'Fast' Freddie Spencer Interview

He strode the '80s GP stage as the man who won two world titles in a year and was the Rossi of his day. Step forwards, Freddie Spencer

Talking to Freddie Spencer takes time, simply because there's so much to hear. But it's all worth it and any chat with the modest icon makes you realise just how much he's done. In short, absolutely masses.

He can recall his GP days, or any other period for that matter, in great detail and with total accuracy and enthusiasm. He speaks clearly, sincerely, and with lots of belief. Freddie's a committed and clinical sort of guy, just as he was when he was racing.

Now the delivery of his impressive tales might not be done in the most exciting manner but because the nature of the topics he talks about is special, it captivates and excites anyway. Freddie might be modest about his achievements, but he's clearly still mighty. He can honestly be judged as down to earth, but his reputation is from another world. He's done stuff we can only dream about.

Freddie was at tyre giant Michelin's main factory in Clermont-Ferrand when I met him. Dressed smartly and always acting like a gent, he confused me at first. He seemed too nice to have ever been a hardened 500 rider who pushed himself and his rivals to the edge. His placcid demeanour made it hard to imagine he was the guy who once nerfed Kenny Roberts Senior off the track in order to win a crucial race, and as a result got his adversary to moan, "if he wants the title that bad, he can have it."

He's a pro, and always finds time to be your mate. That's what his formal upbringing, both social and professional, has always taught him. He's charming and polite, hospitable and friendly and he never swears (once I realised that, I had to censor much of my input and response to this interview). Just as he learned to ride bikes in a serious and scientific way - and because of it, ended up a supremely gifted pilot of a 500GP bike - he's clued up about getting along with people.

It doesn't take too long to get him to relax though, and banter on more freely about past, present and future. Despite having a lot on his plate - he's got a CBR race school to take care of, young guns for Honda in AMA racing to nurture, he runs a Michelin tyre distribution business, hosts bike launches for Honda in the US... oh, and he's got his family to look after back in Los Angeles.

And still he finds time for less than fascinating duties like this gig. If I was him I'd have claimed I had back ache or something and not turned up. But if he was cheesed off with the prospect of mixing with a bunch of boring journos and then doing some laps on a wet test track with them, he never once showed it and always looked like he was genuinely lapping it up, if you'll pardon the terrible pun.

He admits to still loving bikes to this day. "I can't remember not riding," he says. I started when I was four, and every single day for years afterward. It was the natural thing for me to do. It's like I could ride better than I could walk."

He raced bikes well before his age reached double figures, winning countless events in the States, and was then noticed, earning himself a bit of supportive skill from renowned tuning guru Erv Kanemoto. Spencer then came to Brands Hatch as a complete unknown, kicked big-boys Sheene and Roberts' arses, and left the Kent track a sensation. In the coming years, he then took on those same GP boys on their home turf. And once he got sorted with proper kit, he did it all over again on the world scene. He was the Rossi of his day.

Things went downhill for the lad a bit after he reached his peak in '85, wrapping up BOTH the 250 and 500 titles - a feat which rightly earned him massive respect. After that heady season of success, he regularly either got hurt, or his body sometimes gave up. And after looking like a shadow of his former self, his mind started giving up too. He'd fail to turn up for races. Got a bit porky and unfit. Generally cheesed a few folk off, and finally got the push from his factory Yamaha team in 1989. That was the end of GPs, and he returned home to do some good for himself and the US bike racing scene, with a string of decent rides in the AMA superbike championship, winning a race at Laguna in 1995 in his last season. Like I said, Spencer has done a stack of stuff.

He says he's really content these days. "I'm leading a very different life now, and it's great. I knew in '95 I'd like to start a family and run a race school. I've accomplished that, and I'm real happy. I've been married to Chelee now for ten years, and we've got a couple of kids. I just adore Jordyn, my little girl who's four, and Connor, my son, who was just eighteen months two days ago. I love being a father. It's one of the greatest things. I encourage you to go home and procreate right now!"

"Sure, things have changed. But I still love what I do." Freddie means that when he says it, but can't help going back to the racing days. "It is a lot different to when I was racing when on any given Sunday if you won a Grand prix, which I was fortunate to do a number of times, you stood on top of the podium and realised there was nobody in the world faster than you"

Spencer can't stop himself now. He hasn't lost his bearings, it's just he's starting to recall some of his best days and in particular his never-repeated double in 1985.

"You know, breaking down at Assen in '84 was the thing that got me thinking about doing the 250s as well. We'd been leading the race by fifteen seconds when a plug cap came off and ended the day. I didn't want to feel that sort of disappointment again, and needed something to fall back on. So me, Erv, and Mr Oguma from HRC sat down and decided we'd go for both titles the following year. No one thought it could be done, especially my dad. But we did it!

"It was pretty difficult at times. All I seemed to do in '85 was test, race and think about racing. Doing both classes was very hard physically and the logistics were quite challenging. In qualifying I had jump from one bike to the other without any debriefs with my crew, and then sit with them for hours afterwards, planning changes and adjustments to both bikes. It was more than double the work.

"Of course the 250 and 500s were very different things to ride and required a very different style and approach. And jumping on either after a long hard race on the other could be tiring sometimes". There's a proud glint in the man's eye when he recounts that incredible season and remembers just how much effort he put in to carry it all off.

It was a sensational achievement, but not quite as shocking as his first appearance in Europe when he opened everyone's eyes one Saturday afternoon and made them ask, "who the hell's that Spencer guy?"

He arrived at Brands in 1980 for the Trans-Atlantic races armed with a van, a TZ750 Yam, and Erv Kanemoto. They were big races back then and attracted the world's best riders. At that time Sheene and Roberts were the kings, and armed with their works bikes and entourage were the firm favourites. But on a track he'd never seen before, the lad from Louisiana left 'em behind and made his indelible mark.

"Yeah, that was something. But I was ready. I'd been racing against older and more experienced guys since I was a kid, so I didn't get fazed by Barry or Kenny at all. And when I came out of the tunnel at Brands and saw all those people, I thought, 'this is where I wanna be'. Of course as a kid (he was just eighteen) I was pretty excited to be there and beat those guys. But cos I used to approach racing in a real business-like way, I just got on with it"

Thoughts then turned to Sheene for a moment. "I know when I said goodbye to Barry at Goodwood last year it would be for the last time. It's a real great shame he's gone. He'd been a good friend since I first came to Europe, and I can still remember asking him if I could use the toilet in his motorhome at Brands. That was the first time I'd ever spoken to him."

He still mixes with others from the same era from time to time, and admits his relationship with his greatest rival Roberts is more than healthy these days. Ironically Freddie's now helping Roberts' son Kurtis in his duties as a coach for Honda at AMA superbike rounds.

He thinks the racing in the States is on the up. "Man it's popular again these days. And though NASCAR's still got the best ratings on TV, racing's coming through and is right up there with basketball and baseball. Between 40-60,000 fans are turning up to watch at AMA rounds now, and the WSB round at Laguna brings in nearly 110,000. That's good!"

When asked why there aren't as many Americans competing in GPs as there were in his days, Freddie says it's just a matter of time.

"Things happen in cycles. Sure you've got Colin and Nicky racing already, but the commercial link between sponsors and riders at the moment favours the European guys more. But there is plenty of talent coming through at home, and it won't be long before they get to MotoGP."

Relating then and now views prompts Spencer to remark on the changes in GPs since he was on the scene. "Well it's a lot bigger for starters. It's much more professional and better organised. It has to be.

"I still go to a few races to see what it's like, and the paddock is certainly different. Back in my day the crowd could get in there. And in Italy there were thousands of fans mobbing the place. It did get a bit hectic at times, and at Mugello I had to have a police escort to get from my garage to my motorhome. Then the fans always used to nick my number plates or other bits and pieces to take home as souvenirs as soon as I parked up. It was crazy, but I absolutely loved it."

But those days are long gone for Spencer now. He still rides a lot thanks to his race school where he teaches the likes of Nicolas Cage and Lyle Lovett to get their knees down, and he slotted in some pretty rapid demo laps for us lot in France, looking very swift and comfortable while he was at it. 

It was good to meet the quiet hero who I'd worshipped as a youngster. I could have talked to him for days about racing and life in general. I certainly could have posed a few questions about the bad times when he mysteriously didn't show up at the racetrack at all, or pulled out of races with almost comical excuses. But I didn't want to do that. Freddie Spencer is one of the icons of modern motorcycle racing. He burst onto the scene and rode a bike like no one else had done before. And his level of greatness was apparent as immediately then as it was to me as soon as I began talking to him. I for one, didn't want to chat about anything other than the good times. It's what I remember Freddie best for, and I want to keep it that way.