Every June 9 for the past 36 years a group of motorcycle freaks have met for lunch at the New Boundary Hotel in Hoddle St, East Melbourne and celebrated the life of Kenny Blake, who died on this day in 1981.
Surely it is one of the most amazing and continuous tributes to a mate ever known. They come from afar to cheer this bloke, a motorcycling legend who won 11 Australian motorcycling titles. Some say he would have been at least the equal to Australia’s more recent champions Wayne Gardner, Mick Doohan and Casey Stoner had he not been forced to race on a shoe-string budget.
Kenny declared that one of the world’s most famous motorcycling races, the Isle of Man 500cc TT, on June 9, 1981, would be his last. Fuel problems at the start forced him into last position on the grid. Come the last lap he had passed 103 riders and had the leaders in sight when his bike aquaplaned on a wet patch at Ballagarey, sliding into a concrete post and killing him instantly. He was just 32.
There is the Ken Blake Foundation, which provides a grant for promising riders, and it’s based in Melbourne. When it comes to motorcycling seemingly everything is in Melbourne. When aged 25, it was where Kenny, as he was affectionately known, followed his dream.
But Kenny was born in Strathalbyn, and a delightful lady, Marylou Nees, who runs Garage Motorcycles – one of the coolest shops imaginable in Sunter Street – wants everyone to remember where he came from. She never met the great man, yet she is organising the inaugural Strathalbyn Motorcycling Festival from October 26-28.
“It’s all about bringing Kenny Blake back home,” Marylou said. And the 27th will have been his 73rd birthday so expect the Hoddle St crew to come over and celebrate that also.
The major highlight of the festival will be the unveiling of a statue of Kenny created by renowned Goolwa artist James Stewart.
Yet, for all of her passion and determination as the sole person behind this festival, the one who came up with the idea, it’s not about Marylou, a mother of four, or her fabulous shop that attracts motorcycle diehards from around Australia. It’s about Kenny Blake and Strathalbyn.
There is a legion of bike boomers out there who enjoy casually riding their pride and joy across the plains, and they all remember Kenny. Their kids have only heard the stories about the legend, like the day in ’73 in the Castrol 6-hour production bike race at Amaroo Park. A very tight and twisty 1.9km circuit, it was a two-rider share race, but Kenny rode the entire 342 laps alone and won, rated nationally as one of the all-time greatest riding performances.
Now possibly 10,000 or more of these now ‘not-so-easy riders’ are all headed from all over Australia for this three-day event in Strathalbyn; the benefit for the town, and the wider region, is huge.
There is a $100 dinner ticket for 100 people on the eve at the magnificently reconstructed Strathalbyn Oval complex, and over the weekend Kenny memorabilia displays in the town council chambers including two of his bikes, a trade show for the public on the oval and manufacturer ‘demo’ rides on Ashbourne Rd, a KB Memorial Trail through the town, a huge show ‘n shine featuring hundreds of motorbikes from Kenny’s era from 1960s-mid-80s, and a trash-and-treasure with bike parts at the local trotting track.
Tony Potter from SA Plaster Board has already chipped in with $15,000 major sponsorship, and plenty of others are getting on board. Overall, it’s an incredible start by Marylou, and she thanks her husband David for his support, and that of a committee currently being formed.
This ‘bringing Kenny Blake back home’ festival all started when a chap approached Marylou in the lead-up to the local council elections in October, 2014. “Hello, I’m Keith Parkes, and I’m running for mayor,” he told her.
“I thought, oh hell, a bloke wanting a vote, blah, blah,” Marylou said. “He asked me what I would like to see happen in Strathalbyn to help my business.
“I told him I’d like to see a lot; that it was sad I had done a lot of motorbike riding and seen beautiful places around the world but here in South Australia we had so much more to offer but we didn’t present the attraction to the tourists.
“South Australia has mainly excellent roads, this beautiful flora and fauna, and lovely seasons. We’re not plagued like they are in Europe where you can’t ride up to the mountains because of snow.
“I told Keith I wanted a festival to bring people to Strathalbyn and the region. He said, right, I like your idea… go back and do a plan and I will be back in 30 days.
“On the 30th day he came back and asked, where’s the plan? I said you must be kidding; I thought you were joking.
“I jumped on my motorbike and I was riding into a head wind when the idea came – Kenny Blake was born in our town. This was his watering hole. Victoria had always claimed him as theirs, so I thought, let’s bring Kenny Blake back home.
“Victoria is motor cycling Australia. Everything motorbikes is Melbourne. I just went to the Kenny Blake Foundation in 2016 and said, hey, I’ve got this idea. He was born in Strath and we want to do something for him before you guys fall off the perch. They said, oh… oh okay.
“I went to Kenny’s original motorcycling club, the Phoenix club, and I said I’m not treading on your toes, but put it this way, I have done this ground work. I just want to know whether you want to be involved. If you don’t don’t worry about it we’re doing it anyway. So here we all are.”
Behind all of Marylou’s passion for this festival and her town, her determination to have a statue of Kenny Blake, there is the challenge of getting over the seemingly obvious – a perception in some people’s minds that motorcycling is merely about Harleys and trouble.
This festival is for families and especially the average person who loves to ride a motorcycle. And no one enjoys it more than Marylou; her journey has always taken her on different paths, from Perth as an interior designer. Somehow she fell in love with motorcycles and was part of the first group that provided compulsory learn-to-ride training.
Marylou also travelled to the APY Lands and along the famous Rabbit Proof Fence Line on the West Australian border line to teach Aboriginal ladies in their 60s how to ride a motorbike. She has been on a road safety committee for years, and took on her shop 12 years ago.
“Oh yes, I love motorcycles,” Marylou said. “It’s the pleasure of riding. You are the one with the environment. It’s you with the environment and the smell of the bike.
“I like going to different countries, and if you travel through a country, whether it be China, Europe, Vietnam or Albania the roads you are taking are the second or third roads; you’re travelling in the real country. You are seeing poverty, turmoil. You are escaping to places no one else sees.
“It makes you feel alive. You feel minimalist; you are not carrying a hair dryer, or make-up – you you are you on your motorbike.
“There are so many beautiful little roads that you can find right here in South Australia, like the Barossa and the Adelaide Hills, and now I want everyone, especially foreigners, to discover our roads to Strathalbyn.
“We’ve got more to offer than other places right here; we’ve got great food, great wines and we are not in the high market; we’re affordable.
“Now I am telling Keith Parkes (who was elected mayor) that I want to see every-day people come to this beautiful town. I want them to see the statue of Kenny Blake and leave knowing where he came from and who he really was – a little kid who lived in Rowe Street, Strathalbyn and became a legend.”