Little-known fact: Freddie Spencer almost made a Grand Prix comeback on Hondas in 1992. The American triple-world champion had retired from racing in 1988, made an ill-fated comeback in Grand Prix in 1989 on Agostini Yamahas and, by 1990, was back racing in America for Craig Erion's Two Brothers Racing Honda team. Spencer, certainly one of the most talented motorcycle racers in the history of the sport, put himself back in race-shape by doing a decent job of chasing the best the AMA Superbike series could offer in 1991 and 1992. By the end of '92, Spencer was as ready as he was ever going to be for a return to Grand Prix. He called his friend and mentor Erv Kanemotothen tuning for the recently retired Wayne Gardnerand Spencer was given the opportunity to test Gardner's Honda NSR500 Honda GP bike at Kyalami after the final round of the series that season.
Spencer won three world titles on Honda machinery in the 1980s: the 1983 500cc title when he dethroned King Kenny Roberts, becoming then the youngest-ever 500cc champion in the history of the sport (and delivering Honda their first 500cc title ever); and both the 250cc and 500cc titles in 1983a landmark achievement not only in motorcycle racing but in racing overall. His close association with Honda Motor Company continues to this day but, at that time, money and circumstances would not come together for Spencer to jump back aboard Honda's GP bikes for 1993.
Spencer: The Older He Got, The Faster He Still Was
As time passes it's the minute details that get lost in racing. Few remember such obscure tales that Hailwood's Ducati was lava-slow the second year he rode it at the Isle of Man, after his triumphant return, or that the English racing legend once tested a TZ700 but swore it off as too fast. And not just for him, but humans in general.
Another tale that will probably get lost is that the final time American Freddie Spencer rode a Honda Grand Prix bike he was fast, almost as scary fast as he was in 1983 and 1985 when he won three world championships. Spencer finished his racing career aboard Yamaha GP bikes and Ducatis in AMA and World Superbike, but his name remains in close association with Honda. And the last time he rode an NSR500, at the Kyalami test of 1992, Spencer was flat out amazing.
For Fast Freddie Spencer, his racing life was steaming to the upside of the curve in '92. He'd out-qualified Wayne Gardner (Interview)in July at the Suzuka 8 hours race, and months later Honda arranged for Spencer to test Wayne Gardner's Honda after the final GP. Gardner had retired from racing and Honda were somewhat wondering what they would do with his spotobviously they had Michael Doohan in the wings as the safe bet. Spencer hadn't ridden a GP bike in three years, and a Honda GP bike since 1987, and hadn't ridden the new configuration of Kyalami until he swung a leg over the NSR that morning. The Grand Prix stars had just finished their GP season at Kyalami, and had been racing the two strokes all season long. Amazingly, Spencer cut times fast enough to qualify on the front row of the grid. Dirt on the track slowed lap times by a half second from those set during the Grand Prix, according to published reports.
"I remember the track being very dirty," Spencer said this morning from Las Vegas where he now lives, "and all that really remained of the old track I'd ridden was one corner, and that was now in the opposite direction. But I did get going pretty well on the Honda." The Spencer/Kanemoto team remains one of the best ever in racing. The pair collaberated to win the 1983 500cc championship, where Spencer beat King Kenny Roberts to hand Honda their first ever 500cc title. Then, two seasons later, they surpassed all reasonable expectations by winning both the 250 and 500cc crowns in one triumphant season. That feat remains unchallenged twenty years later.
Spencer has long been regarded as the most naturally talented racers America has ever producedhe won his first Superbike race at age 17and he was in full renaissance mode in late 1992. Spencer continues the Kyalami story: "That was the first time I'd ridden a big bang 500 engine, too. I found it to be obviously easier to ride than the bikes I had ridden in the 80s, but it was really deceptive as to how fast you were really going on the bike. It had enough power to spin the tire, of course, but was more like a Superbike in terms of the way it made power. You just had to trust the bike that it was fast."
The much anticipated reformation of the legendary Spencer/Kanemoto team never happened, even after the amazing ride Spencer put in at Kyalami. Honda's GP effort was in flux and it was simply a case of sponsorship dollars not being available to fund the team.
Spencer signed with Yamaha France instead.
He actually signed with Yamaha Motor France and ended his GP career on Yamahas, then raced Fast by Ferracci Ducatis successfully in the U.S. for several years before finally retiring from the sport.
The Kyalami Honda test showed Spencer to be in great shapehe lapped nearly as fast as his rival Wayne Gardner had in the GP, in fact, he set times that would have placed him second on the grid in qualifying. He looked slim, trim and ready to race. Even hardened Spencer critics thought he should be given another chance on a 500.
Honda held the tryout in Kyalami, yet neither rider who tested over the two days was signed to a Honda 500 ride.
Neither rider?! Wait a second, did I forget to mention the other rider?
Who was the second rider testing Hondas with Spencer at Kyalami in 1992? The GP grid was teeming with talent back then. The years 1991 through 1993 are seasons in GP where the riders of that era are now recognized as some of the best riders to ever tuck a helmet behind a GP bike's windscreen (or "perspex bubble" as they're known in the UK). Was it Rainey? Schwantz? Lawson? Doohan? Or the aforementioned Gardner? No, none of those chaps were trying out a factory NSR500 at Kyalami with a former three-time world champion Spencer.
That rider was, in fact, Mr. Mat Mladin. Yes, that Mat Mladin, he of the five AMA Superbike titles and the double wins at Barber Motorsports park last month. Few remember the details now, but Mat Mladin did have a Kanemoto Honda GP tryout in 1992; it was a close brush with a Honda GP ride.
Mladin remembers it. After a moment or two, anyway. "It was at the end of 1992. I had won the Australian Superbike title for Kawasaki and was looking to go GP racing in 1993. So, I got an opportunity to test Gardner's 500s at Kyalami with Freddie over a couple of days." Mladin enjoyed a peripheral association with Gardner and Harris Burnett, Gardner's manager, in those days, one that probably helped him obtain the spin on the Kanemoto machines.
Testing with Freddie Spencer on not just factory Hondas but Erv Kanemoto-tuned Honda GP bikes was assuredly fairly heady stuff for a lad not even 21 in the late stages of 1992.
"It was, and it wasn't," Mladin says. "On the one hand, it was a good opportunity for me just to get some time on a 500. I had been motocrossing up until a few years before this and wasn't keenly aware of the roadrace scene. I knew that Kanemoto was a legendary tuner, but I honestly didn't know much about Freddie then. He had sort of been out of GP for a while. I knew that he was a former world champion and I knew it was my job to go as fast as he did."
Mladin brain-sponged Kanemoto. "I listened to every word that he said, that his crew said, you know, just trying to gain knowledge from them," Mladin remembers.
Three time world champion Freddie Spencer doesn't have any specific memories of the test he and Mladin shared almost thirteen years ago.
"I remember Mat being there and being very young," said Spencer today. "I remember talking to him a little and telling him that with a big bang engine you just have to trust the bike to be fast, that it won't give you the normal feedback. I can't recall how fast he went at the test, he was a ways away from my times, I think, but it was his first time on a 500. He did well."
500s in 1992 were first generation "Big Bang" engines that still crippled men and ruined careers. Mix 165 two-stroke horsepower in a 300-pound package without much in the way of rider-friendly torque curves, on very unfriendly Michelin tires, and bad things could happenin an instant.
Mladin remains blase about the NSR.
"I remember being told that I should expect big power and antics from the bike but, in reality, the bike seemed less than that. Of course, Kyalami is at (high) altitude so the power is a little softer there than it would be elsewhere but, you know, I've never been a rider who had had too much power. I've never complained because I had too much."
In the end, Mladin almost matched Spencer's lap times at the Kyalami test. The future looked bright, but 66 went from South Africa to Italy where he tested the Cagiva 500. He then signed with the Italian company. In 1993, Mladin would be Doug Chandler's teammate on the Cagiva GP team.