It’s hard to believe, but it’s been over a decade since motorcycling lost one of its greatest voices when “Big Bill” Spencer died from a heart attack in his home in San Jose. A lot of people, especially on the West Coast, thought Spencer was the best motorcycle racing announcer of his era. In addition to his nickname of Big Bill, he was sometimes called “Mr. Excitement” for being able to make normal races sound like the contest for the ages.
Spencer enjoyed giving riders nicknames. When Aaron Yates came on the scene Big Bill loved his hard-charging nature. “Here comes Double-A-Ron. Look at him backing that Suzuki into that turn!” Spencer would exclaim with booming authority. Of course Spencer was never more excited than when one of his Northern California riders would show up the national guys, which happened a lot at Infineon Raceway (formerly Sears Point) where Spencer was a staple.
Spencer had an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport – a result of being a fan, announcer, photographer, journalist and sponsor for three decades. One of his favorite things to do at the races was come up with trivia questions off the top of his head and give away t-shirts and hats to fans who could answer them.
He loved all forms of motorcycle racing, but he seemed especially found of flat track and the riders who emerged from the dusty little ovals in towns like Fremont, Vallejo, Salinas, Hayward and Lodi.
The riders loved Big Bill as well and not just because he made them sound larger than life through his announcing skills, he was also had skin in the game if you will. Spencer did all he could to help young up-and-coming riders, including reaching into his own wallet to get them to the next race if that’s what it took. He made lifelong friends of the dozens of young racers he mentored, helping them become national stars.
At one of the local events he worked Bill noticed one little guy who was always hanging out at the races and leaning on the fence looking longingly at the minibikes. Bill talked to the young fan and found out he had his eyes on a 60cc Yamaha, but didn’t have the money to buy it. Bill helped out by letting him sell Cycle News in the stands all summer long. Instead of giving the money to the little boy Spencer always gave the profits to the little guy’s mom so he wouldn’t blow it all on candy. By that winter the youngster had earned enough to buy the bike of his dreams. He no longer had to watch the other minbike racers from the fence.
“Bill had an influence on everything and everybody in this area in motor racing,” said Jimmy Filice, in a 2001 interview with the San Jose Mercury News. The two had first met at Fremont Raceway when Filice was 12. “He was an ambassador of the sport and helped groom a lot of riders and tried to see that the world gave motorcycle riders the credit they deserved.”
Born in Houston, Spencer grew up on New York’s Long Island and moved with his family to Los Altos, Calif., in 1964. He was in photo reconnaissance in the Air Force, then opened a photography company and bought a motorcycle parts distributorship in Mountain View.
Big Bill was especially known for helping young riders deal with the media and learning how to market themselves. He was constantly on the phone and on a first-name basis with area sports writers and television producers, talking up motorcycle racing at every turn. He loved to point out some new rider he’d discovered at a local short track race to potential sponsors. He’d vouch for their skills and character — even persuaded promoters to waive practice fees for talented young racers who could not afford the fees.
“When he would come to me with a picture of me and my fellow racers on the track, I would look in my pocket and say, ‘It’s a hot dog and a coke or a picture.’ Most of the time I bought the picture,” said racer Bill Landsborough.
Spencer also had a knack for remembering names. It must have been from years of announcing and quickly putting names with faces. He always had a way of making you feel special too. The first time I introduced myself to Spencer he shook my hand and said he read my stores in Cycle News all the time. The funny thing was just about the only races I covered up to that point in my career were WERA club races.
“He was very proud of all of them,” said Bill’s brother Dana Spencer of Bill’s relationship with the racers, “and they were all very grateful to him.”
Doug Chandler was among those whom Mr. Spencer helped in his career. “Bill was a real good guy,” said Chandler, the three-time AMA Superbike Champion. “He was involved in so many areas of the sport and knew everyone in the industry. He was respected in the motorcycling community for sure. He’s make the young rider who won a race at Lodi feel like he’d just won the San Jose Mile.”
Spencer was a hard-working guy. At local races, he’d photograph practices, announce the main racing program, interview riders and write up a race report afterwards. I remember Bill rushing out of the pressroom at Sears Point after announcing all day to go call a local sprint car race. He’d be there until the wee hours and then show up at Sears again bright and early.
Fiercely loyal to Northern California racers I once overhead Bill chastise a young journalist for claiming that Scott Russell was the greatest racer in Daytona 200 history.
“Did you ever hear of a rider named Kenny Roberts?” said Spencer, giving a little dig and history lesson to the younger writer. “He lapped the field at Daytona when the race drew the best riders from around the world. Scott’s good, no doubt about it, but I recall Eddie Lawson beating him to the line. That never happened to KR. When his bike held up nobody could touch him.”
And with that the matter of the greatest Daytona 200 rider of all time was settled. No one was about to argue with Big Bill.