1 The best thing that ever happened to motorcycling
2 The time and place, titles and honours
3 Born into biking
4 Start of something big: 1968-1970
5 Time of his life: 1971
6 A hero’s heroes
7 The season from hell: 1972
8 The making of a superstar: 1973-1975
9 Top of the world: 1976-1977
10 Sheene v Roberts: 1978-1979
11 Going it alone: 1980-1984
12 Home rule
13 Home life
14 Back in black: the classic years
15 The secrets of Sheene’s success
16 The Sheene machines
17 His finest hour
The best thing that ever happened to motorcycling
There are world records that no one wants to break and in the tough sport of motorcycle road racing ‘fastest crash’ comes pretty much top of the list.
On the afternoon of Friday 28 February 1975 Barry Sheene raised that bar well over 170mph. It was a miracle he survived, but his cool courage made him a superstar. The crash happened as he swooped down the steep high-speed banking at Florida’s Daytona Raceway on his works TR750 Suzuki. It was a practice session for the prestigious Daytona 200 race. Good friend and Suzuki team-mate Gary Nixon was there too. They had met several years earlier and Sheene had taken to wearing a Nixon T-shirt under his leathers as one of his many good luck charms. The number 7 plate on his bike was another.
Nixon was making his race return after near-fatal injuries suffered in a crash testing a Suzuki RG500 Grand Prix machine in Japan the previous summer. The twice American champion had still to get back into the groove and Sheene had offered to help ‘tow him’ up to pace when he next went out. Luckily Nixon’s 750-3 had a transmission fault, which forced him to pass on the offer. If he had been in the slipstream when Sheene crashed he is sure he would have ploughed into the wreckage and killed them both.
Disaster struck on the fifth lap, when the tread stripped from Sheene’s rear tyre and jammed the wheel. He was riding as a member of the Suzuki America squad and team manager Merv Wright watched in horror as the 24-year-old Brit was flung from the bike. More than 30 years later his memory of the incident remains vivid.
He said: “I was standing directly level with the start/finish line, taking lap times. This is arguably the fastest point on the track.
I therefore had a 'front-row' spot when the bike suddenly went sideways. It was all over relatively quickly and yet, somehow, it seemed to happen in slow motion. I dropped everything and was in a flat-out run long before Barry and the bike stopped sliding. In fact, I seemed to be catching up with him! During that run, many thoughts and prayers were going through my head. My initial hope was that the bike didn't catch fire, or hit him. When I got to him, due to the grotesque position in which he was lying and the complete lack of movement, I thought, ‘Oh my God, he must be dead.’ Seconds later – it seemed like ages – he opened his eyes. And then he asked for a fag.”
As far as Sheene was concerned the ‘lucky’ Nixon T-shirt and his other charms had done their job. After all, he was still alive. The night before he and Nixon had sat up late talking about life, the universe and everything. Was there a God? Nixon believed there was, but Sheene wasn’t so sure. The crash changed his mind. He said: “Someone was looking after me that day.”
There was more good luck for Sheene at Daytona in the shape of a television film crew.
They were making an hour-long documentary about the rising star. At the time Sheene was already the hottest property in motorcycle racing. He had won a string of prestigious championships topped by the 1973 FIM F750 European title. Many considered it merely a matter of time before his role spearheading Suzuki’s Grand Prix effort would win him the sport’s most coveted crown – the 500cc World Championship. Barry Sheene was already a hero to hundreds of thousands of motorcycle fans when he went to the Sunshine State to race that February. His good looks had even landed him on the cover of the fashion magazine Vogue, but it was the publicity the 170mph-plus crash attracted, his defiant good humour and gritty determination, that transformed him into a household name and made him a national icon alongside such sports celebrities as footballer George Best, racing driver Stirling Moss and boxer Henry Cooper.
Duel for the crown.
Sheene and Kenny Roberts are two of motorcycling’s all-time greats but who was the best of the best? They first raced against each other at Daytona in 1974 and over the next decade they met more than 100 times and on four continents. Although Roberts beat Sheene in most of those encounters Merv Wright, who managed the Suzuki race effort in America and Europe, reckons Sheene was often on inferior machinery. NN
Public interest took off immediately the crash was screened on the main ITV evening news. Newspapers picked up on the story and the showing some months later of the completed documentary saw him well on the way to superstardom. Sheene loved being the focus of so much attention. Even as a kid he had been a show-off.
The Daytona crash was no ‘Eddie the Eagle’ novelty news story delivering him the 15 minutes of fame American pop artist Andy Warhol had cynically predicted for everyone. The more people discovered about Sheene, the more they wanted to know. He was sexy, charismatic and always ready with an amusing and often perceptive one-liner. The camera loved him and he loved the camera. He was well aware of the value of publicity to his career long before Daytona.
The Donald Duck cartoon character he wore on his helmet was there to help him stand out from the crowd and attract sponsors. He quickly latched onto the appetite the Press had for a good quote and made sure he always delivered. Asked about his Daytona injuries he said he had lost enough skin to upholster a settee. Good but it got better with: “If I had been a horse they would have shot me.”
END OF PREVIEW
• Written by Brian Tarbox and John Brown • © Mortons Media Group Ltd