Thirty years ago, a 21-year-old racing phenomenon from Shreveport, Louisiana, became the youngest rider ever to win the 500cc world championship, a record that still stands (though Marc Marquez broke Spencer’s record of youngest-GP winner ever in Austin, Texas, last April: 20 years, 2 months, 5 days). Honda’s NS500 Triple was down on power, but made up for it with low mass, maneuverability and the incendiary talent of the kid riding it, who won six GPs that year. Two years later, in 1985, Fast Freddie would be the first and last man to win both the 250 and 500 championships in the same year, a feat it’s doubtful anybody will ever equal. That year, he won seven 250 races (sitting out the last two) and seven 500 GPs.
Then the wheels came off. Carpal tunnel and wrist problems beginning in 1986 preceded two final, dismal seasons with Rothmans Honda. Comeback attempts with Yamaha fizzled, with few flashes of the former brilliance. It seemed over way too early, until you realize Fast Freddie really started racing, dirt-tracking, about 1966. And in fact it wasn’t over: Freddie Spencer says he was born to race motorcycles, and he did return to his AMA Superbike roots to win a few more. Spencer’s last win came in AMA Superbike in 1995, in the rain at Laguna Seca, on a Fast by Ferracci Ducati—16 years after his first AMA 250 championship—which is another record.
Someday, we might delve into the problems that conspired to end what most agree was the very successful Spencer Riding School in Las Vegas five years ago, but for now we were just happy to have a fit and happy Freddie out to ride with us for a day at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway—two days really, separated by a month or so—and to regale us about what it was all like.
I feel very, very fortunate that from the moment I started riding in my yard, when I was four, riding for me was always a very individual experience. Riding through the trees, I would always practice sliding the bike. It was always about controlling the bike, that feel. The more I did it, the easier it became. I knew exactly how to get better at it.
When I got to Grand Prix, I’d get to a quiet moment where I’d go back to that, as a kid riding in my yard. That same feeling. I’d clear my mind. Michael Phelps, the swimmer, said the same thing. What did you think about while you were winning 22 gold medals? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. When you get to a certain level of performing, it’s truly all about what you sense and feel. When I go out and ride, that’s what I go back to. Is riding around the track still fun? Of course it is.
When my dad passed away in ’99 I’d already moved to Vegas and started the school, but whenever I’d go back and talk to him, it was never about the world championships. It was always about him and me riding around on our way to the races, before all that happened, Oreo cookies … He’d work on the bikes and we’d show up at a race in Charlotte, North Carolina. In those days people didn’t travel around as much. Even though we talk similar, we’re from Louisiana. “What in the world are y’all doing all the way over here in Charlotte, North Carolina?”
I had five motorcycles, I’d go out and race and ride back to our truck, and my dad would ask, ‘How’d you do?’ Those were good days. When I was coming up as a dirt-track amateur, you raced three times a week. There’s football and fishing in Louisiana, but not a lot else.
One of my strengths was midcorner change of direction, and picking the throttle up early. I worked on that so much, from the time I was a kid in my yard. Flat-tracking was all about getting the thing turned in, and the transition from stopping it to going forward. On those grooved dirt tracks, any time I struggled it was always on that transition.
Throughout my career, in every major change, and even against Kenny [Roberts] with the V-Four, I was working on that, how I could get a little jump and stay with him right off the corner. If you ask me, I can’t say I was better than anybody. But nobody worked harder at it. Where it paid off, when we got into the V-Four stuff, they’d always talk about our top speed. But I’d always worked on exit speed. And I’d be a mile or two mph up at the exit, which transfers to 3 or 4 mph at the end of the straight. It might look like your bike is faster, but it’s that extra speed off the corner. It would make other guys go ‘more top speed, more top speed!’ and that would hurt their exit drive. It all started in my yard. I could run my 100 in so deep, that it got to where if I picked it up at a certain point, and slowed down the movement this way [sideways] since I’m already back on the throttle, I could get it to rotate, and that little bit would be two bike lengths off the corner at the flat track Friday night. And I was working on that when I was 11, 12 years old.”
Tomorrow: Freddie talks about his roadrace beginnings. “You were supposed to be 16. I was 16 for three years in a row.”
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