A short story about Barry by Glennis Linley
Posted by: Gerard Kampen on Jun 29, 2008Sheene's Story After living a life of the edge, his death came not from speed, but after an eight-month battle with cancer. Glenis Lindley looks at the life of this champion
Anyone interested in motor sport would have been saddened by the death of former motorcycle world champion and race commentator Barry Sheene, 52, in March. He’d retired to the Gold Coast after years of racing Grand Prix motorbikes. After living a life on the edge, his death came not from speed, but after an eight-month battle with cancer.
Although he’d given up smoking some five years before, he warned his children that smoking had caused or at least contributed to his cancer. He hoped it would deter them.
From England, Sheene was the son of a motorcycle engineer and bike fanatic. At five, he was given his first motorcycle, a 50cc Ducati, and progressed to his first race at Brand’s Hatch in 1968, on a 125cc Bultaco. This was a memorable occasion for all the wrong reasons—his engine seized and he was thrown from the bike. But things improved and, undeterred, he went on to win numerous championships including the World 500cc Championship titles in 1976 and 1977 for Suzuki, and was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2001.
It was Sheene who ended eight-time Italian champion Giacomo Agostini’s reign, and Sheene is the last British rider to be 500cc World Champion. He was a motorcycle hero and celebrity adored by his fans for his cheeky attitude to officialdom and dislike of bureaucracy. Even so, he was awarded the MBE in 1978.
A rebel at school, he carried that attitude with him throughout his life. He was a hard-drinking, hard-smoking man with a playboy image, the darling of the trackside girls. But on the track, he was highly respected.
Despite appearances, Sheene had the proverbial heart of gold and was caring toward fellow riders. When, during a practice session in Sweden, another rider fell heavily in front of him, he stopped and ran to help. While officials stood contemplating what to do, Sheene removed the racer’s helmet and cleared the choking rider’s airway, undoubtedly saving his life.
Several life-threatening accidents and serious injuries to his legs and wrists conspired to end his career.
His first major crash, at Daytona in 1975 at around 270 kilometres per hour, saw him break both femurs, along with several other bones, but his most formidable injuries happened at Silverstone in 1982 when he crashed into the wreckage of another bike. After his legs and knees were repaired with a superstructure of plates and screws, he realised he wasn’t indestructible, but still continued racing for another two years. Then he headed down-under to the warmer weather of Queensland’s Gold Coast.
Aussies quickly warmed to this colourful character with the strong Cockney accent, and before long Sheene became a familiar face on TV as a witty, insightful motor-sports commentator. His Shell commercials with another legend, Dick Johnson, raised his profile.
Because of his unassuming, down-to-earth attitude, not many realised he was also a successful businessman and multi-millionaire who rubbed shoulders with the glitterati. Some of his closest friends were his fiercest track rivals, including Kenny Roberts and Valentino Rossi, and Aussie heroes Mick Doohan and Wayne Gardner.
As Doohan said, “Barry left his mark as a motorcycle racer, but he was much more than that, he put a smile on a lot of people’s faces.”
It was Sheene, in fact, who influenced five-time world champion Doohan to race 500cc bikes.
Triple 500cc world champion Kenny Roberts, one of Sheene’s rivals at the time, said his legendary battles on the track pushed him to becoming a better rider.
“It wouldn’t have been the same without him,” said the American, who snatched his first title from Sheene in 1978 by just 10 points. The intense pressure of their rivalry when racing, however, never threatened their friendship.
Sheene was an inspiration for many. His lifestyle helped make him a hero, but he never forgot his friends or family. After being tamed by model Stephanie McLean, he settled down to married life, becoming a devoted family man with two children: Sidonie, 18, and Freddie, 14. On his Gold Coast property, he built a separate home for his parents. Although his mother died two years ago, his 87-year-old father still lives there.
Even before tributes poured in for the larrikin, nobody had a bad word to say about this charming guy with the tremendous sense of humour. Sheene was intelligent, outspoken, quick-witted, good-looking, flamboyant, friendly and funny.
When he was first diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus and stomach, in July 2002, Sheene refused chemotherapy, deciding instead to fight using natural therapies. He tried a diet of fruit and vegetable juices in the hope of beating the cancer. Those who knew Sheene’s determination felt sure he would succeed, but sadly not every story has a happy ending.
A close friend summed up his life: “He was an amazing character who touched the hearts and minds of everyone who came in contact with him,” they said.
Since his death, he has not been forgotten and his memory will long remain. In Britain, at the famous Brand’s Hatch circuit where as a 17-year-old he first rode onto the racetrack, a curve has been named in his honour.
At the opening V8-Supercar round in Adelaide in March 2002, he was remembered with a minute’s silence before the start of the Sunday’s race. This was a moving and emotional tribute as clips from the star’s life were shown on the trackside superscreens with no audio.
He was also recently remembered at Phillip Island’s motorcycle meeting, the World Superbike Championship round, when close friend Mike Farrell rode Sheene’s famous number 7 Manx Norton classic around the circuit.
Sheene overcame numerous crashes on the circuit, but he couldn’t beat the biggest hurdle in his life, despite determination and bravery. As a fan, I can’t help wondering if, many years ago, he had heeded his own advice to his children about the dangers of smoking, then perhaps the outcome this year may have been different—and so much happier.