It's the classic American shootout, but with a very strange twist. Here's Kenny Roberts, the rowdy, lionhearted "old" cowboy from Modesto, Calif., going up against the kid from Shreveport, La., Freddie Spencer, for the 500-cc motorcycle road-racing championship of the world—the most coveted title in the sport. Though only 21, Spencer has 15 years of racing experience and is the most sensational young rider road racing has ever seen. Since 1978, Roberts, 31, has won the 500-cc championship three times. Now King Kenny and Fast Freddie are going head to head for the '83 title. Great. Except that most of their countrymen don't know about their battle, even though it holds millions of fans in Europe and Japan in thrall.
Right now, after nine of the year's 12 Grand Prix races, Spencer is leading Roberts by five points. Of those races, Spencer has won five and Roberts four. Roberts has also won the Daytona 200 and Italian Imola 200, which, although not Grand Prix events counting toward the 500-cc title, are the sport's richest races. There hasn't been such superb and breathtaking dueling between two riders since the days back in the '60s when the legendary Mike (The Bike) Hailwood of England and the dashing and daring Giacomo Agostini of Italy were racing wheel-to-wheel. And never has there been such domination of the sport by racers from one nation. In addition to Spencer and Roberts, Randy Mamola and Eddie Lawson, both from California, the only other Americans on the circuit, rank third and fifth, respectively, in the world standings.
Motorcycle road racers in the U.S. have usually been like young men all dressed up with nowhere to go. There's so little interest in the sport here that a rider can't make a decent living at it, but in Europe successful racers can earn millions. Which is just what Roberts and Spencer are doing.
Roberts fits the European stereotype of the American racer: often loud, always cocky, sometimes profane. And spectacular on the track, as if he were still throwing a 750-cc flat-tracker around a half-mile dirt oval back home. After Roberts won his first world championship in 1978, the Yamaha firm made him a full factory rider. Testing a bike in Japan that winter, he broke his back and nearly died. In 1979 he wore a brace under his leathers and successfully defended his title. He won again in 1980.
Spencer is Mr. Clean at 11,500 rpm. He's mature, courteous and unassuming. He doesn't say provocative things, much less use four-letter words. He's engaged to Miss Shreveport 1981, Sarie Jaubert, and he emphasizes the word fiancée. Ask him if he has any character flaws, and he'll exhale and cluck and ponder as if it were the $64,000 question. Quite a few, he finally replies, trying to be modest and human while also being unable to come up with so much as a bad habit.
Spencer is a lanky 5'10". Kenny is a bowlegged 5'6". The physical differences are magnified when they straddle their bikes and lean them through the turns, dragging their knees on the pavement. Roberts crouches over his machine as though he were a wrestler throwing a full nelson, and he sometimes actually slides in the turns. No one before Roberts had ever slid a road-racing motorcycle, at least not deliberately. Spencer sits more upright, as though he were trying to push the machine away.
And Spencer hardly ever falls off. Maybe it's his reward for clean living. His attitude toward racing's risks is based on a religious conviction, which borders on fatalism: If God wants me He'll take me; if not, He'll protect me. Says Roberts, "It's nice to put your faith in God, but I know damn well that if I go into a turn without shutting off, I'm gonna fall over."
Spencer began burning up small-time, dusty ovals in Texas and Louisiana when he was 6 years old. At 11 he took up road racing, and when he was 17 and still in high school Honda offered him a pro contract. He had to wait until he was 18 to sign. "I try sometimes to remember back when I wasn't racing, but it's impossible," he says. Spencer estimates he has ridden in at least 1,000 races, and he can't recall ever finishing worse than fifth. He once won 10 road races in a day—heats and features in five separate classes. "Some days I would never take my helmet off," he says.
Shreveport's Hotchkiss Street Grocery Store, Fred Spencer Sr. prop., has never turned out a more polished apple. Fred Sr. was Freddie's first mentor, mechanic and sponsor, a man who sacrificed all his spare time and loose change to further his son's career. Freddie's success is his reward for enlightened fatherdom and wise coaching.
"He always supported me but never pushed me," says Freddie. "He never once told me how to ride or criticized my riding. He always had faith in my judgment—I even negotiated my first contract with Honda myself. He was very reserved about ambition. He always let other people be the ones to tell me I was good. He said you prove it on the racetrack. He told me that when I crashed or when the bike broke, I should simply walk back to the pits and never throw my helmet down. And when I was 16 he did something that was very difficult for him to do. He saw that I was going places he couldn't take me, so he quietly backed out of the picture."
The man Fred Sr. stepped aside for is Erv Kanemoto, a Japanese-American once regarded as the top bike tuner on the U.S. tracks and now Freddie's chief mechanic. In 1979 Kanemoto virtually had his pick of U.S. riders, and Freddie was still in high school, but Kanemoto took to him immediately. "He had so much experience and was so smooth it actually worried me," says Kanemoto. "Had he leveled off already, at 17? But there wasn't anybody with more potential, and I figured I'd just tie in with him and let it lead me where it may, hopefully to Europe."
And so it did. Spencer finished third in the 500-cc world standings last year, and his victory at Spa in Belgium was the first for Honda in a Grand Prix event since 1967, when Hailwood rode Honda's shrieking four-stroker in breathtaking battles with Agostini.
Riding for Honda, Spencer has become one of Japan's top sports figures. Honda has also made Spencer rich; he has contracts worth more than a million dollars a year. He's that important to them.
Roberts is balding, with a few gray hairs creeping in. He has grown wise, if not sophisticated, during his years on the circuit, and comfortable with foreign cultures, if not completely continental. He's as blunt and boisterous as ever. He's also the most popular rider on the circuit and a genuine sports hero in countries in which motorcycle road races routinely attract more than 100,000 spectators—more than Formula I auto racing draws at some of the circuits the two share. His signature model helmet, with a stylized eagle on the sides, reportedly sold 55,000 copies last year. "I ride the motorcycle," he says in an attempt to explain his popularity. "I think the fans appreciate that. You can tell watching a motorcycle racer if he's trying. You can see it."
Roberts expects this season to be his last—although Yamaha doesn't want him to retire, and he may be weakening. Whenever he does go, he will leave behind him a legacy beyond the fans' respect and affection. In his second year on the circuit he led a movement to improve conditions for the riders. It was a matter of decency and dignity to him, and he became a leader in the fight that established the Professional Riders' Association. The tracks have been made safer, and prize money, says Roberts, has increased 300%. None of this would have happened without Roberts. "There'll be a big hole when Kenny retires—at practice, at the races, traveling, at restaurants," says one of his crew. "I'm afraid the sport will die a slow death of the spirit without him."
So the old pro gives it one last shot—and along comes the young Turk. Roberts knows just how good Spencer is. "There's not a European around who can go as hard as Freddie," he says. "I'm determined to win back the world championship—it's my job—but Freddie is going to be real tough, and I'm not going to kill myself trying to beat him."
This year Spencer has won the Grand Prix in South Africa, France, Italy, Spain and Yugoslavia, with Roberts victorious in West Germany and Austria and the last two races, in Holland and Belgium. At most of these events Spencer and Roberts have been each other's most serious threat. And never was Freddie tougher or Kenny more combative than in the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, just outside Madrid, in May.
Riders, especially of the bigger bikes, are not fond of the Jarama circuit. It is short, twisty, humpy, bumpy and usually windy. "This is a really difficult track because it has all the wrong combinations for a big bike," said Roberts on the afternoon before practice, as he walked the two miles of the circuit on an inspection tour. "You're leaned over all the time because the turns are all banked, and a lot of them must be taken in first or second gear. You have to throw the bike into them to get it around, and the rear end wants to slide out. Then when you accelerate and the motor comes on at about 8,500 rpm, the tire bites and the front end wants to jump about two feet in the air. It happens all at once. So you spend all your time wrestling the bike."
Spencer's three-cylinder Honda gave him a small advantage; it was more suited to the tight circuit than Roberts' four-cylinder Yamaha because the Honda is lighter and quicker. Spencer was fastest in practice and set a track record in qualifying, while Roberts was just a tick behind. Roberts had been the 1982 victor in this event and was the crowd favorite, as usual, the Spanish having forgiven him for 1979. That year the organizers had denied him the starting money he was entitled to as world champion, pleading red ink; he told them that that was their problem and threatened to walk. They called him a peasant who puts his feet up on tables; he stayed and won the race but then refused the trophy, telling the president of the Fédération Internationale Motocycliste, a Spaniard, to go melt it down, seeing as the Spanish organization needed money so badly. That was the shot that announced the riders' rebellion against things as they were.
Race day this year was gorgeous, and the fans were high on sunshine and red wine and paella. They pressed past the barriers to the edge of the track, undaunted by the guardia civil patrolling the circuit with submachine guns. Roberts had a typically slow start—a weakness he blames on his short legs, for the riders must push-start their bikes. Spencer led until the ninth lap, when he slid coming out of a turn and both his feet flew off the pegs, flapping in the air as if he were a cowboy fighting to stay with a bronco. Roberts soon slipped past, and Spencer pursued, staring at the tips of the Yamaha's exhaust pipes poking out of the back of Roberts' seat like tommy guns. Through an S turn they weaved—left, right, as graceful and rhythmic as slalom skiers around gates, their knees dragging against the pavement, eventually rubbing holes through the leather to the padding underneath. Spencer would sit upright and ease his Honda down until his knee touched, his large round eyes wide in the window of his helmet watching Roberts. Roberts would hang off the motorcycle to one side, the back of his knee hooked over the edge of the seat, his buttocks completely off the bike, and then shift the bike into the right-hander and hang off the other side, a balancing act so swiftly executed and so precise it was as if Roberts had swallowed a gyroscope.
On the 19th lap Spencer passed Roberts; on the 21st Roberts took back the lead. The crowd roared at each pass and every feint. On one of the slow, banked turns Spencer stuffed it inside Roberts, but he had tried too hard and found himself sideways. He was just able to straighten out, and when Roberts peeked over his shoulder to see if Spencer was still upright, Spencer waved to him, as if to say, "You're making me scare myself, you know that?" From the roof of Spencer's motor home in the paddock, a friend said, "I's a dawg faght." And indeed, the way the two bikes peeled off for the next turn, they did look like banking fighter jets.
On the 33rd of 36 laps Spencer repassed, and for the final three he held Roberts off. On the last lap Roberts got caught through one turn behind a rider they were lapping, and Spencer won the race by a few bike lengths.
He was to depart that night for the next race, in Austria, along with Sarie. Roberts saw them off with a hoot and a wisecrack and then went to a restaurant fit for a peasant and got rowdy and made everyone in the place laugh for the rest of the evening.
Knees dragging, Roberts (left) and Spencer wheeled head to head in the Belgian Grand Prix, which Roberts won on the last lap.
Spencer won the laurels for his reign in Spain...
After a slow turn, says Roberts, here leading Spencer in Spain, "the front end wants to jump about two feet."
...Roberts popped the cork in Belgium.