SI Vault
Clive Gammon
June 19, 1978
Barry Sheene feels grotty and is facing tough new challengers, but the cocky Cockney cyclist keeps the throttle wide open in defense of his title
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June 19, 1978

Making A Bloody Good Go Of It

Barry Sheene feels grotty and is facing tough new challengers, but the cocky Cockney cyclist keeps the throttle wide open in defense of his title

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The Rolls is impudently—no, strike that. It is impossible to park a '78 Silver Shadow impudently. The Rolls is nonchalantly parked in London's West End with both nearside wheels on the sidewalk, straddling the unbroken yellow line that designates a no-parking zone. That makes two traffic violations for starters.

But the probability is that no cop, recognizing the license plate, is going to make a special fuss. It reads 4BSR. Barry Sheene's Rolls-Royce. For the time being, the 4 will have to stand for "for," because this is only the third Rolls that Sheene has owned. And, as he will explain to you, there is a two-year waiting period for a new Rolls. So what you do is, when you take delivery, you order your next one right away. It takes a while to build up to four. At 27, give the boy a chance.

The cop, unless he is in a very liverish mood, will do just that. If he read any newspaper at all in England, not long ago he would have seen a picture of Sheene, smiling, uncharacteristically decked out in a sober suit, discreetly striped tie and highly polished shoes. Behind him were the familiar iron railings of Buckingham Palace whence Barry had just emerged clutching a handsome cross with a pink-and-white ribbon. That decoration had just been handed him by the Queen. Now he is Barry Sheene, Member of the British Empire.

Well, it isn't exactly a knighthood, the MBE, but not so long ago the odds would have been against Sheene's winning any kind of official decoration. Five years ago he was barely cracking open the throttle of his Suzuki bike on the way to the mass of racing titles that are now his, crowned with the 500cc. world championship in 1976 (he won five of 12 Grands Prix) and in 1977 (six wins)—the 500cc. class having the preeminent prestige of Formula I in automobile racing. In the eyes of millions of Englishmen who don't know a crankshaft from a gudgeon pin, Sheene is the greatest thing on two wheels since Queen Boadicea took to her war chariot and carved up the Roman legions.

But a lot of men have won a lot of motorcycle races without becoming figures of quite the national stature of Sheene. Englishmen, too—like John Surtees, who was 500cc. champion four times, then won the Formula I championship for Ferrari. Much the same was true of England's Mike Hailwood, who won the GP title four straight years in the mid '60s and then had a mediocre career in Formula I. But none of them, for heaven's sake, has figured in Faberg� TV advertising for cologne or, indeed, earned around $500,000 a year, as Sheene is reputed to do. Maybe that doesn't put him in the Nicklaus or even the Virginia Wade class, but it is very heavy money, almost unbelievable money for a motorcyclist. So maybe you have to dig to a deeper layer than his superlative skill on a racing bike to discover what it is that makes Sheene, in England anyway, as well known as his close friend George Harrison, once of the Beatles. Or, as the left-wing London weekly Time Out has ponderously put it, "A culture hero for the declining '70s."

It is a description that made Sheene giggle when he read it, an entirely characteristic reaction. He is not weighed down with false dignity. He is still, indelibly, a sharply intelligent Cockney kid (literally a Cockney: early, on a quiet Sunday morning, with the wind the right way, you can certainly hear the sound of Bow Bells from the Grays Inn Road off which Sheene was born). As urban as a sparrow and not a whole lot bigger (5'9", 155 pounds), he manages to combine genuine modesty with continuous, bubbling chatter about his bikes and his racing. You think of the young Mickey Rooney reprogrammed to talk with Eliza Doolittle's accent, and what comes out is precise and vivid. As when he recounts the horrific crash he experienced in 1975 at Daytona. As he often seems compelled to do.

He giggles again, in a self-deprecatory way, for knowing the time so precisely. "It was three o'clock on the afternoon of Feb. 28. I was testing out all different types of tires. The Suzuki was very good, and I thought we had a great chance to win the Daytona 200. Within half an hour of starting to practice, I'd got down to the quickest times Kenny Roberts had done, so I thought I'd go out and do a complete 200-mile race on my own to make sure that I was physically in tune and everything. The fifth lap I came off the banking onto the start-and-finish straight, doing 160 mph, changing up to top gear, getting up toward 175, 180 mph. Then I felt this vibration. Then an enormous bang. Like somebody hitting me up the backside with a sledgehammer. The bike went sideways and it threw me off, right up the road, about 150 yards up the tarmac. The tread had ripped clean off the canvas of the tire. Broke me left leg, me wrist, collarbone, ribs, vertebrae—I done in six vertebrae—damaged a kidney, internal bleeding. It was a bit of a major, see?"

Sheene will race no more at Daytona, he says. His reason is not the painful memory of his crash. In fact, Sheene considers Daytona one of the better world-class courses in terms of safety. "There's not a lot to hit in the infield," he explains. "You just go off into the grass. On the banking you can hurt yourself but if you fall down you tend to go straight. Safety-wise it ain't so bad. From the time I fell off there until the ambulance arrived it was roughly three minutes. And that was in a test session, when I was out on the track alone."

Sheene, like a lot of other European riders, will not be going to Daytona again until there is a change of financial policy. "The guy that runs Daytona," he declares, referring to Bill France, the founder of NASCAR as well as the president of Daytona International Speedway, "is making an awful lot of money and he is not sharing it. None of the riders get appearance money. You could be well up for the whole of the race, take the lead in the last lap, hold it to within 20 yards of the line, stop with some mechanical problem and you don't earn enough to pay a motel bill. Motorcycle racing is my sport and my life, but I can't do it for nothing. I can't travel 6,000 miles, whatever it is, and spend $20,000 or more in expenses on the pure speculation that I'll win the race and pick up maybe $25,000.

"Anyhow, it's all Yamahas from front to back because of the rules and regulations of the American Motorcyclist Association. The AMA says race a 'production' machine, which means at least 25 just like it have been made, but the racing department at Suzuki is too small for that. Yamaha's budget allows it to do that and, as a result, Daytona is just a one-horse race. It's a shame."

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