Twenty-five years ago this summer a devout baptist from America’s Deep South accomplished arguably the greatest achievement in the history of motorcycle racing. Freddie Spencer won the 250 and 500 World Championships – the sport’s two most important titles – in the same year. It was a unique feat that may never be emulated.
‘Fast Freddie’ was unique in himself. A God-fearing man in a godless sport, Spencer was considered a weirdo by his rivals and by the fans. He was quiet, polite and teetotal while his rivals were often very much the opposite. Off the bike he seemed far too gentle and studious for such a vicious, high-speed sport. On the bike he was something else: effortlessly fast and astonishingly accurate. His talent was ethereal, and in many ways he was the Senna of motorcycle racing.
Spencer was raised a religious man by his Baptist family. His father, it seemed, believed in two things: God and the internal combustion engine. Dad raced everything from dirt bikes to speedboats to drag cars; he hid ﬁve-year-old Freddie behind the driver’s seat while he did standing quarters at the local drag strip.
Spencer grew up riding minibikes around the family homestead – he’d be out there in all weathers, honing his technique in the slick Louisiana clay. When he was 15 his father bought him a Yamaha TZ750, then the fastest, meanest race bike in the world. When 18-year-old Spencer and the Tee Zee hit Europe in 1980 he made everyone else look like grandads, even Barry Sheene and King Kenny Roberts.
The battles Spencer fought with Roberts over the next few years deﬁned the era; their duel for the 1983 500 world title remains one of the all-time classic confrontations. The outcome was decided on the last corner of the penultimate race (in Sweden, above) when Spencer pulled a masterful move on Roberts, already a three-time 500 king. Roberts – a brash cowhand from one of the poorer corners of California – still gets angry at the mere mention of the manoeuvre. He believes Spencer was dangerous and out of control, relying upon his belief in God to get him through.
“It was alarming, because here was someone who seemed to think they had divine intervention on their side,” says Roberts.
Spencer insists he never used God on the race track. “I never used my faith to help me win,” he says. “I’d pray to be safe, for everybody’s safety. When I was a kid we weren’t taught to believe your faith would prevent you getting hurt by running a red light.”
That 1983 title success made Spencer the youngest 500 champion in history, another record that still hasn’t been beaten.
Spencer lost the 500 title in 1984, which is what got him thinking about attempting an historic 250/500 double in ’85. This was a lofty goal, especially since it involved developing a new Honda 250 and 500 all by himself, while simultaneously developing the ﬁrst radial motorcycle racing tyres with Michelin. It also demanded that he raced both bikes, often back to back, at every GP. Sometimes the break between races was so short he nearly missed the grid.
At Mugello Spencer won the 500 race – a 55-minute battle with Eddie Lawson in 40deg heat – and only made the 250 start because his two title rivals refused to join the grid till he was ready.
“I’d usually change my leathers and helmet, drink two big bottles of water and go out again,” he recalls. “This time I didn’t even change my leathers and I was already exhausted. When the race started I pushed to start the bike, but my legs didn’t move.”
Spencer completed that ﬁrst lap in 19th place, but still went on to win. It was the ﬁrst of four double race wins during 1985.
The title double may have made history but it was the unmaking of Spencer. Physically and mentally exhausted, and troubled by a niggling injury sustained during 1985, he never won another GP, though he raced into the early ’90s. Not surprisingly, no one has tried to match Spencer’s double and they probably never will.