Freddie Spencer: the greatest of all time?

Visordown looks back at America's finest

Early days...Spencer (left) Roberts and Haslam

WHO'S THE greatest racer of all-time? The debate's been around since bike racing started and will remain hot gossip for years to come. Everybody has their own favourites, but whatever your views, one name that deserves serious consideration is triple-world champion, Freddie Spencer.

Freddie was born in 1961 in Shreveport, Louisiana. By the age of eleven he'd already become a formidable dirt tracker, winning 10 state championships in short and dirt track events.

A year later, in 1972, Freddie started road racing. His dirt tracking experience proved invaluable, as he made the switch to tarmac look easy and by 1975 Freddie had notched up 12 road racing championship titles, by competing in numerous events. His skills didn't go unnoticed and he was soon signed by Honda to compete in the AMA Superbike Series. It was 1980 and Freddie had just turned 19 years of age.

In the same year Freddie was recruited for the USA's Transatlantic Trophy team. It was to be the young American's first taste of European competition and he didn't disappoint, winning the first two legs with unbelievable ease on his beastly Yamaha TZ750 two-stroke, showing the way home to Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts - who, unlike Spencer, were both factory-backed riders.

The event made a lasting impression on Spencer, who described emerging from the pit tunnel into the packed amphitheatre of Brands as a pivotal moment in his career. He summed up his feelings in one sentence:

'From that moment on I knew that this was what I wanted to do.'

Honda recognised Freddie's talent and signed him to compete in a few rounds of the 500cc Grand Prix championship the following year, as well as making regular appearances in the AMA Superbike championship. A year later in 1982, Spencer won his first 500cc GP and was recruited by Honda into the NR500 four-stroke development programme. The American, still only 20, was now well and truly a key figure in Honda's Grand Prix future.

The ill-fated NR500 four-stroke...even Spencer couldn't save it

Spencer rewarded Honda's support by winning the following year's 500cc GP championship, in one of the closest fought contests of all time. It came down to the last round, where Spencer clinched the title by a mere two points from Yamaha-mounted Kenny Roberts.

The following year Spencer continued his support for Honda by helping them develop their new 500cc two-stroke racer. It was the most technically advanced machine ever seen - so radical it only managed to start five rounds of the championship. But even though the bike was plagued with teething problems Spencer still managed to coax the underdeveloped two-stroke to victory in four of the five races.

A pair of Spencer's specials...fantasy garage stuff

1985 will go down as probably the greatest year in motorcycle Grand Prix history. Spencer, still only 23, decided to compete in both 250cc and 500cc championships - a gruelling schedule by anyone's standards.

The American would practice, set-up and qualify in both categories, often with little rest between rides. On race day Spencer would do both practice sessions and then race back-to-back in 250s followed immediately by 500s - often without even changing leathers. While all the other 500cc competitors conserved their energy by relaxing in their motorhomes, Spencer was out in the hard-charging 250 class giving it all he'd got. An hour later he'd be doing it all again on a full-fat 500. It's an achievement that still beggars belief today.

In that frantic, energy-sapping year Spencer competed in ten 250 events, qualified on pole six times and won seven races. In the 500cc class he raced 11 times, won seven and qualified on pole nine times. He also set nine new outright track records. This astonishing achievement gave him both 250cc and 500cc world championship titles. But if that wasn't enough, Spencer also won 250cc, 500cc and Superbike events at the AMA Nationals at Daytona. And this talented, rear wheel steering young American did it all at a time when two strokes were at their most fierce and tyre technology was way behind the curve.

Double 500cc world champion Barry Sheene was one of Spencer's biggest admirers. He knew the American was something special, summing up Freddie's talent while commentating at the rain-lashed 1985 British GP at Silverstone:

"Freddie's an unbelievable rider. He brakes late, the thing slides, he gets on the gas early and comes out of corners on opposite lock. It's something I've never seen before and I'm sure no one else has either."

Spencer went on to win the British GP, trouncing the opposition with one of the most impressive wet-weather performances there has ever been. And who said Americans couldn't ride in the rain?

So the next time you see Valentino Rossi taking the chequered flag, just imagine how much more impressive it would be if he'd also won the 250 race an hour earlier.