Fast Freddie, 24 Years On
As an 11-year-old Aussie, you can’t imagine how jealous my mates were that I was actually going to the country Shaquille O’Neal was from.
Being a basketball-mad kid, seeing the U.S up close put me in very select company. But I almost didn’t make the flight out of Sydney.
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This part I remember well. Dad killing time in the garage, mom packing, me bored out of my mind. One obsession I had back then was the arcade game Street Fighter—$2 a go. Steep, I must say.
After pinching the coin from dad, I bolted up the wooden stairs beside the house, hellbent on one last game before the flight. I tripped. Fell. Split my head open about one and a half inches across above my eyebrows. Rushed to Royal North Shore Hospital. Mom driving. Dad in the back holding my brains in. He’d never seen so much blood.
Little did I know in that savage moment, blood and tears and screams everywhere, there’d be a tie-in with the 2017 Honda CBR1000RR intro at Portimão.
The doc stitched me up, making me look like Lurch from The Adams Family, sans neck bolts, and a day later than expected, we got on the plane bound for LAX.
I was a right pain in the dick that entire trip. My head always splitting open, puss and blood curdling up like a germ orgy on my face. Mom later told me she nearly left me in Disneyland after I was pick-pocketed the only money she allowed me for the whole trip. No Shaq shoes were coming my way, so I made my displeasure known. At any given opportunity.
Three quarters of the way through the trip, we decided to visit the American 500cc Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. Basketball was the furthest thing on my mind because I’d get to watch my all-time hero in action at the place he dominated. But something happened to the man I thought invincible a few weeks prior. Telling an 11-year-old you can’t see your idol race is one thing, it was just another thing I’d miss out on along with my Shaq shoes, but the magnitude of Wayne Rainey’s injury simply didn’t register until I saw the “Wayne Wish You Were Here” signs plastered everywhere around Monterey. It was a somber time at Laguna that year.
Despite the general mood, I was happy as hell because I was going to get my stitches out. My face might now look like that of a normal kid, save for the whopping great scar across the top of it. Dad had a bit of pull in those days, and the 500cc pit was nothing like MotoGP is now. Back then, you didn’t have a security guard asking you for a pass every time you want to take a piss, and dad’s great, late mate, Warren Willing, gave us access all areas with simply a snap of his fingers.
Dr. Claudio Costa is the man credited with putting thousands of MotoGP riders back together. He’s the guy that ensured Mick Doohan has two working legs and he was the guy who was going to pull the stitches out of my forehead. Even then I knew who he was, so I felt quite privileged.
Then in comes this guy in full leathers on a stretcher. He’s in a bit of pain, and Claudio has his pincers about a fifth of an inch from my eye. The leathers guy starts chatting to me. It’s a voice I remembered from the Beta videos in Australia. I have a closer look, and it’s Freddie Spencer.
A lovely bloke, he’d had an off year with the Yamaha France team on a YZR500 and he was back in a place he must surely have been getting used to in the twilight of his career.
I didn’t forget the man’s charm that day. I’ve no idea what we spoke about, probably nothing, but he was nice enough to wait until Claudio was done with this nobody kid before he made the doc fix yet another busted racer body.
Twenty-four years later in Portimão, I was standing in the Algarve International Circuit’s press room when in walks the same guy who was wearing those blue leathers all that time ago. I’m a bit like my mom in that I’m a bit of a racer star chaser, so I couldn’t help but have a chat with him and mention our last encounter.
“Oh yeah, I remember you!” I bet he didn’t, but it was nice of him to say. For the rest of the night, Spencer filled us with tales of 500cc’s golden years, of how he’d test multiple chassis, tire combinations, engines, gear ratios, and set up two completely different bikes for two separate classes, then go out and smoke the best riders in the world. What a dude.
After USA 1993, basketball took a back seat in my life. Within a few years, basketball was out of the car entirely, I’d started racing again, and bikes once more took center stage. And I didn’t play Street Fighter anymore. CN