Who says you can't go back in time? If you're three-time world champion Freddie Spencer, all it takes is a phone call from Honda and a few days later it's 1985 all over again. There you are, standing on pit lane at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit in Japan, blipping the throttle in preparation for a few hot laps aboard the NSR500 two-stroke Grand Prix bike on which you won that year's world championship.
This was where Spencer found himself this past Thanksgiving, when the Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) invited him to Honda Collection Hall to take part in a fan-appreciation day, where he would ride a handful of bikes he made famous in front of 31,000 very appreciative fans. The theme of this year's event was Celebration of the Eighties, and the plan was for Fast Freddie to make some laps on three historic motorcycles: the diabolical '80 CB900F Superbike that he rode in that year's AMA series; the high-tech '81 NR500 four-stroke on which he made his GP debut; and the aforementioned '85 NSR500 two-stroke. And, just so Spencer didn't get lost in a nostalgic fog, the RC211V that American hero Nicky Hayden used to win the 2006 MotoGP World Championship. Talk about a retirement perk
Thus sets the stage for this story (and the three that follow), where one of the greatest motorcycle racers ever burns some hydrocarbons on the most advanced motorcycle of this millennium and then indulges us in a little compare-and-contrast to the bikes he rode back in the day. There's probably no rider in the world better prepared for this task than Spencer. Even though he "retired" from the GPs in '87, he never left the paddock. Today he operates the Freddie Spencer High-Performance Riding School, where he probably does more laps in a week than we do all year. In addition, he maintains a working relationship with HRC, informally consulting with the engineers on racebike development and coaching Hayden and other Honda racers on the finer points of going fast.
Because he has maintained such close contact, Spencer is the only person in the world to have ridden every Honda GP bike made since the company returned to the sport in '79: the NR500, the NS500 two-stroke triple, every version of the NSR500 V-four, the first RC211V and the very last, Nicky Hayden's number-69 Evolution bike. Now, on the cusp of the next big change in the racing world, as the 990cc MotoGP racers are retired and replaced with (supposedly) milder-mannered 800cc racebikes in '07, it seemed the perfect time to check in with Spencer.
Start at the beginning: The NR500, developed in the late '70s to mark Honda's return to GP racing after a decade-long absence, remains even today the most exotic motorcycle the company has ever built. While the rest of the paddock was campaigning terribly fast but technologically crude two-strokes, the iconoclastic Soichiro Honda decided his company would develop a competitive four-stroke. Considering the NR's V-four engine with oval-shaped pistons and eight valves per cylinder packaged in a true monocoque frame with side-mounted radiators, an upside-down fork, 16-inch carbon-fiber wheels and more new-think technology, project head Soichiro Irimajiri dubbed this wild creation the New Racer (NR) 500. But after a series of disheartening performances, the complex, unproven machine earned the less-flattering nickname of Never Ready 500. Some of the world's most gifted riders (including Japanese GP star Takazumi Katayama and Brits Mick Grant and Ron Haslam) suffered their most miserable defeats on that bike.
It wasn't until '81-after Spencer had arrived on the scene-that the NR500 achieved anything that even resembled success. Freddie's first ride on the NR came at Suzuka, Japan, where he went 2 seconds per lap quicker than any other rider had ever gone on the bike and set a new lap record. Spencer went on to give the NR one of only two victories it ever earned, beating Kenny Roberts in a heat race at that year's Champion Spark Plug 200 at Laguna Seca.
The NR500 was the first bike Spencer was slated to ride at fan-appreciation day, but unfortunately it wasn't to be-an ignition failure earned the bike a spot in the Collection Hall's restoration line. Not that Spencer was terribly disappointed to avoid turning laps on what is regarded as one of the most difficult-to-ride GP bikes ever built. With a 21,500-rpm redline and a severe torque deficiency, the NR needs to be revved like a chain saw to make power. Couple that with a frame, fork and brakes that Katayama once described as "ridiculous," and you'll understand the NR was hardly a joy to ride.
Spencer was much more excited about riding the '85 NSR500, and having been restored two years ago for an appearance at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England, that bike started up without problems. This machine was developed by and for Spencer himself, and he points to this as perhaps the most revolutionary GP bike ever built by Honda with regards to shaping the design of future bikes. Lessons they learned on the NSR about engine placement and how it influences handling stability and front-end feedback, and also about ergonomics and making the bike forgiving to ride (which was essential, as Spencer also competed in-and won-the 250cc world championship that season), are still being applied to Honda's race- and streetbikes today.
"Climbing on the NSR500 brought me right back," Spencer said. "I solely developed that bike, it was built just for me, and it feels so familiar, even now, to ride it." And ride it he did. "I was careful-it only had intermediate tires-but I ran it up. Even in museum form, it's not detuned at all. Maybe a little bit rich, but basically it goes just like it did back in '85."