Freddie Spencer: ’84 at Daytona was the big one between me and Kenny
“The Daytona 200 taught me everything I needed to know about racing,” said Freddie Spencer as he opened a conversation about the famous American race. “Managing a motorcycle. Looking after a tyre. Understanding how a race was developing. I had one of my first ever road race starts there. I had my first big crash there. I had some of the best races of my career at Daytona.
“It’s a special place. Victory Lane in Daytona or Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis are special places, and unique to America. There’s nowhere like Daytona and the first time you ride the banking…wow! It’s just a special race for me. I started going when I was eight years old and I’ve loved it ever since.”
The days when the Daytona 200 was the centrepiece of the international invitational calendar are long gone. The Florida oval was once a must race event because of the money and the prestige on offer. For American riders, as well as Grand Prix riders, Daytona was as important as the Suzuka 8 Hours would later become. If you were a young, up and coming American racer you knew that winning at Daytona was a sure-fire way to earn a factory contract with Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki or Suzuki.
Reputations were made and broken on the 33 degree banking. This was a race that proved your worth. It was a week long festival that served as a referendum of speed and talent. When Spencer first raced there as an amateur, it was a de facto National Championship as the local club racing scene hadn’t fully taken off in the United States yet.
When Spencer first raced at Daytona a sea of change was starting to occur, with younger riders coming through. Suddenly instead of riders in their late 20’s vying at the front there were youngsters like Spencer, Randy Mamola and Eddie Lawson.
The golden era of American road racing was just around the corner, with Kenny Roberts winning his first 500GP World Championship in 1978, but already the next generation were coming on strong. Over time they would have the chance to test themselves against the best in the world at the biggest race on the domestic calendar.
Here, in Freddie’s owns words, are some of his thoughts about what still makes the Daytona 200 special in his eyes.
Early memories: A childhood at Daytona and racing underage
The Daytona 200 for me was the shining star of what I wanted to race in one day. I first went there when I was eight years old with my dad and my brother, and my earliest memory of Daytona is the sounds. When we’d arrive on Monday morning of Speed Week, I’d roll down the window as we drove under the tunnel so I could hear all the different bikes. You had two-strokes and four-strokes, big bikes and small bikes.
Back then you still had the big grandstand, but you also had the infield lined. People would park their motorhomes all around the infield and then stand on the roof to watch. The race was the most important part of the week, whereas now there’s all those people going to Daytona but not too many going to the track.
In the fall of ’72, Yamaha America brought out the TA125. My first road race start was at a track in Green Valley with one of these bikes. I rode that race and then Dad signed me up to race in the Wednesday amateur at Daytona. I was 12 but supposed to be 16. The track wasn’t on the banking-it was a mile long layout on the infield, going the wrong way and used the apron of the big oval. I was leading the race until the very end, but then the bike seized. I was a bit too small to get the clutch on that bike so I had a big highside. It was down at the Horseshoe bend and I was taken away in an ambulance; my mother has a picture of my waving at her from the back of the ambulance.
In the ‘70s I raced the amateurs every year, and then in ’78 I started as a professional at 16. I won my first race there in ’78. ’79 I got second.
Turning pro with Polen on the wrenches…
I raced my first Superbike race at Daytona in ’78. I was riding a Suzuki 750 because my brother had a Suzuki dealership in Texas. He took a mechanic from the dealership and built a GSX-R 750 for me to go race at Daytona. They brought this thing down there. It was a street bike that just… it wobbled so bad when I would go into the turn. In those days photographers would sit on the side of the track. They’d see me coming and they’d run because it was wobbling so much!
I remember that I came into the pits to complain about the bike. The mechanic and my brother wouldn’t believe me so I told them ‘why don’t you ride the bike then?.’ The mechanic was Doug Polen! It was the first race Doug ever went to and I wonder how I survived it!
Doug has an opinion about everything, but always makes me laugh. Doug and my brother were so similar; peas in a pod. I’d come in and complain and they’d argue with me! Nothing ever changed on the bike, nothing ever got fixed. There wasn’t a whole lot to work with anyway. That was my first Superbike race.
Daytona for me was all about my memories as a child and wanting to race here. My first national road race, my first professional win, my first Superbike race, were all at Daytona. That place gave so many of us inspiration. Even for European’s it was an important event.
I still talk with Giacomo Agositini about racing there and one of his great memories is winning the 200 in ’74. I remember watching him go around that year. Jaron Saarinen raced there too and a lot of others. It was a true international event. It was so unique. Daytona is a bigger-than-life place and unique to American racing. It’s a simple racetrack but it’s very technical.
King Kenny and Fast Freddie
Aside: From midway through the 1982 season, when Spencer claimed his first Grand Prix win in Belgium, the battle on the world stage was dominated by the American duo. For Spencer the target since turning professional had been to beat King Kenny Roberts and by 1983 they were head and shoulders above the competition and won every race in the 500GP World Championship.
Spencer started the year with three wins in a row before Roberts came into his own. Their battle for the title was a private one and Spencer would eventually prevail by just two points. The pivitol moment came in Sweden, at the penultimate race, when they clashed at the final corner. Spencer claimed the win and went on to claim the title but Roberts ended his 500GP career with a victory at the season closing round.
Before racing against one another Spencer had dreamed of competing against Roberts and proving his worth. As an up and coming rider Spencer had seen Roberts race Flat Track in Texas but it was on the banking of Daytona that King Kenny was truly revealed.
I remember watching Kenny racing at Daytona and it was special. I’d already seen him racing Flat Track at the Astrodome in Houston, but watching Kenny road race there was different. Even at that age though I did think that, maybe, one day I’d race against him.
It looked like it was going to happen in ’79, but he’d gotten hurt at Sugo in Japan when he was testing in January. Between ’80 and ’84 it was me and Kenny battling. In ’80 we were both on the 750s. In ’81 he was hurt again so we didn’t properly race against each other at Daytona until ’82, but for three years-‘82, ’83, ’84-it was all about us. The ’84 race was really important because I wanted that one badly. I knew that it would be Kenny’s last race at Daytona.
We actually had a lot of similarities at Daytona. He was leading the race in ’72, ’73, ’74 but something kept happening. His battle in ’74 with Ago was like the one we had in ‘84. Kenny didn’t actually win until ’78. I started racing it the next year, but he was hurt and the next year he broke down. We were battling in ’80 but by the time we got to ’84 he had won it twice and even though I had won at Daytona I hadn’t won the 200 yet.
It was tough for me because I had led it every year – from 1980 to 1983. I had the race win in ’80 and that was my first year working with Erv Kanamoto, but after that I kept breaking. Daytona was unique. It was the only race like it. Kenny and I were sprint racers but having to adapt to what a 200 mile race means was a challenge. That’s why I liked the Daytona and why it was so special. The ’82 race was the greatest race I never won. I finished second on the big V4 1000 and it was a great race because it made me utilise all my skills in throttle control, lean angle, trajectory, tyre management, fuel conservation. Mastering all these elements was what made Daytona special.
The big one: 1984 and King Kenny’s farewell
Aside: This great American race hadn’t truly seen a great battle between the duo. Coming into the 1984 Daytona 200 this seemed set to change with Spencer and Roberts set to battle it out one last time. After relinquishing his 500GP crown to Spencer in acrimonious circumstances the American duo were both motivated to prove, once and for all, who was faster.
For me, ’84 was the one. It was the last year of the original circuit and I knew it was Kenny’s last 200. This was it and I wanted to win it. There was no tomorrow. It was now or never. I’d beaten him to win the 500GP World Championship in ’83, but I wanted to beat him at Daytona too and everybody was looking for that battle.
I became the first guy to break the two-minute barrier that year and took the pole. In the race, the plan was to manage it because the 500’s were fragile. To make one of those bikes last 200 miles wasn’t easy. Finishing the race is your first challenge in a longer race like this. The second challenge was relatively new because this was only the third year that we were changing rear tyres during the race.
We sat down before the race to come up with a plan. We decided the best option was to push for the two laps before the first fuel stop. I was going to push and we figured that we were a bit quicker in the pits, so with that big push we could pick up a few seconds. We were running Michelin tyres that year and he was on Dunlops. I figured I had him by about six-tenths on the out lap, maybe. If it all worked out it was like clockwork. After the stop I had him by 2.2 seconds. Now all I had to do was manage my pace and the gap.
It was all working well until about four laps to go before the second fuel stop. At that point I heard a change in the engine pitch. Kenny was pushing, this was his time to try and make up the time. I pushed for the first stop and he pushed for the second. It probably would’ve evened out between us but he had a problem in the pits and I was 3s in front.
The only problem was that engine pitch it kept getting worse. With the ’84 bike, the fuel tank was on the bottom. Within another few laps the engine changed completely. The fuel pipe had split and after three or four laps it burned a hole through the gas tank. I was getting gas fumes and Kenny caught me. He took the lead and I finished second. I was able to maintain second. But that’s what made Daytona unique.
Lessons learned at Daytona paid off in Grand Prix
I had learned so much by the time that I went to race in Grand Prix. In a World Championship, you have to understand everything if you want to be successful. Daytona was a big learning curve for me and it benefited me greatly because it taught me that racing is all about management.
It’s about adjusting. It’s about adapting your riding ability to the environment and to the bike. In those days everything was changing rapidly and developing, and I was going from a Superbike to a 500GP bike at Daytona. You needed a certain mindset to adapt and Daytona required all those skills.
The evolution at Daytona was fast, and not everyone took to it. The bikes change, the track is simple but technical. You need to understand a lot to go fast. When I first raced the 200 in ’80, you used only one tire for the whole race and that Goodyear was so hard that it could run the 200 miles and get you home afterwards! It spun a lot and there were a few critical points around the track because of this.
The lines around Daytona were so varied and as you got more experience you changed a lot. Bikes improved over time but so did you, and from ’80 to ’85 my top speed increased 25 miles an hour and it was to 190 on a 500. From that speed to get down onto the apron is tricky. The wall was right here. It was unique.
The bikes changed a lot too, because my first year with Erv I was on the 750 and then for the next year I was with American Honda on the big 1000. In ’83 we started running the NS 500 then the V4. Saving fuel is controlled by the throttle. Off the banking and onto the banking you could save fuel by being smooth.
When I first raced the 200 in ’80 you used only one tire for the whole race, and that Goodyear was so hard that it could run the 200 miles and get you home afterwards! It spun a lot and there were a few critical points around the track because of this. The lines around Daytona were so varied and as you got more experience you changed a lot.
Daytona teaches you so much about yourself too. It taught me about being patient, because when I was younger and racing on the infield I obviously thought that I could race on the banking already, but I’d have had no business doing that! It’s such a challenge because it’s so steep that you can’t even walk up the banking.