Sports Commentary: "Sheene: The Bionic Racer"

Barry Sheene - 500 Suzuki
Courtesy of Keith Nunns Wakefield
Double 500cc Motorcycle World Champion Barry Sheene is seen here at Oliver’s Mount in September 1979 riding his 500cc Heron-Suzuki. Sheene won three World Championship races that year, finishing third in the final standings.


Iabsolutely hate icebreakers. Trotting out minor facts about myself is something I do over time as I get to know someone, not condense it into 10 second bursts. But when I was asked to name my “spirit animal,” my choice was easy: 1970s motorcycle racer Barry Sheene.

It wasn’t a lie, as Sheene is one of the few non-Formula One racers I consider a hero. His sense of humor (recovering from a crash mentioned later on, he said, “I’d like to thank the doctors, without them, I’d be completely legless.”) and his good looks made him well-liked by the opposite sex. But his funny attitude off the bike was met with steely determination on it.

A couple years ago, I wrote about James Hunt, 1976 Formula One world champion, and the antics he got up to both in the car and with the ladies. Sheene was the same way, but unlike Hunt, Sheene is more of a hero because of one very big incident that didn’t just catapult him off his bike, but catapulted him onto the world’s stage.

40 years ago last weekend, Barry Sheene had his famous 170 m.p.h crash at Daytona during testing for the Daytona 200, one of the world’s most prestigious motorcycle races. He broke his left thigh, right arm, collarbone and two ribs, but amazingly, returned to racing six weeks later.

It just so happened that a British television company had sent a film crew to watch him race and after the crash they ran the footage back home where it appeared on the evening news. Barry Sheene had finally made it big. Sponsorship deals with Brut cologne followed, and if that wasn’t enough, it got the attention of a model who asked to borrow his fireproof suit for a photoshoot. Barry agreed, and sure enough, the two eventually got married.

Barry Sheene
Courtesy of John Lindesay Small
Barry Sheene at speed during the 1979 500cc French Grand Prix. He finished first for his 18th and penultimate 500cc victory.span>

Sheene’s career entered a downturn after those years, and he suffered a horrific crash in which his legs were so badly shattered, the only thing holding the lower part of the legs to the upper part were the arteries. Amazingly, while the doctors thought he would be in the hospital for three months, he came out in three and a half weeks and back racing five months after that.

Sheene retired in 1985, later moving to Australia and working as a TV commentator. A lifelong smoker, Barry died of throat cancer at 52.

To me, Sheene is a hero because of his incredible fight back from injury. Nearly 10 years ago, I had surgery on my legs, and the recovery was an ordeal. I have a feeling that if I had learned of Barry Sheene, it may just have taken less time to walk again.

I’ve even begun to adopt some of Barry’s style to my own, and every time life seems to kick me in the shin, I keep a humorous look at it, just like him. I’ll never enjoy icebreakers, but I do know exactly who my heroes are.

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