Freddie Spencer joined Ed Foster and Mat Oxley to help decide which 12 names from motorcycling should be on the shortlist for the Hall of Fame in 2017. Plus, Spencer answers your questions.
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Ed Foster: Hello everyone and welcome to our third Motor Sport Hall of Fame podcast. What a fantastic hour we have lined up for you today.
Sat next to me is three-time World Champion Freddie Spencer and you may notice we have quite a few motorbikes in the background and that is because we’re at the national motorcycle museum near Birmingham. If you ever have a spare moment you have to come and see this place. If you don’t have a spare moment make time and come and see it because I heard from Roger on reception that there are 820 bikes on display at any given time: an incredible amount. Every era is covered and its worth seeing.
Later in the show we are going to be talking about the motorcycle Hall of Fame category and we are going to select 12 nominees for that category in 2017 which you can then vote on. Valentino Rossi was inducted this year but we’ve got many more names to come.
Before we get to that lets talk to the winner of 27 World Championship races: Freddie, a warm welcome and thank you for coming all this way to chat to us today.
Freddie Spencer: It’s great to be here, it’s great to see Mat. In this museum is incredible, I’ve been here before and just the diversity of the bikes and they have American dirt track bikes here, Dave Aldena’s bike is out there and it was funny, the one time I came here in July somebody said what number is this? 13, Dave Aldena and as a kid I watched it
EF: I should also say we are joined by Mat Oxley our bike correspondent and Alan Hyde behind the cameras as it were. I always want to say Alan Hyde on drums but there we are!
Freddie, do you still watch MotoGP today? Do you keep abreast of it? What are you views on the current state, Marquez, his battle with Rossi? There’s about four questions there!
FS: Well one, yes I do watch it and yes I do keep up with it and I’m always interested. The obvious things: the competition, the equipment, some of the evolution of the bikes and where the direction is going. I’m also a fan of motorcycling so I enjoy just the drama of it, and obviously I understand so well the guys from rookies to someone like Valentino and his longevity. It’s always interesting how people approach things. The bikes especially now, this year with changing to the little less of the electronics involvement, obviously it’s one that everyone has to use so the manufacturers have had to kind of get their bike and develop it for that one process which I think is a very good thing.
The tyres is interesting and again because of my experience in having been around for a long time, I remember the characteristics of the Michelins and this year had an opportunity a couple of times to talk to Loris Baz and Yonny Hernandez because the school I do in France is Ducati sponsored and they ride Ducatis. They would ask me “when you were riding Michelins what was the tendency?”
“Always a lot of rear grip and we’d have to run a very hard front.” Exactly the same characteristics. A lot of times people assume that things dramatically change. It’s not the case. Some things change but some stay the same.
Mat Oxley: Same with motorcycle character isn’t it? Yamaha have always built very neutral bikes, Honda build an engine and work out how to get the power to the ground. If you compare the Suzuki now that [Andrea] Iannoni would ride with the RVG that Schwantz rode, very manoeuvrable, very precise front end etc. This is going through generations of engineers.
FS: Exactly, its characteristics.
MO: But somehow it seems to happen.
FS: It does, it does. I was thinking the exact same thing when they were talking about [Alex] Espargo and [Maverick] Vinales when they got on the Suzuki: “it really steers well.” Well the GSXRs, Matt Mladin used to talk about fifteen years ago on the jigsaws, and you’re right Mat on the characteristics of the Hondas, the engine – it’s like when I was sitting with Mr Honda when I finally met him in his house. The first thing he talked about with me was building engines in his garage, he’s an engine manufacturer, he’s an engine man. It’s about power and putting that on a bicycle frame. The characteristics of Honda as a company specifically is like that and the power characteristics of the 500s we were always a lot of top power and difficult to get the power to the ground.
From that perspective I really enjoyed seeing how riders adapt. It’s one of the great things about what we do. It’s extremely practical and analytical but you are required to have so much trust in what you sense and what you feel on the bike and your interaction with the motorcycle. Your confidence on that day, your certainty of what you need to do. It’s an incredible sport that way.
EF: I wanted to take you back to your days in the dirt and how you developed your riding style and technique and all those sensory things that you relied on when you did make it up to Grand Prix racing. I read one of Mat’s pieces that he sent over with you, you were talking about when you were absolutely tiny going out in the rain with wet leaves trying to work out what lean angle, how much front slip you got and rear slip. Tell us a bit about that, also how old were you? This wasn’t sort of aged 20…
FS: No I was 8 or 9 years old, and in my yard we had an acre of property and about 200 trees and in the fall when the leaves would come off the trees in the south we’d have a lot of rain and I wanted to ride every day. It would rain, the leaves would fall and after hitting the tree a couple of times I kinda figured out…
EF: There’s nothing like a tree to make you ???
FS: Well there’s nothing like a tree yeah. It was always funny, my mom would be in the house and she would never come outside and watch me ride, unless she stopped hearing the engine running. There’s many times she would come out, she’s real Southern, you know “Freddie” she’d call out. I couldn’t speak because the wind was knocked out from me from hitting a tree. “I’m fine!”
It taught me exactly and it was funny because it was one of the things when I was doing the traction control story a couple years ago for Cycle World. It’s one of the reasons why, I was on the train and I was talking to a kid, a young rider, an enthusiast who asked me about it and what I thought about it. I was describing about that was one of the things which taught me to really pay attention because you can imagine I’m in first, second gear, third gear, 100, I’m going along and the only way I knew how wet it was I would pay attention to the colour of the leaves and that would determine my trajectory and lean angle. It instilled in me, I could see it but I didn’t want to slow down so that’s how I would adjust to it and not hit a tree,
The great thing about riding a dirt bike is to pinpoint it specifically is a bike moves a certain way, for example as you apply lean angle and you turn in it depends obviously and it’s a great thing about dirt riding, if its slick or you have grip, but if the rear brakes away it goes back to the front, the front tucks and the rear reacts and I developed this ability where I recognised exactly what the movement was and as we went up through the years its exactly the same, so I know exactly how a bike’s going to move based on the initial reaction. The key is paying attention to that and everything else and your ability to adjust to it. Dirt bike riding instilled that in me as a kid, I learned to trust exactly what the movement was and what I needed to do to counteract it and adjust to it.
I seem to always have this ability and certainly you could say it’s a gift or ability but it’s more I could recognise it, I could feel it, I could feel it right before it happened and you combine that, that’s why I was saying what we do is this incredible combination of practical things and techniques that happen, but you can see the real key is your ability to build sense and feeling. When you combine those two together with work ethic it’s a pretty good combination.
EF: Where did the analytical approach come from? Were you very analytical in other parts of your life or was it just motorcycles?
FS: Again when I was a kid, what I would do I guess you could say was watch the older guys like at Rosstown/Brasstown. I remember one time specifically I was probably about five years old and they’d allow us to run every Friday night. Initially when we started the only thing the wanted to do was keep us from riding around with our brothers and dads kicking up dirt, running over people and things like that. So they threw us out during intermission one night at Lake Lavon, timing is everything. The right time and dirt, flat tacking after every Sunday happened, things started to pick up and there was more opportunities. I would watch the older guys and what I would watch is, what I would see is their trajectory and the lean angle they would use then I would pay attention to how long it took them to get the bike to rotate and things. Granted on my little bike I couldn’t slide as much, I tried, problem is once you get it sideways there’s no power it runs out of power very fast and high sides you. Couple of those and I thought “I better not do that anymore.”
In all seriousness I would pay attention to those things, so that was the development of the analytical part and like I said it to really execute it, it’s all about seeing it and sensing it and feeling it. You focus on the process in that moment and there’s no way, because it happens too quickly. You have to stay way ahead of it. It happens to quickly, you can’t react to it. As you can see one of the keys, the difference between someone who races at a local level, community level, state level, national level, the differences along the way is their ability to be able to react to it. It’s their comfort level in that respect. It’s kind of like when you hear people talking about crashing. I can describe sometimes a crash in a shutter click from one to next, all the things which happened in-between. I can feel the bike slowing down, as its going over and everything, in a camera shot this could be from here to here. You hear people describing it all the time, and that ability is an inherent thing. When I had my school in Vegas in the United States, Id raced 29 years and I knew what I wanted to teach the students. It’s the greatest thing I ever did because it taught me about – and one of my favourite things is to teach, I love the interaction – one of the things I noticed with the average rider is their difficulty is not being able to execute its being able to react to it. Sometimes they’d be off over here and not realise it until they’re already over there. The key is to see it before it happens and riding in my yard, practising that I always really focused innately on the movement and that allowed me to develop the real skills of being able to react to it before it’s happening, know how the bike’s going to react and anticipate it.
MO: Do you think it comes back to the so called 10,000 hour rule? That’s what you did. If you want to be good at anything just do it, do it, do it and never stop.
FS: The hours and hours – it’s probably why one of the things when I first came over for racing – and I do appreciate I’m saying this – but people say “you make it look so easy,” I would always say “you have no idea how difficult it is” but really it is about being able to anticipate but you’re right, that’s hundreds and thousands of hours. That’s why I remember so well as a kid rising in my yard. I can close my eyes and still feel going through the trees all day, different parts of the yard air was cooler than others. I can still feel that.
But that’s the focus.
EF: There’s a golfer, I can’t remember which one it was, he was extremely experienced and very good and someone accused one of his shots of being lucky and he said “it’s funny, the more I play the luckier I get!” It’s a similar thing.
I wanted to jump ahead to 1980, Brands Hatch and the race there, the Transatlantic Trophy and you came over and beat the likes of [Kenny] Roberts, [Barry] Sheene. You obviously realised at the time how big a race this was. Did you go into it thinking: “I could have these guys”?
FS: No, no. I never assume anything in that respect because that’s an interesting I know thing. People talk about the importance of having confidence. Confidence is not the issue and the certainty of I know, is exactly what I should do. But it’s the mind-set that is the real key because never assume it’s going to happen, that way allows you to be right in the moment and in tune with it. That Thursday when I showed up… well it goes back a few weeks before that because it was really Daytona and my almost-win in the Daytona 200 that gave us a chance and one of the Americans, I think he maybe crashed and I think it was John Long or Henry Degalt and he couldn’t race so Gavin Truet came over to Erv [Kanemoto] and I after the end of the 200 and we were disappointed as we had the race won – with ten laps to go I broke a crankshaft – he said “would you like to go to the match races?”
And we said “sure.”
He said “great”, so we came over, got here on Wednesday and Thursday they gave us a 45-minute session in the afternoon and I’ve told this story many times: we show up at the track in these Range Rovers and I get out of the car and these fans are rushing over to get to the guys, I could barely get out of the way.
So we go on and for me, learning a racetrack, and this is why: it was not that difficult, I could learn a track quickly because when I paid attention so well when I was a kid, riding in my yard in different and changing conditions all the time. I could see it, see the different angles and I could see all those things. The next day, probably a critical moment, Dale Singleton and I were walking to the tunnel and Dale said “are you nervous?” and I wasn’t, I was anticipating it, I was excited, I certainly was not thinking I was going to go out and win the race. I was ready, I’d spent 14 years racing. I’d been watching Kenny since I was a kid going to the Astrome looking through the fence. He was the first guy I ever saw get the bike on the side and use both tyres get the thing to rotate and I wold practise that in the yard. It’s what Marc Marquez does so well now and it’s what I did.
It’s an opportunity and I was ready for it. I went out and was able to get the lead first lap, passed Graham Crosby and won the race.
MO: I was there, I was a kid stood in the mud. Like you said, I didn’t even realise you were a last minute replacement. I’m sure none of us had ever heard of you and we’d all gone down presuming to see Kenny and Sheene and all that lot and there’s this kid on this silver Yamaha and he’s 18, I think you were 18?
FS: Yes it was the first time I could race in a match race.
MO: And off you went, left everyone. He didn’t just beat them, he just disappeared, they didn’t see which way he went. He hadn’t seen the track before and we stood there going “errr”. One of those moments just wow.
FS: The silence when I got on the podium. You could hear a pin drop. I think people were shocked. The funny thing, Alan Wilson at the time, and Alan came over to the United States years later – he’s a track designer and he built Salt Lake. He would always tell a story about when I came up on the podium. He was the manager of the circuits at Brands, Oulton and Mallory. I get up there and I’m smiling and he goes “great ride.”
And I go “that’s Giacomo Agostini!” I’d never met Ago before and Mike Hailwood, and it was true, “Mr Hailwood it’s really nice…” and they’re looking at me like “you should be focused on the fact you won the race!” It was amazing but the respect I have for those guys…
EF: How did they treat you after that win? Things must have changed?
FS: That day, there was two races that day and I won the second one too, so it kinda worked out it was good, because everybody assumed well the guys in the second race… and I won the second too. It was good obviously and dramatic, and from that point that changed everything because everybody knew and the opportunities. I had already signed with Honda, I had signed with Honda the previous December, so I was going to ride the Superbike which I did, Superbike in the United States, I was the fourth rider on the team. Ever since I was a little kid seeing that picture on the wall at Mr Gorman’s Honda Dealership I always felt I would ride for Honda someday. I’m on the Honda team, there’s no Grand Prix programme or anything, I signed when there was no HRC, nothing other than the disaster at Silverstone. But I felt that’s where I should be, and they gave me the chance to ride the Yamaha with Erv and a lot of people don’t know this, that I was already with Erv but there was no place for Erv at Honda and I risked losing Erv but I told them, I felt I was supposed to ride for Honda.
They said you can run Daytona and that’s pretty much it, and they allowed me to add in the match races. For them it wasn’t a bad thing for me to go and gain this experience. They didn’t know at the time that our 500 would not be able to continue along or get somewhere and there was probably already talk, because at the end of the 1980s when Amajiri sat down with me and said “we know ??? are not going to do it, but we are going to start this company and build a two-stroke for you to race but it’s not going to be in ’81.” I stayed and they developed that programme. The opportunities that came along were right at the right time so obviously Daytona and the match races there I am, I won both races. It even allowed me to where Yamaha Europe they had a bike they prepared for me, I raced my first Grand Prix at Zolder in July and everything was really taking off.
EF: What was the atmosphere like in the paddock with the other riders after those wins? It must have changed dramatically?
FS: The problem is, and I talked about this in the story of mine. It was difficult it began isolating me in many ways. One: I was extremely shy anyway. I almost failed a speech class in 1979 in high school. I couldn’t get up in front of my class of 12 students and do a speech at all. I’m serious, as a kid I wouldn’t even go to the line to get a trophy because they had a trophy girl. I would go back to the pits. I was just really shy. Here I am, literally a few months into my first season I’m at Brands Hatch, there’s 80,000 people, which is fine, I’ve been racing since I was six but people immediately start treating you differently. It was not easy and there’s competition with the other riders, at that time specifically, I’m from Louisiana, all the other Americans are from California. Let me tell you when I was a kid it wasn’t too many years, 1980 wasn’t too many years way from when we went from Shreveport Louisiana to Dallas you’d think we were going to another country. I’ve been dealing with that since I was a little kid; people looking at you. I would race in Kansas for example and I’d get put on the back row because I wasn’t from Kansas! It’s changed a lot in the last 30 or 40 years in that respect, where you have people now race they go all over the country and everybody is friends.
MO: Everything is much more mixed up globally.
FS: Exactly, plus you have everything so there’s just that’s where it has changed.
MO: You think of you being shy and there being Barry Sheene: a big show off and Kenny Roberts…
FS: Kenny being Kenny…
MO: You mixing with those guys. It only just occurred to me that if you were a bit ostracised… Casey Stoner was the same, he was incredibly shy and he hated being famous, and came in for a lot of stick from fans who didn’t understand that him not wanting to sign autographs wasn’t him being rude, he was kind of terrified.
FS: This is the thing too, and I understand I really do, you had the two incredible personalities in Barry and Kenny and they were second and third in both races and the fans… they are the veterans and the World Champions and sometimes that makes it more difficult when you’re dealing with that. But I have to say, and I really appreciated it, Barry from that very first day was extremely nice and good to me. Him and Stephanie and the mom Mrs Sheene were extremely, actually very, very nice to me. Barry was the first person who hugged me after I won my first Grand Prix at Imola. He came on the track as I came across… he was happy I think for a lot of reasons, we know of course him and Kenny’s battles. It was different, a lot of us American guys it was a little bit difficult I think, just competitive.
EF: It wasn’t so easy with Kenny was it? Was it tough when he was saying you were relying on divine intervention and things like that? It must have been difficult with him?
FS: Yes. Our personalities, we are a lot different in so many ways. I’m not saying in good or bad at all, I’m not saying that, just the way we approach things. Kenny actually, his race approach, and he was extremely good at it, was to be somewhat the mental approach. The personality that he approached. I talk about a story where one of the things that he would do is he, and most people don’t know this because I never talked about it, he would come over in ’83, to my motorhome and he’d bring beer, I’d drink Dr Pepper and of course I knew part of the reason he was in there was to try and figure out how to beat me. I always understood that. I understood him from the first time I saw him ADY when I was 11 years old. It’s fascinating how things work out that way. I always felt one day I would race against him. In ’79 I was ready to race against him at Daytona but he crashed at Sugo and ruptured his spleen. It was bad. Skip Astlin subbed for him at Daytona, so this had been a long time. I understood him very well and because of that it made it so I could deal with him. A lot of what he would say is just race craft and I knew that, I didn’t let it bother me or get to me. I’ve been dealing with people that were older since I was a little kid, riding. I was always the youngest guy on the track: my first road race I was 11 and the next youngest rider was 21! So I was always used to racing against older people.
EF: Talking about the battles obviously 1983 was probably one of the greatest Grand Prix seasons ever, edge of the seat stuff all the way through. I have a question here: Swedish Grand Prix, Anderstorp, 1983. Can you share with us your thinking in that race? Your pass obviously on Roberts on the last lap and the aftermath of that move. At the time were you thinking if I don’t win here I’ve lost the Championship? Nowadays riders seem to expect a last lap move less than in the 1980s.
FS: When we raced in April there was a race called the Imola 200, back in those days there was a lot of international races, less and less in the 80s than the 70s and 60s but it gave us an opportunity to race at Imola before we would race there for the last race. After the race I told Erv if it comes to this race we’re in trouble, with the five chicanes the acceleration advantage of the V4s, especially in second, third and fourth gear was pretty dramatic. By dramatic I mean only five or six feet but fifteen feet is a lot – three metres basically. I told Erv “we’ll see how the race goes on.” The other thing I knew is it was so important those first three wins, South Africa, the French Grand Prix and of course Monza. They were critical.
As the season went on everything I felt in the beginning of the season was exactly right, we got to the mid-part and of course as Yamaha always would in those days, they would get an upgrade around Assen, the Dutch Grand Prix. Kenny’s acceleration advantage really increased. By the time we got to Silverstone with three races to go I couldn’t even get within the same second as him at Silverstone. On Friday afternoon in the second practice with 15 minutes to go I’m sitting there, my shoulders are slumped. I told Erv “I cannot go in the corner any deeper, I can’t get on the throttle any sooner, there’s no more race track for me to use, the kerb is stopping me basically, I’m saving it in most corners on my knee. If I don’t get to the throttle at the right moment and get to the power band where it gets at the right time I have so much lean angle on the front end’s so tight because I’m having to get on the throttle so aggressively so early I can’t save it. And every corner is that way. Every lap, every corner.” That’s what people don’t see. It’s like that.
So I’m sitting in the garage and it’s kind of another part of the story but I’m sitting there and I’m thinking that I don’t know how I’m going to get second, because there’s no way I can run with Kenny. And Eddie [Lawson], as the year went on, was getting stronger and stronger as Eddie does. He builds and gets there and once he’s there he’s tough. He was getting stronger and stronger. He hadn’t been in a position to really beat me yet but this was going to be the first weekend and I knew that at Silverstone, for many reasons.
I go out and am able to qualify second quickest, barely. We get to the race and in the race a couple of things happened that worked in our favour. One is Kenny goes and then it’s Randy [Mamola] on the Suzuki and Eddie on the Yamaha and we’re battling. I’m hanging on, hanging on, hanging on and it starts to rain at just the right moment. I didn’t slow down, I kept pushing and I was able to get a 1.8 second advantage with the red flag. They’re going to do an aggregate now where they restart with about 10 laps to go and combine the times. When they re-started it was dry and as it turned out I was barely able to hang on, I got fourth in it but because I got second by the time difference I got second, by about four-thousandths of a second. It was really close. That set up Sweden, and I say that because understand now I knew that Imola was going to be difficult. If I could get though Silverstone with the point lead which I did, Sweden was the critical weekend. I knew that and I go out in practice and I am unbelievably quick and I qualify like over a second quicker, about a second and four, five tenths quicker than Kenny thinking “it’s going to be great.”
We start the race and Kenny had been sandbagging, which was perfect. He suckered me into that, I had worked on set up and all that stuff but I had such an advantage I should have known the first ten laps of the race all I’m doing is kicking myself because I fell for that. I should have known “maybe three or four tenths but not a second.” It made me smile because I thought it was really good you know?
I was hanging on and what would normally happen in the races in those years I would get in front, push, push, push, he’d run me down, get in front, the Dunlops would last about four or five laps longer, I would hang on, hang on, it would even out and we’d be in for a battle. Because the Yamaha and Hondas have different characteristics, different riding styles, and we would put on good racing. Not today. He got in front of me and I am just barely hanging on, lap after lap, he’s not slowing down because he could run that pace real easy. He was running what I qualified at.
With about six laps to go, Sweden is a difficult track to pass on, because it’s really bumpy and there’s a lot of second and third gear corners so he was getting me off the corners, there are short chutes in between which didn’t allow the three-cylinder to really get running so I couldn’t get close enough for the brakes. With about six laps to go the only choice I had that I could figure out was as we were racing is the last corner leading on to the back straightaway is banked and it rolls off on the exit, so I thought if I could get him to tighten up his entry and run more lean angle it means he’s going to come off with more lean angle. I don’t know what’s going to happen but it’s the only thing I can think which is going to affect his drive on the back straightaway.
So going into the last lap that right-hander going on to the back straightaway I’d been showing him a wheel for lap after lap after lap and sure enough he fades in and goes in low thinking I was going to maybe try to pass him, and I go up high. I get the best drive onto the back straightaway, he comes of it, rolls off and as it rolls off because he’s got more lean angle it breaks traction and he wheelies. It’s the only lap it did for the entire race, was that lap, and I get my best drive and it’s the only time going down the back straightaway I could get beyond in his draft and I was able to get a run and get next to him. As we are going on the back straightaway Sweden really narrows up and it’s kinda a right-angle going into this right-hander which is a 90 degree little short chute and a little 90 degree to the start finish line. As we’re going down the back straightaway this is exactly what happened: I got in next to him and we’re probably going 160 maybe, 165, maybe a little bit more and normally what you do is your peripheral vision is everything and as you get up next to someone because your focus has to be exactly in front of you, so your peripheral vision is what you really pay attention to and as I coming next to him we do the same as we roll off we get on the brakes, roll off throttle, brakes, sit up all in one motion. Just at the last split-second as we’re going along my peripheral vision I turn my eyes to his hand and it’s the only time I ever did it all year, I didn’t do it before or after that and sure enough when he sat up he didn’t roll off the throttle and because he didn’t roll off the throttle I wasn’t going to. That I can promise you, however deep we were going to get in there we were going in that deep and of course because he hesitated and waited longer I did too. Now we’re both in way, way too deep and I’m on the inside and as we get to that right-hander sure I’m wide and we’re both wide. We did not touch but from the angle and I understand because they didn’t allow photographers down that part of the track, it looks like we maybe touched and certainly he got off track. I was too and when he got on the throttle the bike did this because he had the better angle on me, but he had to roll off and I got under him and the next picture is me in front of him going on to the front straightaway. I won the race. As everybody knows there’s a picture of us on the car going around and it’s probably the only time in the history of Grand Prix racing you’re going to see the winner on one side, third place in the middle and second place… and Kenny was extremely upset and his main thing he was saying was “I can’t believe you did that!”
And I said “You would have done the exact same thing.” But I understand because the key was I know what is frustration was, it was all the thing that led up to that, getting on the back straightaway the fact of moving over to not allow me to have a line. There was a lot of reasons you know? For years I could tell you stories about being in a thing at Suzuka and he would just, being Kenny, we almost became like a shtick you know? He’s too upset.
But a couple of years ago we were doing an event in Japan and I was up on the podium and it was the first time I had said this publicly, ‘cos the question would always come up about Sweden. I said “I want to say something. Some people might want to say we have a gift and we all do, but to compete with this man it took everything I had ability-wide, effort-wise, focus-wise, it made me the racer I became from watching him as a kid to that day I beat him for the World Championship and I want to thank him.” From that moment on the relationship has been different. I think there’s probably, and it’s my own fault, I never publicly said that and I think it meant a lot to Kenny you know, because one thing, he knows, and he said this to me after Imola, the only thing he said to me after the podium at Imola when I got second and won the World Championship and it was the greatest compliment he could say was “I gave it all I all I had” and he walked off.
MO: He’s kind of still sore about it now which I think is a wonderful thing in a way because it just shows you what these things…
FS: What it means.
MO: … how 35 years later! Or 33 years later or whatever it is. I think that just gives a normal person some kind of idea of the depth of feeling and psychology and everything that’s going into this for all these races.
FS: It’s everything you’ve got.
EF: I must say I think that is probably the best answer to a reader’s question we’ve ever had on the Motor Sport podcast.
MO: Freddie is unique amongst racers for remembering every gear change and will be able to not only remember the gear change but tell you why he did it at that rpm, the camber of the track the way it was.
EF: Fast-forwarding to 1985, another historic year and winning the world title 250 and 500, both titles, something that will never be repeated. It’s like Marquez doing Moto2 and MotoGP and winning both titles, it’s quite incredible. There’s a guy in the office, Damon, who does the design of the magazine and he is fascinated as to how logistically you managed it. You were jumping off one bike, sometimes you didn’t even have time to change your leathers. Just talk us through how on earth you managed that?
FS: The idea came up which was, for me, like Fukui there was talk of wanting to do a 250. Honda had built this 250 based on a production engine in ’84 and Joey Dunlop was actually riding it some and it wasn’t very good. Certainly the eventually wanted to get in a 250 programme and the ’84 season wasn’t going that well and I decided, it was as I was coming in the pits at Assen, the Dutch Grand Prix after leading the race, coming back from injuries and there it was just the beginning of what would eventually be the end for me in a few years. Just how things had changed, I could jump off a bike in 1980 in Charlotte and get up and walk away, but it’s how things happen. Here the ’84 bike was just not that consistent and we were struggling and I sat the crew down on Saturday at Assen in June ’84 and said “why don’t we try to do two championships?”
That was the easiest thing I said, that was the easier part of it, it would get more difficult from there. We didn’t even have a bike. We didn’t have a 250 but it was amazing ‘cos that actually, I believe, and we’ve talked about it years later Conosawa [???], Hiroyuki [Yoshino] and I that really that was the impetus that built the NSR250 because it gave Hiroyuki a clean sheet of paper, It was also what led to the NSR500 which would go on to be the most successful bike in Grand Prix racing history. I’m very proud of that actually.
But the part we hadn’t considered in these first talks was the things I thought about as I got more into it, and the first day of testing in Australia – this was the beginning of us going to Australia to test – I sat down with my crew, because at the time the way we would test is you would have this sheet of paper that the engineers have: you’ve got to try these engine combinations, these pipe combinations. They’ll have list after list after list. Michelin brought down about 250 tyres for me to test, not all of them because they would be in different families but to weed through them and see what construction, what compound… just me. I’m the only rider. We have all these things and we’re going over the list, we’re sitting around the table and what a great crew I had, I had Erv Kanemoto, Jeremy Burgess was one of my 500 mechanics, George Vukmanovich, Stuart Chen [???] who was on the 250 programme, all these guys that had what, about 15-20 World Titles now, and we’re all going down this list and I stopped everybody and I said ok, we can test the bikes and we can get ‘em, but if I can’t adapt to it – and granted I’ve always been able to – but never tried it at this level. I’ve never raced a 250 outside the United States, there was a lot of unknowns. Could I compete against [Anton] “Tony” Mang and Carlos Lavado and these guys? I felt I could, but I said so the key is going to be two things: when we are in practice at that time specifically there was no gap in between practice sessions. When one would come in the other would go out as soon as the track was clear because they had a few classes. So I can’t sit down with the 250 crew and say “we want to change this” I’ve got to go out on the 500, I can’t lose time, so the key is going to be me being able to differentiate and sit down afterwards and go through the 250, we meet and talk about it. During testing I want to go out and do back-to-back stuff like if we were on a race weekend, again understanding the practicing part and refining that, that was one. And as I said my ability to be able to get up to speed on the sighting lap, because I was a feel rider, I didn’t use braking markers or anything, so everything I did was anticipating, so that means I really have to be in tune with the bike immediately. And the third, obviously, is trying to get the bikes as close as we could even though the riding styles were completely different. If you talk about the structure part that was my focus.
EF: I think that one of the toughest weekends that year was Mugello. Just talk us through that weekend, it was extremely hot and pretty much every rider, Mat you’ll remember more than me, but every rider after the 500 race was finished and then you had to jump on your 250.
FS: Well it was a rare weekend, it’s always hot in Mugello but the 500 race was first, that only happened a couple of times that year.
MO: That was another of the things you know, Freddie couldn’t just get used to racing the 250 then the 500, one weekend it would be the 250 first then the 500, next weekend it would be 500 first then 250s.
FS: The organisers were so specific. In Spain for example they ran the 500 race first before lunch, because Juan Carlos the King needed to get back to the Palace in the afternoon. Probably had to do his stuff around the yard!
It was unique and that day at Mugello the 500 race was first and I didn’t get a very good start so I had to come through a little bit of the pack and had a really good battle with Eddie and Christian [Sarron] and I win the race. I’m standing on the podium doing the champagne and barely after the national anthem I hear the 250s leaving the cold paddock. They would have a cold paddock they would call, then go out to the starting line and everybody do what they do, take your helmets off then do the sighting lap or warm up lap excuse me and come back and we’d start the race. But the 250s were leaving the thing when normally I’d at least have a little bit of time to drink two bottles of water, that was my minimum, big litres, and I could change maybe my leathers, maybe, at some races. But this one they were heading out, and I’ll never forget this, I’m sitting there and so I can’t drink the champagne so I go to hand it to Eddie and all Eddie does is look at me and go “better you than me.” No smile. Thanks you know?!
So I run, literally run to the cold paddock and I appreciated this part. The only bike that was there was Tony Mang and I walk up and Tony and I would hardly ever talk, Tony didn’t talk that much, he’s a great rider but doesn’t say that much. I walk over and all he does is nod his head and says “I would have waited till you’re ready.” I really respected and appreciated that. So I go out, do the sighting lap, sit there, I think I feel fine you know? Have at least a little bit of water, do the warm up lap, come back, kill the engine. I go to push start, they throw the flag and I’m pushing, I know I’m pushing I feel normal. The problem is all these bikes are just… everybody’s going by me. I told Erv right before, “the main thing I’ve got to do is get a good start. That’s my most important thing, I get a good start so I can get up there,” because I could tell, I felt a little bit tired. I just didn’t know how tired I was. My legs just wouldn’t move.
EF: That dropped you to…
FS: 19th. Yeah I was 19th that first lap and in our helmets we’re just like everybody else I’m thinking “great. I couldn’t have put myself in a worse position.” And I’m thinking “why couldn’t I get a good start? I know I was pushing.” Anyway, I got a third wind and I get up and I catch Carlos and Tony and I end up winning the race and it was the first weekend that I won both races and without question it was probably one of the greatest days ever, because you think you can do it, win both races, but when it happens and the fact of what I overcame, it was a great day.
EF: Mat, you did a lot of endurance racing so you know what it’s like, racing for a long period, but can you describe what it must be like?
MO: Endurance racing and Grand Prix is very different. Endurance you’re going around fast but you’re not on the edge, whereas in Grand Prix racing you have to be on the edge so I can’t even begin to imagine. I can almost imagine doing a 250 race then going on to the 500 but to do it the other way around, wow. They weren’t easy motorcycles to ride then, especially at that time. The engines had got quite a lot way ahead of the chassis and the tyres so they took a lot of fighting and a lot of physicality and a bit of a wing and a prayer really. To do a 500 race, beat Eddie Lawson in pretty much 40 degree heat, then go straight out on a 250 and win that, I can’t even begin to imagine what that would feel like.
EF: Rather you than me as you were told on the podium.
FS: This is the thing and Mat is true, the difficult part was not just the physical part, but it’s the focus part. A 500 for example just between at Mugello as you come over the rise into that first right-hander and the first left that sets up the esses, to get the bike from mid-corner to the right position in that next corner required about five different things because one is the throttle response, if it was just a few hundred rpm off it was completely different and the power would come in and as the race went on you had no grip it just went away. So now you are trying to get the bike just pointed in the right direction and sometimes it’s going to do this and move this way and sometimes it won’t, so sometimes you just don’t know until it happens. And now as the race goes on with me cos I like brakes with a lot of feel, the brakes would fade it would come all the way back to the bars. You anticipate that and just the bike because of the nature of a two-stroke engine was so inconsistent with the throttle response at that time and the way the power did, the speed differences and it would just jump and now you have to react to it and the challenge of that as we were just saying and you’re doing it on the very edge.
A great story, Nick Ienatsch who was my instructor, a really good rider, national championship rider in the United States, he’s a good writer, he writes great stories. When we were doing the school in the late 90s when I started my school in Las Vegas, he had the best description really of someone who I’d heard talk about that wasn’t used to riding a 500. He said “I’ve ridden two-strokes my whole life” he’d won national championships in the United States on 250s and other bikes, he said “but when I rode a 500 the most difficult thing I found was not just to ride it, but what I couldn’t imagine is riding it around other riders.” That’s the part I think people don’t realise we’re doing it within inches of each other and this bike is basically hard to control within three feet and it is why I rubbed the gas tank every morning “you’ve got to be good to me today.” But what a privilege it was to do it, so I wouldn’t trade every bump and scratch I had for anything, but when Nick said that he was telling the students and it made me smile. He looked at me “that is the part I couldn’t imagine having to do, to race it. I could figure it out to ride by myself but I couldn’t race it.” They’re so difficult to anticipate.
MO: I tested a few years back and I used to love riding the 250s because they were just like the perfect motorcycle but I was just a passenger on a 500.
FS: Many of the times all of us were, in many ways.
MO: I’d scare myself and would never come to beginning to understand the thing aside from the fact it was just a missile basically, with wheels on.
EF: Wow. Usually we try to keep these podcasts to an hour, but if it’s ok with you Freddie we are going to run over a little bit. It’s such great content.
After 1985 and that incredible, ground-breaking, record-breaking season it all changed very quickly and it was the opening race of ’86 when the wrist froze up. What happens and was it because of doing too much?
FS: It’s probably a combination… it had been bothering me for a while but mainly it was focused in my hand, and certainly I had some burning in my wrist, not so much in my forearm. I had hurt all of it at the Spanish Grand Prix, it’s kind of ironic, the year before in ’85 in morning warm up and I would kind of go through it. You race injured a lot of times, dealing with the pain and even the numbness and things I dealt with for a while. I didn’t ride for eight months actually after the Swedish Grand Prix until the week before that race, I didn’t ride a motorcycle. I trained really hard, I was in the best shape I’d ever been in, even in ’85 when I started training in January I didn’t test in January, February, March then show up to the Spanish Grand Prix the week before because they had a seven day rule where you couldn’t test at a track but I was able to do one day and it felt ok. The race weekend on Friday I went out and was second quickest in the morning, in the afternoon I got pole and I had pole for the race. Started the race and I was leading by 11 seconds with ten laps to go. Wayne was second, Wayne Gardner and Eddie was third.
I was coming down the hill, in the very back of the track it’s a double-right and downhill left which goes down to the hairpin at the bottom. It had been going numb and things as the race went on but this particular time I went into the corner and I squeezed the brake and nothing happened, I mean nothing happened. I never experienced that before in my life and I went off the race track. I lock up the rear brake and being in first gear I just banged down the gears, slipped the clutch cos it was chattering and used the rear brake and kind of ran off the track and got back on and then made one lap and it went better and I came in and the thing is that what I never talked about at the time was that was the most dramatic thing for me. Basically I didn’t know what to do, so I came in and the crew, I had a Japanese crew, Erv of course, but a Japanese crew and they were crying, it was the most difficult thing and it wasn’t just the fact I felt for me… saying I felt bad for me wouldn’t be the case, I just didn’t know what to do. That happened and what was that and what did it mean? In the story I’m writing I talk about all that and what led up to that and afterwards. I could imagine from the outside the difficulty of understanding, because basically I had ridden a motorcycle once a week before now it’s the race weekend and it looks like it’s all back to normal. I’m World Champion and I’m leading the race and then such an unusual, dramatic thing happened.
I’m sitting there, nobody knows what to say. I’m sitting in my motorhome and I need to come out and talk and go to the press conference and the first question I get asked was, you could see the tension level between me and them, the journalists and I, and I don’t know what to say, but the first question I get asked was “did you come in because you wanted more money?”
EF: Journalists… you can’t excuse them can you?
FS: Today of course I would talk about it, I’m not going to talk about it on the show but you’ll read about it, but I know exactly what I would have said and the thing is at the time my response was, I was not known for being sarcastic because I don’t really think that way, and I still don’t, but it was hard because it was more anger I felt and it wasn’t the press it was the anger I felt of being in this situation of it happening. Of the difficulty of not knowing what the issue is or why it happened or what happened. That was the most difficult part about it and then I go over to the next race, we get through that, I get asked those questions and try to talk about it best I can and I go back and I have swelling and all those things. We didn’t know the extent of the damage until a few months later.
We go to the next race at Salzburg and I’m up front, that’s not an issue. I go into the chicane – and it’s the only time I had this happen – I come out of the chicane and a little head shake and the steering damper comes out of the frame. It was the strangest thing, I’ve never even heard of that happening and you can’t ride a 500 without a steering damper, it would shake the bars out of my hand. I want to tell you exactly what I thought, I thought “I’m going to stay out here, I don’t care what happens, because having to come in and explain that I’m having to stop…” I didn’t want to do that. It just wasn’t getting any better; that actually made it worse.
Next I’m going through all these test and there was no such thing as carpal tunnel back then, nobody had heard of anything like that.
MO: Arm pump or whatever you want to call it.
FS: That was the strange thing. I really wasn’t getting any arm pump except straining from trying to hang on when I didn’t have any strength in my hand and that’s basically what was happening, the nerve signal was basically getting cut off and I just had no strength. I ended up damaging some other things, but that had been building for about a year or so. What I thought was a strained triceps muscle was basically more I’m straining my arm trying to hang on.
EF: Am I right in thinking you have a book coming out?
FS: It’ll be out in April.
EF: Everyone listening I’m sure will want to get it.
FS: First it’ll be out here.
EF: Watch out for it everyone.
I’m going to take a quick question before we go on to the Hall of Fame. Matt here went to the Honda Collection in Japan and was stunned by the amazing collection of bikes and cars, racing and road. What was the nicest perk you received from Honda, beside the wins and titles? Did you keep the bikes?
FS: I had a couple of bikes. My favourite bike is in the collection hall, the inline. It was the last… the best way to describe the bike is the original Honda Superbike. A lot of Superbikes at the time were like this but the Honda specifically. It was just a beast. It was 1000cc inline, four-into-one exhaust and I won Daytona on it the last year in ’82 and on the way back from Daytona the truck dropped it off at my Honda dealership. This bike was just like it rolled off the track. That was unusual, most of the time they wouldn’t give you bikes back in those days. If they would give you one everything would be basically taken out of it but this was exactly how it rode off the track. I had that bike for years and I ended up letting the museum have it, that way people could restore it and listen to it and things.
I had a couple of other bikes, I don’t have them anymore. I had a 250.The one bike I do have that Honda built for me was an FTR 250. Have you ever seen those? This was the very first one built and the reason why was they built it so I could train. It was a flat-tracker basically and they still sell them today as street bikes, street-trackers they call them in Japan. I still have that in my storage room in Shreveport. Most things that I really, really like that I have are things from when I was a kid, like my original helmets, leathers. It reminds me of my dad and I travelling in that van. In fact my last memory with my dad before he passed away in ’89 was I went back to see him. I just got on a plane and went back to see him and it was a month later he was gone and I hadn’t been home in months. I went and spent three days and it was the greatest gift I felt like I was given because if that is what I remember then I don’t have any regrets. I told dad I loved him, we talked about things, not my Grand Prix’s because he only went to one Grand Prix race, but what we talked about was all those years riding around in the van and that made him smile and that’s my last memory of my dad. So all the stuff that I have that means the most to me is from that time.
EF: Lovely story.
We should move on to the Hall of Fame, we’ve already run over but we’ve got time to do this. Every year we have the Hall of Fame event and we need to come up with 12 names to go into the pot for the public to vote on.
Already in there from the motorcycling world is Valentino Rossi from this year, John McGuinness, John Surtees who obviously straddles cars and bikes, and Ago, again straddled cars and bikes.
Last year the nominations were: Mike Hailwood, Joey Dunlop, yourself, Casey Stoner, Barry Sheene, Kevin Schwantz, Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Mick Doohan and Geoff Duke.
Obviously Valentino Rossi is in so that name is crossed off the list already, so we need any new names we can put into the pot and we can then argue about which of these we drop out for this year. So throw in any names you’d like.
FS: Wow, that’s obviously…
EF: It’s quite an A-list. We were talking about this before with Mat and in terms of new names to go in there, if you’re thinking top, top tier but we’ve obviously got to have someone to replace Valentino.
MO: It’s quite a list. Who else do you put in outside of that lot Freddie? Sometimes a name comes straight into your head.
EF: It doesn’t have to be a rider, it could be an engineer, Jeremy Burgess we were talking about, it could be someone like that. And the Hall of Fame is not just about stats. It’s about what you bring to the sport.
FS: Of course. As it should be. Absolutely.
EF: Are there any top-line engineers that you can think of that changed the approach?
MO: You would have to start at the top with Soichiro Honda wouldn’t you? He might already be in the Hall of Fame.
EF: No he’s not, that’s a good shout.
FS: Yes because he was someone I thought about because we were just talking about… and someone that understood the entire part. That was what was so impressive that day I met him, because I’d been with Honda for three years before I met him. Not only his passion but his clarity in what his purpose was and his contribution, it’s like he told me that day when he stayed the company in his garage he was going to get to the Isle of Man and he wanted to win the 500 World Championship. That’s why I was in his house, so someone like him because he transcends just Honda, its motorcycling.
EF: Interestingly Enzo Ferrari was a founding member of the Hall of Fame and he’s in there because of who he is but also what Ferrari has done for the sport so in the same way…
FS: Mr Honda would be great.
MO: And it’s not just the kind of, to me the greatest Honda of all time is probably the Supercub, the C90. You think how many… I don’t know how many millions of those they’ve made and changed the world. You’re not just talking about wonderful motorcycles like the NSR500 that we all worship but you’re also talking about a motorcycle which had changed the world by putting people on the road, by changing the way people live.
FS: Mr Honda for sure, one of his people he looked to was Henry Ford and look what he did with the Model-T, it changed what cars was and Mr Honda gave people that didn’t have the chance or opportunity to enjoy this great sport of ours.
EF: I think Mr Honda is a very worthy replacement for Valentino. We’ve got Mr Honda in there, are there any engineers… Jeremy Burgess, he had so much success with Rossi and he’s been around for the sport…
MO: With Freddie, Wayne, Valentino, Mick Doohan…
EF: Is there a more successful engineer?
MO: I don’t think there’s a more successful crew chief unless you were to look at someone like Arturo Magni from MV who was looking after Ago, but again we know that Ago won on two-strokes and four-strokes. It was a time when MV were pretty much the only factory involved so it’s a bit of a weird time. But JB would actually say he is not an engineer, he’s not got the words, he’s self-taught like a lot of people in motor racing, from the bottom up.
FS: In my ’85 season I could tell out of the seven Grand Prix’s I won, five of them in the 500 class was on Jerry’s bike. And the difference even though they’re exactly the same, I think it was the way he prepared it. There’s such a connection of someone’s approach
But one other person I’d like to throw out there would be Erv. A lot of people forget not only Erv with Honda of course and he had his own team, but for me what made Erv great was what he could do in that little storage room in San Jose California when he was working on that 125 single in the winter of 1979 getting ready for ’80. When he took that on the bench because he could only afford a little bench to test the horsepower. We show up at Daytona and we’re competing with Kenny in the works Yamaha. He designed the chassis, had C&J build it, he was an incredible two-stroke engine engineer. In those first years with HRC it was Erv who had a tremendous amount of impact in what we needed from the racetrack and I could feel it you know, and we could talk about it to tell the engineers what it would take. He was responsible for a lot of that rapid increase in our competitiveness in ’82, ’83, so Erv would be a great person.
MO: When he worked on Kawasaki, Yamaha, Honda’s, he did everything, two-stroke, four-stroke, he was a two-stroke man but he did it all really.
EF: I think it would be quite interesting to have some non-engineers, crew chiefs and some of these names in here. Is it worthy to put Jeremy and Erv in? The problem with that though is we need to lose two names from that list.
FS: You can take me out. Take me out and put Erv in.
EF: I tell you what, I’m going to give you a tick so you’re in the pot.
FS: No put Erv in, Erv should be in there.
EF: Casey Stoner, amazing the talent what he managed, but is he…
MO: I would have him in there definitely because me and a few other people on Twitter a few days ago were discussing this thing of a few riders who build up the great stats and there’s guys who you look at ride and think “oh my god how are they doing that?” Freddie was one of those, Kenny was one of those, Casey was one of those and Marc Marquez is one of those. Those four I would put almost in a separate compartment from anyone else, there was just something sublime, ethereal, otherworldly about the way they could ride a motorbike.
EF: Ok Casey definitely in then. Schwantz and Sheene? I don’t want to be the one suggesting dropping Barry out because I think I might get taken outside…
MO: I would happily say pure riding genius I don’t think Sheene would be up there but he made up for that. A) He won two world titles…
FS: In ’82 that first year we raced, that battle Kenny, Barry and I had at Argentina he was right there with Kenny and I and he won in Sweden, his last Grand Prix win was with Erv and Erv told me after I’d seen him in Belgium he thought they would do well.
MO: I guess if he hadn’t had that accident at Silverstone in ’82 he might have proved then he really was better than perhaps I’m giving him credit for, because he was back on the crest of a wave then, he’d been through some tough years on some very average Yamahas and was really coming back. Sheene should be there.
EF: I think there’s an element of Barry, the character he was kind of epitomising what I think is quite fun to have in the Hall of Fame.
FS: His contribution outside the sport was incredible. The level, certainly here in the UK but everywhere really. The other thing I respect about Barry so much was he would not walk away until the last fan had their autograph and that was a great example that I saw in him.
EF: For me just that little story I’m going to be bossy and put my foot down. We do need to lose a couple from this list.
Joey as well, such a character and so successful at the TT he has to be there.
MO: I don’t know how we are going to do this. We might have to sort it out later. [Laughter]
FS: Probably not the right phrase.
Like I said you probably ought to take me out and put Erv in there.
EF: Geoff Duke?
MO: He was a long way before my time, but I did a bit of research into him a few years ago and he was pretty special and his involvement into the advancement of motorcycle chassis with the featherbed frame and so on and so forth. It’s not going to be easy.
EF: It’s good for people to hear it’s not an easy decision but it would be nice to try and get Jeremy and Erv in or maybe we just go for Erv and then we’re only replacing one.
MO: There’s always next year.
EF: We should say that if we drop off Eddie Lawson or Geoff Duke or whoever it is they can easily come back next year. That’s not them gone forever, it’s just giving the public some different names to vote on.
Mike Hailwood, he can’t drop off that list can he?
EF: Ok, so Hailwood definitely can’t, Joey Dunlop definitely can’t.
MO: I can’t see myself putting a line through any of those really. I’ll leave that up to you.
EF: You’re not making this easy are you?
FS: I’ve already told you I’d be willing to.
EF: If we really can’t drop any of these names then we shouldn’t force it. We need to give the public the best names to vote on.
MO: I think if you’re going to start with engineers start with Soichiro Honda.
EF: Ok let’s go with Mr Honda.
Just so everyone knows we are not totally useless, there is method behind the madness, but for the voting we are going to have:
What a grid of names. I think that’s fair enough and I’ll be interested to see how the voting goes.
Freddie thank you so much for sparing so much time and coming all this way.
FS: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
EF: Mat thank you to you to and thank you to Alan for making us all sound better than we are.