American Freddie Spencer awoke one Good Friday years ago a virtual unknown outside of America. Later that day, when he took his shoes off and crawled into bed that evening, he was an international racing superstar.
When one ponders the success Freddie Spencer earned in his career, memory banks are naturally drawn to his 1983 season—won the 500cc championship at age 21, the first ever for Honda, by beating King Kenny Roberts in one of the hardest fought championship bouts the series had seen. Or perhaps your mind wanders to 1985, when Spencer won both the 500 and 250 championships in one season, something no one has done before or since—not even Valentino Rossi. Honestly, you don’t really think in terms of a privately owned Yamaha in the back of a van parked in the privateer portion of the paddock at Brands Hatch.
In 1980, the big names in international racing were Kenny Roberts and Barry Sheene. Both were Yamaha men at that stage, Roberts on the way to his third championship, the title “King” now fully adhered to his name for eternity. Two-time world champion Sheene in the middle of one of his possibly storybook-quality comebacks. Fans flocked to see the pair do battle at the Easter Match races in England that April. The classic America versus England series featured more big name combatants: Mike Baldwin, Randy Mamola, Graeme Crosby, Dave Aldana, Ron Haslam, Skip Aksland and Keith Huewen, among others.
After he’d had a dalliance with Kawasaki in Superbikes, Honda snatched up Spencer and had him under long-term contract. However the contract didn’t cover him racing in the Match Race series, GPs nor the F-750 race at Laguna. His father had groomed Freddie Junior to one day be a world champion and the push had been on for him to race in Europe from the time he started winning on Superbikes. Hence, a contract provision had been granted by HRC for Freddie to race his mentor Erv Kanemoto’s Yamaha TZ750 at the Match Races (Spencer, then 19, had never been out of the country at this point). The bike, which started as a customer-spec TZ, was silver in color and shod with Goodyear rubber. Spencer raced with his customary early career number five, wearing Bates leathers.
Arriving at the track that Good Friday morning in 1980 Spencer walked unhindered through a European paddock for perhaps the last time in his life. There were large crowds and long lines—for Roberts and Sheene—with fifty-thousand spectators there to see the day’s two races. Spencer trotted past the transporters down to privateer row, where Kanemoto’s van was parked.
Spencer had never seen Brands Hatch in his life until Thursday practice thus no one expected what was to come. However, this was Spencer at his mystical best; it didn’t really matter that he hadn’t ridden there before. He set the fastest lap in practice, lapping faster than home hero Sheene, Kiwi sensation Crosby and even Roberts.
If you’re looking for the exact date when Freddie Spencer stopped being a young, American racer of great promise and was transformed into an international racing superstar, it would be the afternoon of April 4, 1980, in Kent, England. In the first race at Brands, Crosby initially led on his Suzuki GP bike, but in three laps Spencer hunted him down and was then simply gone from sight. Fan favorites Roberts and Sheene filled out the rest of the podium but had no chance of catching the teenage wonderkid.
Spencer still remembers that first podium celebration at Brands Hatch today, probably because it would be the last time Europeans blankly stared back at him, wondering if some kind of scoring snafu hadn’t allowed an unknown and unworthy rider onto the rostrum. “I was looking out at the crowd from the podium and it was obvious that no one knew who I was,” he remembers.
While being a bit confused and mystified by the easy-smiling kid atop the podium was common for the locals, the assembled Americans, assuredly, were not terribly surprised. Spencer was a known terror in the US 250 ranks, his lap times on the diminutive two-strokes sometimes faster than those of Superbikes. After some seat time on Reno Leoni’s Ducati Superbike, Kawasaki came calling and offered him a ride, replacing their injured Mike Baldwin. Freddie won the first Superbike race of his career just two days after seeing the Kawasaki for the first time.
Comparing Spencer to any riders of the then era but Kenny Roberts is a leap of faith at best. Freddie was as talented as he was versatile because his old man had laid out the absolute best structure in teaching him how to race: he forced him to ride so many different bikes that his talent broadened and wasn’t allowed to stagnate in just one discipline. He was fantastic at racing 250s but he wasn’t just a 250 rider. He was a decent short-track tracker yet not just a dirt tracker. Whether he jumped on a long and unbending Ducati Superbike or a tiny and precise 250 or a wobbling disaster of a four-cylinder Superbike, or Erv’s Yamaha TZ750—a weapon—his seemingly limitless talent quickly adjusted and acclimated and he was devastatingly fast.
The daunting reality of what had just happened set in on the crowd after Spencer again dominated race two that day at Brands. On his way to the second win he broke the track record, setting a record that Spencer says stood for five years. In many ways his life was never the same again.
At the start of the day Spencer had to wade through lines of autograph hounds who were seeking Roberts and Sheene’s signatures in order to get to his pit. At the end of the day, however, “I could hardly make it to the car,” he recalls.
“For me, it was one of the biggest days of my career and really, one of the best days of my life,” says the three-time world champion.