From the grid: racing with 500GP legends

Published: 12 November 2015

Schwantz, Spencer, Gardner, and a grid of two-stroke 500 GP bikes. It's nostalgia on steroids – and we rode with them.

utside the crowd erupts. Schwantz strolls into the pit garage, decked-out in Lucky Strike Taichi leathers, that famous white, blue and red Arai and a broad Texan smile. As he swings a slender leg over the tail of his ’93 championship-winning Lucky Strike Suzuki RGV500 and plonks down into the race seat, the hysteria around him gets a little crazier. Bombarded by photographers, No.34 is every bit as popular, if not more, than Rossi and is by far the fans’ favourite. 

Sharing the garage with Schwantz are fellow 500 legends Freddie Spencer, Wayne Gardner and Christian Sarron and as each of them shuffle through the throng, Jerez crackles with anticipation. When guys like these just mention the word ‘500’ it conjures up evocative images, but to see them riding these vicious old two-strokes again, is something else. This sounds like fantasy, but it’s real: it’s World GP Bike Legends at Jerez – a festival celebrating the two-stroke Grand Prix era.

Classic events like this are gaining in popularity. Go to Goodwood, or the Bikers Classic in Spa and you’ll see one of your old racing heroes do a gentle demo lap, or two – waving to the crowd, but this is different. Today these legends and their old 500s are properly going for it. 

From Friday morning through to Sunday afternoon there’s GP-style free practice and qualifying, followed by three 500cc Legends races. And if that wasn’t enough there are also 125cc and 250cc Legends races featuring the likes of Angel Nieto, Jorge Martinez, Carlos Lavado, Tady Okada and Carlos Cardus.  There are support classes, too, including the International Classic Grand Prix (where Ian Simpson won both races), modern classic road bike displays, stalls, BBQs, beer, sunshine and a rock concert. The sound system wouldn’t look out of place at Glastonbury. 

The event was conceived and organised by 1987 500cc GP World Champ, Wayne Gardner and the same people who run the Silverstone Classic car festival. It’s immaculately set up. Now the 500 GP legends are half way around their warm-up lap in scorching 37-degree Spanish heat. Somehow I’ve found myself out with them. For my dream lap with these gods I’m on an ex-Kork Ballington Kawasaki KR500, owned by bike-mad collector, Chris Wilson and spannered by talented engineer, Nigel Everett.

'Nauseous, eye-watering, beautiful'

We’re heading down the back straight and the scene is like something out of an 80s 500cc GP on-board video. But old YouTube clips don’t do these violent V4 factory machines justice – they’re louder, angrier and brighter in the flesh, especially when you’re following in their wheel-tracks. Even through a two-stroke haze the shapes of some of the most famous racing motorcycles and their riders are instantly recognisable. Two metres in front is the unmistakable back end of a 1988 Gauloises Yamaha YZR500, with its distinctive square tail unit and four, slightly wonky ‘spannies’, pointing out the back – belching out thick, nauseous, eye-watering, beautiful, two-stroke smoke. 

The rider has the name ‘Sarron’ stitched to the back of his Nankai leathers – because that’s who he is. To Sarron’s right is Freddie Spencer. He’s in Rothmans Honda leathers, which is what we all know him best for, but today he’s on an ’89 YZR500, painted in the Yamaha factory’s red, white and black livery. To his left is Schwantz – a riot of luminescence and colour and a glance over my shoulder reveals Gardner, right up my tail pipes, again in Rothman’s leathers, on an ex-Randy Mamola 1989 Cagiva C589. 

Each rider’s style is iconic and immediately recognisable. Sarron and Gardner crouch low elbows pointing at the floor, like Marquez. Then there’s straight-armed, push-it-down-like-a-crosser shape of Schwantz and Spencer. History has taught us that both riding styles worked pretty well. The square four-cylinder KR500, with its unconventional monocoque chassis, is tiny. I can only get my heels on the pegs and can’t hang off, which is forcing my six-foot frame into a ‘Charlie Chaplin’ riding position. 

But the rest of this early 80s GP Kawasaki is magnificent. It might not have the power, handling or tyres of the later 500s, but it makes all the right two-stroke noises and smells. Weighing just 130kg and producing around 120bhp it’s quick, but the strange anti-dive system that makes the front end pop-up on the brakes takes some getting used to. What’s special about seeing these factory 500s gathered today is we never got to see them properly the first time around. Nowadays if you want your MotoGP fix there’s HD racing on TV and unlimited coverage in print and online, but back then you had to satisfy your addiction with scraps. 

If you were lucky you’d have, or know someone with, a satellite dish to watch some grainy GP coverage and there’d be the occasional race on the BBC. Of course, there were weekly GP race reports in MCN and the odd feature in magazines, but you never really got to see a 500, or the riders, up close. There weren’t even any proper modern-era 500 race replicas made for the road, either, other than the RD and RG500s, which were more dumbed-down, early 80s GP look-a-likes.

The World GP Bike Legends weekend is a chance to finally ogle those old 500s, meet the riders and, best of all, watch them all in action.  Now we’re lining up to start the first-ever Legends 500cc race and more star riders form up on the Jerez grid: Phil Read, Steve Parrish, Didier De Radigues and Graeme Crosby. Like a fish so far out of the water it’s suffering altitude sickness, I shuffle apologetically to the back to take part in my first ever 500 race and mix it with my heroes.

The red flag man moves to the side of the track and points to the starting lights. The scream of the exhausts, the growl of airboxes and the complete whiteout from the two-stroke cloud is dizzying. And as the red lights go out over 1000bhp, countless world championships and a whole lot of two-stroke history accelerate hard towards the first turn.

Somehow I get the best start from the fifth row and draw level with the second row, tucking in behind Spencer, Schwantz and Gardner (I can’t believe I'm writing this). But I quickly remember my place and throttle-off to hang at the back of the pack. The last thing the fans at the first corner want to see is some idiot from Margate riding with his toes sticking out like Daffy Duck.

As the first lap unfolds I’m watching in awe at the talent in front – knees down on their priceless 500s. The pace is swift, but they’re keen to look after their machines in this stifling heat for the next 10 laps. I can keep up, just, but I’m mesmerised by what’s happening ahead. The gods are dicing, sliding and pulling wheelies for the fans. 

Schwantz’s Lucky Strike Suzuki, which belongs to Steve Wheatman and is looked after by Nathan Colombi, is in impeccable condition and can still be ridden hard. Earlier in qualifying, lap on lap, I notice new black lines smeared into the tarmac out of the turns, where Schwantz is playing-up to the crowd.

But after two laps I pull in to the pits to hand the KR500 over to former 500cc and MotoGP star Jose Luis Cardoso. There are more riders than bikes, he’s helped Gardner put the show together and his local crowd are desperate to see him. I’ve had my fun and I’m happy to just watch the rest of the race from the sidelines, taking it all in. Of course there’s no way GP bikes of different years and generations can actually compete. These are fast demo laps, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just breathtaking to see all these riders and bikes together in one place. 

Just like a GP there’s a parc ferme and podium celebration at the end and Gardner, Spencer and Schwantz ‘win’ a race a piece. The fans go wild again. But that’s not to say World GP Bike Legends won’t be racier in the future. Gardner and the organisers are working hard behind the scenes to get more bikes to the next event. With the first race over the legends are wide-eyed and babble with excitement. Schwantz has ridden the whole race with his cycling phone app running in his pocket and is checking-out his section speeds and laps times. Once a racer… But then he goes off to change and cheerfully deals with an autograph queue stretching across the Jerez paddock, signing posters, pictures, bikes and being grabbed for selfies.

There’s still another two 500 races to go, so I grab a beer, sit in the sun and witness a spectacle I never thought I’d see again in my lifetime.

What the GP legends say
 

Freddie Spencer 1983 & 1985 500cc World Champion, 1985 250cc World Champion

“I started to do these classic events a few years ago because it’s such a privilege to share the history of motorcycling with the fans. Riding together on 500s is incredible and the fact I rode a bike I raced against in the 80s was extremely cool.”

 

Kevin Schwantz 1993 500cc World Champion

“I couldn’t mash the gears like I used to, but my bike was pretty close to how it was back in the day. The handling is pretty similar and we’re running soft tyres, which is good, but the brakes don’t have anywhere the power the carbons used to have. You used to have to pull them with a bit of attention, or you’d lock the front.”

 

Christian Sarron 3rd 1989 500cc championship

“We are fans of racing and always felt we were privileged to follow our passion to race. So for this classic event we can connect with the fans and it’s a great pleasure for us to reward the people who love this type of racing and the two-stroke era. So thanks to all the fans who came to see us.”

 

Wayne Gardner 1987 500cc World Champion

“There’s nothing like riding one of these two-strokes really fast, they make the hairs stand up on your neck. It’s been enjoyable seeing all these heroes again and swapping stories. I’m amazed that Freddie Spencer can still remember so much. He can tell you what gears he used, in which corners, what sprocket was on the front and what engine number he had in certain races and how many rpm. It’s outstanding.”

World GP Legends: what's next?

Although the Jerez stands weren’t packed, the paddock was thick with fans from all over the world. For its inaugural event, the World GP Bike Legends was a success and the organisers hope to roll it out at racetracks across the world – including the UK. Wayne Gardner told MCN: “ It’s the start of something we hope will be really big and special. We hope to grow the grids and turn it into a masters’ series. I’ve spoken to Mick Doohan, Kenny Roberts and Eddie Lawson and they all want to pull on their leathers.”

Pics: Paul Bryant