Jeremy Burgess | The Godmaker

Turning mortals into world champions since 1987

By Hamish Cooper, Photography by Gold & Goose

Lush spring growth soon becomes the early-summer curse of the small-acreage landholder. At the end of each racing season, Valentino Rossi’s crew chief Jeremy Burgess returns for a few months from the noisy intensity of the MotoGP circuit to the peaceful little valley in South Australia he calls home. Every year he faces the same daunting list of tasks.

He has to ensure the bore is working properly for summer, repair or replace stock fencing, test the bushfire water pumps, slash the spring growth around the boundaries and launch a desperate rearguard action on the advancing blackberries, broom and other exotic weeds.

Why doesn’t he just hire help, sit back and relax watching cricket on TV? "I enjoy working methodically through it on my own," he says as he heads off toward a recalcitrant bore pump with plumber’s tools tucked under his arm. A few cuts with an old hacksaw, some application of cleaning fluid and pipe adhesive, and that’s one job ticked off the list.

Now it’s on to the fences. In the past 10 days, JB has erected hundreds of yards of new stock fencing on an undulating terrain. With three top runs of barbed wire, it’s strong enough to keep in cattle. This morning he wants to double-check the tension of the top strand.

There’s a dangerous art in operating an old chain wire strainer. It’s not so much a physical effort as being aware of how to work it without crimping the wire or over-tensioning it. Get it wrong and the broken wire will fire straight back at your face like the bolt from a crossbow.

You can see the similarities between this work and the tasks JB carries out in MotoGP. Both involve lateral thinking, the solution of small daily problems and the ability to just roll up your sleeves and get into it. These qualities are what make Australian and New Zealand race engineers sought after the world over, bred in the old colonial culture of "You have to do it all yourself because you’re a long way from civilization."

The difference with JB is that he’s always analyzing even the most menial task. As he fixes the bore, he talks in detail about his first job as a teenager working for the water-driller farther up the valley. I get a brief-but-comprehensive lecture on soil types, bore casings and water pressures released from the aquifer. It may be more than 40 years since he did this work, but the knowledge is still deeply embedded and accessible. This knowledge would have come from an old "bushie" with the attitude of "I’m only going to tell you this once, so you’d better be listening."

Farmwork, even on this small scale, can be dangerous. JB once missed a round of the world championship after putting a chainsaw through his boot. It seems to be a mixture of post-season therapy and something that’s bred into him.

"Our family moved here in 1955, and you could say my dad was the first hobby farmer," he says. "He brought in one of the first D5 Caterpillar tractors to knock over the big gum trees. He tried an apple orchard. That didn’t work so he tried strawberries. Again, there wasn’t enough water for them. Finally he turned into a bit of an arborist, planting everything from cork trees to mulberries."

It was a simple country life for JB and his brothers and sisters, but out of this family came a doctor, a lawyer and 14 world championships—with no private-school education. Unusually for the time, his mother juggled housework while developing a career in teaching. She died two years ago at age 89, and JB takes me on one last tour of the property before it’s auctioned. It’s a poignant moment as the past 55 years of family life have been stripped out and only the shell remains.

There’s the empty old dairy shed where JB worked on the Suzuki and Yamaha two-strokes he raced in the ’70s. "I came across a heap of TZ750 parts in the cleanout and gave them to a collector in Europe," he says.

By Hamish Cooper
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