Icon: Freddie Spencer

The Kid Dethrones The King

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Walter Scagliarini

"Fast Freddie" Spencer was so short when he began roadracing at age 11 that his father had to hold him up at the starting line. He won his first 125cc national championship the following year and claimed multiple 250cc titles by the time he turned 18 in 1980, when he signed to race Honda Superbikes. Spencer then gained international recognition when he beat Kenny Roberts, Barry Sheene and Randy Mamola to win the UK's Trans-Atlantic Match Races.

Spencer was promoted to Honda's 500cc Grand Prix team in '81. He became the youngest-ever race winner at Spa in '82, and started '83 determined to become the youngest-ever world champion. Just one person stood between him and that goal: Kenny Roberts. This was the King's final year of racing, and he fully expected to go out on top.

That season's Prince-versus-King paradigm was established at the first round in South Africa, where Spencer led from flag to flag and crossed the finish line 7 seconds ahead of Roberts. Spencer won again in France, Italy and Spain, but Roberts was never far behind. Then came a spate of technical difficulties: First Spencer fell to fourth when his NS500 triple suffered a split exhaust in Germany; and then he suffered a DNF in Austria when his crank broke, handing Roberts the win. With the season half over, Roberts trailed Spencer by just six points.

These were the days of push-starts, and when Roberts couldn't get his bike to fire and went off dead-last in Yugoslavia, Spencer won. But the youngster finished behind his elder rival at the next two events in Holland and Belgium. Roberts extended his win streak in England, and it was beginning to look like The King had the title locked up.

When the GP circus rolled into Sweden for the season's penultimate round, Roberts was two points ahead of Spencer and full of confidence. Spencer, shown here during qualifying, wasn't ready to give up just yet, and proved this by qualifying almost 2 seconds ahead. Spencer took the lead at the start, but Roberts caught and passed him on lap seven of 30 and began to pull away.

"I had to at least get second if he won the race," Spencer remembers, "so I rode like crazy to get back up to him. And as the race went on, I felt, 'Hey, I could win this...'" Spencer eventually pulled into Roberts' slipstream and stayed there until the final lap. They entered the final corner side-by-side, impossibly deep, with Spencer on the better, inside line. Roberts braked first but too late, running off into the grass. Spencer blew the corner too, but recovered to win by a wheel.

Roberts was furious, and at first charged Spencer with intentionally running him off the track. But Roberts later admitted his anger was misdirected at Spencer, saying he "underestimated him completely" and that it was his fault for leaving the inside line open.

After this high drama in Sweden, the final event in San Marino was anticlimactic. Spencer only had to finish second to take the championship, and he rode conservatively to do just that. Thus came the perfect end to a fairytale season: Roberts won his last GP while Spencer became the youngest-ever world champ and handed Honda its first-ever 500cc title.

Freddie Spencer's world championship-winning 1983 NS500 triple, along with the 1985 NSR250 twin that was part of his legendary 250/500cc double, are currently for sale. Visit www.rmdmotors.com for details.

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