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.
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