It will be 10 years next week since the tragic death of Britain’s greatest ever grand prix star. In part one of our exclusive three-part tribute to Barry Sheene – the mate, the father, and the rival – we hear from best friend and former team-mate Steve Parrish.
When did you first meet Barry?
It was Brands Hatch, 1974, I was riding a Yamaha 250 in an event called ‘Stars of Tomorrow’. It was an end of season event where in theory the next riders who were coming through got signed up. Barry was one of the judges. He hadn’t won the world championship then but he’d won 750 races, and he was the guy in cool white leathers. I didn’t win, but Barry came up to me and said ‘I voted for you.’ It transpired that the main reason me was I had quite a decent girlfriend at the time. That evening we stopped in London for something to eat – dinner with my hero! – and he asked me down to his place in Wisbech to do some motocrossing and scrambling. And that’s how it started. By 1977 we were team mates.
Can you be proper mates with your hero?
I never overcame my awe – I always felt proud and excited to be in his company. There was always an excitement and buzz, he had a wonderful way of communicating with different people, he was like my Google. If you wanted to know anything, a contact, Barry knew so and so and so and so. He opened so many doors.
And what did he get from you?
I caused havoc and he enjoyed that, we just hit it off. He said once if I’d spent as much time on my racing as f***ing around causing havoc I’d have won a lot more races. But I think I was someone he could relate to, it also helped that Stephanie and my girlfriend of the time, Linda, were spent their lives together travelling. There would be many times when I would have to sort things out for Barry, to keep him out of trouble, or the press. Like when he landed us on the bowling green at the retirement home, or we ran over the fire hydrant in Caracas. Come on Stavros he’d say, you can sort it. I’m good at talking but not a good fighter.
What was he like as a team mate?
He was incredibly helpful. If he had any special parts come through he’d bung them to my side of the garage, the opposite of what goes on nowadays. He’d say ‘I’ve got new pistons through, it’s pulling more revs, I’ll see if I can blag you some’. It helped that he knew I wasn’t a threat to him. If we were on the same bike and same track he knew he would win. But that’s why Suzuki paid me about a tenth of what they paid him. He’d go to Japan and the bikes would be built round him. All the Suzukis came back with the shifter on the other side and if you wanted them on the other side you had to convert them back again, the bikes were Barry’s bikes. I often used to set my my bike up like his but it just wouldn’t work. I truly believe he had such self-belief that if he’d made a fork offset or head angle change he’d go faster because he’d done it.
How did you prepare for the season?
Our exercise was to go to Venezuela and waterski for a month. We were sponsored by British Caledonian, Barry had a deal to go and do a talk to their employees or something and we got free flights. We would set off on 1 January to Caracas and meet up with a guy called Roberto Pietri – he used to be a playboy racer, his son raced in Moto2 last year. He’d lend us a speed boat and it would be Barry, Stephanie, Linda and me, zooming around finding these little deserted islands to muck around on. We’d spend our days waterskiing then come home and eat prawns. It was ridiculous really, but we’d come back at the end of January – fit and strong – do a bit of testing then first race. It doesn’t sound a lot but till Kenny Roberts came along riders didn’t do a lot of training. A lot of them had jobs, like brick laying, car mechanic, so there was none of this physio, gyms, trainers, etc.
What was it like out on the town the two of you?
This was like Playboy and Hollywood rolled into one! I was hanging out with the George Best of bike racing, he had a room in a house in Chelsea and we would be down at Tramp and I’m a country boy in the big city driving a Rolls Royce. Maybe I should have focussed more on my racing but I was lapping it up. There were lots of pretty girls and lots of people who wanted to talk to you because you were a GP motorcyclist. One of our members of the squadron [Barry and Steve’s posse of likely lads], Julian Send – who we called Raj – owned a photography agency where a lot of the top snappers and models used to hang out. It was a honey pot in Kings Road, so we spent a lot of time there. I was Barry’s wingman, I definitely took the ugly one. That was still pretty good. I don’t think this sort of thing would happen again. If Barry were up to no good at an MCN do in Scarborough you could tell Norry White and John Brown, it was off the record and there it would stay. There wasn’t Twitter or Facebook and you could get away with so much more., it was accepted that young scallywag Sheene was up to no good, if it was young scallywag Pedrosa doing something he shouldn’t he’d get fired by Honda.
Did Barry have talent to burn, was that the reason for his success?
No, his brain was working constantly. On track he taught me early on that it’s a lot easier to win with good mechanicking and a good bike than trying to pass someone on the outside. Off it he’d worked out if he mixed with London socialites it opened doors up, like the Faberge adverts and sponsorship and Marlboro. You weren’t going to meet those influential people in Wisbech. You had to self-publicise in the 60s-70s jet-set.
What was the secret of his success with women?
The confident Cockney Kid, straight in, boff. His main chat up line would be ‘Come on darling are you wearing suspenders?’. He was like that with everyone though. He was he was an excellent pilot but if I get my plane and go home to the Isle of Man and I have to talk to air traffic control my calls would go ‘Golf Charlie Mike ……’ Barry would be, ‘Hello it’s Barry Sheene here and I’m going to see a mate in Liverpool, alright to fly through your area?’
Your practical jokes are notorious. Did Barry share that sense of humour?
He loved a caper. There was one time when Stephanie lent some money to a housekeeper and her boyfriend went off with it and never gave it back. Well Barry and I went and robbed this bloke’s house. We turned up in the middle of the night in my Roller, broke in and took property to the value of what he’d taken off Stephanie. Imagine that – the world champion at the time and me, giggling and laughing in our balaclavas in the dead of night round Crawley. Barry’s idea. That was about the naughtiest thing we did. That and spending a lot of time at the hotels round Gatwick, because that was were the stewardesses were. But what goes on tour...
Did you have to be careful to stay the right side of Barry?
Yes, but we had no reason to fall out in lots of ways, we were so deep in each others pockets getting up to no good… We were as thick as thieves. We would never fall out. The one thing that stretched our relationship a little was the TT. He would say ‘What the f**k are you doing racing at the TT?’ when he wouldn’t. But I got paid to go and he was earning more money than me.
You were team mates in ’77 and ’79, how did you stay in contact after that?
I spent most of my spare time down at his house in Charnwood, his big house and toys were there. We didn’t keep in touch as much when he went to Australia. But even at the end of his bike career we were truck racing together so that was another way to keep in touch. That came about because he got a deal with Daf and I got a deal with Mercedes, I called them and told them I could beat Barry Sheene in a truck and couldn’t on a motorbike so that was how that deal came about.
How was he as your best man?
We’d both crashed at the Swedish GP the week before so he’d got a walking stick and I was limping, like a couple of old crocks we were. His speech opened up with ‘Most people come back from the Isle of Man with something they have to visit a clinic to get rid of. Steve came back with Ruth’. It was a good do.
You beat him in the Swedish GP in ??. How did he take losing?
No dramas. It’s not like he had to deal with it often. Even when I thought I’d got it I can imagine Barry thinking ‘I know I can get through here because it’s Stavros’. That self belief would come from lots of things, I knew how he worked. Franco [Barry’s dad Frank] would have to get to the track a day earlier than anyone else so he got the best parking space, he would turn up in his rolls, stay in a better hotel – all those things helped to add up to a sense that they’re not going to beat me, I’m better than them. He was like that against a lot of people till Roberts turned up.
Which rider was he most like today?
Rossi. Barry had a very sombre side and could get very cross. Woe betide anyone who annoyed him, he would screw some people around if he thought they were a threat to him. He spoke Spanish and once bunged the warehouse drivers in Venezuela to put the other teams’ crates round the back so they got their bikes two days later than ours. He regarded that as part of the job. Valentino Rossi can be a grumpy bastard and a showman. I wouldn’t be so crass as to say Barry was as good as Rossi, I think Kenny Roberts was probably a better rider. But I’d say Barry utilised every tool he had in the tool box which Kenny sometimes didn’t. Barry would learn to speak a bit of Japanese to get a better bike, he’d learn to speak Italian so he could get a better start at Imola. He was fantastic at utilising every part of his anatomy, whatever it took, whether it be language or meeting the right people and he had a fantastic team because he would be good at motivating that team and everyone would be working with him.
Were there any times you thought Barry really messed up?
Yes and he would agree, when he got fell out with Suzuki’s Maurice Knight and turned up at the MCN awards with Yamaha on. Suzuki fined him a large amount of salary and he ended up with a scabby load of production Yamahas. Big mistake. I would sit in his office and he’d say ‘I’ve dropped a bollock’.
What do remember about the final stage of Barry’s life?
He phoned me up and said he’d got cancer, and part of me thought he was joking, Barry Sheene doesn’t get cancer. Then my first thought was it would be Hodgkinsons, one of the easy ones. He said he’d already talked to someone and would sort it. It was the oesophagus, which still the doctors say wasn’t smoking but who knows. He said I’ll get rid of it, no question.
Then I remember seeing him at Goodwood and I was shocked how ill he looked and how much weight he had lost. He was convinced he’d sort it out, but it wasn’t going that well and he was going to go into hospital to have an operation. He actually got to the hospital with bags packed and the nurse at the time, filling the forms in, said are you allergic to anything, and he said cancer, do you like hospitals – no I fricking hate them. Then she said you’ll have to get to like them and he said no I’ve not, picked his bags up, left and never went through with the operation.
When was the last time you saw Barry?
I got a call from a mutual friend saying if you want to see Barry before he dies get yourself out here. I got to Heathrow and jumped on a plane. When I got there he was just this skeletal person who had just faded away. I took him to the hospital to have his fluids drained. He wasn’t eating by then. But he was still fighting. I spent quite a lot of time laying on the bed crying and hugging. And then I left. On the way out, walking through the garden looking for the last time, I looked at the helicopter he’d just bought and wished he’d gone out in a ball of flame instead. That’s how Barry Sheene dies. Not this.
For more on Barry Sheene, featuring further interviews with Parrish, watch Champion Barry Sheene over at MCN-TV.com - All About Bikes, All Of The Time.