‘Anthony Gobert wanted a dancing girl in the pit!’
More gripping racing yarns from Stuart Shenton, the man who helped Kork Ballington, Freddie Spencer, Wayne Gardner and Kevin Schwantz to world title glory. And he might’ve done the same with Anthony Gobert…
In 1984 Stuart Shenton had been with Honda for 18 months when HRC engineer (and later HRC president) Satoru Horiike wandered up and asked a question.
“He said, if Honda were to build a 250, what should it be like?” says Shenton, who had already played a crucial role in Kawasaki’s domination of the 250 and 350 classes during the late 1970s and early 1980s. “So I asked him straight: are you building a 250? No, no, he said, this is just a casual question. Going back to my experience with Kawasaki, I told him a 250 must be on the minimum weight limit, it will need this much horsepower and it will need twin front discs. So at the end of 1984 I went to Japan and there was this 250, a fabulous piece of kit.”
Having lost the 500 title to Yamaha in 1984, HRC boss Youichi Oguma wanted to make amends to Soichiro Honda. So he asked Freddie Spencer to do something that had never been done before: win the 250/500 world title double.
“Oguma never took the easy path,” Shenton adds. “So I can imagine him saying to Mr Honda: sorry, we’ve messed up, so next year we will win both world championships.
“We did some winter testing with Freddie and we knew the 250 would be competitive. The first event of 1985 was Daytona, where the race was run under AMA rules, so the bikes had to be five kilos heavier than in GPs, and you weren’t allowed to obtain that weight with ballast. The AMA scrutineers knew our 250 would be at the GP limit, so they knew we must have some weight hidden on the bike. After every practice they took off the seat, the tank, the airbox, everything, trying to find the ballast, but they didn’t find any.”
“There were times when Spencer was running at the very limit of his capabilities, swapping back and forth between very different bikes”
Spencer duly won the 100-mile 250 race, but still the scrutineers weren’t happy.
“After the race they said they wanted to look inside the forks. The forks had magnesium bottoms, carbon-fibre fork legs and all that stuff. So I opened the forks, took out the spacers, held them in my hand and shone a torch so they could see inside. They couldn’t see anything and the bike was passed. What they never knew was that the fork spacers weighed about three kilos …”
Shenton’s job during 1985 was to look after Spencer’s NSR250s, while team leader Erv Kanemoto focused on his NSR500s.
“Freddie was amazing and we had a good little team: JB [Jeremy Burgess] and George working on the 500 and me and Giles [Duides] on the 250. Erv was the overseer but there were times when he was battling to keep Freddie on the straight and narrow, to keep him focused, because obviously the important thing was always the 500.”
Although Spencer did win the 250/500 title double there were times when he was running at the very limit of his capabilities, swapping back and forth between very different bikes, trying to give his engineers useful feedback.
“By 1985 the bikes were getting complicated but there was no data-recording. Freddie was having a bad time in 250 qualifying at Le Mans. I was damn sure he wasn’t using sixth gear, so I asked him if he was sure he was using sixth. ‘Yeah, yeah’, he said. Then I worked everything out again and I was damn sure he was only using the first five gears, so I changed the gearbox for the race according to what I thought and Le Mans was one of his double race wins. That was the kind of thing you were battling with.”
The NSRs may have been the trickest bikes on the planet, but that didn’t mean HRC were above a bit of bodging.
“The 250 came from the factory with 34mm carburettors, while the 500 ran 36mm carbs. Keihin built these fabulous sets of four magnesium and titanium carburettors for the 500 that were hundreds of thousands of dollars a go. Oguma’s sidekick, an old boy called [Kiyoshi] Abe, said we should try some 36mm carbs on the 250. I said we haven’t got any. He just laughed, gave me a bank of four-cylinder carburettors and told me to cut them in half. I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t, so I used a hacksaw to convert this 100k set of four carburettors into two sets of two carburettors and they stayed on the 250 for most of the year.”
Shenton enjoyed working with Spencer, the clean-living youngster who stood out like a nun in a lap-dancing club during an era of wild, hard-drinking racers.
“Freddie was naive. He got ripped off horrendously by all the managers and lawyers he had doing stuff for him.”
“Freddie had a very different outlook on life from your average motorbike racer, maybe it was because of where he came from. He was a brilliant rider, but he wouldn’t really say what was going on with the bike. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t had a lot of time to mature and learn. He’d say stuff like there’s something going on with the back, so you’d ask him is it the tyre or is it the shock? And he’d just say there’s something wrong with the back. He was one of those guys who would ride the wheels off the thing on the day.
“He was a bit of an enigma to work with. There was no social interaction, but he was always polite and well-spoken and he was fine. The unfortunate thing about Freddie was his naivety. Business-wise he got ripped off horrendously by all the managers and lawyers he had doing stuff for him.”
Shenton later worked with Wayne Gardner during 1987, his title-winning season, and 1988. Gardner might have retained the 500 crown if HRC hadn’t assigned a new engineering group who got everything wrong.
“The 1988 bike was horrendous. HRC had talked to Erv about flat trackers and grip. For some unknown reason they worked out that most flat trackers have flat swinging-arm angles, so they built the ’88 bike with a swingarm pivot 18mm lower than the ’87 bike. When we got to the first race we realised there was a quite a serious problem.”
In 1992 Shenton accepted an offer to join Suzuki, working with Kevin Schwantz. The Texan won the title the following year – at his sixth attempt – and attributes much of that success to Shenton’s input.
“I inherited quite a low-engineered bike and we messed our through 1992,” says Shenton. “I pretty much lived in Australia the next winter – we were testing at Eastern Creek every week – and a good bike came out of that.
“There are two types of riders. There are the guys who tell you what they’re feeling and leave it up to you and the other engineers to interpret that. Then there are the others who try to engineer their bike, which in my experience isn’t always the best way. I guess there’s a happy medium. Kevin was good, he was very descriptive and could pin stuff down.
“We did a test the week before the Japanese GP, trying out the latest chassis from the factory and it was by far the best chassis we’d had. We were going straight from Australia to Suzuka and we didn’t have time to ship the bikes, so I hand carried the chassis to Japan with my luggage. I’m near the top of a 60-metre escalator in Tokyo train station with the chassis strapped to my back when the strap breaks. The chassis flies down the escalator, wiping out all these Japanese people on the way down, then lands with a bloody great clunk at the bottom. Oh my God, the chassis we’re going to use for the Suzuka race is bent!”
But the chassis wasn’t bent and Schwantz took second in the race, a fraction behind Yamaha’s Wayne Rainey, and went on to win the title.
Everyone knows how that season ended: with Rainey crashing at Misano and breaking his back. Shenton and Schwantz still feel guilt for what happened that day.
“That weekend we were having problems, we didn’t have a suitable front tyre. The soft tyre wouldn’t go the distance and the hard one wouldn’t give us the grip or the lap time. So we decided to go with the soft because we wanted to push Wayne into a mistake, obviously not having any idea of the consequences. It’s something in the back of our minds with Kevin and me to this day. We’ve talked to Wayne about it and he’s very gracious about it. He said, ‘Hey, I would’ve raced Kevin how I raced him anyway’.”
Shenton enjoyed working with Schwantz. “Kevin was a fantastic team player. He’d sweep the floor and help load the truck – he wanted to be part of the gang.”
After Schwantz retired, Suzuki got lost in the wilderness. They had a high turnover of riders and no one leading development. After Daryl Beattie came former World Superbike champ Scott Russell, who joined Suzuki halfway through 1995, to replace Schwantz.
“Scott was an interesting character – a lovely guy but a bit all over the place. We were doing a winter test at Eastern Creek. I get a phone call in the middle of the night and it’s Scott. Oh, where are you, downstairs in the lobby? ‘No, I’m still in America.’ What are you doing in America? ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore.’ Look, get yourself on a plane and we’ll have a talk. It was only later I realised that some of his recreational pursuits make you a bit edgy and paranoid and doubt yourself.”
After Russell there was Anthony Gobert, who joined Suzuki for 1997. Out of the frying pan and into the fire…
“Gobert was one of these guys who you get every now and then: don’t change anything on the bike, I’ll just ride it. By then we had data. He’d come in and you’d see that he was so hard on the brakes that the suspension’s bottomed out and he’s just hanging onto it. So we said we can put stronger springs in there or more oil. ‘Nah mate, don’t change anything’.
“On his way to signing the contract he wrote off his brand-new $250,000 Porsche by jumping a red light and it hadn’t fazed him in the slightest.”
“We saw the most incredible brake temperatures with Gobert. If he had been able to apply himself and turn up every weekend, fit and healthy, with the right sort of focus, he would’ve absolutely been something.
“I always knew it was going to be an interesting relationship. I hadn’t met him but [Suzuki team manager] Garry Taylor and [Suzuki race boss] Mistuo Itoh went to Australia to sign him. On his way to signing the contract he wrote off his brand-new $250,000 Porsche by jumping a red light and it hadn’t fazed him in the slightest.”
Shenton met his new rider after the final 1996 race at Eastern Creek. “We were packing up our garage and a scruffy urchin with a few mates in tow was hanging around the back of the garage. Then one of them says to me: ‘g’day Stuart, I’m your new rider, I hope you’re f**king ready for me!’ And that was Anthony Gobert.
Stuart Shenton’s first experiences as a teenage factory race mechanic quickly taught him that racing isn’t all about spinning spanners and twisting throttles. In 1975, Kawasaki unleashed its water-cooled KR750…
“At our first test with him at Eastern Creek we were doing his first debrief, with all the Japanese engineers sitting there, pens hovering, waiting to take notes and get his first impression of the bike. And he says, ‘Well, I need two things: I need a cage in the back of the garage with a dancing girl in it and we’ve got to get some beers in the fridge’. Then he gets up and walks out. There were six Japanese engineers sitting around the table and they didn’t know what to do, what to say or what had just happened. With his talent, he should’ve been world champion, but it was never going to happen.”
Before Gobert, Shenton had won world titles with Spencer, Gardner, Schwantz and Kork Ballington. So who was the best of them all?
“In terms of fantastic natural talent I’ll be a bit controversial and say that Freddie was second. The guy with the most natural talent was Gobert, but he didn’t realise what he had and he wasn’t able to apply it. At the other end of the spectrum, and he’ll hate me for saying this, was Gardner. He beat the other guys by sheer guts and bloody-minded determination. He had to really work at it and apply himself. Then you’ve got someone like Kevin in the middle who had the talent, worked at it and applied it.”