Legendary mechanic Nobby Clarke passed away on Saturday morning, aged 81, after a long illness. The former factory spannerman for a string of champions from Gary Hocking to Kenny Roberts died at a clinic at New York, where he had made his home after a peripatetic existence fettling factory bikes for MV Agusta, Honda, Yamaha and others.
Clarke hailed from Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia, where he became involved with future international racing legends including multi-champion Jim Redman. But his closer relationship was with the enigmatic genius Gary Hocking, who came from Rhodesia at full speed to earn a slot in the MV factory team. Clarke joined him in 1960, and in 1961 swept to both 350cc and 500cc championships, before retiring abruptly midway through 1962 – only to die in a Formula 1 car in South Africa later that year.
Now Redman recruited Clarke to the burgeoning Honda team, where his skills and personality won such favour that the factory took him on directly in 1964. By then Clarke moved to Japan, taught himself Japanese, and was valued also as English teacher for the team. He became fluent in several other languages, with a working knowledge of others, to a total of seven. “That’s one of the things the Japanese liked – they didn’t have to have an interpreter. They’d just call me … and I could explain it back to them in Japanese,” he told me earlier this year, in his final interview.
Clarke worked on a generation of legendarily complex Honda racers, including the five-cylinder 125. “You had to use tweezers on a lot of parts, like valve collets – because the parts kept getting smaller, but your fingers stayed the same size.”
After Honda withdrew, Clarke stayed in racing until the 1990s. The list of champions with whom he worked included legends like Bill Ivy, Jarno Saarinen, Kel Carruthers, Barry Sheene, Giacomo Agostini and Kenny Roberts, as well as such as Marco Lucchinelli, when he rode for Cagiva.
After quitting racing, Clarke played the crucial role in reviving (among other famous bikes) the Honda 6 for US revivalists Team Obsolete.
Clarke felt his strong suit was “finesse. You should have feel when you work on the engine. For instance, if you are torqueing something, eventually you can actually feel one kilo of torque, so you don’t really need a gauge. But just to be sure that it is exactly one kilo, I would always put a torque wrench on.”