A race for the ages: Michael Rutter and Phillip McCallen reflect on legacy of Macau Motorcycling Grand Prix
The superstar duo take a trip down memory lane before 50th edition of race this weekend over the famed Guia Circuit
The Macau bug bit Michael Rutter at a very early age. While the British rider has since gone on to carve his name in the annals of the event – with eight Macau Motorcycle Grand Prix titles, so far – Rutter was still a child of around just five or six when he first caught the action, from so far away.
It was in the living room of his father and one-time racer Tony Rutter’s Wordsley home, with the television on and his heroes racing there in front of him, that Rutter’s destiny was determined.
As he grew-up, Rutter kept track of who was racing and who was winning in Macau each year, with the hope that he could one day test his own skills across the tricky Guia Circuit.
And the chance finally came in 1994, when the British racer was 22 years old.
“Coming in that first time I knew very little about the city,” says Rutter. “I’d seen it on TV before. My dad had raced everywhere else in the world, but he’d never been.
“When I finally got there, well, there’s no words for it, really. It’s just so different to anywhere else in the world. It’s just a special place and you feel that the moment your feet hit the ground.”
To visit the city is one thing, to win the Grand Prix is quite another entirely and Rutter says after he first took that chequered flag – in 1998 – he world was never quite the same again.
“God, that first win!” he recalls. “All my heroes had done it – Robert Dunlop, Steve Hislop. To win a race that someone like Kevin Schwantz had won - what a thrill. I can remember watching Ron Haslam – who has the second most wins [with six] – race when I was five or six years old. Those sorts of memories are just wonderful.”
And the Macau Motorcycle Grand Prix has now been providing them for 50 years. This weekend will see the event mark its Golden Jubilee with a parade of former champions – and one of the hottest field’s in the race’s history.
Coming back to relive the glory days will be former winners Sadeo Asami (1978, 1979 and 1980), Mick Grant (1977, 1984), Steve Plater (2006, 2007), and Phillip McCallen (1996) – while out there on track fans will see five former champions in Rutter, John McGuinness, Stuart Easton, Ian Hutchinson, and defending champion Peter Hickman.
Some of the sport’s biggest names have ventured to Macau for the event over the years – and the honour roll reads like a veritable who’s who of motorcycling as there have been 27 winners over the 49 races so far.
Japan’s Hiroshi Hasegawa took out the first edition in 1967 – and repeated the dose the following year. That man Ron “Rocket” Haslam hold the unique distinction of winning every race he entered - and those six wins between 1981 and 1987 place the Englishman behind Rutter on the all-time list – while Scotsman Easton has four wins to his credit, coming between 2008 and 2014.
That victory in 1988 by the wildly popular Schwantz – celebrated by the American with a display of impressive theatrics down the main straight – was a result that helped further spread the word about the race globally.
“I started hearing about the race in the late 80s and it became something I wanted to do, something I thought I had to do,” recalls the 53-year-old from his base in Northern Ireland.
“It was invitation-only back in those days. I really came out on the bigger bike scene in 1988 and then in 1989 the invitation to Macau came. Schwantz had won in 88 and he was a bit of a hero to all of us and I thought right, I have to do it.”
McCallen was at the time well on the way to becoming one of road racing’s greatest ever riders
“My heritage was road racing so the track was no surprise, really,” says McCallen. “The only thing was back home we have trees and walls to deal with, and in Macau it was walls and Armco. So they were still obstacles, just a different type.”
While the racing was at least familiar, McCallen admits to feeling a little bit lost when it came to the city that hosts the even – “It was like nothing I had ever seen before,” he says.
But he quickly warmed to the party atmosphere off the track, and set to work trying to conquer a race he says had become something of a “mission.” It didn’t take him long to make his mark, finishing second in his first year (1989) behind Robert Dunlop – and learning a valuable lesson about caution, and about when to throw it to the wind.
“To be honest I should have won that race but I was being too careful,” McCallen says. “You’re briefed and briefed and briefed on safety and I should have passed Robert Dunlop on the last hairpin and I didn’t do it because I was afraid of maybe touching him or doing something wrong. From then I wanted to win it. I’d won a bit before but I wasn’t going to stop until I won Macau.”
It would be seven years before McCallen’s dream was finally realised – a win he says came simple because he had the “right bike at the right time.”
“I’d switched from a 750cc to a 500cc – and that made all the difference,” he says. “It was such a special moment for me to join all those great, great winners who had come before me – my heroes, really. I wanted to return to race again but things didn’t quite work out with injuries soon after that ended my career.
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“But to have got that win, in such a race, is something I will always hold very dear. I can’t wait to get back there for the 50th and catch up with everyone.”
While McCallen these days spend most of his time helping other chase their motorcycling dreams through his dealership, Rutter looks a long way off calling it a day on his own incredible career.
The undisputed king of two wheel racing in the enclave says simple that he’ll keep returning “as long as they ask me and as long as my body lets me.”
And Rutter is the first person most young racers turn to when the start researching what the Macau race is all about.
“Yeah they do ask me about the race,” says Rutter. “But I just say to them ‘Wait till you get there.’ When you’re going down near those barriers near Lisboa - my god it feels quick.
“Lisboa is the place where you can really mess things up. Going in to the Mandarin – it just feels so fast. You don’t really until you’re headlining towards it – sixth gear at about 180 miles per hour.
“When you’re sat there on the bike going head down into it, that’s when you really know you’re in a race, and a very special race at that.”