To mark the 40th anniversary of his final World Championship win in 1977, the Club hosted a celebration dinner on 28 June, to celebrate the fast-paced life of the one and only Barry Sheene MBE. Stars and teammates of the 1970s joined us in Pall Mall, along with members of Barry’s family and a handful of the star motorcycle racing figures of today, to hear some of the cheerful and inspiring stories surrounding the double World Champion’s successful career.
Barry was arguably the most-celebrated British motorcycle rider in the history books and, after a motorcycle racing career that stretched from 1968 to 1984, he eventually retired from competition to relocate to Australia, where he worked as a motorsport commentator.
‘There’s so many stories to share,’ explained Steve Parrish, a teammate and good friend to Barry, as he set the scene for the evening. Joining Steve on stage was motorsport commentator Henry Hope-Frost, who delved straight in with a question for Barry’s son, Freddie Sheene, who will be riding his dad’s 1976 Suzuki ZR14, which was proudly on display in the rotunda, at the Sheene Festival next month. ‘Your dad would have love this, wouldn’t he?’ he asked. ‘He certainly would have done,’ replied Freddie. ‘He enjoyed the fuss and mixing with everyone.’
It just so happened that the gentlemen responsible for restoring Barry’s championship-winning ’76 and ’77 RX14 and RX14A, and the RX27 of ’79, which joined us in the Mountbatten Room, were also in the room with us. ‘Barry was the best sportsperson in England,’ said Martyn Ogborne, a former mechanic of Barry Sheene Racing. ‘But he was the worst person to work for. Barry was a determined guy, as all world champions are, and that’s what makes them horrors to work for. They want to win, at all costs, and that determination filters into their personal lives, too. To come back and recover from two 170 and 160 mph crashes is astonishing. His bravery, determination and talent combined, are to be admired, even today. He was a hero, but hard work!’
Geoff Tolan, who was a close friend of Barry’s while working at Barry Sheene Racing alongside Martyn, added: ‘I remember searching through a catalogue for some spare parts for one of the bikes and Barry walked over to me and said “why don’t you just order two of everything?” and two weeks later, we had exactly that!’
Henry asked: ‘Is Martyn right in saying that Barry was a nightmare to work with?’
‘Working with Martyn? Yes,’ he laughed. ‘It is true. Barry never thought of anything else other than winning. To him, finishing second was being the first one to lose, and that’s how all world champions think. But we had our good times, too.’
Steve, who will be riding Barry’s XR14A, also displayed in the rotunda, alongside Freddie at the Sheene Festival, probably knew Barry better than anyone else in the world, and treated us to the tale of how he and the world champion first met.
‘I met Barry when I was racing one weekend at Brands Hatch,’ he explained. ‘The event was called the Stars of Tomorrow and Barry was on the judging panel. At this point, Barry was my hero and the rider who inspired me to race. I finished second in the event and, being a racer, I wanted to win! So, Barry came over to see me. It wasn’t long after that I realised he actually fancied my girlfriend, and he had just come over to stare at her legs! Barry was about three years older than me, but 50 years more mature! For me, he was the Google of the 1970s – he knew everybody, and I loved that about him.’
Henry asked: ‘What was your reaction when people would say “Steve, you’re in Barry’s slipstream!”?’
Steve replied: ‘I would say, “yes, I am, and it’s one heck of a slipstream to be in!” It was much like following the fun bus… What Martyn said is right. Barry had the rare mix of self belief, sheer determination and the talent to be a world champion, and you had to admire him for that. Martyn will remember when Barry used to come back into the pits and say “the wheels are out of line” and the guys would measure it all up and see that, actually, there was nothing out of line, but they would tell him “Yes, you’re right, we’ll get that sorted”. Then he would go out again and be half a second faster!
‘But what’s more, he was a great friend. We used to race at the weekend and mess around for five days. It wasn’t just about the excitement of racing abroad, it was about racing the Transit vans back home – and that is what’s kept me from getting a real job over the past 43 years.’
When Henry asked Steve to share some of his favourite memories with us, he reminisced about a time he had to play the role of Barry: ‘I remember, we were competing at a one-day event at Mallory Park in 1977 and Frank, Barry’s dad, came running over to me and said “Barry’s knee has seized up and we’re going to have to get him to the chiropractor – but if we leave now and miss qualifying, he can’t race”. So, I ended up in the caravan with the No.7 helmet and leathers. Meanwhile, Barry was in the back of his Rolls-Royce, covered over with a blanket, on the way to get his knee fixed. I went out, set a time – some girl was waving her knickers at me, so people clearly knew no different – came back in and quickly rushed back into the caravan to change into my gear. I went back out as me, completed four laps, and when Barry and I walked over to look at the results later it said, “Sheene on pole and Parrish second”! You couldn’t make it up, could you? It must have been the lucky No.7.’
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