PELE, Muhammad Ali, Michael Schumacher, Carl Lewis, Jack Nicklaus, Roger Federer, Michael Phelps, Don Bradman, Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan and Jonah Lomu - just a short list of exceptional sportsmen that have made it to the top in their individual fields.
Arguably that list contains some of the greatest athletes of all time. Nevertheless, there is one sportsman with local roots that deserves consideration among that elite group. He may not be acknowledged as history’s finest but Burnley Bullet Neil Hodgson was a world champion.
Hodgson’s motocross romance stemmed from a very early age, in fact he was barely six when he was familiarised with the adrenalin-filled sport. He started competing as a schoolboy motocross rider in 1982 and continued to flourish and excel throughout his time at St Thomas Fisher and John More RC High School, scooping the Rider of the Year accolade in the 1986/87 season.
“My dad used to race bikes so when I was really young I had a bike bought for me,” said Hodgson. “I used to ride around the local fields. I started racing schoolboy motocross from being eight until 15 and then, after breaking my leg, I started doing road racing.”
Easter Sunday, 1990, and a meeting at Langburgh on a Yamaha TZR125 was the first time Hodgson delved in to road racing, with his maiden triumph arriving at the Three Sisters meeting that same year. After competing in the British Clubman’s Ministock, Hodgson moved to the 125cc International Supercup in 1992 where he was crowned British champion.
From there Hodgson was selected to compete in the FIM World 125cc Championship with Team Burnett and later took part in two 500cc World Championship races for the Harris-Yamaha team. In 1995 he made that temporary move full time with WCM, developing a reputation for being a smooth but impetuous driver. But his big break would come the following year.
“To work your way to the top you have to climb the ladder, which isn’t easy,” Hodgson said. “It was a long process. I started on 125cc and won that in 1992 before moving up to World Championship racing which I did for a couple of years. I got my first big break in 1996 when I got signed up by Ducati. I don’t think I was prepared mentally for it at the time and I didn’t have the experience.”
His Superbike World Championship inception with Ducati didn’t exactly bare the fruits of expectation, or provide an inkling as to what would arise in the future of his career. However, this began his hunger for success as Hodgson claimed his first podium finish at Laguna Seca, America.
He said: “My first World Championship podium was in 1996 in America. That was a big moment because starting out your aim is always to get on the podium. I finished 3rd at Laguna Seca and I can remember that like it was yesterday.”
After enduring three years of frustration, registering a best championship finish of ninth, Hodgson returned to the British Superbike Championship with GSE Racing in a bid to re-establish himself on a superbike and resurrect his career. And 2000 became the making of Hodgson as he prevailed in a titanic battle with Chris Walker to clinch the title in the final round at Donington Park. With only 12 points separating the pair going in to the final race, Walker’s Suzuki’s engine blew and Hodgson finished second behind James Haydon to secure the crown.
Craig Salmon aired Hodgson’s triumph in 2000 in black and white.
In the October 10th edition of the paper, Craig wrote: Burnley race ace Neil Hodgson was crowned British Superbike champion at Donington Park on Sunday. The 26-year-old INS Ducati rider secured the championship in dramatic fashion with a win and a second place in the final two rounds of the season. Hodgson entered the final meeting knowing he had to do something pretty spectacular to overturn rival Chris Walker’s 21-point lead at the top of the championship.
And he did, as he eventually finished eight points clear at the top. “I returned to England to compete in the British Superbike Championship in 1999 and went on to win it the following year,” he said. “That put me back on the springboard for championship racing.
“It was an important and huge moment in my career. But I suppose it was like a stepping stone for me because I’d always had the world title on my radar. It went all the way to the final race so to win it like that gave me huge elation.”
But that defining campaign was remarkable for other reasons, beyond his title success. Hodgson won two races of the British rounds of the Superbike World Championship as a wildcard entry, winning at Donington Park and Brands Hatch. And in the most memorable race of the season Hodgson defied the odds at Oulton Park to win the race despite starting at the back of the grid.
“That race at Oulton Park was one of the best races of my career,” beamed Hodgson. “It still gets mentioned to me now with people telling me that they still remember it. It’s very rare for someone to come from the back of the grid to win a race. It was just a surreal moment.”
The race ace added: “I remember my first superbike win in 2000. Two rounds of the world championships were held in England and I got a ‘wildcard’ ride at Donington Park; I entered it and won it. I really can’t describe how that felt. This was a one-off race and I beat the best riders in the world. That was a pinnacle point in my career and the moment my confidence began to grow. To see family and friends’ faces as well and to see what it meant to them was just unbelievable.”
That victory propelled Hodgson back in to a Superbike World Championship supernova, and claimed fifth and third championship finishes respectively in 2001 and 2002 with the Ducati satellite team. But Burnley would be blessed with a world champion the following year as he won the title against team-mate Ruben Xaus.
Hodgson was the dominant force of the series and equalled a record set by Colin Edwards after chalking up a ninth straight win in the first race at Oschersleben. But he was denied an outright place in the record books when he had to settle for the runner-up slot in the second race behind James Toseland.
Hodgson sealed the World Superbike Championship after race one at Assen, Netherlands, courtesy of a second place finish. But he signed off from the series in style with a victory and a spectacular crash at Magny Cours, France. His 13 wins and seven runner-up finishes saw Hodgson total a staggering 489 points.
“In 2003 came the pinnacle of my career in the Superbike World Championship series,” said Hodgson. “But in-between that there was years and years of hard work, it never came easy. There were plenty of hard races, big crashes and bad days but I just had to keep fighting and believing.
“It was incredible, especially when I’d had an up and down career. There were periods when I thought I’d never be British champion never mind world champion. Words can’t describe the feeling though. Becoming world champion was the biggest thing to happen to me. Every person’s dream is to become the best in the world at something.”
Hodgson added: “You always think that success happens to other people. I’m just a normal lad from Burnley who had a normal upbringing. I’m just a local lad which shows if you’ve got enough belief and determination you can achieve anything. It was my life and to be the best in the world is phenomenal.”