Freddie Spencer: ‘I’d literally bend the handlebars to get the bike to turn’


An amazing new photo book examines the wild, early days of American superbike racing, which eventually led to the MotoGP championship

Rob Muzzy Laguna Seca Eddie Lawson 1982

Wild tuners, wild riders: Rob Muzzy on the Laguna Seca grid with Eddie Lawson in 1982. Alongside is Honda’s Freddie Spencer. The pair went on to win six MotoGP world titles between 1983 and 1989

John Owens

And relax….

After three consecutive edge-of-the-seat MotoGP weekends, with the final three title-deciders starting next week, let’s take a quick break from the white heat of 21st century premier-class racing and hark back to some wild, romantic days of yore, before tyre-pressure penalties, green zones and engine rationing.

A superb new book – Superbikes: an Illustrated Early History, by journalist Kevin Cameron and photographer John Owens – looks at the magical era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when American racers and tuners created the world’s first superbike championship.

Those years do have a current significance, because they gave birth to modern four-stroke racing and therefore to MotoGP itself. US superbikes led to World Superbikes, which were so successful during the 1990s that the series played a part in convincing MotoGP rights-holder Dorna to support the manufacturer-led 2002 move from ringa-ding-ding 500cc two-strokes to booming 990cc four-strokes.

Ox Engine 2

Honda’s 1981 CB750F engine was bored and stroked to 1023cc and ran 125 octane gas. Developed jointly by Honda’s RSC (Racing Service Centre, the forerunner of HRC) and the American Honda Motor Co, each bike was valued at more than $300,000 (more than a million bucks today)

John Owens

The Cameron/Owens book is a work of art, a thing rarely seen in the nuts-and-bolts world of motorcycle racing. Like all the best publications its concept is simple: typically enlightening words from the GOAT of motorcycle-racing journalism blended with beautifully evocative black-and-white photography by Owens. Superbikes wouldn’t look out of place sat next to a Helmut Newton photo book – the two press different buttons, but that’s about the only difference.

The 190 pages feature huge Owens photos on each spread, accompanied by long captions that give insight like only Cameron can. Together they tell the story of an age when riders literally bent handlebars trying to get their motorcycles turned into corners, while tuners fitted snowmobile generators to increase ground clearance and asked so much of their engines that they would grenade into a thousand pieces, on dyno and racetrack.

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Of course, the problem was that tuners – especially those trying to squeeze more horsepower out of the Japanese fours, which were starting to take over the world – were trying to make silk purses out of sow’s ears.

These were genuine streetbikes, a million miles from today’s purpose-built superbikes, which is why the first years of US superbikes were more about sports twins built by BMW, Ducati and Moto Guzzi, than Japanese fours. Then, bit by bit, disaster after disaster, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Honda learned to reign supreme. At least until the 1990s when Ducati came back from the brink of bankruptcy with its eight-valve twin, created, funnily enough, for WSB.

Superbikes quickly became a runaway success in the USA, because fans were bored of watching grids full of Yamaha TZ750s every weekend. Not only were they hugely entertaining to watch – riders wrestling with their machines as they took them way beyond their design limits – they were also what the manufacturers wanted. These became the days of ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’.

Ironically, it is the man now in charge of MotoGP’s tiresome, but arguably necessary, track-limits and tyre-pressure penalties that has the greatest story to tell of those early years of supers racing.

Freddie Spencer, who made his name on TZ750s and TZ250s, had his first supers experiences in 1979, riding a Kawasaki Z1000 and (yes!) a Ducati 750SS. His talent was so startling that within months he was snapped up by American Honda, to ride its 1023cc CB750F superbike.

F Spencer 3

Spencer doesn’t seem to be looking forward to doing battle at Loudon, where track safety was, erm… unsafe. In 1979 the future three-time world champion mostly raced two-strokes, but had his first superbike races on a Ducati 750SS and a Kawasaki Z1000

John Owens

The CB was an animal, like all Japanese fours of the time.

“That bike just flexed all over the place,” Spencer recalls. “In fact I’d literally bend the handlebars, just from counter-steering the thing to get it to turn. And it was really unstable. Everything was just bad.

“Plus it had so much engine compression that you’d go into a corner, roll off the throttle and the bike would start hopping. And once that started it would hop right off the racetrack.”

It would take three strong men to start that Honda and occasionally we’d pull it with a car

Spencer’s engineer was Mike Velasco, who American Honda stole from Pop Yoshimura, the legendary tuner who had started out tuning motorcycles for the thousands of American troops based in Japan after World War II, before moving to the States.

“It would take three strong men to start that Honda and occasionally we’d pull it with a car,” Velasco remembers. “The compression was close to 15:1 and we ran it on 125 octane gas, like a drag racer [MotoGP and WSB are currently limited to 102 octane]. And basically this was drag racing – from one corner to the next. Those things were definitely a handful. They’d smoke the tyres and blister them and pop them!

“Dragging the engine side covers on the ground in corners was another problem, so we lifted the ignition out of the way. We ended up with a belt-driven Krober snowmobile ignition [mounted above the gearbox].

“We’d spend days in the dyno room, come out to eat, then go back in again. In the end we had Crane cams and forged titanium con-rods; state of the art. In 1982 Kawasaki and Yoshimura Suzuki were telling everyone they had 150 horsepower. Then we showed up at Daytona and blew them all away. We told them Daytona was the real dyno!

Ox Feature 4 Honda

Early superbike tuners spent most of their lives in dyno rooms, finally coming out, blinking in the sun, to rush to the next race. This is Yoshimura mechanic Don Yasuda cleaning the lower half of a 1981 Suzuki GS1000 crankcase set. Yoshimura had won the title in 1980, with Wes Cooley, but lost it to Kawasaki’s Eddie Lawson the following year

John Owens

“That 1023cc engine only had a life of 450 miles. Any further and it was like pulling the pin on a hand grenade. It was waiting to explode! And they would break pretty heavily – like the crankshaft would break and chainsaw the motor in half. Quite catastrophic.”

When Spencer got promoted to 500cc GPs in 1982, riding Honda’s sublime new NS500 triple, he said he’d never race superbikes again.

But the astonishing rate of technical progress in the class – and therefore in streetbike design itself – changed his mind.

Before the 1983 Daytona 200, where he was down to race an FWS1000 F1 bike, Honda asked him to have a test ride on its new Interceptor/VF750F superbike, built to fit the championship’s new 750cc rules.

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“The Japanese said, ‘Would you ride it for a few laps?’. I went out and it was so much fun. The fifth or sixth lap I went faster than I’d ever been on the 1023cc inline four. It was agile, stable, the brakes were good and the power delivery reminded me of the FWS I’d raced the year before. I said, ‘Okay I’ll race it’.

“If the NS500 was 100% and the inline four was 0%, then the first Interceptor was 60%. That’s a huge jump in performance – the biggest jump in development I’ve ever seen, before or since.”

Spencer won a hat-trick of Daytona superbike races on the Interceptor/VF in 1983, 1984 and 1985, when the 200-miler became a superbikes-only race, completing the category’s conquest of the USA’s racing scene.

“The Interceptor was technology from the NR500 [Honda’s oval-piston four-stroke GP bike] and also the FWS, so while race bikes were improving the superbikes were getting closer to the race bikes. Over the next few years it just got refined – coming off the banking at Daytona the movement you’d get became less and less each year, more like a race bike.

“The main thing for me was that you weren’t limited on the Interceptor. What I didn’t like about the inline four was that the bike was the limiting factor and not you. You could only go as fast as the bike would allow you to go. With the Interceptor you could ride hard.”

In 1986, the second-generation Interceptor/VFR750 arrived.

“As the bikes got more stable you could shorten the transition from braking to turn-in, to maximum lean angle, to initiating the throttle and accelerating. Any instability in any of those steps would affect the next step. The second Interceptor wasn’t as big a jump, but it allowed you to shorten those transitions.”

Daytona Ducati

The first Japanese four-cylinder superbikes were close to unrideable, allowing bikes like Ducati’s 750SS their day in the sun. This is Cycle magazine duo Cook Nielson (editor-in-chief/rider/tuner) and Phil Schilling (journalist/tuner) with their hugely breathed-upon ‘Californian Hot Rod’ at Pocono in 1977. The trio won that year’s Daytona superbike race

John Owens

In 1988 Honda launched its RC30, built specifically for the inaugural World Superbike season. This machine completed the steepest decade of development curve in modern road and racing history.

“The RC30 was lighter and more stable, and it shortened those transitions again,” continues Spencer, who rode the bike to two US superbike victories. “And it seemed small. Plus the power delivery was so smooth that it didn’t really feel like it was accelerating. The noise was kinda flat too, which I liked because it was distinctive.

“The main thing was that the RC30 was very rider friendly. It was maybe 85% towards a GP bike. It absolutely felt like a proper race bike – the first Interceptor you still knew it was a sport bike.”

There is no better record of this amazing era – in fact this is arguably the best motorcycle-racing book published in years – than the Cameron/Owens tome (which, to be specific, covers the years 1976 to 1986).

Available from for $75.