Seventh Heaven: Barry Sheene – The legend Lives On
Today is the 7th Anniversary of the passing of Motorcycling legend Barry Sheene.
When Barry Sheene decided to up stumps from his country mansion in England and move his entire family to the Gold Coast in 1987 on the strength of a chance visit with George Harrison in 1985, Aussie race fans were both surprised and delighted. Contrary to the stereotypical beer swilling Aussie expats that had been infiltrating Earls Court since the ‘50s, Sheene was amazed by the laid back Down Under attitude that embraced a directness and work ethic that he was well familiar with. Add in the ever-present warmth of the South Queensland sun, vast quantities of fine Aussie wine, and the decision made perfect sense to Bazza.
His willingness to facilitate, cajole, and network on behalf of a good number of Aussie bike riders was immeasurable. Garry McCoy, Mat Mladin, and Troy Corser were all beneficiaries of Barry Sheene’s good deeds, setting them on a path with a number of key career manouevres. Now all in their late ‘30s, McCoy is still racing in MotoGP, Corser is in his second year with the BMW WSBK team and recently retired Mladin made a fortune racing in America, a move that was instigated by Baz. His first Aussie cause was arguably Paul Lewis, whom he enthusiastically pumped in the English media in 1983-84 much to the chagrin of Wayne Gardner. What Barry did do for Wayne was to provide him with plenty of motivation like the build up to Gardner’s first season on a V-four 500 in 1986; “If Gardner can’t win on that thing [Honda NSR500] he ought to piss off back to Australia.”
Ironically, Barry’s final races were hard-fought tussles with good friend Wayne in several classic races in 2002 (doubly ironic since Barry categorically refrained from coming out of retirement, saying he’d “rather have a lobotomy”). Gardner was invited to ride the FWD Manx Norton that Sheene had ridden at the 2002 Goodwood Revival meeting. Appropriately, he won a Barry Sheene Memorial Trophy race in 2003.
On 9 March, 2003, Network Ten commentator Bill Woods was making his first Formula One call at Albert Park. As a member of Ten’s GP bike call team since 1997, there is no doubt that Barry Sheene’s friendship with Bernie Ecclestone played a role in Ten securing the Australian rights to F1 from his previous employer, the Nine Network.
Terribly ill with stomach cancer that had been diagnosed in mid-2002, there was word that Barry would make an appearance at the 2003 Aussie GP and perhaps take part in a parade lap, but he was too sick to attend. During his call, Woods sent a cheerio to Barry knowing that the 1976-77 world 500cc champion was in his final days, saying how much he missed him in Ten’s first call of a Formula One race. His voice faltering with emotion, Woods signed off his message to Barry like this: “Thanks mate…we…we couldn’t have done it without you…”
Barry Sheene passed away the following day, Monday 10 March, 2003, aged 52. He has been honoured in so many different ways in England and Australia, in both motorcycle and car racing circles. The cheeky Cockney’s face and voice may have been missing from our lives for seven years now, but his legend has most certainly lived on.
Don’t forget to check out the Barry Sheene Festival of Speed 3-4 April 2010 at Eastern Creek.