Archives Column | Freddie Spencer

Cycle News Staff | October 25, 2020

Archives

COLUMN

It started with an innocent conversation in the middle of 1984. By the end of 1985, the dream of becoming a double World Champion was reality for Team Honda’s Freddie Spencer.

By Scott Rousseau

This Archives edition is reprinted from Issue #32, August 18, 2004 . CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. To prevent that from happening, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.

In June of ’84, at the Dutch TT in Assen, Holland, Spencer, the reigning 500cc World Champion, had just dropped out of the 500 race after holding a I5-second lead, a broken spark plug cap frustrating his defense of the title.

“And we were sitting around afterwards, Mr. Oguma—who was the HRC manager—Erv [Kanemoto] and myself, and we just started talking about the Championship. This was about halfway through the ’84 season, and we’d had a wheel come apart on me in South Africa, and then had this [plug cap] happen to me at South Africa. We had gotten knocked out of a couple races. Erv and I had already been talking about it, and I brought it up that I thought it would be interesting if we decided to go for two championships to make up for the championship that we might not win in ’84. We just kind of batted it around.”

Freddie Spencer with Erv Kanemoto
Freddie Spencer with Erv Kanemoto the day Spencer clinched the 250cc World Championship at Silverstone in 1985. A week later, Spencer won the 500cc World Championship in Sweden.

For the record, it would not be the first time that the idea had been tried. Upon entering his first season of Grand Prix racing, Kenny Roberts took a crack at winning both titles in one season, only to abandon the 250cc class midway through the year—and, some say, too soon. The potential glory of being the first rider in history to win both titles in the same year remained, but regardless of that, Spencer and Honda had a hurdle to clear in that they lacked a competitive 250cc machine with which to contest the series.

“Honda had a production-based bike that they were running that year [1984] that wasn’t a factory bike,” Spencer says. “It was based off a production 250, more of a customer bike—an RS250, they called it. There was no works bike, no works team, nothing.”

But the idea was appealing to Honda, and a game plan was formed that would see several seasons worth of development crammed into just a few short months. It would take all of the physical and spiritual—if not financial—resources that Honda could muster.

“A lot of people don’t know it, but that bike [the NSR250] went from being an idea to go for two championships, to a drawing, to a mock-up, and then to hand-built, to the first test when I rode the bike, in right around three months,” Spencer remembers. “The first time that I rode it was September of ’84 at Suzuka.”

Spencer had faith in Honda’s tremendous capabilities, however, and that faith would not be shaken, especially after his first ride aboard the NSR250.

“Right away I liked it,” Spencer says. “Within the first two days of riding it, I had set a new track record on the thing.”

Despite that initial testing success, and although historical hindsight might suggest otherwise, Spencer says that there was never any thought by himself or the team that reaching the goal was just going to be a walk in the park. In fact, Spencer recalls that he didn’t fully realize how much work was going to be necessary to pull off the double.

“Going into the ’85 championship, not only did the 250, which was brand new, require development, but the 500 did too, because we totally changed it from an upside-down bike to a conventional bike,” Spencer says. “Also, I had to do the development while we were going from bias-ply to radial tires.”

Still, Spencer was able to draw from his earliest road racing days, where he rode several classes on the same day and develop a successful strategy for campaigning the two GP classes. The foundation for the strategy was put in place during a 10-day test in Australia.”

The way that I approached it at the test was like we would at race weekends,” Spencer says. “I would run the 250 and the 500 back to back, making changes on the bikes after I had ridden both bikes, really compartmentalizing the riding of each bike to teach myself and adapt to what I would be going through on race weekends. The bikes were different and required different styles, and I approached it like I would at the races because of the way they run qualifying back to back.”

Honda had made it clear from the outset that the 500cc title was still the priority, and that if the 250cc program were to hinder that priority in any way, then the 250cc program would be halted immediately.

“Erv and I knew that if we wanted to do this, and if we struggled at all on the 500, then we had to get it turned around quick,” Spencer says. “Going in, the critical thing for me was winning both championships. I looked at them together. If we didn’t do it, then I would have considered it to be failure, a big disappointment.”

When Spencer won the 250cc race at the series opener in Kyalami, South Africa, and finished second in the 500cc race to defending World Champion Eddie Lawson, there may have been cause for concern. At the following round, in Spain, Spencer finished ninth on the 250cc and won on the 500cc.

“We were on the right path by the second race,” Spencer says. “I felt confident after Spain. Finishing ninth on the 250 [due to a broken exhaust pipe] allowed Carios Lavado and Toni Mang to get a few points on me, but we were back to even on the 500. At that point, I felt it was going to be okay.”

It turned out to be more than okay, as Spencer went on to score seven double (250cc and 500cc) victories in 11 rounds, becoming the first—and, so far, only—rider ever to win the 250cc World Championship and 500cc World Championship crowns in the same year. Spencer looks back on the furious pace of that year and sometimes wonders how he did it.

“I literally had to jump off one bike and onto the other,” Spencer says. “I remember in Italy, I went straight from the 250 podium onto the 500, drinking as much water as I could. I just had to stay focused, but my mindset was that there was really no adapting from one bike to the next. I’d gotten that out of the way during testing.”CN

 

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