Whatever happened to Pat Hennen?

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America’s first GP winner and Sheene’s team-mate

at Hennen became the first American rider to win a 500cc Grand Prix when he took the Finnish round at Imatra in 1976. As team-mate to Barry Sheene in the factory Suzuki squad he would go on to take three victories – including winning the very first British GP – and 12 podiums from just 26 GP starts. He was arguably the last major GP star to tackle the TT and set the first-ever sub-20 minute lap there in 1978, in what was only his second attempt. Sadly, his career was cut short following a horrendous crash later in the same Senior race and he never raced again. He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2007.

Wasn’t Kenny Roberts the first American rider to win a 500GP?

No, although that’s what most people think. Hennen beat him to it by two years – Roberts didn’t win a GP until 1978. Hennen’s win at Imatra in Finland was so unexpected that the race organisers didn’t even have a copy of the American national anthem to play as Hennen stepped onto the podium. 

How good was he?

Good enough to finish third in the world behind Barry Sheene and Tepi Lansivouri in his debut year in 1976 and third again behind Sheene and Steve Baker in 1977. When Hennen won in Imatra in ’76, it was only his GP.

Did he get on with Sheene?

No. Sheene felt threatened by Hennen’s talent and was not happy about having him as his team-mate. ‘I was an American and Barry knew that if I started beating him then Suzuki GB might lose its control of GP team,’ Hennen says. ‘He was right. For him, the ideal situation was to have an all-British GP team – which is what it had been until I came along. I was fairly confident I was going to win the championship and if I had won, I was going to insist that the GP team had some autonomy from Suzuki GB.’

Could he have won the world championship in 1978?

When he crossed the Irish Sea to contest the 1978 TT, Hennen was only two points adrift of Roberts in the title standings so there’s every chance he could have beaten Roberts to become the first American world champion had his season – and career – not been cut short following his TT crash. 

Why was he at the TT?

Good question, and best answered by Pat himself. ‘When I negotiated my contract with Suzuki for the ’78 season I met with Maurice Knight, who was general manager of Suzuki GB. Knight’s priority was selling Suzukis in the UK, so for him the most important events were races like the TT but I told him I wasn’t going to do the TT again. He wasn’t happy about it because Sheene refused to do the race for safety reasons and now I was refusing on the same grounds. When I signed my contract for ’78 it did not include the TT. Just before Christmas, Knight phoned to tell me there had been a change in plans and that the transporter I had expected to use was not going to be available so I was going to have to buy my own. However, he said that if I changed my mind about the TT he would do whatever was necessary to make the transporter available to me. He knew I couldn’t afford to buy my own transporter and it was too late in the year to arrange one from a sponsor, so I relented and agreed to do the TT.’

So what happened at the TT?

Hennen had just posted the first sub-20-minute lap of the TT Course in the Senior and was leading the race when he crashed at more than 170mph at Bishopscourt. ‘I remember the start of the race and the first lap or so but nothing after that so I only know what people tell me,’ Hennen says. ‘When I visited the Isle of Man in 1984 a woman approached me and said she actually witnessed the accident. Apparently Tom Herron and I went through the corner together – he was on the outside, right next to me. I clipped the inside kerb with my rear tyre and it sent me catapulting down the track. I do know I didn’t strike a bird with my helmet or anything like that because I still have the helmet I was wearing and the visor isn’t obscured at all. The fact is that racing can be very dangerous.’

Did Hennen recover?

Recovery was very slow and gradual as Hennen, now 62, suffered brain damage in the crash. He still has impairments to his speech, memory, and mobility but lives a fairly normal life now in the San Francisco Bay area. ‘After I retired from racing I worked for Emmick Enterprises, a well-known manufacturer of racing go-karts in the US,’ Hennen says. ‘Then I worked for United Airlines for about 12 years, in the Turbine Shop, where we did maintenance work on jet turbine engines. I then went to work as an application engineer for Motion Pro – one of the largest distributors of motorcycle parts in the U.S. I’m still very interested in racing and certainly don’t feel cheated by the sport. I honestly wouldn’t change a thing.’ 

Fact File

Pat Hennen
Born Arizona, April 27, 1953
Career highlight
Winning Finnish GP in 1976
Retired After TT crash, 1978

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Phil West

By Phil West

MCN Contributor and bike tester.