In the 1990s, Slick Bass was the most famous - some would say infamous - mechanic in bike racing. As Carl Fogarty’s trusted right-hand man, he prepared the bikes that took the Blackburn Bullet to four World Superbike titles and became a star in his own right.
Most mechanics simply blend into the background; faceless figures who lurk in the dark recesses of pit boxes, but Bass has always been larger than life. Outspoken, no stranger to a bottle of Jack Daniels, and with a reputation for being a bit of a ladies’ man, Slick Bass was a throwback to the halcyon days of Sheene and Hailwood at a time when racing was growing ever more corporate. But it was that very devil-may-care attitude that led to the most infamous moment in Bass’ long career as a mechanic. In 1996, having won two world titles with Fogarty at Ducati, he followed his friend to the Castrol Honda WSB squad only to be fired midway through the season. ‘I felt very upset and very pissed off about that’ Bass says now. ‘Within a week I’d gone from being Carl Fogarty’s chief mechanic in the Castrol Honda World Superbike team to fixing up a bike for a courier in a London bike shop.’
It looked like the good times were over. Having worked for some of the greatest riders of modern times, including Joey Dunlop, Steve Hislop, Scott Russell, Niall Mackenzie, Ron Haslam and Fred Merkel, Bass found himself splitting his time between fixing street bikes and waking at 5am to serve fry-ups to guests in his mum’s B&B on the Isle of Man. ‘I was gutted when I got the sack’ he says ‘but it taught me to grow up a bit. The team expected me to be very professional and I suppose I wasn’t very professional at that time.’
Fogarty failed to win the title on the Honda. How much of that was down to Slick’s absence is anyone’s guess, but there are many classic examples of riders and chief mechanics forming interdependent partnerships over the years; Erv Kanemoto and Freddie Spencer, Kel Carruthers and Kenny Roberts and, most recently, Jeremy Burgess and Valentino Rossi. Bass and Fogarty were no exception and when the duo teamed up again, two more world titles would follow. It seemed more than a coincidence.
Anthony Bass, to give him his Sunday name, started working on bikes when he was still at school, helping his father who raced a BSA Bantam. ‘I used to go from school straight round to the garages and that’s where I learned my trade’ he says. ‘I helped build a Kawasaki for the Bol D’Or when I was 11 and it finished in eighth place, beating the works Kawasakis.’
Bass learned further secrets of the trade working for Colin Aldridge Racing before joining Jim Wells’ tuning business in the late 1970s. ‘Jim Wells was about the only tuner in the UK at that point’ Bass explains. ‘He had the first dyno in the country and I remember we used to run Barry Sheene’s engines on it.’
It was during this period that Bass earned the nickname which has stuck throughout his adult life. There are many versions of how he got it, from being slick with the ladies to always leaving a pool of oil underneath whatever he worked on. The man himself says ‘I was always taught when building engines to keep them well lubricated so there was always a big oil slick under me. I got the nickname ‘oil slick’ but when my employers realised I was also fast at doing my job, it just became ‘Slick.’”
In 1987, Bass got his first big break when he was approached by the Honda Britain team to work for Joey Dunlop. For his first professional gig, Slick couldn’t have done much better, although the language barrier between the Essex boy and the Ulsterman did create some problems. ‘I didn’t understand a word Joey said to me the whole year! I remember he came into the pits midway through the British GP and was muttering something under his helmet. I just stood and looked at him cos I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I eventually shoved a paddock stand under him, looked busy for a minute then pushed him off again. It took me two years of asking Joey to find out why he had actually stopped and he eventually just said “For a wee break.”’
While Slick’s capacity for consuming copious amounts of alcohol is now legendary, that wasn’t always the case. But Joey Dunlop proved to be a great mentor in more ways than one. ‘I was a tee-totaller until I worked for Joey’ says Bass. ‘I was 22 and the most I’d ever had was a shandy. Joey said “I can’t teach you how to fix a motorbike but I can teach you how to drink” and he lined up three vodka and cokes on the bar.’
Slick has never looked back.
Dunlop’s crew of Irish friends and helpers were a constant source of wonder and amusement to the young Bass and he still chortles when he recalls some of their escapades. ‘One year Joey had some of his crew giving him signals at the Gooseneck during the Formula 1 TT. They’d agreed to drink a bottle of vodka for every lap that Joey was leading. He ended up leading the led the six-lap race from start to finish and apparently you could see Joey’s shoulders going up and down with laughter as he rounded the Gooseneck because he knew about the deal. His signalling boards were upside down, the wrong way round, and completely unreadable towards the end of the race.’
On another occasion, Dunlop and his crew found themselves battling against Portugese wildlife the night before the F1 round at Vila Real. ‘They were staying in a tent while the rest of us were in a five star hotel. A mole burrowed its way up into the middle of the tent during the night and they had absolutely flattened the tent trying batter this mole to death with their shoes. Joey couldn’t get any sleep so went to kip in the van but ended up getting so badly bitten by mosquitoes that both his eyes were practically closed with swelling. He could barely see but he still won the race.’
By 1989, Bass was working with another all-time great and a close friend - Steve Hislop. Hizzy scored his first TT treble that year but very nearly lost his trusted mechanic - and his Production RC30 race bike - to the Irish Sea. Slick sheepishly tries to explain himself. ‘After the Production 750 race, Steve said the bike was misfiring at top revs, but only in top gear. I’d been in the beer tent for a while and was full of courage so I jumped on the bike and rode along the coast road near Douglas. It turned out to be a really twisty road so I never managed to get flat out in top gear. On the return run I was trying much harder and when a tight corner came up much faster than I expected, I just turned in knowing I was going to crash. Somehow the bike made it round. It was the first time I ever got my knee down and that corner had a sheer drop to the Irish Sea. I didn’t tell Steve until a week later and I was still shaking. I never did find that misfire!’
The situation was almost reversed during a meeting at Mallory Park when Hizzy found himself riding under the influence. ‘Steve and me had got into a drinking session in Ray Stringer’s motor home the night before the race. I woke him in the morning and told him he had a practice session. He got dressed, went out and roared round on the bike and qualified really well. He then threw the bike at me and went straight back to bed. When I went to get him later, he was snoring his head off with his leathers, boots and gloves still on and his helmet by his side. I woke him and he said ‘I’ve just had a weird dream that I’ve been racing round Mallory Park.’ I replied “That wasn’t a fucking dream mate - you were.”’
‘I think he was still half-pissed when he went out but by lunchtime his hangover had really kicked in and he didn’t race. We both agreed to have some ‘technical issues’ with the bike.’
Hislop was also the rider who worked Slick the hardest over any given weekend when he managed a total of six crashes during the 1989 Match Races. The event stretched both Bass and the Honda UK spares department to the limit. ‘I had already rebuilt five bikes and was absolutely starving because I hadn’t had time to eat’ Slick recalls. ‘I sent Steve out and was walking back from the burger van munching a burger when he crashed again right in front of me. I couldn’t believe it. I threw my burger down and ran back to the garage to start work again - still starving.’
It was while staying at Hislop’s house on the Isle of Man that Bass took a call from Jeremy Burgess offering him a job working with Mick Doohan in Grands Prix. Bass was thrilled and accepted immediately but when Eddie Lawson left the Rothmans Honda GP team, HRC found themselves with an excess of mechanics and Slick was no longer required. It was the closest he would get to a top seat in the world’s premier racing class.
After a stint with the JPS Norton team working with the likes of Ron Haslam and Robert Dunlop, Bass finally made it into a team with his old mate Carl Fogarty. It was the partnership that would make both men famous. They won the WSB title for Ducati in 1994 and ’95 before Fogarty made a shock move to Castrol Honda. Naturally, he took his chief mechanic with him but it was all to end in tears when Bass was sacked. ‘The main problem was that I had been used to working at Ducati and doing things my way’ Bass says. ‘Honda’s attitude was “You can do it any way you like so long as it’s our way.” It was so regimented and there were so many hoops you had to jump through just to get one little change made to the bike made - and the RC45 needed a lot of changes made to it. Carl got increasingly frustrated and, because I was so close to him, I suppose I started showing my frustration too.”
When Foggy returned to Ducati in 1997, Slick went with him and, after finishing second that season, the duo won consecutive titles in ’98 and ’99. Slick learned that a chief mechanic’s job goes beyond fettling bikes. ‘You almost have to be a psychiatrist as well as a mechanic when you’re working with riders’ he says. ‘It’s so important to keep them motivated. I remember in Albacete one year Carl only scored one point and none of the mechanics turned up to help him with the bike after the race. I was the only one there and he kept his visor down and was really upset, just staring at his feet. I gave him a hug and said “Fucking well done mate - that must have been the hardest thing for you running round in 15th place but you got a point which is a big bonus and most people in your position would have just pulled in.” That was all he needed to hear. The visor came up, he started smiling and walked into the garage and said “There you go lads, we got a point.”’
Of the riders Bass would most like to have worked with but didn’t get the chance, Barry Sheene tops the list - though the two of them together may have been asking for trouble if Slick’s one night out with Sheene is anything to go by. ‘I was out with Barry once and pretended to be his brother so I could pull a chick. We had a great night and it looked like I was actually going to pull this really nice girl but I got a bit drunk and fell into the urinal. It was all blocked up and filled with pubes and piss so I came out stinking like a fucking swamp monster and the girl just ran a mile. Game over.’
After Fogarty suffered career-ending injuries in 2000, Bass went to America to work with Scott Russell. That ended prematurely when the American also suffered career-ending injuries at Daytona. After that, Bass moved full-time to the Isle of Man, primarily because his mother lived there and he had ‘nowhere else to go.’ In 2002, he opened up his own tuning business ‘Slick! Performance’ which he still runs today. He prepares race bikes and Sidecars for both TT and short circuit riders but will also help road riders boost their machines’ performance. After all, how cool would it be to tell your mates down the pub that Carl Fogarty’s mechanic worked on your bike?
Tucked away on an abandoned airfield, Slick’s workshops are a far cry from the glitz of the WSB paddock but does he have any regrets about the way his career has gone? ‘I don’t think you can go through life without regretting a few things that have happened and I’m no different. Sometimes I did misbehave but that was normally on a Sunday night when the racing was over. I have no regrets about the way the racing and the results went but I do feel like my career came to a finish before I wanted it to. Carl was forced out through injury and then so was Scott Russell but I still think I’ve got a lot to offer a big team.’
And was the London courier satisfied with the world class mechanic’s handy work on his bike? Slick chuckles at the memory. His mind was clearly elsewhere after being dropped from WSB. ‘He was really pissed off because we’d put the wrong carbs in or something and his bike still wasn’t running right. We were also late getting it back to him so he came into the shop complaining like mad and wanting to know who’d been working on his bike. Then he looked over and recognised me and his jaw hit the floor. “Fuck me! You're Slick Bass - Carl Fogarty’s mechanic.” Funnily enough, he seemed satisfied with his bike after that.'