Eric Johnson on Freddie Spencer: The Power of a Dream

Clean cut, soft spoken and in possession of otherworldly talent and analytical ability, Freddie Spencer, one of the greatest racers (of any kind) this nation has ever produced, was a multifold World Champion who had his own way of doing things.


Freddie Spencer Silverstone 1981 NR500
Freddie Spencer, the only guy to ride an NR500 Honda, win his first “International” on a Yamaha and finish his career on a Ducati. Tim Beaumont

 

2019 will mark the 71st annual running of the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme Grand Prix Road-Racing World Championship. First spun up in 1949, the globetrotting circus is replete with amazing, larger than life stories, yet there is one racer who, in his own inimitable way, approach and style, stands alone on that island in the stream of MotoGP history. His name is Freddie Spencer.

“When I was a kid the two things that motorcyclists were most known for at that time was either the Hells Angels or Evel Knievel,” offered Spencer from his home in the United Kingdom. “I would get asked in school from time-to-time what I wanted to be when I got older and I told them I had a dream to grow up to be a World Champion racer. That was something I did from the time I was 11 or 12 years old, and this was a long before Kenny Roberts and Steve Baker and Pat Hennen went over there to race. Even way back then I would look at the very back of Cycle News and there would be these obscure articles on the World Championship. For example, when I was 11, I read about Kent Anderson for the first time (Note: Anderson, from Sweden, won the 1973 and 1974 125cc World Championships). I’d read about him racing his 125 Yamaha and that’s really what inspired me to ask my dad one night about racing.”

Ultimately, Freddie Spencer went racing, and in doing so, left an indelible mark on motorcycle sport. The one and only racer to win both the 500cc and 250cc World Championship in the same season (1985), Fast Freddie posted up records galore in a MotoGP career that was remarkably short and incandescent. But we’ll get to all that in a bit. Born in Shreveport, Louisiana on December 20, 1961, Spencer took to motorcycle racing rapidly, lining up in regional dirt track races around Louisiana and Texas.

“We started racing locally outside of the Shreveport area,” offered Spencer of what taped it all into gear. “It was such basic racing. It would be out in a field and they would have Enduros and scrambles. It was like the guys would buy a Yamaha enduro and take the lights off it and then race it. It was very, very local. From there we started to go to Dallas. We were like foreigners. Literally! We might as well have been from another planet. They didn’t like us coming over and racing them. For us at that time, the closest roadcourse was three and a half hours away. And there was also no real amateur racing when I started. When I did my first roadraces, I was the only kid at the track. Everyone was an adult. I was the only kid on the grid.”

Turning more to roadracing during his teenage years, by the spring of 1978, Spencer was already making motorcycle media headlines. Read the March 22, 1978 issue of Cycle News, “Spencer’s perfect race. Freddie Spencer, current holder of four WERRA class titles and over 400 career pavement victories, began his AMA career today at Daytona with a 76-mile romp that left the rest of the Novice field gasping for more horsepower before the first lap was complete.”

“You look back to 1972 to 1973, there was really no organized club racing and then all of a sudden, into 1976 and 1977, you had WERRA and that gave me an incredible amount of experience, and along with the effort of my dad, all of it just paved the way for me to make that true transition from dirt track into roadracing. That happened because of the explosion of WERRA. It was an amazing time. I won the novice championship in 1978 and I won every single professional race.”

At Louden, New Hampshire on June 16, 1979 Spencer won the Expert Lightweight AMA National on the Howard Racing/Arai-sponsored, Erv Kanemoto-tuned Yamaha. As the season developed, Spencer, with technical mastermind Kanemoto at his back, found themselves looking onward and upward.

“1979 was my first year with Erv Kanemoto and my first year in expert and I won the 250 Lightweight Championship,” explained Spencer. “Once I got with Erv that year and once I learned of Erv’s vast knowledge of bike characteristics as well as power and suspension. Combined that with my innate ability to feel these things and how I approached it all, we really exceled. That was really a transition year for me because I got a big opportunity after Mike Baldwin got hurt at Louden. I got offered to ride the Kawasaki superbike. When I got offered that ride it was for the remainder of 1979 and I won the only two races that we raced. I won the Superbike Production events at Laguna Seca and at Sears Point. This was at the same time that Honda superbike program was being put together. I was being offered by Kawasaki to lead their Superbike program for 1980, but it just didn’t feel right. That’s when I got the call from Honda. The team manager at Kawasaki had said, ‘Freddie, if we don’t sign you, if you don’t tell us one way or the other, we’ve got somebody else that we want to sign.’ So I got the call from Honda and found out it was Eddie Lawson that Kawasaki had signed. That worked out perfectly. That’s when Superbike racing took that next step. Obviously, when Honda gets involved it steps up the level of everyone. It was great.”

Image Protected By Copyright
Freddie Spencer talks to Dave Aldana on the podium at Road America in 1980. Image Protected By Copyright

 

1980 put forth a frenzied racing schedule for Spencer. First, he won Honda’s very first AMA Superbike race at Road America in Wisconsin. Furthermore, Spencer journeyed over to England where he not only competed in the storied U.S. vs. Britain Match Races where he managed to take the measure of both world champions Kenny Roberts and Barry Sheene. Later that year, Spencer learned that he would be Honda’s guy as the marque began mounting what would be a serious charge at the 500cc World Championship.

“It was the fall of 1980 in Japan and Honda had built this bike called the NR500,” said Spencer. “This was after I had done so well on the Grand Prix bike in the Match Races and all that and I was getting offers from Yamaha and Suzuki to go Grand Prix racing. It was in October when I was sitting in the Honda factory. There was no HRC or anything like that at that time. Honda said to me, ‘We now know that our current 500 is not going to be the bike to race for the 500cc championship. We’re going to start a new company in 1982 and we’re going to build a two-stroke for you to ride.’ That was obviously the beginning of HRC.”

During the year of 1981, Spencer found himself dividing his time between the 500cc World Championship and the AMA circuit. Objective number one was sorting out Honda’s striking two-stroke V3-motivated NS500.

“In testing is when I worked the hardest,” said Spencer. “For example, I went to Japan three times in the fall of 1981 and never got to ride the bike once. Every time I would show up, the bike had either just put a test rider in the hospital due to the transmission locking up or they were constantly changing the bike and looking at different variables. This was also the beginning of the cassette gearbox and different gear ratios. The level of focus was there even on 50 RPM where I could just get a little more overrev between this particular corner in second and third gear and that would allow me gain not a tenth of a second, but two tenths of a tenth. I’d sit there with Erv and we would go over the gear ratio sheets and I’d think about it, sometimes in the middle of the night. I’d get up and go walk over to Erv’s pace and knock on the door and he’d also wake up. We’d figure it out and we’d try it and it would pay off because I could then take my arc on the bike and carry just a little bit more speed and put a little less stress on the rear where I could work with the soft tire.”

1982 would mark Spencer’s arrival into the 500cc World Championship fray. Backed to the hilt by Honda, rider and manufacturer entered the sweepstakes at the opening round of the world series at Argentina.

“The first time I rode the three-cylinder wasn’t until the January of 1982,” pointed out Spencer. “And they were late too because they were having so many development issues with the bike because they had never built one. You would have never of known it, though, because when we got to the first Grand Prix of 1982 at Buenos Aires in March, with only eight laps to go, I actually took the lead. I ended up in a big battle with Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts and ended up getting third.”

 

That summer, and on July Fourth for that matter, 20 year-old Freddie Spencer went out and won his first 500cc Grand Prix at the legendary Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.

“We went to Spa, and what was interesting was that I immediately loved the race track,” smiled Spencer. “Our three-cylinder really shouldn’t have been the bike there, but it was one of those tracks that I just took to. It was my favorite track. Most people love Spa. It’s a rider’s circuit because it’s so technical and it rewards for willingness to just go there. So we started the race and I didn’t really get that great of a start, but I started picking them off and I caught Kenny. I won the race and it was an amazing thing. I have such great memories of people just coming up to me after the race. The biggest hug I got was from Barry Sheene.”

So just how was the flamboyant playboy Barry Sheene to the demure Yankee who had come so far off the beaten path of global bike racing? Was he cool?

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” shot back Spencer. “Barry was exactly as you can imagine. His influence was just so cool. He was also extremely considerate of other riders. Many people have stories of things that he did and how he offered support.”

Another challenger Spencer had to contend with in 1982 came from American compatriot Kenny Roberts. Already a three-time 500cc World Champion, Roberts, who had helped run interference for young American riders such Spencer, still, understandably, wanted to show the world who was king.

“Kenny was unbelievable with what he could do with a motorcycle,” said Spencer. “Once we started racing in 1982, Kenny would come over and we’d talk and stuff and as the season wore on, Kenny became Kenny and everybody knows he’s a tough competitor. There were mind games and it got tough. It had been coming. Still, I really felt like I was still improving, the bike was still improving and I knew we’d be really ready for 1983.”

As fate would have it, the 1983 World Road Race Series came down to good old gun slinging showdown between two Americans who could not have been more radically different from one another. In one corner there was the trash talking iconoclast Californian Roberts who, well, had sent the GP world spinning on its axis. In the other was the much younger, more diplomatic Spencer from the very deep American south.

Earl Hayden talks with three-time world champion Freddie Spencer before the ceremony to retire Nicky's number 69.
Earl Hayden talks with three-time world champion Freddie Spencer before the ceremony to retire Nicky’s number 69. Willy "SRX" Ivins

“I’ve said Kenny is, without question, the toughest rider I’ve ever raced against and I believe that we brought the best out of both of us,” said Spencer of the 1983 title struggle. “We had different styles and different bikes. Many people look at that championship in 1983 as one of the best ever and I think part of that was due to the great battles because our styles and our bikes were completely different.”

For all intents and purposes, the 1983 500cc World Championship came down to the penultimate race, namely the Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp. It wasn’t pretty. With only one lap remaining in the GP, Freddie Spencer ran up the inside line of Roberts, the two colliding and running off into the trackside dirt. Spencer won the race over Roberts by a very scant .16 of a second. With a five-point lead heading into the season finale at Imola, Italy on September 4, Spencer held steady to win the world title over the bitterly disappointed Roberts.

“Winning that Word Championship was the accomplishment of a dream. And I also became the youngest-ever 500cc World Champion. It was a record at that time held by Mike Hailwood at the age of 22. There was a lot of expectation because I was riding for HRC and Mr. Honda and we were able to accomplish the World Championship.”

A few days later, Spencer was on a jet when a Honda representative tapped him on the shoulder.

“The Wednesday after I won the championship I was on the plane and going to Japan and they said to me, ‘Freddie, we have a surprise for you.’ I was going to see Soichiro Honda at his home! When we walked into Mr. Honda’s house I was standing there and he walked up to me and put his hands on my shoulders and said, ‘Thank you’. I knew it was one of those moments where you knew exactly what you were supposed to do. It was fascinating. When I met him and we had that moment, we sat down and he told me the story about how he started the company. I said to him, ‘Mr. Honda, I know that.’ I understood in that moment why he was who he was. The passion and the power, it made sense why Honda is the power of dreams. In that moment, he gave me his dream and I gave me mine and it doesn’t get any better than that. I mean the company at that time was such a reflection of who Mr. Honda was.”

After something of a washout year in 1984 while Spencer and Honda were developing a new 500cc GP bike, the Honda-Spencer came out breathing fire in 1985. They needed to as Freddie Spencer would be making a run at not only the 500cc world title, but the 250cc title as well! To that end, the 1985 Road Racing World Championship Series would provide the velvet curtain backdrop to one of the greatest motorcycle racing feats of all-time. For it was during this year that Spencer would not only go after another 500cc title, but a 250cc FIM Gold Medal, as well.

“It was my idea to go after both titles,” said Spencer. “Honda didn’t have a 250 GP bike. They had this kind of semi-production-based TT bike. We were at the Dutch Grand Prix in the June of ’84 and I was leading the race and the sparkplug cap came off and the bike went to three cylinders and the bike started slowing so I came in and they tried to put the cap back on and kind of got it on and I went back out. After the race we sat down in my motorhome and it was the first time that it was really discussed at a serious level between all of us. Being June, it was already kind of late to do something for the next season. We sat down and started talking and said, ‘It doesn’t look good for this year.’ So they went back to Honda and it was the beginning of many changes within HRC. We had success in 1983 and the 1984 bike wasn’t that great and there were a couple of young engineers at Honda who were going to fix the company on their own. From a clean sheet of paper and in about three months they built a 250. I tested it in the September of 1984.

“When the decision was made to kind of move in that direction it wasn’t like were in the middle of all this success,” continued Spencer. “I’ve said this many times: by the time we got to Australia it was December. We were figuring out which mechanics we would have the front and rear radial tires for the 250. There was all this brand new stuff. It was at this moment where I said, ‘You know, we’ve got these bikes and everything but there are other things I’ve got make sure that I have a handle on. One was that practices were back-to-back in those days and there were a lot of things where we had to make sure we got adjusted to and dealt with. I think those were the differences that made the difference for us being able to get through the things we had to deal with and struggle with in 1985. We had the right crew and I did an okay job to make sure that we didn’t get going in the wrong direction. All those things mattered when you were doing two classes.”

As sort of an odd exclamation point to one of the greatest careers Grand Prix motorcycle racing had ever cast eyes upon, Freddie Spencer, after a host of near miss racing assignments in what would be the next 16 years to come, said yes to racing a Fast by Ferracci Ducati in 1995 and went out and won an AMA Superbike race at Laguna Seca Raceway on the Central Coast of California

A reasonably rare image: Freddie Spencer in Howard Racing leathers at Daytona. Then a 250 rider, Freddie’s dad, Fred Sr, on right, girlfriend on left. Semi-important note: all young women looked like Pat Benatar in 1982-83. Never Underestimate the power of Dean

“I won a Superbike race at Laguna Seca 16 years after I won my very first race,” reflected Spencer. “What I loved about standing on the podium that day – and there were, maybe, 20 people there at Laguna on that Monday as rain caused a lot of problems all weekend – and I couldn’t have been happier. That was a great victory. I think it is still the longest gap between Superbike wins.”

It was. It still is.

Fast Freddie Spencer was through. He had been there, done that and bought the T shirt. It was time to move on. And when he did clear out, when the dust settled, Fast Freddie found himself starting up a racing school in Las Vegas.

“That was it. I was done. I didn’t want to race anymore after that in ’95. I’d won, but it was time to move on. I started my school. That gave me the chance to evolve because I love to teach and I love sharing about motorcycling and I did that for the next eleven years. I went through 29 years of racing, amateur and professional, and then basically thought about things for six months and then moved to Las Vegas. I wanted to start the school and I prove the bikes and no one had done that at the time. Ray Blank of American Honda said, ‘Absolutely, of course we’ll support you.’ And it was great. But then it was time to move on and do something else.”

After being swept up in the classic scene of motorcycle racing and sport throughout the European continent (‘The classic scene is what is growing over here and it’s fascinating. It isn’t about racing, but motorcycling. I love that and just really felt inspired to kind of contribute in whatever way), Spencer was contacted about a new gig that many felt would help enrich and sanctify the sport.

“MotoGP in itself is, without question, the best motorsports’ show on Earth,” said Spencer, declaratively. “As a result of that, the competitiveness and the racing is unbelievably close. So I got a call from Mike Webb to join the FIM MotoGP Stewards Panel in 2019. They wanted to offer me the opportunity to be the Chairman of the Stewards Panel. I said absolutely. I am really looking forward to it. I was at Valencia last November getting acquainted with all the technical aspects as well as all the technology. Again, with the racing being so competitive, it’s important that there is a move in the direction of consistency. I don’t only want to bring my perspective as a rider because there hasn’t been a rider or an ex-racer Grand Prix racer on the panel. I also want to create hways that we can be preventative where we anticipate issues that may arise. It’s going to be an incredible challenge and one that I’m looking forward to. Like I said before, I love to teach and I want to be involved in ways to make things better. I will do my very best.”

Yes, Freddie Spencer has always done his best. And global motorcycle racing is all the better for it.



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