The day we aimed 19 questions at Freddie Spencer…
There’s a lot of debate about over-using the word “legend” these days, but every once in while you know you’re meeting someone who qualifies, no question. Not only has today’s interviewee, Frederick Burdette Spencer of Shreveport Louisiana, qualified for the word legend, he did it a long time ago – around 1985 in fact; Becoming Honda’s first ever premier class World Champion in Grand Prix Racing in 1983, and then famously “doing the double” in 1985, by winning the 250cc and 500cc titles in the same year.
We’re being generously hosted by the Bike Shed in London’s Old Street – the unchallenged epi-centre for the fusion between popular culture and motorcycling. Want a perfectly made cappuccino, a professional wet-shave and a browse through a boutique of the coolest biker togs?; You’re in the right place.
When Freddie (as he is more popularly known) walks in, there is no drama, no sense of self-importance, just a warm greeting from a kindly gentleman that looks disarmingly normal. We find ourselves at peace quickly and sitting down in the Bike Shed’s display archway, surrounded by cool retro-rockets we make a brilliant British MotoGP memories film (embedded at the foot of this page, or watch on our youtube channel here) and then turn to a 19 question interview (Freddie’s preferred race number throughout his career was 19).
It’s clear from the off that Freddie has an exceptional recall and enjoys telling the tales of the past, and his excellent autobiography “Feel – my story” is now available as from all good book-sellers, or this Amazon link – enjoy!
1) Let’s start with something simple – What’s the best bike you ever rode?
1985 NSR500 V4 – this bike was the transition for lots of new technology – although it wasn’t the finished article it was the first bike of the modern era.
2) What’s the best bike you NEVER rode?!
I haven’t ridden a 2001 NSR500 – the very last 500 Honda V4 – I’ve ridden up to 98, and I’ve also ridden the 1999 Suzuki which is a great bike, but never the last of the line from Honda – and I’d still like to!
3) You have been given the gift of hindsight – you can have one race again, and make a different decision, what race is it, and why?
Easy – and the full story is in the book – the 1982 Daytona 200! At the time this was the premier race in the USA, and had worldwide recognition. With about 5 laps left I was catching Graeme Crosby on the factory Yamaha fast enough to know the race lead would have been mine on the last lap. Then I saw the “in” board. I had been adjusting my pace and riding throughout the entire race to avoid tyre chunking that my team-mate Mike Baldwin had been experiencing. Through management of rolling speed, lean angle and throttle control I knew I was not only on top of the tyre situation, but the fuel consumption too. I was sure I could make it to the end of the race, but because they only saw my pace was high and didn’t know how I was riding – they believed that my fuel was about to run out, so, they hung the pit board out for a “splash and go”. I came in, refuelled, and I got second.
It would have been my first Daytona 200 win, and I would still be the youngest ever winner of the race. Of course, they checked the fuel level after the race, and you can guess – I had plenty left – I hadn’t needed that final pit stop. It’s the greatest race I ever rode that I didn’t win!
4) When you watched the 1980’s British GP riders from an American, dirt-track trained perspective, what did you notice about their style, and the limits they found?
The timing is important of the Americans coming over. There’s a lot of talk about riding styles, but also important are the differences in technology that were coming through; the introduction and higher performance of slick tyres, motors making much higher hp, chassis improvements from the new aluminium box frames with good feel and feedback – what you end up with is the very simple equation; time in the corner becomes shorter as the speeds get higher. As dirt-trackers, the reduced time available to make direction changes was right up our alley – dirt-track is all about rotation.
When I came into it in the early 80’s it was so easy to use dirt-track techniques in a really narrow way on a grand prix bike. If the front wouldn’t turn, I would use the rear, just rotate it, take all the strain off the front and accelerate out of the corner. So when we brought that along, it not only fitted in with what the motorcycles were needing, but it took everyone by surprise. The one rider who seemed to get it was Barry Sheene. I don’t ever remember him talking about training on dirt-bikes, but when he was on it he could run with Kenny and I – I think he’d seen Americans ride for long enough to adapt his own style, he was unbelievably talented.
Everyone else seemed limited because they didn’t like the bikes moving underneath them. Some riders could work around it, like Christian Sarron who would sit straight up in the seat and yet still run with Eddie and I, but he also put a lot of stress on the front and his margin of error was very narrow.
5) Give us an exhaustive list of the body armour you used when racing in 1980?
(Freddie thinks for a moment) None! (laughs) but perhaps that was why the leathers were so comfortable?!
I could tell you when I first started using it – It was ’87, my first suit with armour had kevlar knee protection. Actually my very first back protector was earlier – at the South African Grand Prix in March 1984, I did not want to wear it. Leno Dainese gave me one, although Barry (Sheene) had been testing one for a while, I didn’t want to wear it. I didn’t wear it in first or second practice then Leno kept on for me to try it. I gave in, put it on, and half a lap into that session the wheel came apart, it ripped out the back of my leathers. I used that back protector, with all the original scratches, for the rest of my career. I even called it old faithful – I’ve still got it somewhere in storage!
6) Malevolent Alien invaders have taken over the world, and are making you race for your life. In this race you have to race against every person you have ever raced against. But, in a random act of generosity, you are allowed to remove one of your competitors from the grid. Who is it, and why?
When I was a kid, there were some kids I raced against that I’m glad I didn’t have to grow up racing against – they were unbelievable, but certainly it’d be Kenny (Roberts). He’s by far the toughest rider you could ever come up against. But it also depends on the circuit, if you said this race was Seattle then it’d be Eddie! We battled so hard there and he got past me in a race when I know there was no room – I still don’t know how he did it.
7) It’s 1983, but Twitter has been invented; Which rider’s account is causing the most trouble?
It’s Kenny (laughs) I’m sure of that – especially after the incident in Sweden! I’d have written stuff, but just couldn’t have hit send. I just couldn’t do it, but Kenny would have been in hog heaven!
8) We’ve put you in charge of MotoGP – 2 stroke or 4 stroke?
I always raced both, I grew up racing 2 strokes, but I also rode Superbikes throughout my career, and it was those that gave the manufacturers the “win on Sunday sell on Monday” sales boost which allowed us to go racing. We can’t go back – for me personally, I’d race anything.
9) Still in charge of MotoGP – Electronics yes or no?
Well, thats where I think it’s good what they’ve done. Look at what going to one ECU across the board did for MotoGP last year, ok, they changed the tyres too, but the racing benefitted from it. Formula One went through this as well, it almost got to the point where the man was taken out of the equation, but I don’t think we can go back for safety reasons; These are 260hp motorcycles, it’d be very difficult to have these without some form of electronics.
10) What year will the MotoGP class first run electric race bikes?
What’s going to drive that is not only consumer demand, but the difficulty of tracks staying open because of noise.
Another question is will they have electric bikes without the riders? One dimension we can’t forget is that it gives us the chance to develop and hone our skills. Take that Sunday afternoon I had at the Daytona 200 in 1982, It was a chance for me to blend with the bike, and process exactly what was needed based on feel and what I felt inside. We can’t forget what racing a motorcycle allows us to be able to do in terms of personal growth, so I appeal to the people in charge to never forget what racing gives back to the riders.
11) What was first standard production bike you rode, that you think you could have won the 1985 500 title on?
Interesting question! Here’s what I know – I rode with a journalist from MCN in 2010 at Mallory Park, I was on Mark Jones’ beautifully restored V3 Rs500 Honda ’87 triple. It’s not a works bike, but it was good enough to come top 15 back in the day, so it’s a good bike. We agreed how we were going to set up to do some laps and get a decent angle for the camera around Gerrard’s which was mounted on a new R1. I could see what he was thinking, after all I was on a 23 year old 2-stroke and he was on the latest superbike. Well, we did a few laps and when we came in he was shocked, saying “I was wide open out of there and you were pulling away from me” I said that it was a lesson in weight and characteristics, that grand prix bike may have 135hp, which is a lot less than the R1, but the weight and handling of the superbike hold it back.
So to answer the question, maybe one of today’s production machines like the new 2017 Fireblade I just rode? It would certainly be interesting to see around Spa over race distance!
What is interesting when I ride an old GP bike is fitting them with the new tyres. I ran at Paul Ricard just the other day on a Honda triple, and I’m carrying the same gear and slightly higher rpm through the turn onto the back straight than I did back in the day. Obviously, I’m not trying as hard and I’m not as competitive as I was, so that’s the difference new tyres can make in corner speed. The advances in tyre technology have been really impressive.
12) On a scale of 1 to 100, how good is Erv Kanemoto? (This is one for the anoraks – Erv was Freddie’s crew chief for all of his Grand Prix title years)
In my opinion 100. This is why – he has a gift. Sitting in the motorhome on Friday night at Monza, I knew I had to win the Italian GP. We were already struggling with the power of the Yamaha versus our bike, and I’m talking to Erv about going through the Parabolica (a very fast curve at the circuit) something I can only feel – I’m riding that 3 cylinder through there quicker than anybody other than Kenny on his V4. Erv had never been on the bike out of first gear, and yet he was right there with me, and understanding exactly what I’m talking about. So that makes him 100 – it’s a gift.
13) What’s the last bike you rode?
The 3 cylinder Honda at Paul Ricard (see question 11)
14) Did you enjoy writing the book?
Yes, it’s been interesting, I’ve been asked about telling the story since I retired in 1995. But when I retired I founded the race school and I didn’t feel it was the right time. When I stopped the school and also got a divorce, I started travelling and ended up here. It finally felt like time to tell the story. What that is about for me is wanting to share with others, those moments, and the priceless thing that it’s motorcycling that gave me all of this and got me here. (the book is available from Amazon – link here)
15) What did you learn about yourself whilst writing the book?
Why it’s important to be aware, why it’s important to pay attention. These are things that I always understood, but I learned why it really mattered.
16) When did you last slide a bike on purpose?
I was going to say on the minibikes at London’s MCN show in 2011, with Neil Hodgson and John McGuinness, but I think it was actually in May that year – I was invited by an Italian dirt-tracker manufacturer, Zaeta, to do a demonstration there. Graziano Rossi, Valentino’s father was involved with them, it was a pleasure to do it.
17) You ran a race school for 11 years, what was the most common mistake you saw amongst trackday riders?
This goes across ability levels, but it’s vision – where they look. Tied in with that, is simple procedural techniques; hand position, grip pressure – and so if someone is tense, and they ride scared, their vision is narrow. They look right down in front, and they don’t see the whole track.
People ask me what I do, and the answer is that I do the same thing every time – first thing I’m conscious of is where I’m looking and then I focus on my grip pressure; I’ll know exactly what my handlebar pressure is every corner of every lap that I ride today, tomorrow, next month, because that brings awareness. I’m constantly assessing that.
18) With the British Talent cup about to launch, what advice would you give the young riders about to enter the competition for selection?
Simply this – it’s important to be ready and focused and never assume it will be easy. You must also believe and trust in your own destiny to be there, and to be selected!
19) You are Valentino Rossi – do you retire in 2018?
At the pace that he’s going and the way he is riding, for him right now, this is race to race. He believes that he can still win races and the he can still win the world championship; I know he’d be happy with thirds and seconds for 18 races if at the end of this year he’d be world champion! That would be perfect, he’d win the title, then have another season to say his goodbyes, or win some other races. His motivation is that he’s great at being Valentino Rossi!
If I were him I’d play it by ear, he’s competitive, plus he’s still enjoying it and that’s the most important thing.
Thanks again to Freddie, who elevated himself from simply a legend to the highest form of “gentlemanly legend” during our time with him, and once again to the guys at the Bike Shed for hosting – if you’re in town and want to see how Shoreditch does Motorcycles, drop in, have a drink, or a shave, you won’t be disappointed!