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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.