It's the classic American shootout, but with a very strange twist. Here's Kenny Roberts, the rowdy, lionhearted "old" cowboy from Modesto, Calif., going up against the kid from Shreveport, La., Freddie Spencer, for the 500-cc motorcycle road-racing championship of the world—the most coveted title in the sport. Though only 21, Spencer has 15 years of racing experience and is the most sensational young rider road racing has ever seen. Since 1978, Roberts, 31, has won the 500-cc championship three times. Now King Kenny and Fast Freddie are going head to head for the '83 title. Great. Except that most of their countrymen don't know about their battle, even though it holds millions of fans in Europe and Japan in thrall.
Right now, after nine of the year's 12 Grand Prix races, Spencer is leading Roberts by five points. Of those races, Spencer has won five and Roberts four. Roberts has also won the Daytona 200 and Italian Imola 200, which, although not Grand Prix events counting toward the 500-cc title, are the sport's richest races. There hasn't been such superb and breathtaking dueling between two riders since the days back in the '60s when the legendary Mike (The Bike) Hailwood of England and the dashing and daring Giacomo Agostini of Italy were racing wheel-to-wheel. And never has there been such domination of the sport by racers from one nation. In addition to Spencer and Roberts, Randy Mamola and Eddie Lawson, both from California, the only other Americans on the circuit, rank third and fifth, respectively, in the world standings.
Motorcycle road racers in the U.S. have usually been like young men all dressed up with nowhere to go. There's so little interest in the sport here that a rider can't make a decent living at it, but in Europe successful racers can earn millions. Which is just what Roberts and Spencer are doing.
Roberts fits the European stereotype of the American racer: often loud, always cocky, sometimes profane. And spectacular on the track, as if he were still throwing a 750-cc flat-tracker around a half-mile dirt oval back home. After Roberts won his first world championship in 1978, the Yamaha firm made him a full factory rider. Testing a bike in Japan that winter, he broke his back and nearly died. In 1979 he wore a brace under his leathers and successfully defended his title. He won again in 1980.
Spencer is Mr. Clean at 11,500 rpm. He's mature, courteous and unassuming. He doesn't say provocative things, much less use four-letter words. He's engaged to Miss Shreveport 1981, Sarie Jaubert, and he emphasizes the word fiancée. Ask him if he has any character flaws, and he'll exhale and cluck and ponder as if it were the $64,000 question. Quite a few, he finally replies, trying to be modest and human while also being unable to come up with so much as a bad habit.
Spencer is a lanky 5'10". Kenny is a bowlegged 5'6". The physical differences are magnified when they straddle their bikes and lean them through the turns, dragging their knees on the pavement. Roberts crouches over his machine as though he were a wrestler throwing a full nelson, and he sometimes actually slides in the turns. No one before Roberts had ever slid a road-racing motorcycle, at least not deliberately. Spencer sits more upright, as though he were trying to push the machine away.
And Spencer hardly ever falls off. Maybe it's his reward for clean living. His attitude toward racing's risks is based on a religious conviction, which borders on fatalism: If God wants me He'll take me; if not, He'll protect me. Says Roberts, "It's nice to put your faith in God, but I know damn well that if I go into a turn without shutting off, I'm gonna fall over."
Spencer began burning up small-time, dusty ovals in Texas and Louisiana when he was 6 years old. At 11 he took up road racing, and when he was 17 and still in high school Honda offered him a pro contract. He had to wait until he was 18 to sign. "I try sometimes to remember back when I wasn't racing, but it's impossible," he says. Spencer estimates he has ridden in at least 1,000 races, and he can't recall ever finishing worse than fifth. He once won 10 road races in a day—heats and features in five separate classes. "Some days I would never take my helmet off," he says.
Shreveport's Hotchkiss Street Grocery Store, Fred Spencer Sr. prop., has never turned out a more polished apple. Fred Sr. was Freddie's first mentor, mechanic and sponsor, a man who sacrificed all his spare time and loose change to further his son's career. Freddie's success is his reward for enlightened fatherdom and wise coaching.
"He always supported me but never pushed me," says Freddie. "He never once told me how to ride or criticized my riding. He always had faith in my judgment—I even negotiated my first contract with Honda myself. He was very reserved about ambition. He always let other people be the ones to tell me I was good. He said you prove it on the racetrack. He told me that when I crashed or when the bike broke, I should simply walk back to the pits and never throw my helmet down. And when I was 16 he did something that was very difficult for him to do. He saw that I was going places he couldn't take me, so he quietly backed out of the picture."