a laugh, does this jolly character who will talk to anyone. Those who accidentally come across his path may not realise that he was once one of the most-recognisable figures in the world of motor-cycling.
He wonders what the heck I’m doing, showing interest in a ‘sporting has-been’, as he calls it. I explain that I wouldn’t mind doing a blog about his career. Computers, Facebook, Blogs and, indeed, the digital world, are all foreign to ‘Buster’, but no matter, once we start to tread down memory-lane, his eyes light up……….
‘Buster’ was about 8 years of age when his parents, Joan and Noel moved from Mulwala to run ‘Saunders Cycles’, firstly in Murphy Street, then Tone Road. It became the motor-cycling hub of the area.
He and his elder brothers, Alan and Greg were literally reared with the smell of engines in their nostrils and the roar of bikes in their ears .
“They were both good trials riders, but made their mark in other sports”, Buster recalls. “Al was a state junior basketball rep, and later, a top footballer. He represented the O & M as a big, strong ruckman. Greg had the distinction of playing footy alongside Tim Watson in a Victorian Schoolboys side.”
“With my physique, I was limited to two sporting options – being a jockey or a motor-cyclist. I chose the bikes”.
He started full-time work at the shop, as a bike mechanic when he was 16, and for years had been riding minis, then dirt-bikes , before graduating to motor-cross and road racing.
It was in the 125cc class that he was to become renowned. But in the early years of competition it wasn’t all bells and whistles for ‘Buster’.
“Dad and I would head off in an old Toyota Hi-Ace van with a 202-Holden motor that transported us to meetings all over Australia, even across the Nullarbor. Mum and our loyal mechanic, Bill Barfield would stay behind to look after the shop.”
After winning countless races, ‘Buster’ broke through for a significant win when he took out the 125cc Australian championship in 1982. He repeated the feat the following year.
He trailed the leaders, as they went into the final round of the 1984 title at Calder, and needed to win. In an unforgettable finish, he got up to defeat Trevor Morley by less than a length to clinch the hat-trick of national titles.
Wins in the Australian Grand Prix at Bathurst in 1983 and ’85 added to his CV, as did his victory in the New Zealand Champions 2-hour event in 1986.
He began to alternate between the 125cc and 250cc class and would be competing against – and at times beating – the likes of Mick Doohan, Kevin Magee and Daryl Beattie – all to become big motor-cycling names.
Given his stature (he was unable to touch the ground when seated on a race bike) ‘Buster’ gave away a distinct advantage to his opponents, who were able to use their knees to balance when going into a corner. It meant that he had to take a different line, but he learnt to adapt superbly.
‘Buster’s’ biggest win came at Vallelunga, Italy, when he won the Yamaha World Cup in 1987.
He had finished eighth the previous year, in France. The field comprised crack riders from around the world, who had qualified by taking out their own country’s event.
Yamaha supplied them with bikes, which were all virtually the same. Then their mechanics adjusted them to suit each rider. ‘Buster’ provided a big surprise by qualifying fastest, then led from start to finish to take out the coveted cup.
” …..’Buster’ stopped using all of the track and, occasionally, small amounts of Italian countryside, to hold onto the lead, easing into a rhythm to win the race”…..reported one scribe.
When he completed the final lap of the 12-lap race, the crowd of 10,000 wildly cheered the popular Australian.
“The crowd seemed to get behind me, probably because of my height and the fact that it had been reported that I liked to have a few beers on the night before a race. But I tell you what, I let my hair down after it,” he recalls.
It was his easy-going nature that made him a very popular figure in the sport. His win in the World Cup led to an invitation to ride in Canada in 1988, where he spent 6 months competing on the North American circuit.
He was afforded a standing-ovation by the Canadian crowd after his final ride, in which he finished second.
” …….’Buster’ made many friends with his performances, both on and off the track,” ……quoted the newspaper report of his stay in the country.
His continued success led to sponsorship deals, firstly with Kawasaki/Bridgestone and later, Yamaha/Bridgestone. It meant that bikes would be ready for him at race-meetings and he could take the occasional flight, instead of ‘slumming’ it in the old Toyota.
But even then, it was a battle to make ends meet professionally. Prizemoney was ordinary and there were considerable expenses involved.
” Mum and Dad were a great support to me. I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I did, only for them”, he says. “There wasn’t the dough in the game that there is now”.
‘Buster’ left elite competition racing at the age of 28, but has never fallen out of love with the sport. He still attends meetings at Winton or Philip Island and is sought out by bike fans who recognise him.
He competed in Classic Bike Racing from 2007-2014. Riding a vintage, pre-1950 bike, he took out the Victorian Title in 2008-’09 and ’14.
‘Buster’ has worked as a machine operator for Grollo Constructions, up at Mount Buller, for the last 10 years. He comes home on week-ends to unwind, meet up with his mates and ‘have a few quiet ones’.
And there’s nothing he enjoys more than blowing the cobwebs out of his Harley Recreational bike, even riding it to Philip Island for race meetings.
As he soaks up the atmosphere of the big races, it’s hard not to reflect on the days when he was competing against the best……..when Channel 9 ‘caller Darryl Eastlake would produce his familiar catch-cry: “……..And here comes ‘Buster’ Saunders………4 feet 10 inches of dynamite…………..”