Barry Sheene feels grotty and is facing tough new challengers, but the cocky Cockney cyclist keeps the throttle wide open in defense of his title
June 18, 1978

The Rolls is impudently—no, strike that. It is impossible to park a '78 Silver Shadow impudently. The Rolls is nonchalantly parked in London's West End with both nearside wheels on the sidewalk, straddling the unbroken yellow line that designates a no-parking zone. That makes two traffic violations for starters.

But the probability is that no cop, recognizing the license plate, is going to make a special fuss. It reads 4BSR. Barry Sheene's Rolls-Royce. For the time being, the 4 will have to stand for "for," because this is only the third Rolls that Sheene has owned. And, as he will explain to you, there is a two-year waiting period for a new Rolls. So what you do is, when you take delivery, you order your next one right away. It takes a while to build up to four. At 27, give the boy a chance.

The cop, unless he is in a very liverish mood, will do just that. If he read any newspaper at all in England, not long ago he would have seen a picture of Sheene, smiling, uncharacteristically decked out in a sober suit, discreetly striped tie and highly polished shoes. Behind him were the familiar iron railings of Buckingham Palace whence Barry had just emerged clutching a handsome cross with a pink-and-white ribbon. That decoration had just been handed him by the Queen. Now he is Barry Sheene, Member of the British Empire.

Well, it isn't exactly a knighthood, the MBE, but not so long ago the odds would have been against Sheene's winning any kind of official decoration. Five years ago he was barely cracking open the throttle of his Suzuki bike on the way to the mass of racing titles that are now his, crowned with the 500cc. world championship in 1976 (he won five of 12 Grands Prix) and in 1977 (six wins)—the 500cc. class having the preeminent prestige of Formula I in automobile racing. In the eyes of millions of Englishmen who don't know a crankshaft from a gudgeon pin, Sheene is the greatest thing on two wheels since Queen Boadicea took to her war chariot and carved up the Roman legions.

But a lot of men have won a lot of motorcycle races without becoming figures of quite the national stature of Sheene. Englishmen, too—like John Surtees, who was 500cc. champion four times, then won the Formula I championship for Ferrari. Much the same was true of England's Mike Hailwood, who won the GP title four straight years in the mid '60s and then had a mediocre career in Formula I. But none of them, for heaven's sake, has figured in Fabergè TV advertising for cologne or, indeed, earned around $500,000 a year, as Sheene is reputed to do. Maybe that doesn't put him in the Nicklaus or even the Virginia Wade class, but it is very heavy money, almost unbelievable money for a motorcyclist. So maybe you have to dig to a deeper layer than his superlative skill on a racing bike to discover what it is that makes Sheene, in England anyway, as well known as his close friend George Harrison, once of the Beatles. Or, as the left-wing London weekly Time Out has ponderously put it, "A culture hero for the declining '70s."

It is a description that made Sheene giggle when he read it, an entirely characteristic reaction. He is not weighed down with false dignity. He is still, indelibly, a sharply intelligent Cockney kid (literally a Cockney: early, on a quiet Sunday morning, with the wind the right way, you can certainly hear the sound of Bow Bells from the Grays Inn Road off which Sheene was born). As urban as a sparrow and not a whole lot bigger (5'9", 155 pounds), he manages to combine genuine modesty with continuous, bubbling chatter about his bikes and his racing. You think of the young Mickey Rooney reprogrammed to talk with Eliza Doolittle's accent, and what comes out is precise and vivid. As when he recounts the horrific crash he experienced in 1975 at Daytona. As he often seems compelled to do.

He giggles again, in a self-deprecatory way, for knowing the time so precisely. "It was three o'clock on the afternoon of Feb. 28. I was testing out all different types of tires. The Suzuki was very good, and I thought we had a great chance to win the Daytona 200. Within half an hour of starting to practice, I'd got down to the quickest times Kenny Roberts had done, so I thought I'd go out and do a complete 200-mile race on my own to make sure that I was physically in tune and everything. The fifth lap I came off the banking onto the start-and-finish straight, doing 160 mph, changing up to top gear, getting up toward 175, 180 mph. Then I felt this vibration. Then an enormous bang. Like somebody hitting me up the backside with a sledgehammer. The bike went sideways and it threw me off, right up the road, about 150 yards up the tarmac. The tread had ripped clean off the canvas of the tire. Broke me left leg, me wrist, collarbone, ribs, vertebrae—I done in six vertebrae—damaged a kidney, internal bleeding. It was a bit of a major, see?"

Sheene will race no more at Daytona, he says. His reason is not the painful memory of his crash. In fact, Sheene considers Daytona one of the better world-class courses in terms of safety. "There's not a lot to hit in the infield," he explains. "You just go off into the grass. On the banking you can hurt yourself but if you fall down you tend to go straight. Safety-wise it ain't so bad. From the time I fell off there until the ambulance arrived it was roughly three minutes. And that was in a test session, when I was out on the track alone."

Sheene, like a lot of other European riders, will not be going to Daytona again until there is a change of financial policy. "The guy that runs Daytona," he declares, referring to Bill France, the founder of NASCAR as well as the president of Daytona International Speedway, "is making an awful lot of money and he is not sharing it. None of the riders get appearance money. You could be well up for the whole of the race, take the lead in the last lap, hold it to within 20 yards of the line, stop with some mechanical problem and you don't earn enough to pay a motel bill. Motorcycle racing is my sport and my life, but I can't do it for nothing. I can't travel 6,000 miles, whatever it is, and spend $20,000 or more in expenses on the pure speculation that I'll win the race and pick up maybe $25,000.

"Anyhow, it's all Yamahas from front to back because of the rules and regulations of the American Motorcyclist Association. The AMA says race a 'production' machine, which means at least 25 just like it have been made, but the racing department at Suzuki is too small for that. Yamaha's budget allows it to do that and, as a result, Daytona is just a one-horse race. It's a shame."

Daytona, in any event, did not figure in Sheene's—and Suzuki's—main aim, which is to win the 500cc. world championship again this year. Rider and manufacturer got off to an auspicious start in the Venezuelan Grand Prix in March when, in a steaming 104° at the San Carlos track, Sheene took first place on his RGA500 Suzuki, while the Yamahas of his two chief rivals, Kenny Roberts of Villa Park, Calif. and Johnny Cecotto, the sporting idol of Venezuela (for whom, it's said, the San Carlos track was built), dropped out with mechanical trouble, boding ill for the Yamaha challenge this year.

But Sheene collided with some trouble also. The following weekend he was to lead the British team against the U.S. in the Transatlantic Trophy series spread over three days at Brands Hatch in England. By the time Sheene had set up his bike, he found his head swimming from a virus that he had picked up in Venezuela. In the paddock at Brands, after morning practice, Sheene slumped wearily in his trailer. "Gawd," he said, "I've been a fool to meself. I get back to the airport from that steaming heat, all my coats were in me luggage, and I stand outside for half an hour in the freezing cold trying to get a cab. Gawd, I feel grotty, I think I've got the flu."

That first day of the Transatlantic the flu was not immediately apparent. On his Suzuki, which barely has enough display space for the 11 different sponsors' stickers it carries, he won the first of the two races run. He had come from way behind and picked off rider after rider, a tactic that sometimes has gotten him accused of showmanship, though Sheene swears he is just a natural slow starter. In the second race, though, Pat Hennen, a Suzuki teammate from San Mateo, Calif., got a wheel in front of Sheene at the finish.

"Teammate" is the correct description at only the most literal level. Sheene was wild with fury in the paddock after the race. "If I could have got at Hennen," he said later, "I would have hit him. I passed him on the last lap, then he cut me up at Stirling's Bend a mile from the finish. If I hadn't let him through he'd have nailed me and we'd have both been off."

Later in the week, in a column Sheene writes for Motorcycle News he repeated the accusation, adding, "In seven years of racing I have never done that sort of thing to anyone and it is the first time that anyone has done it to me." The "teammates" have separate crews of mechanics and never travel together. They even have separate bike transporters, Sheene's a gleaming Mercedes truck, Hennen's a small English van.

"I had a terrible, terrible weekend," Sheene said. In the two remaining days (and four races) of the Transatlantic, he twice came in third to Roberts and Hennen. In the other two races he blew an engine in one and fell in the second—his first tumble in three years. He was unhurt, but in the series he was one to five down against Hennen. Overall, Britain won the Transatlantic 162-110, thanks to solid strength in the middle placings, but Hennen and Roberts had taken the glory. Sheene, certainly, was genuinely affected by the flu, and 500cc. bikes were not involved in the series. But enough happened over the weekend to reassess the nature of the assault on his world title in 1978.

He himself will tell you that the man he fears most is Cecotto, the Venezuelan. But there are plenty of backers for Roberts, the two-time AMA champion, who has won three of the five 500cc. events this year and leads the 13-race series with 57 points. Hennen, who stands second with 51 points, crashed on June 4 and was unconscious for almost a week and may not race again this season. Sheene is in third place with 47 points. He has won only one race so far but he is also still suffering from the bug he picked up in Venezuela. In addition, on May 28, while he was leading a 750cc. race in Belgium, another driver's bike hurtled into the crowd where Sheene's father, Frank, and his girlfriend, former Playboy model Stephanie McClean, were standing. The senior Sheene's leg was broken, and McClean was treated for shock.

Sheene, however, still has a good chance to win a third straight title. Cecotto is often unpredictable and unreliable. Roberts had much to learn about the European circuits and has taken on an enormous task in trying to win all three motorcycling championship series, the 250, the 500 and the 750cc. Although Roberts declares that he has beaten everyone he is likely to meet, including Sheene, he is also sensible enough to qualify this by adding that he regards 1978 as a tryout year. "It is very much a two-year program I have in mind," he has said.

Sheene's chances of overtaking Roberts also depend on his holding a tight rein on his temper. As he admits, it can flare up easily. He was a rebel during his brief schooldays—"a hooligan," is how he puts it—but, he feels, justifiably so. "I didn't feel I had to stand for being humiliated and abused by teachers, so I didn't go where they could get at me much. I used to leave the house in the morning, put my jeans on round the corner and go off to a racing circuit for the day. I'm older and more sensible now, but still, if there's something I really feel about, I'll go to the ends of the earth to hold up against it. If I say 'no' then I bloody well mean it."

Much of Sheene's naysaying has been directed against racetracks that he considers to be dangerous. Such is his prestige that by refusing to appear in the notorious Isle of Man round-the-houses Tourist Trophy race in which Hennen crashed, Sheene has devalued that event. Last year, at the Salzburg-Ring in Austria, he led a walkout after the death of a rider in a pileup, claiming the track was not fit to ride on. One achievement he is particularly proud of is having the Brno track in Czechoslovakia crossed off the Grand Prix list on the same grounds. Now he has set his sights on the Imatra track in Finland. "Imatra is close to the Russian border," Sheene says. "There's pine trees and ditches, railway lines and gawd knows what all around. If you go off the circuit you hit a telephone post. That's not my idea of sport."

The other main target of his rage is the Inland Revenue, the British equivalent of the IRS. But when it is suggested that Sheene, like some other high-earning British sportsmen, should live abroad to avoid penal levels of taxation, he explodes again. "I don't see why I should be pushed out of England by the bloody government. I was born 'ere. I love England. Why should the bloody government push me out of the place where I was born? I had a meeting with some men from a special branch of the Inland Revenue. I thought I'd hate them, but they were just reading out of their book, I suppose. Still it gets to the stage where it's a total joke. Jus' leave me with something. Half of everything I earn I'd willingly give them. But I bloody well begrudge giving them 83%. If they were to go out on a motorbike and get throwed up the road at 170 mph, lie in hospital for weeks, then walk around 'alf crippled for the rest of their lives, fair enough. If they go and do that, they deserve to 'ave somethin'..." At this point words fail him.

But he is clearly in earnest about staying in England. A week after the Transatlantic Trophy he moved to a new home, which couldn't be more English. And not much more expensive than a stately home—a magnificent, 30-room, half-timbered farmhouse on 30 acres of land in rural Surrey, at Charlwood, that once belonged to Gladys Cooper and in part dates back to the 13th century. To buy it—at a price he will not reveal but which cannot be much less than $250,000—Sheene sold another country home in Cambridgeshire and a duplex apartment in London.

There is a cottage on the grounds of his new home for his parents, to whom he is deeply attached, and a milking shed he plans to convert into a shop in which to work on his bikes. To his splendid Surrey acres he will also bring Stephanie McClean.

Barry Sheene, MBE, in his squirearchal manor house farm...once again it seems close to incredible that this should happen to a motorcycle rider. But then again, there seems a considerable difference between this small, neat, quizzical-featured young man and the masses of English fans who come to see him race. Mostly, they are heavily leathered and hirsute. Some, believe it or not, slip out of family sedans in the parking lots decked out in full bike-riding gear. But Sheene himself sees no contradiction. "Listen," he says, "the old Hell's Angels image has gone—people going around beating old ladies, smashing shop windows. Watching racing, or taking a dirt bike out, or racing yourself—it's enjoyable. It's no big macho thing to ride a motorbike. Girls can ride motorbikes. I ride one." He giggles again.

How long he will go on riding one—in competition, that is—is a matter for conjecture. All over England there are enormous Texaco billboards featuring Sheene and James Hunt, the former Formula I champion. It is logical to expect that someday soon Sheene will make the switch to racing automobiles. He has tried it privately, he admits. He is on first-name terms with "James" and "Mario" but, with Suzuki looking over his shoulder, he is reluctant to set any kind of date. "Maybe when I get too old for the bike," he grins. But the day may come well before that.

PHOTOPATRICK WARD PHOTOPATRICK WARDSheene's Rolls sets off his Surrey farmhouse.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)