Spencer’s day

Michael Scott looks back to the enigma that was Fred­die Spencer on one of the superstar’s most in­cred­i­ble racing days ever.

Classic Racer - - WHAT’S INSIDE - Words: Michael Scott Pho­tog­ra­phy: Don Mor­ley

It was the Bri­tish GP round. It was 1985 and it was Fred­die Spencer who headed out un­der a leaden sky to show the world some­thing it had never seen be­fore. Michael Scott tells the story of that day in de­tail.

It was some 18 months later that I vis­ited Fred­die Spencer at home in Shreve­port. It was a slightly un­earthly ex­pe­ri­ence, but then Fred­die – es­pe­cially as a rider – was more than slightly un­earthly. Think Marc Mar­quez, but then put him on an un­ruly light­weight two-stroke 500, with a savage power band and squidgy tyres and sus­pen­sion. And then en­ter him also in the in­ter­me­di­ate class – back then an even lighter 250. And sub­tract the fre­quent crashes when look­ing for the limit. Then you have an idea of Fred­die Spencer. He was ac­cus­tomed to find­ing the limit in exactly the same way as Mar­quez – push­ing the front un­til it let go, and then get­ting it back again. Crash­ing, with­out fall­ing off. I re­mem­ber de­scrib­ing it at the time as more like danc­ing with the mo­tor­cy­cle than rid­ing it. Fred­die was lead­ing with com­plete con­fi­dence and ac­cu­racy, ready to an­tic­i­pate ev­ery twist of rhythm and melody. The bike was fol­low­ing, with per­fect obe­di­ence. To other rid­ers, the 500cc two-strokes had an el­e­ment of un­tamed beast. In Fred­die’s hands, that was in­vis­i­ble. Fred­die’s bril­liance, up against the steady bul­wark of Ed­die Law­son, was to break away from the start. In the first two or three laps, the race would al­ready be won. He’d be four or more sec­onds clear, and then he’d just have to pre­serve his lead. One of his con­tem­po­rary 500 rid­ers, Keith Heuwen, years later gave an ex­pla­na­tion, as he spoke in awe of what Fred­die would do on the warmup lap. While other rid­ers warmed their tyres grad­u­ally, cor­ner by cor­ner, the fac­tory Honda rider would be slid­ing the front from the very first cor­ner. “You thought: ‘Oh, he’s down’.” But he’d pick it up, and do it again at the next one. So when the flag fell, in spite of hav­ing waited four or more min­utes on the grid for the push-start, his front Miche­lin was still pip­ing hot and ready to grip. This did not ap­ply at Sil­ver­stone in 1985, when it was hor­ri­bly wet and ex­tremely cold, but goes some way to ex­plain the leg­end. Less ex­pli­ca­ble is what hap­pened next. Af­ter that dou­bly tri­umphant year, Spencer’s ca­reer sud­denly fiz­zled out, and he never won an­other race. To a large ex­tent, the Bri­tish GP of 1985 was the rea­son why.

Fast Fred­die had ar­rived in 1982 to spear­head Honda’s new at­tack on the premier class, af­ter the em­bar­rass­ing fail­ure of the oval-pis­ton NR500 of the pre­vi­ous two years. Spencer, from the Louisiana Bi­ble Belt, was just 20 when he won his first GP, the Bel­gian, in his first sea­son. Then came 1983, an awe­some battle be­tween the fresh-faced south­erner on the V3 NS500 and tough-as­nails Cal­i­for­nian vet­eran Kenny Roberts. Each won six races; it went to the wire … Fred­die took it by two points. It was the nar­row­est mar­gin in the era from 1969 to 1987, when points were awarded to the top 10; and has not been equalled since. In 1984 Honda in­tro­duced the V4 NSR, but quirky orig­i­nal think­ing had again got the bet­ter of com­mon sense, with the fuel tank un­der the en­gine and dif­fi­cult han­dling, not to men­tion a scorch­ing rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, with the four ex­haust ex­pan­sion cham­bers loop­ing over the top of the en­gine un­der the dummy tank cover. Fred­die suf­fered in­juries as well, but still won three races on the un­wieldy NSR be­fore switch­ing back to the triple for two more. Law­son and the ut­terly con­ven­tional Yamaha swept to the ti­tle. In 1985, how­ever, com­mon sense pre­vailed at HRC, and the up­dated NSR had a con­ven­tional lay­out. They’d also built a new V-twin 250. Fred­die rode it at the pre­sea­son Day­tona meet­ing. He made his­tory there, win­ning the pres­ti­gious Day­tona 200, now for four-stroke Su­per­bikes, and the For­mula One event on his 500, and be­came the only triple-Day­tona win­ner by tak­ing the 250 win as well. It was now that the cru­cial de­ci­sion was taken. The new 250 was so good that Fred­die and his hench­man/crew chief/ad­vi­sor Erv Kanemoto de­cided then and there to make a dou­ble as­sault on both 250 and 500 cham­pi­onships. This was not un­prece­dented: in the 1970s rid­ers like Hail­wood, Red­man, Read and Agostini would reg­u­larly ride in two or more

classes, and over the years there had been a num­ber of dou­ble-champions, in­clud­ing Ago, five times 350/500 win­ner, and sev­eral 250/350 win­ners, most re­cently An­ton Mang in 1981. And in Kenny Roberts’ first ti­tle year of 1978 he had en­tered both 250 and 500 classes, but used the 250 mainly to learn tracks that he had never seen be­fore, though he won a cou­ple of races. But in the 1980s, dou­bling up was now un­heard of. The new gen­er­a­tion of bikes, it was said, were too in­tense, too spe­cialised. Fred­die would prove this wrong, and – given sub­se­quent events – per­haps also right. Honda backed him to the ex­tent of pre­serv­ing the RS250R-W for his exclusive use, much to the dis­may of fel­low Roth­mans rider Mang. It was like­wise a cut above the Yamaha of the rider he ex­pected would be his great­est ri­val, Car­los Lavado. A me­chan­i­cal fail­ure forced re­tire­ment from the Span­ish GP, but Fred­die won seven of the other nine races lead­ing up to Sil­ver­stone, and was sec­ond at the other. All he needed to do now was fin­ish fourth. This he duly did, but it is of course more eas­ily said than done, and the con­di­tions were gru­elling. Luck­ily, un­like in 2018, Sil­ver­stone hadn’t been in­com­pe­tently resur­faced, al­though the rain was so bad that the side­car race was called off. As prob­lem­atic as the pud­dles, how­ever, and the dif­fi­cultly in see­ing any­thing in the spray and with a misted vi­sor, was the cold. Rid­ers were soaked and freez­ing as they fin­ished 24 laps of the bleak air­field cir­cuit. All but one of them could take off for a hot shower or (per­haps and) a tot of a warm­ing spirit. Fred­die Spencer had no such luxury. He was pretty much straight out there again. It was with­out mercy, al­though se­cur­ing the ti­tle was a ma­jor con­so­la­tion. It was also the last time he rode a 250. Sil­ver­stone was the tenth of 12 rounds, and in the 500 class by now Fred­die had re­gained the mo­men­tum in­ter­rupted with a painful mishap at Ri­jeka. The Yu­goslav track was a touch prim­i­tive, and as a safety mea­sure the pit-lane exit had been ex­tended with a line of straw bales to be­yond the first cor­ner apex, to avoid the risk of slow traf­fic get­ting mixed up in a fast lap. Early in the race, Fred­die squeezed in­side fast-start­ing Roth­mans Honda team­mate Ron Haslam, but he had mis­judged it. He caught his knee on a bale, wrench­ing it back­wards. De­ter­mined to fin­ish, he man­aged sec­ond be­hind Law­son, but had to be lifted off the bike af­ter­wards. A year later, to my con­tin­ued amuse­ment, dry-as-dust Ed­die Law­son told me, when I sug­gested this had been a coura­geous ride: “It was also pos­si­ble to miss the bale.” With both fall­ing out of a drenched Dutch TT, the next round, Fred­die had come back to add two more vic­to­ries. Now he had five to Law­son’s two, and a lead of 111 points to 94. But with three races left and 45 point still avail­able, but nei­ther he nor Honda un­der­es­ti­mated the po­ten­tial of his ri­val. For the Bri­tish GP Honda had brought out two more V4s for Wayne Gard­ner and Randy Mamola. Not, to his distress, for Haslam. But the rainy con­di­tions should suit the Bri­ton, and his lighter, hand­ier triple like­wise. Par­tic­u­larly given his fa­mil­iar skill with the dead-en­gine push-start, a racing tra­di­tion that would last just one more year af­ter this. As usual, Ron got off the line like a rocket, but Spencer – at least fa­mil­iar with the con­di­tions – had passed him be­fore the lap was done, and the Bri­ton would con­tinue to drop back, strug­gling to see where he

was go­ing. Even­tu­ally he was forced to pit for a change of vi­sor, re­join­ing out of the points. The same prob­lem put Gard­ner out of the race. Spencer, how­ever, was sail­ing away. It would have been serene, ex­cept for the foul con­di­tions and the ob­vi­ous dan­gers. It was fa­mil­iar enough that he should win from the front, but it was es­pe­cially im­pres­sive to­day. I re­call stand­ing by the track try­ing to lap score, as one had to do in those days, be­fore the real-time TV cov­er­age and de­tailed live tim­ing, taken for granted nowa­days, had pulled the press back into the press room. My note­book was too wet, my ball­point wouldn’t write. Swiss col­league Gun­ther Wiesinger, in fa­mil­iar know-all fash­ion, si­dled over and said: “This is why I use a pen­cil.” But aside from mi­nor dis­com­fort, a pale re­flec­tion of a gru­elling or­deal for the rid­ers, it wasn’t hard to fol­low the progress of a race. The Roth­mans Honda steadily drew away into a com­mand­ing lead. Law­son had got through to sec­ond from early fast guy Di­dier de Radigues, and was within 10 sec­onds of Spencer’s Honda by the end. But never any threat, as long as Fred­die con­tin­ued with his trade­mark pre­ci­sion. Third- placed Chris­tian Sar­ron was al­most an­other 25 sec­onds away. Look­ing back at the pic­tures, af­ter the race Fred­die looked cold, blow­ing on his hands to get some warmth back in; along­side him, Law­son looked half-drowned. He had very lit­tle to be cheer­ful about. The points gap, with two races left, had stretched to 20. Even if he was to win in the next race in Swe­den, third place would be good enough for Spencer to be cham­pion with one race to spare. As it turned out, Spencer took his sev­enth win of the year at An­der­storp, and Law­son, ham­pered by a tyre choice that went wrong,

only man­aged to fin­ish sec­ond be­cause Gard­ner’s Honda had bro­ken on the fi­nal lap. It was Spencer’s 20th premier-class win. And his last, in any class. Now unas­sail­able for a his­toric first-ever dou­ble 250/500 cham­pi­onship, he chose not to con­test the fi­nal round at Misano, leav­ing a some­what hol­low win for ti­tle run­ner-up Law­son. Fred­die’s no-show set some­thing of a prece­dent for a se­ries of them the fol­low­ing two sea­sons. As well as sev­eral in­juries, one of the given rea­sons was ten­donitis. Other rea­sons might be un­rav­elled by any am­a­teur psy­chol­o­gist, but to do so here would be to deny Spencer the dig­nity he so richly de­serves, in spite of sev­eral half-hearted come-back at­tempts in the years to come. It is enough to say that his pro­fes­sional racing ca­reer was ef­fec­tively over. He had burned so bright, even in Sil­ver­stone’s mon­soon. Then the light went out. And if he had an ex­pla­na­tion, it came when I vis­ited him at his Shreve­port home, a cou­ple of win­ters later, and it could have been in di­rect ref­er­ence to that af­ter­noon in Northamp­ton­shire. “I don’t think any­body re­ally un­der­stands how much rid­ing the 250 and 500 took out of me – just how de­mand­ing it was, phys­i­cally and men­tally.”

Spencer takes the 250 vic­tory at the 1985 Sil­ver­stone GP.

Fred­die, far­thest right, with­out the al­most oblig­a­tory roll of sil­ver tape mas­querad­ing as a breath guard.

1985 BGP 250 start. Spencer (19) gets away clean. Note Joey Dunlop on the sec­ond row.

Gerry Burgess pushes Fred­die and the 500 off for the warm-up lap.

Spencer leads (amongst oth­ers) Ron Haslam and Roger Mar­shall.

The quar­ter-litre class in the wet was a treach­er­ous af­fair. Spencer, Ricci etc...

Job done. Spencer wins the 500cc race at Sil­ver­stone.

Ready for the off. Chris­tian Sar­ron (6), Ed­die Law­son (1) and Fred­die (4) pre­pare to push.

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