On September 11, 1950, British motorcycle racer and certified icon Barry Sheene was born. Sheene would go on to win two Grand Prix motorcycle racing World Championships. His final 500cc championship title in 1977 would be the last time a British solo motorcyclist scored a world championship until 2015, when Danny Kent won his championship in the Moto3 category.
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Sheene was fast on two wheels, but he lived quite the fast life as well. He counted two of The Beatles — Ringo Starr and George Harrison —along with 1976 Formula One World Champion and noted playboy James Hunt, as his close friends. It’s easiest to illustrate that with one simple image: that of Sheene having a hole drilled into his full-face helmet so he could continue to smoke right up until he had to race.
He started competing in motorcycle racing when he was 18 years old, riding his father’s Bultacos. At 20, he became the British 125cc champion riding a Suzuki that had once been the team’s factory machine. The next year, he had suffered some of his first injuries, which would go on to become a common feature of Sheene’s life.
Perhaps one of the more important elements of Sheene’s career came in the form of his outspoken criticisms of tracks that he considered dangerous. Sheene was particularly critical of the Isle of Man TT course; he deemed it unfit for world championship competition. It’s a sentiment that remains to this day.
Sheene survived one of the deadliest eras of motorcycle racing; in under 20 years, Sheene’s mechanic, Martyn Ogborne, reportedly counted 62 deaths during the era. Drivers could expect three crashes per year, with six riders dying each season. That Sheene ultimately died of cancer at age 52 was something of a miracle.