A nice story about Barry

Posted by: Gerard Kampen on Mar 4, 2003

Barry Sheene’s death has touched the world beyond motorcycling, because he was not just a motorcyclist. He was an icon, a legend; the grinning Cockney who came good against all the odds.

Even today, Sheene is still a household name in Britain – and millions of people this week will be recalling his famous Daytona crash, the Brut adverts, the blonde models…

He stood out from the rest because he had the charisma to match the talent. He was a rare celeb who achieved adulation from everyone – women wanted to have dinner with him, blokes wanted to buy him a pint.

He was one of the most popular sportsmen this country has ever produced.

The Early Years

Sheene was the second of two children, born on September 11, 1950, five-and-a-half years after his sister Maggie.

Motorcycle racing was in his blood. Barry’s uncle Arthur Sheene was a speedway professional. His father Frank was a racer too, but prefered the tarmac to dirt. After retiring from racing in 1956, his father remained heavily involved on the technical side.

Among the riders Frank helped was multiple World Champion Phil Read. Read’s final years of racing would be blighted by the upstart new British hero. Phil recalls Barry at the Isle of Man in 1961: " Barry spent all his time with the bikes. He was all over them like a rash. "

Being Sheene, the first two-wheeled injury was soon to follow – he was just seven when he broke his arm falling off a stationary bicycle. By the time he’d been swimming in his plaster cast a few times, it was so soft they snipped it off, setting a pattern for the future – get hurt, get better quick. He promptly got on a motorcycle.

Learning the Ropes

Sheene’s rise from novice to champion was meteoric.

His first outing on a race bike was at a Brands Wednesday afternoon practice day early in 1968. It was terrifying. A week later, he went out again to run in Frank’s two new Bultacos, a 125 and a 250. Frank didn’t bother to put a watch on him: he was only putting miles on the bikes. Others noticed that Barry wasn’t only smooth, steady and consistent, he was also stylish and quick.

Two weeks after his first race, back at Brands, he won both classes, and the Sheene machine was ready to roll.

In 1971 Barry embarked on a GP campaign that would see him claim four victories.

Three were on a Suzuki in the 125 class, where he chased Angel Nieto all the way to the final race for the title. There was a one-off win on a 50cc Van Veen Kreidler at Brno, and a series of non-finishes on a V-twin Derbi supplied by the factory. Sheene nicknamed it " a non-works bike, " and switched to a Yamaha.

But his greatest triumphs were at home. Sheene dominated, taking the MCN Superbike and the Shellsport 500 titles. Only at Easter, 1974, in the Transatlantic Series, did Barry take a pasting. Significantly, it was from Kenny Roberts, who was later to become his nemesis.

At the start of the year, Barry had raced at Daytona and drawn the starting number seven. Little did he know what awaited him at the circuit, less than a year later.

The Daytona Crash

There were several remarkable things about Barry Sheene’s Daytona crash, in March, 1975.

One was the speed – at 175mph, it was the fastest bike racing crash on record. Another was that he survived at all. The final tally was a broken left thigh and right arm, compression fractures to several vertebrae, broken ribs and extensive road rash on his back. He said later: " If I’d been a race-horse, I’d have been shot. "

Another was that he retained his sense of humour. Barry was joking even before his operation the next day. His televised remark to team manager Merv Wright was a key factor in endearing him to the British public. Merv asked how he was. Barry ran through his list of grievous injuries, then added: " Apart from that, I’m fine. "

The speed with which Sheene recovered was amazing. He was walking on crutches a week after the operation, his thigh held by an 18-inch pin. He was back on a GP bike after seven weeks.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing was that a TV crew was on hand making a documentary about this exciting rising star of British racing. They captured the whole crash, and what had been a personality profile now became a piece of classic life-and-death footage. It made for fantastic television and gave Barry the opportunity to become a star.

The Celebrity and Champ

He came back from the Daytona crash not only more famous and popular than before, but also a much stronger racer.

In 1975, Suzuki’s RG500 had made its debut. The square four would become the dominant 500, but the bike had teething troubles.

After a string of mechanical failures it all finally came together for Barry at Assen for the Dutch TT. In a milestone race he took his first 500 win (of 19), and the first of 50 for the RG500.

Barry won again later in the year in Sweden, this time outpacing Read’s MV Agusta. He finished the year sixth overall.

Barry steamrollered the opposition in 1976. His flowing hair and lopsided grin were a fixture on the rostrum. He won the first three races straight, missed the fourth (the Isle of Man TT – its last year as a championship round), and aced the fifth – the Dutch TT.

Sheene also met Stephanie MacLean, a Playboy Club bunny, and by the end of the year, the couple had become media darlings. And big business. Barry was appearing with Henry Cooper in Brut ads, and life-size cut-outs of Barry and James Hunt welcomed motorists to Texaco service stations. Barry Sheene was a household name, like no other motorcycle racer before. Or since.

Barry Sheene MBE

All the great champions agree, winning a second successive world championship is much tougher than winning the first. By this measure, Barry Sheene’s greatest racing achievement was his continued domination in 1977. He swept to the title as he had in 1976 – with a swathe of victories, including one at the Belgian GP which remains the fastest ever race in GP history.

His status was assured. He was feted by the great and good; and he won all the sporting awards imaginable. On the last day of the year he received the MBE. " You be careful, young man, " the Queen told him as she presented it.

Sheene the Fighter

After losing the title to rookie American Kenny Roberts in 1978, Sheene came back with a vengeance – and their battle at the 1979 British GP at Silverstone was one of the greatest in GP history.

For 13 laps, they played cat and mouse. They even had time to exchange insults – the raised single finger, Sheene insisted afterwards, had been: " Light relief in a titanic battle. "

It came down to the last lap, and each had a plan. For Sheene, it was to start it close behind, pounce on Roberts half way round, then use his greater speed through the last corner to stay in front.

Roberts recalls: " I thought I was the fastest. I had the corner before Woodcote wired. I was the only guy I ever saw go through there wide open. I would have used that on the last lap. If you led the last straight into Woodcote, you’d won the race. "

Sheene’s last lap was a masterpiece. By the end of the 2.9 miles, thanks in part to a back-marker in Roberts’ path, the Suzuki was right up with the Yamaha again. Into Woodcote, Kenny was slow and tight. Sheene went sweeping round on the outside.

There was no way round. As Roberts eased the power on and drifted towards the white line, he didn’t see Sheene surging up.

Roberts hit the paint. Barry puffed up dust on the other side of it. Sheene crossed the line just 0.03 of a second behind.

Silverstone was the scene of one of Sheene’s biggest moments – but this time, in 1982, it wasn’t victory he was fighting for – it was his life.

He collided with French 250 racer Patrick Igoa’s machine at more than 160mph.

Miraculously, Sheene survived, and underwent surgery to rebuild horrendous injuries with screws and plates.

In many ways these injuries were more severe than those at Daytona. This time it was more than five months before he was back on a GP bike. Five months of fighting against pain, always in the public eye, and always with that same cheeky crooked-toothed grin.

Barry never again had factory machines, never won another competitive race, and was never a title contender. Just a racer who never gave up.

All right, he didn't break every bone. There must be the odd bit of unadulterated calcium in his small, sharp, lively frame. But in 1975, a blown rear tyre caused him to crash at 280kmh during practice for the Daytona 200 in Florida, shattering his left leg, smashing a thigh, breaking six ribs, fracturing a wrist, and wrecking his collarbone. He woke up in hospital and asked the nurse for "a fag".

His favourite story is of the properly spoken BBC interviewer who asked him what was going through his mind at the moment of impact. "Your arse, if you're going fast enough," said Sheene delightedly into the microphone.

In 1982, already the double world champion, he crashed at Silverstone during practice for the British Grand Prix ("Wasn't my fault; came over a hill and there was a wreck right in front of me") and turned his legs into a "jigsaw puzzle" for a surgeon to spend eight hours realigning. Two 18-centimetre pillars of stainless steel, two 13-centimetre plates and 26 steel screws later, he had a pair of legs again. They told him it would take three months to bend his knees to an angle of 90 degrees. It took him two weeks and four days to manage 110 degrees.

This is the willpower he takes into his forthcoming battle. I told him that he seemed fearless. "What, me? No. I'm a right old Mary. But I've no respect for this shitty disease. I'm not going to give it any space in my life. I am going to do everything in my power to get rid of it the natural way.

"I've refused the operation. I don't want to be opened up and have the best part of my stomach cut away and my oesophagus removed so that forever more, if ever I bent over to tie my shoelaces, everything I'd just eaten would end up all over the floor. That's not quality of life. I don't want my children to see me in that state."

His two children, Sidonie, 17, and Freddie, 13, are at boarding school in Melbourne. Telling them about the disease was the hardest part. "I took them out of school and they bounced in saying, 'How great is this, Dad!' Then I had to sit down and tell them. It was horrible. I was a little economical with the truth but I did tell them basically what was happening. At times like this, you suddenly realise how much you mean to your children. Usually it's, 'Oh, Dad, you're such a dork!' It was terrible and incredibly touching at the same time."

Sheene discovered he had cancer of the stomach and the oesophagus earlier this year, after the British Grand Prix at Donington Park (where he won previously), when he had trouble swallowing his food. "I got home to Australia and my mate sent me to a doctor. I had an endoscopy. I came round from the anaesthetic, got dressed and then Steph and I went into the doctor's office. 'Bloody 'ell, Baz, it's cancer,' he said. Best way to tell me. Straight out with it," Sheene said.

"He can't do anything simple. He has to go the full monty," observed Stephanie, a former model, with affectionate exasperation from the front seat. She met him when he was on crutches in 1975. She was with her first husband at the time, ironically a huge Sheene fan. "He wasn't too impressed, actually," she said.

She and Sheene had a trial separation once, about five years ago. But it was hopeless. She only moved round the corner from the home they had built together in Surfers Paradise. Going back to one of nature's charismatics wasn't that difficult a decision.

At every age Sheene seems to have been blessed with courage, audacity and the humility to see through the distorting veil of fame. "All I was doing was racing a bloody motorbike," he said. "I can't stand people who are legends in their own lunchtime. I'm the sort of bloke who, if you've got time for me, I've got time for you. I remember in the old days, after I'd won the world title, I'd sit on the end of a lorry at some race meeting talking for an hour to a 10-year-old if he wanted to."

He loved that life. Racing, winning, clubbing, drinking, smoking, especially Gauloises. "And before I met Steph, it was great for crumpet."

He was friends with James Hunt, Ringo Starr and George Harrison, who persuaded him to try Australia, a place he had never countenanced on the grounds that it was where his mechanics came from, "and I never wanted to go near the place that made them".

Sheene saw through the gimmick of status before he was old enough for secondary school. His father Frank was an engineer at the Royal College of Surgeons in London and, as young as 10, little Barry was parking the Jaguars and Rolls-Royces of the eminent consultants. He remembers the one old curmudgeon who wouldn't let a mere kid near his expensive machine - then promptly tore off its wing mirror himself.

"Sir Somebody-or-other walked up to him and said, 'That kid's been parking my car for years,' " Sheene grinned. Demolishing pomposity has been the sub-plot of his life.

Sheene's father was a fine mechanic who dabbled in racing himself and gave Barry a Ducati 50cc bike when he was just five. Sheene entered his first race at 17 at Brands Hatch. Crashed. Entered again the next weekend. And won. The pattern was set.

Contrary to his image (and X-rays), he has always considered himself a careful driver. I must admit I cracked up at that one as we proceeded in a stately fashion down the M4. He looked puzzled. How could I doubt him? Well, it must be the noise he makes when you shake him. All clanking plates and loosened joints, he must rattle like a tin of ball bearings.

"No," he said impatiently. "I just broke a lot of bones all in a big hurry. My problem was, I had the fastest crashes in the history of motorbike racing. It made it look worse than it was. I once went three years and never fell off at all. And I used to race about 50 times a year." He paused for dramatic effect. "Actually, I am a very safe driver."

He told me what he drives these days. A Mercedes when he is in London. And this year, he achieved a lifetime ambition, of buying himself an Agusta 109C eight-seater helicopter, which he pilots himself.

"It's lovely," he said with the same misty-eyed wistfulness that mothers reserve for their newborn babies.

His mood alters when he remembers alleged injustice. At his sudden discovery of cancer. That, he acknowledges, could be anyone's fate. His ire is currently focused on the Royal Bank of Scotland, which, he alleges, has cost him $50,000 ($140,000) in missing interest after a money transfer that took over-long to take place between Britain and Australia. He is after the culprits and keen for them to know that his current illness will have no bearing on his effectiveness. As yet, they have not returned his calls.

His positive attitude imbues every thought and every sinew. His weight has dropped from nearly 70 kilograms to 62 kilograms. Ten centimetres have gone from his chest measurement, such was his devotion to his vegetable juice diet to boost his immune system. Despite that, when he rode at the Goodwood Festival last weekend, he won one race and finished second to Wayne Gardner. "By," he told me with vehemence, "one one-thousandth of a second."

I am looking at an indefatigable winner with a '70s haircut. He believes he will survive this illness. "I don't wave a Bible around but I've always believed in God. He's looked after me in the past, I reckon he'll look after me again. I'm not ready to go. I'm afraid I might miss something. And when I do get better I'm going to spend my money going round the world telling people there is an alternative way to recover. You don't have to be cut open or poisoned to survive."

He walked through departures at Heathrow, with a smile and a jaunty wave. It made you think of the line the Queen used when she presented him with his MBE in 1978. "Now you be careful, young man," she said.


If you are organising a meeting, show or classic race, you can rent my TR500 with rider in Barry Sheene style, for more information please contact me.

The Barry Sheene dedication website - Streekweg 123 - 1616 AB Hoogkarspel - The Netherlands

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