Three-Time 500cc Road Race World Champion Wayne Rainey
We got to sit down with Wayne Rainey for an episode of Cycle News Live recently. Here are some highlights of this man’s amazing story.
Photography by CN Archives, Gold & Goose
Wayne Rainey is among the true giants of motorcycle sport and a fine person to interview. The Californian, with his charming, laid-back persona, opened up over the course of an hour and half over everything from how he got started in racing, to scaling the heights of MotoGP, his life changing injury, and his rebirth as MotoAmerica CEO.
Here are some of our favorite highlights from what was an enlightening conversation:
1984 South African 250cc—The first GP
“Apartheid was still going on in South Africa, so the whole culture down there in South Africa was like something I had never seen. The racetrack though, it was my first time at Kyalami. I’ll never forget it. The first practice was in the rain, and we didn’t have rain tires mounted. So, Kenny (Roberts) just said, “It’s quit raining, so just go out there on slicks and just kind of ride around, just get to know the track. Then if it rains more, come back in and we’ll get you some rain tires on.” So, I went out there and I wobbled around for five laps and then a dry line started forming. The next thing I know, I’m coming through the pack, passing everybody. I passed the current World Champion Carlos Lavado. I had come up on his teammate, and going down the long, downhill straightaway there, I was just going to go by him. As I tipped in to pass him, we had a huge downpour and I ended up falling, and I took Ivan Palazzese out. We both ended up on our heads in the sand trap. He got up and come over and he was not very happy with me. So, I made a name for myself right away.”
The Rivalry with Kevin Schwantz
“It was pretty real. I don’t think you can fake that. I remember when we both went to Europe and the first race was at Suzuka, 1988. I didn’t know how I was going to do, and I’m sure he was thinking the same, but Kevin ended up winning the first race. I think I ended up sixth. For me, I was thinking sixth place is not so bad. But Kevin won the race. Being in the world championship and seeing the attention that he got, I was like, ‘wow. I’ve got some work to do.’ I cannot let this ever happen again. Not like that. I didn’t want Kevin to be the guy that just elevated it, and I was struggling. I worked really hard at what I did. I really thought about my riding. I thought about my bike setup a lot. I worked with my mechanics all the time. I trained really hard.
“The second race was at Laguna Seca, and I had pole. I ended up fourth, but Kevin was fifth so that was good for me. That year, I ended up winning a race in Donington Park. It was my only win that year, but I finished on the podium more than half the races. I finished third in the world championship and again beat Kevin, so that was a big success for me.”
Beating Your Teammates
“That was always the most important point for me. When Eddie [Lawson] came to my team, I knew we were going to have the same equipment so I could race him head-to-head. By then, this was my third year. He was coming onto my team, so I was ready for Eddie Lawson. I ended up winning the first race pretty easy. I was quicker than Eddie in all the pre-season testing. I just put a big emphasis on smoking my teammate. I really had to make them think that they weren’t going to be able to challenge me.
“John [Kocinski] was real cocky. He had unbelievable talent, and he was very sure of himself. In that 250 World Championship, he won the championship that year. I think it was 1990, when he came to my team. I remember our first press conference they asked him, ‘How do you think you’re going to do learning how to ride these 500s?’ He had no problem saying, ‘I think I’ll be learning while I’m winning.’ So I took a long, long look at him at that stage.
“I remember the race at Laguna Seca, 1991. I out-qualified him by just like a thousandth or two for pole. He told the press, ‘I guess we’re going to see who the king of Laguna Seca is tomorrow.’ He didn’t get too good of a start, but I got a really good start. I kept thinking about what he said every lap. So, when I stretched it out to about seven seconds, by the time he got second place, I had a pretty good lead. He’d pick up a tenth here, I’d get it back there. Finally, he chucked it away trying to chase me down. He ended up in a police car that day leaving the racetrack. He was pretty upset, I guess. So, I was king of Laguna.”
Catalunya—The first win of 1992
“We were not in the hunt at that race until race day. We were able to lower my right footpeg, which actually relieved the range of motion problem I was having [after breaking a leg at the end of 1991]. But the biggest thing was the wind direction changed on race day. The wind was blowing so hard in the opposite direction it blew down most of the signage around the track. Little did we know that that was going to help me with some of the problems we were having with the way the bike was feeling going into the corners because of the stiff chassis. So, with the wind direction change we actually had a lot of extra weight pushed down onto the front of the bike which gave me a better feel. By then we had done some work with the suspension that helped out the stiction problem with the overly stiff Ӧhlins we ran, so I was able to start racing Mick [Doohan]. It was like the first time all year, I believe, and we ended up winning the race. He led most of the race, I believe. It was just great winning again.”
“I was racing Kevin Schwantz, my great rival, for the title. We had both matured and grown up a bit since the early days, but it was pretty serious business trying to be the world champion. He was going for his first. He was riding that year like he had never ridden before. We had Misano, then Laguna Seca, and finally Madrid, Spain. All those tracks favored me, at least favored my record. So, I thought to myself, if I could beat Kevin at Misano, I thought I could pressure him.
“It all started in the morning warmup at Misano because the track was damp. I was on one end of the track. Kevin was on the other. When I passed my lap board, I’d see Kevin was fastest. Then my timer would say I was quickest. Then the next lap I’d come around and I’d see Kevin was fastest. Then I’d be the quickest. We went back and forth like that. I forget now who was quickest after the warmup, but for the race, Luca (Cadalora) had actually out-qualified me. Misano was a very special racetrack for me. In 1984 it was where I got my first podium. But what was really special about Misano, they run it in the opposite direction that they do now. They actually ruined the track running it the direction that they do now. It was counterclockwise back then. There were five left-hand turns that you’d go second, third, fourth, fifth. When your tire was really good, which was normally only for one lap, you could do sixth onto the back straight. But most of the time it was fifth gear. I looked forward to that set of five corners every single lap.
“In the race, it was a 30-lap race, and the effort that I was putting on myself to try to get away from Kevin, I was only doing it a couple of thousandths a lap. So, after the first 10 laps of the 30-lap race I think I had built up less than a two-second lead on him. It was just coming much, much harder than I thought it should. I was really fit. Ten laps is nothing, but I was exhausted after 10 laps, mentally and physically.
“Going into the first turn, I just missed my braking point by just a little bit. At those speeds though, an inch or two is a mile. So, when I flicked it into the first turn, I was off line, so I was off the throttle a long time. I had a lot of load on the tires. I was really bent over trying to get it back on line. I got it back on line and I tried to accelerate. It immediately stepped out and before I knew it, I was on the ground before I knew anything. Then I thought, ‘Damn, I’ve lost the world championship.’
“I was sliding across the ground, slid into the gravel trap, and I just felt like I was still going really fast. I was still flipping a lot because the gravel traps back then had speed bumps in them. I just thought, ‘Wow. I hope there’s not a crash wall out here to stop me,’ because I was going way too fast. Just about the time I was about to stop, I felt a huge pop in my back. I lay there on the track. In my whole 25 years of racing, I had always almost every time been able to get up, no matter how bad I had hurt myself. But as I was laying there on that track, I was trying to get up. I could only move my arms. I was confused. I could hear the bikes going by. I was thinking, ‘How could something I love hurt me like this?’ Then I felt my legs, and I realized that my hands felt my legs, but my legs didn’t feel my hands. So the battle started.”
Riding Once Again
“I really enjoyed that one opportunity. I had no desire to ever ride a motorcycle again after my racing accident. But one day I just woke up, one month before that event in Japan, and I just said, why not? So, Keith McCarty at Yamaha put the bike together for me and I was able to go out to Buttonwillow. My wife was there and my brother, Rodney, and Paul Carruthers. I went out and rode; I remember when I was done riding, Josh Hayes was following me. He was in gardening gloves. I said, ‘How fast did we go out there? It felt like 150 [mph].’ He said, ‘You were almost doing 90.’ The speed has changed a lot over the years.”
On MotoAmerica 2020
“We had our first test back at Barber back in March, then the pandemic hit, and everybody knows what happened then. We had everybody sheltering in place. Us being a motorcycle racing series, we must have spectators, so that’s been a challenge. When we do start to go back racing, we’re going to be in compliance with the national health guides.
“We have no World Superbikes at Laguna Seca this year, so our event is going to be a standalone MotoAmerica race. We were very, very excited about it. The pre-ticket sales, hospitality sales are up 75 percent from what it was last year. We are going to have a hill climb where guys on street bikes are going to be riding up the hill. That’s never happened before at Laguna Seca. There’s going to be a baggers’ race that Harley and Indians are going to be riding in. There’s going to be a motorcycle show, a Heritage Cup, a carnival for kids, plus a learn-to-ride program. We were very excited about it.”CN
We encourage you to grab a drink, book a couple of hours out of your time and check out the interview in full in the video below:
VIDEO | Cycle News LIVE, With Three-Time 500cc World Champion Wayne Rainey