A Rat Tale (As featured in Transmoto)
The Rat – fast, cunning, stealthy, dirty, sly and annoying. Does it remind you of something? In the ’80s, a large percentage of Australia’s best motocross racers fronted the starting line with the Rat symbol stamped proudly on their jerseys, pants, and gloves. They were fast, cunning, stealthy in their approach, lived for the dirt and, on the whole, annoying.
The gear they wore was custom-designed, visually creative and cutting-edge, and to many the Rat era symbolised an epic era in Australian motocross when the riders’ names were big enough to push football stars off the back pages of major newspapers.
Today, most riders under the age of 30 won’t know much about this iconic Australian brand. But for the older-gen motocrosser, the mere mention of Go The Rat will invariably prompt a gushing of memories from what many still consider the golden age of Aussie motocross.
These days, you’ll still see the occasional faded Rat jersey worn by an old trail dog, or by a weekend warrior cutting laps on his clapped-out machine at Appin in Sydney’s southwest. Yes, the Rat legend still hangs on by a thread. So before it fades away for good, we decided to set its tale in stone – its birth, rise and fall, the champions who wore it – so the rodent can live on in peace, knowing its contribution to sport of motocross will never be forgotten.
Story by Goba (as featured in www.transmoto.com magazine)
VINCE TESORIERO, ANDREW CLUBB, STEPHEN GALL, CRAIG DACK, GEOFF BALLARD, JIM SCAYSBROOK
BIRTH OF THE RAT
In 1974, a man by the name of Vincent Tesoriero and his advertising agency, Forcefield Promotions, created a motocross series called Mister Motocross; a series that quickly grew to legendary status and, over the decade that followed, changed the mainstream perception of how people viewed men riding dirt bikes. When the Mister Motocross series started, riders wore leather pants and a football jersey, business was dealt with on the track, and it didn’t really matter how good you looked. “We wore leathers like Pollards and Golden Breed shirts because nylons weren’t allowed,” recalls early Mr Motocross champ (’76, ’77, ’79), Anthony Gunter.
As the series progressed and rules changed, nylon pants and cotton jerseys began to appear, courtesy of brands such as USA’s JT and Europe’s Sinisalo. Rolling into the ’80s, the sport took on a new level of professionalism as big-name sponsors were increasingly attracted to the sport for its ‘out there, edgy, extreme’ appeal, and because racing was attracting big crowds. Exposure for the sport was at an all-time high.
Jeff Leisk, who won the Mr Motocross title in ’84 and ’85, clearly remembers the time: “It wasn’t unusual to see spectators five deep all the way around tracks like Broadford in Victoria. There had to be close to 10,000 people at those Mr Motocross rounds.”
Youth-orientated lifestyle brands such as Golden Breed, Pepsi, Levi’s, KFC, Grace Bros and General Pants all sponsored the riders and series, and rider presentation at the races started to become important. Sponsors wanted their logos seen!
With a background in marketing and an understanding of the importance of brand representation, Vince Tesoriero became increasingly frustrated that he couldn’t get customised gear made to accommodate sponsors’ logos, and after a few disasters with local manufacturers and screen printers, he decided to produce his own gear named ‘Go The Rat’.
“Vince found it difficult getting us all looking the way he wanted,” remembers factory Kawasaki rider of that era, Trevor Williams. “So he thought, ‘Bugger it, I'll do it myself’. He knew exactly what he wanted, and how to get it. Right from the first product off the production line, the gear was wearable and right to go.”
Tesoriero and his team never set out to create a brand; it wasn’t their first priority. But looking back, Tesoriero says they did need a name, and ‘Go The Rat’ was a colloquialism of the time – meaning abandon all reason and ‘go for it’, ‘over the top’, ‘take it to the max’ – and motocross was a sport that pushed all boundaries.
“To participate, you had to ‘Go The Rat’, and from that philosophy Ratshirts were born”, says Tesoriero. “You could liken it to what Nike has done with ‘Just Do It!’ And nowadays in moto, the best they can come up with is ‘Fully Sic’!”
Tesoriero liked the anti-social association with Ratshirts being only a few letters away from Ratshit – also a popular expression at the time. “Early on, it was not a representation or ideology of the rodent,” he explains. “Only later on did we make the connection that the rodent was something nasty, to steer clear of, and to be wary of; an image of anti-establishment that doesn’t hurt a youth brand.”
THE RAT PACK
Go The Rat started out by sponsoring the best local riders in each state. Tesoriero said they couldn’t do much for them, but tried to at least make sure they looked good and were able to display their ‘real’ sponsors on their shirts. He also worked to get their picture in the race programs and their local papers to give them extra exposure.
The first high-profile Rat factory riders were Stephen Gall, Anthony Gunter and Trevor Williams, and a little later, Jeff Leisk and then the likes of Craig Dack, Glen Bell and Vaughan Style. “Stephen had definite ideas on how he wanted his gear to look”, recalls Tesoriero. “Most of the time with the others, we would sit down once a year and discuss updating their gear. Part of that was developing an individual or ‘custom look’ for each rider.”
“My earliest memories of Rat was on Leisky in around ’82 when he rode for the Toshiba Yamaha team,” recalls long time moto-journalist and magazine editor, Andrew Clubb. “I remember seeing these awesome photos of him on a YZ125 from the Australian Championships at Toowoomba that Geoff Eldridge had covered, and he had that classic red, blue and white Toshiba Yamaha Rat gear on. The photos were awesome and so was the gear!”
Rider input was the key that made Rat gear so unique, and what helped the brand become an icon by the early to mid ’80s. It was cool, different to anything before it, and fans looked at their favourite riders and wanted to look just like them – even if that meant just wearing a Rat T-shirt or hoody.
As the Mr Motocross series grew in popularity, so did the riders’ profiles, which in turn gave the Rat brand more exposure. But unlike today, where the top motocross riders sign on with big-dollar contracts to wear the major apparel brands, it was a different story in the early ’80s. Tesoriero had his own methods of rewarding sponsored riders that were helping build the brand. “We tried to compensate our sponsored riders by aligning them with non-motorcycle sponsors like Toshiba, Pepsi, etc. So whilst we weren’t able to pay them for riding in our gear, we were able to line them up with sponsors who could do deals with them. So we had to go about it in a round-about way,” says Tesoriero.
“Gall, Gunter, Williams, Leisk, Dack, Bell, Style ... Rat had the best riders,” recalls Tesoriero proudly. “They were all very generous with their time, and they did a lot to help promote not only the brand, but also the sport. Those guys really built the sport and put it on a pedestal. In those days, they pushed football off the back pages of newspapers and that’s why we are still talking about them today.”
The leap from heavy, restrictive, hot leather pants and padded tops to nylons and customised jerseys with funky designs, symbolised the change that was happening in the ’80s. Rat had the vision and tuned into what was happening with youth culture. “Everybody was into the surf, music and the comics culture of the day,” says Tesoriero. “The iconic youth brands were starting to emerge and people were paying more attention to what they wore. Just because you rode a bike did not mean you had to look like a nerd.”
According to Tesoriero, the gear coming in from the States at the time was basic and hard to get. Most people brought it back with them from overseas trips. The designs were very clunky and had a distinct “Euro” look. So it wasn’t hard to apply some basic design principles and get the Rat gear to look clean and attractive.
Jarrod Runciman, National Product Manager for Monza Imports, has been involved with the Fox brand for 20 years, and remembers when Rat first arrived: “A lot of the established brands were still stuck in leather, whereas Rat embraced nylon. Plus they were Australian-made and highly custom, so it was very easy for someone to get exactly what they wanted, which is something you can’t get now. They were locally produced with the whole Australian-made logo deal with the kangaroo, which was pretty big in the ’80 and people were patriotic about all that. For me, Rat was the first company I remember to really produce and embrace nylons outside of America.”
It was the ability to customise your own gear that made Rat a big hit with the riders. It was a win-win situation as it made the Mr Motocross series more colourful and attractive for the fans, plus sold more product in the process. The message was clear: if you wore Rat clothing, you were one of the pack.
Four-time Mr Motocross winner, Craig Dack, (’86,’87,’88, ’90), really embraced the opportunity in those early days: “The unique thing about Rat was you could get your own personalised gear. Vince used to make my own design for me and have my own line of clothing. Then he used to sell some of the T-shirts with my name on it and I'd get royalties. I used to head up to the factory in Orange just to be measured up so the gear suited me perfectly. Having our personal sponsors and our own name on the gear felt like you'd really made it!”
The beauty of Rat being made locally at the Orange-based factory – owned by the parents of Yamaha racer at the time, Phil Robinson – gave Tesoriero the power to churn out fresh designs and he could practically turn around a new set of gear overnight. He was surrounded by creative people in his advertising agency, and they were all dialled into working with design.
Tesoriero says once the junior Rats got involved with designing their gear, they really defined the Rat trends. “The best ideas came from the sponsored mini riders – guys like Chris Hill, Phil Robinson, Phil Sargent, Glen Fearn, Anthony Gobert, Lee Hogan, Marlon Walker, Mat Mladin, etc. They all had great ideas and helped the Rat develop its look”.
Lee Hogan, one of the mini Rat stars of that era recalls just how special it was: “It was cool how we got to pick colours and designs, like colour patches and whatever labelling wherever you wanted. We could really individualise our riding gear, which was absolutely amazing. It was like a cult. If you weren’t in Rat Racing gear, you weren’t cool at that stage!”
According to Dack, one of the great things about Tesoriero was that he made Rat riders feel special: “He was clever at that. The unique gear, the unique ads in magazines. I guess that was all part of his gig; to make the rider to feel part of the Rat family.”
GETTING IT OUT THERE
According to Andrew Clubb, “Vince Tesoriero never picked a trend; he made the trend,” when talking about the classic advertising campaigns Rat ran in the ’80s. “I remember we did a photo shoot in an old deserted building in Darling Harbour”, recalls Jeff Leisk. “I just remember Vince had us in all these weird positions. I think I was even chained up at one point. It was cutting-edge at the time!”
Those ads were so different from anything seen before on the pages of a dirt-bike magazine. They were out there and pushed the boundaries. “Vince was well-known for doing things a little different, which is why it stood out. And there’s never been anything like it since,” reflects Leisk.
The Rat brand grew quickly and was soon producing just as much casual clothing as riding gear. One of the major department stores licensed the name and produced a range of Ratshirts and Ratshorts. Surf and skate shops sold Rat T-shirts and the factory was exporting to a few countries. “That bit was exciting,” said Tesoriero. “After a few years, it became obvious that Rat could develop into a ‘real’ brand, so we started to have a bit of fun with it and how it was advertised. We tried to use the space to also promote the riders, to help their profile as much as possible.”
Rat clothing wasn’t just limited to motocross; it crossed over to flat track and road racing, BMX, surf and skate. And thanks to the Australian enduro rider, Geoff Ballard, it also made a small imprint on the American off-road scene.
Ballard recalls Tesoriero approaching him to wear Rat gear during his two-year stint in America in ’85 and ’86, as he wanted to promote the brand overseas. According to Ballard, the rodent was received with mixed reactions: “Vince made my jersey sleeves covered in small rats. Heaps of them. Nothing else on the sleeves but a whole bunch of rats, and people in the US either loved it or hated it,” he remembers with a laugh. “Some thought it was the greatest gear they’d ever seen and wanted it so bad. For others, it annoyed the shit out of them and they couldn’t understand why you’d want all these ‘varmints’ on your sleeves. The passionate ones used to say to me all the time, ‘What’s this Go The Rat mean?’ In an American drawl, I’d reply, ‘Yeah, y’know, it’s Go The Rat, it’s cool’. But most just didn’t get it.”
The 1986 Motocross des Nations in Italy saw the Rat make a big impression when the Aussie riders rocked up wearing custom-designed green and gold riding gear that proudly displayed several kangaroos. It was a landmark moment in the history of the clothing brand and one Craig Dack remembers well. “Our gear looked pretty special,” recalls Dack. “No team had ever done that before. Alpinestars even made us yellow boots with green plastic on the front. That event, and especially that last moto, was one of the highlights of my career!” After all, Dack finished fourth in the last moto that year on his Honda CR250, chasing down the 500cc world champion, Dave Thorpe, with American legends David Bailey and Rick Johnson out front.
There’s no doubt the Rat had potential to do well overseas, but the reality of making it happen was another story, as manufacturing and shipping was expensive. “When you seriously sat down and did the sums, we could never make the stuff as cheap as they could buy it locally. We would never have been competitive enough so we just dropped the idea”, concedes Tesoriero.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
At its peak in the mid ’80s, the starting line at Mr Motocross events resembled a plague of Rats. Most of the top guys ran the gear, and even though they had their distinct designs, it got to the point where riders started looking outside the Rat sphere to stand out from the pack.
The man to beat at the time, Jeff Leisk, had his sights on America. Influenced by the riders over there, he broke away from the clan to sign with JT Racing. “Like most young motocross riders, you look towards your American heroes,” explains Leisk. “There was a little bit of money involved, but I don’t think it was so much that. It was more about falling into line with what the big guns like Johnny O’Mara and David Bailey were doing overseas. Plus everyone was wearing similar gear on the starting line in Oz. To be honest, I think that’s one of the main reasons I wanted to break out and look different.”
Tesoriero was aware of the negative impact associated with a brand becoming too popular, but with big sponsors wanting their logos to stand out on riders’ gear, the only other choice was to screen-print over the top of imported gear, which didn’t look half as good.
It was around this time Tesoriero and his company were forced to take stock. For a brand they’d never intended to become all-conquering, it has reached saturation point and taken on a life of its own, and question marks arose over where to take it. And by the late ’80s, the mighty Rat started to lose its momentum. “Whilst it was there, it served a purpose,” explains Tesoriero. “But we never really intended for it to get to a point where we would drop everything else to focus on the GTR brand. Plus it gets to the stage where grassroots things become mainstream. And when they do, it involves big money and big business and it’s a matter of whether you enjoy the grassroots side of it or whether you want it to become an all-encompassing business – which we didn’t necessarily want to do, nor were we able to finance it, to tell you the truth.”
On top of this, the 1987 stock market crash had taken the wind out of the economy, which affected the sport’s growth, and by the early ’90s, the Mister Motocross series was a casualty. The rag trade also changed around this time with companies looking overseas for cheaper options to manufacturer their product. “Then the Clothing and Allied Trade Union decided to pay the Rat factory regular visits and wanted the staff to ‘Unionise’,” explains Tesoriero. “No one was too keen on that as we had an easy relationship with our people and they were all earning above-average wages. I think that was the final straw for the brand. And anyway, look at today’s kids they like to wear – the latest Bubba Stewart designs, and why not? It’s just that sort of enthusiasm that made Rat popular way back then.”
In Australia, there have been several brands of motocross gear/clothing come and go, some more successful than others. But not one has ever stamped its authority on the scene and reached anywhere near the popularity Go The Rat did in its heyday. It was a special time in the history of the sport and it’s hard to imagine another Aussie brand reaching the same level of domination. Then again, as Jeff Leisk points out, “Never say never when it comes to another Aussie brand being as successful. There might be someone like a Unit Clothing who’ll give it a good go!”
In any case, the 1980s will forever be remembered in the history of Australian motocross as the Decade of the Rat – may it Rest In Peace!
VINCE TESORIERO – THE MAN BEHIND THE BRAND
Vincent Tesoriero has done more good for the sport of motocross in Australia than he’s been given credit for, and has always been an incredibly humble individual. When we first approached him to tell the story about the Go the Rat empire, his initial response was, “There’s really not so much to tell”.
But those who’ve been around for a while know better than to buy that self-effacing line. We gave a few blokes who’ve known Vincent for many years the opportunity to offer an insight into the man.
Stephen Gall – “Vince was a great guy to be around. He had real vision in the way he presented and did things. He definitely went the extra mile, and that’s what I think is lacking today in the sport.”
Craig Dack – “Vince is a very close friend; someone who I admire and respect a lot. He made heroes out of the riders and was responsible for bringing a lot of corporate sponsorship into the sport. He was a brilliant marketeer and definitely years ahead of his time.”
Glen Bell – “Vince came up with the concept of Mr Motocross and got it all happening. The way he portrayed the sport with his cutting-edge posters and advertising, he knew how to promote and got more people to those events. He had the knack to take everything to the next level.”
Jeff Leisk – “Mr Motocross was always exciting with the multi-moto format, and the way that the event was presented to the public was done in a way that created excitement. It was definitely the best and most prestigious racing in Australia, even more so than an Australian Championship. Winning Mr Motocross was the highest level you could go.”
Andrew Clubb – “Vince was a master promoter. He’s just so understated, doesn’t chase acknowledgement for himself, but he was a man who guided the forces of an entire sport – not single-handedly, but certainly a large part of it.”
Vaughan Style – “From lifting the profile of motocross and the way it was presented, Vince started all that. Mr Motocross was the most famous series that we've ever had. Twenty years ago, Vince was the man.”
After his involvement with Go the Rat and the Mister Motocross Series, Vince Tesoriero sold his advertising agency and bought ProCycles – a motorcycle dealership in Hornsby, which sponsored many top riders, such as Matt Mladin. In the late 1990s, Tesoriero was instrumental in establishing the 80cc Moriwaki scene, which created a stepping-stone for Junior Aussie dirt trackers into road racing; a program that produced talents such a Ant West and Josh Brooks. More recently, Tesoriero sold ProCycles Hornsby and now manages ProCycles at St Peters. And every now and then, he can still be seen at a national motocross or supercross round ... just soaking up the atmosphere and looking at all that made-in-China gear.