Later this year (2010) it will be 17 years since Wayne Rainey’s career ending crash. We interviewed Wayne back in 2003 on the tenth anniversary of that tragic crash where he reflected on life in a wheelchair and the switch to four-stroke in MotoGP. This is a transcript of that interview.
It is 10 years today (September 5, 2003) since the crash which ended triple 500cc world champion Wayne Rainey’s motorcycle racing career.
Q: Wayne, you might just tell us what you are doing these days.
A: At the moment I’m kind of doing a Kevin Magee! I’m working on my four wheeler. I think when I went and visited Kevin what was he, the Horsham Hurricane I saw some of the stuff that he rode around in and I was amazed that he could even go racing after riding some of that stuff that he built. I’m out here tiddling away with my four wheeler, just goofing off a bit.
Q: Wayne, how have you been since you got out of team management? Have you been keeping busy?
A: Oh yeah. I’m having much more fun now. The team management thing was probably the bottom pit as far as Yamaha Racing was concerned. After the accident that was really the last of our success together and then I had these opportunities after the accident to come back and to run the team and I had the opportunity with Marlboro and then Yamaha stepped up and there was a lot of opportunity for me after the accident. Not really knowing which way to go, that was a pretty clear road for me to follow. I guess I could have looked back and thought maybe I could have stayed home and just pursued my personal life at home.
Q: Presumably you maintain some sort of interest in Grand Prix racing. What’s your assessment of the four-stroke category now as opposed to the two-stroke that you were involved in, and maybe even just give us a little pinpoint form guide as to how you see some of the guys?
A: As far as the four-strokes go, I think from the technical side there is much more interest now. As far as the technical side goes, being a four-stroke, that’s what all the manufacturers make. The two-strokes have kind of, when I stopped and maybe just a few years after that, gone as far as they were going to go there was only just a few manufacturers involved and now with the four-strokes we have much more interest for other manufacturers to be involved. It’s what they showcase. I think safety aspects, much, much safer to ride than the 500 was first of all because I think the four-stroke, the way that the power band is, the power band is from 6,000 to 14,000, 15,000, 16,000 RPMs, so our Grand Prix bike it was like 9,500 RPM to about 12,500, so it was a very short power band. I think nowadays you see much less high-sides than what you used to see with two-strokes, so that safety wise it’s much safer as far as that aspect goes.
Q: What do you think of the current crop of GP riders. It’s one of the questions that gets bandied around all the time, but who is the best at the moment? Is it Rossi? Do you think he is coming back to the pack? What do you reckon?
A: I’m pretty far away from that. I only hear what you see on the television, but he seems to be the guy that is the most consistent, the most aggressive. He can pass early in a race, late in a race, he pretty much controls what everybody else does. I think the only other guy that really is starting to get my attention is Troy Bayliss – and he is doing a very good job on that bike. I like the lines that he takes, they’re much more right, as I can see compared to a lot of the other guys. I think Bayliss is a guy that, with his experience and his age, that if they give him a decent bike next year he could fight for the world championship next year.
Q: You’re into go karts. Are you just mucking around with them or are you doing any competitive races?
A: It’s funny you should ask that. We just tested at Laguna Seca (in California) on Monday and it’s the first time I’ve driven my karts since November, so I’ve been off a while but we actually have a race here September 6-7 and there are a couple of boys from Australia coming here and they beat me pretty easily, but they can’t quite get a hold of Eddie (Lawson, fellow former American multiple 500c world champion) yet, but I’m still doing that a bit. It’s a TZ250 and I can do a 1:26 (one minute 26 seconds) with my hand controls around Laguna Seca and I think they race 1:25, 1:26, so it’s been quite interesting for me to go back out there and not really compete against these other guys – there is a few guys that I can race with, but I think the biggest surprise for me is that I can challenge myself. I’m obviously not going to win, but I do enjoy putting my helmet on and going out there and trying to trying to go as fast as I can. It’s just fun, I try to have fun in the end. It can get very frustrating because obviously having no feeling from the chest down I always pick up what’s going on with the kart a little bit late, so mentally I’m always holding back because physically I just can’t pick it up soon enough, but I enjoy it at the end of the day.
Q: You rode in an era of Grand Prix racing that was one of the really special eras against some great riders Lawson, Gardner, Kevin Schwantz. You and Kevin were the two high-profile Americans. The American presence dipped quite a bit after you and Kevin got out of the sport. Could we get your point of view on the current resurgence of American riders into Grand Prix this year. We see Colin Edwards in there, Kenny Roberts Junior is still around on a Suzuki, and young Nicky Hayden is there this year. Can you give us a bit of an insight on that resurgence of Americans heading to Europe and what you think of the Hayden, Edwards and junior group of riders?
A: With Hayden, I expected him to do what he is doing now a bit sooner in the year. Maybe it’s just been a culture shock for him, being from Kentucky and racing in the States, only in the States, he’s never really had a chance to see what the world was like and I think it’s taken him some time to adjust. I don’t think the bike has been that difficult to ride, I just think he maybe was a little bit early as far as making the jump to go over there and everything happens so much quicker as far as the qualifying routine, what goes on as far as the press side, learning tracks and travelling stuff. Like I said, I expected him to do much better than what he has been doing, but maybe now he is starting to get the hang of it and I expect in a year or two that he will probably be the dominant American guy. Whether he will be like the Americans in the past remains to be seen. As far as Edwards goes, it’s hard to say if his talent is enough or if the Aprilia is going to be good enough. I don’t know. Edwards is a tough deal because he was superbike world champion, but we’ve seen that with Corser (Australian Troy Corser), we’ve seen that with Fogarty (British superbike legend Carl Fogarty), we’ve seen that with Hopkins (American John Hopkins). These guys that come over to GPs and they get their tail between their legs, and I’m just kind of wondering if Edwards is of the same mould or if he is going to be able to pull it out here in the end, but I’m hoping that he can raise his level up a bit more. Junior (Roberts), I don’t know. I don’t know what’s happened to the guy. He had that one decent year (winning the 500cc world title in 2000) and that has been it, and he really didn’t do much before and he hasn’t done nothing since, and you kind of wonder how long he is going to keep his ride. Hopkins is another young kid that he could be a surprise. I think if he can get a decent ride out of Suzuki as far as their bike goes. It’s really hard to say when we’ve got Junior and Hopkins the only guys on (Suzukis) there. I’ve seen they put a wildcard guy on that bike and he was right there. That would never happen in the old days. You put a wildcard on one of our bikes – and one of the top Japanese guys – and we would laugh at them. I question the talent of the Suzuki guys. Junior pretty much has showed his hand. Hopkins, I hope he hasn’t. I hope there’s a lot left there. But it is nice to see four Americans over there because you do have something, as far as the American side goes, to look at.
Q: From what you’ve seen from the distance of the Kawasaki this year, could Rossi win on the Kawasaki?
A: Probably in a world superbike race. I don’t know. I’ve never seen the Kawasaki (on race telecasts). I only see it in still photos. I’ve never seen it on the track. I don’t really know. How bad is it? I don’t know. Would McCoy do well on a Honda? I’m sure he would. Is McCoy the top Kawasaki guy? I don’t even know. My philosophy was that you have always got to be the first guy on your own brand of machine, and Rossi is obviously the first Honda guy. I think Hopkins is the first Suzuki guy. With Ducati it looks like it’s pretty close between those two riders (Capirossi and Bayliss). The Kawasaki guys, I’m not sure, but I think McCoy, to revitalise his career, he is going to have to start smoking his Kawasaki boys.
Q: Is there anybody else that you see from America, Australia or Europe that you think could be able to step up and be competitive and get the thing going to what it used to be like?
A: I think a lot of that depends on the manufacturers. I don’t know how bad this Yamaha is, but you look at (Spaniard) Carlos Checa, this is a guy who used to crash 25 30 times a year on a 500, and I think this year he has only crashed maybe 10 times, I’m not sure. And that’s the top Yamaha guy. Then you look at Barros (Brazilian Alex Barros), they gave him a Honda last year and I think he won his first time out on a four-stroke and now he is on a Yamaha and he is struggling. Again, unless these manufacturers step up and go head-to-head to try to beat Honda, unless you are on a Honda it’s going to be difficult. I think Barros’ record has shown that, I think Sete’s record has shown that. I’m hoping that the Yamaha steps up. Somehow I think the Yamaha should be on the podium. I’m just not quite sure that it’s all the bike’s fault, but we can only go by who is riding it now. I think if Rossi was on the bike he would be winning, to tell you the truth.
Q: To pick up on a couple of things you said there: one was that you had the talent, but also beating your teammate. When the Lucky Strike team and Kenny Roberts pulled you and (Australian) Kevin Magee in, if anything Kevin was probably seen as potentially a better rider. What were the differences you observed between the two of you and in a friendly way, in just an analytical way for learning – what were the differences between the two of you and what brought you through? Kevin was quick, we know, and could ride the things, but he only won one Grand Prix.
A: It’s funny, I was thinking about that a little bit today. I think there was a few races that Kevin fell off where he hurt himself, and I didn’t get hurt in my first and Kevin hurt himself. When you hurt yourself a few times you lose confidence and then the team, pretty much towards the end of the year, they focus on the guy that they think can get the best result. Kevin won Jarama (in Spain) early on that year and I didn’t win until later in the year at Donington, but by that point Kevin’s confidence had gone down and mine was going up – and that might have been the difference then. He did win Jarama, didn’t he, Kevin? I remember that one. A great race.
Q: Just to go back to 1993. You, by rights, would have won the world title again that year, but in fact it went to Kevin Schwantz, who actually won 25 GPs but only that one world title. It would have been a rather strange situation in a way for a guy who had won as many races as Kevin to have never won a world title. Obviously he was a great rival in your era, as were Doohan and Gardner, but what do you make of Schwantz’s career?
A: I would never say Kevin wouldn’t have won the championship, even if I would have finished the year without my accident. We don’t ever know. Kevin won the championship and I didn’t, and I made the mistake, so I was the one that made the mistake, not Kevin. If I would have stayed in there and hung in there and finished the year, we don’t know who would have won the championship, even though I was leading the championship and there was a few races left and those tracks favoured me because of the past results there. We just never know, but Kevin won his championship and in that particular year he put it together much better than he had ever done before. Maybe he was just a slow learner as far as remembering, because he was awful fast at some races and some races he was nowhere, or he was on the ground. So he obviously put it together and he did the job that it took to be world champion and, for sure, he was the best rider Suzuki has ever had.
Q: The obvious question too is your recollections of Gardner initially and then later Doohan as well.
A: With Gardner, he was probably more of a rival to Mick. He was a cowboy. As far as I was concerned, he was not afraid to hit the ground and he could be very spectacular on the bike – and he was a bulldog. I thought some of the races that he rode, I couldn’t understand why he was kind of using some of the lines he was and then some races he was spot on. I think Gardner also is another guy that got hurt and it kind of hurt his confidence at the end of his career. He had already been world champion and we all know what he has done in Australia for the sport, and that helped Mick. I don’t know what Mick has to say about that, but Gardner did help Mick in many ways. He helped make the sport what it is, and I think Gardner was a type of guy, kind of like a Schwantz type thing for me, he was a guy you loved to beat on the track, especially your countryman. I would much rather get beat by Gardner and Doohan than I would Schwantz, and I think Doohan was the same way with Gardner – he’d much rather get beat by anyone else but him. It was good for the sport and those two guys helped make me what I am today, or what I was then. Rivalries are a good thing and always will be.
Q: One person that was very close to you, young Liam Magee (Kevin’s nephew), we lost him last year, which was very tragic down here, but it shows you the fickleness of racing.
A: Liam, I watched him grow up in the paddock. You hate to see anyone get hurt and especially die in racing, but I think the one thing that was, if there was anything good about it, is that he was doing what he wanted to do. I always say that about my accident: that I was in control of what I was doing, and so I thank God for that because there’s a lot of other people that get hurt or they die and it was nothing to do with their situation at all. That stuff happens every single day.
Q: Wayne, perhaps some memories racing in Australia? As we said at the beginning, you and Schwantz were de facto Australians to us and we kind of cheered for all you guys. You did have some great races here and some great memories from racing out here, both at Phillip Island and perhaps Eastern Creek.
A: Yeah. Phillip Island is one of my favourite circuits. I think ’89 there, Kevin and I, and I think it was Mick and Gardner, we had a heck of a race there. Maybe it was Christian Sarron I don’t think Mick was quite up to speed yet. Yeah. I was kind of sad to see it leave Phillip Island, but we went to Eastern Creek. One of my favourite trophies I have in my trophy case is my Eastern Creek trophy because it was like an 1850s cup, and I think they had insurance that it would not leave Australia because they thought Gardner or Doohan would win the race. When I won the race I was really stoked about that. But the race track was nothing like Phillip Island.
Q: You mentioned before about the boats, are you into speedboats now?
A: I have a 28-foot deck boat. It’s got a 502 Merc cruiser in it with twin superchargers on it. It’s got a winch on it, like what they use from a houseboat they pick up jet skis with. I have one of those that picks me up – I’m about as big as a jet ski now. I use that and I get on the boat and I get in the seat and I just bark orders all day when I’m driving. The thing now though is that everybody, like my kid Rex, he likes to wakeboard, so when you wakeboard you don’t go over 15 miles an hour. The boat goes 75, so I’ve got to wait until everybody gets off the boat before I go out and have fun.
Q: In that regard, Wayne, with Colin Edwards on the Aprilia and its much-reported flyby-wire throttle, how hard would that be to control by just pressuring the handlebar instead of having the real time twisting the throttle, so to speak?
A: I wouldn’t want nothing to do with that. If your hand is not connected to the throttle by cables, unless it’s bullet-proof, but I hear stories about the thing running on when the throttle is off and for me I would refuse to ride the bike.
Q: We saw an announcement about six weeks ago regarding an American Grand Prix. There had been talk of the US Grand Prix coming back, but it’s certainly not going to be next year – and it’s another year away. What are your feelings on that? Perhaps on where it ought to be and whether America is hungry for a Motorcycle Grand Prix again?
A: Yeah, I think they are. In my opinion, I think Laguna Seca is the place for it. Laguna Seca is a very technically, physically demanding track, probably the most out of any circuit that I’ve raced at anywhere in the world. A lot of the accidents that we’ve seen at Laguna Seca had nothing to do with the race track it was all rider fault. It’s because it’s so challenging, because you have short straights in between fast corners, so you’re either accelerating or you’re shifting or you’re braking or turning, so there is no time to relax – and that’s what made it so special. When I’ve talked to Mick about Laguna, he really enjoyed Laguna just because it was so physically challenging. I think we’ve got some garages over there now that we didn’t have in the past and they have been trying to update the facility over there to make it more GP-friendly and I would like to see it come back to Laguna. We’ve actually had some talks with Dorna about it. I would like to see it come back, for sure, and I think so would the public.
Q: Would you be involved in some way in resurrecting the US GP?
A: Oh, yeah. I’m working with Laguna, being real close to the circuit because I live just up the road from it, I have had contact with Carmelo (Ezpeleta, head of Dorna, the commercial operator of the MotoGP championship), with Dorna, we’ve had some meetings with them, and he is going to come out and take a look at the facility from what they’ve been doing and what the future plan is. For sure, I’d be involved, yep.
Q: You said you were out at Laguna last Monday in the kart. Safety is increasingly an issue, as it was in your day with various rider meetings, and the riders now have a safety committee – and we may see Suzuka (venue for the Japanese MotoGP) go off the calendar next year because of that. Safety-wise, is Laguna up to scratch or would some things have to be changed for safety from your perspective as a rider?
A: There is one corner that would have to be fixed and we’ve already drawn out a sketch to the corner, but I think every race track in the world, if you make them all safe, then you take all the challenge out of them. If you make every track safe, the public can’t even get close to even watch, they can’t even get close to a corner because you need so much run-off. I raced at Laguna and it was plenty safe when I rode and I can’t imagine the tracks being so much more safer now than it would make Laguna Seca obsolete. As I said about Laguna, all the accidents happened because of rider error nothing to do with the race track nobody hit walls and I think that’s the main concern is just having enough run-off room. Kevin’s accident (Kevin Magee’s in 1990) was kind of a freak accident. Gardner’s, when he crashed, was too much throttle, but the ground is the same hardness no matter which country you are in.
Q: Which is the corner that’s the problem at Laguna that would have to be changed?
A: It would be the corner after the Corkscrew there’s not enough run-off. It’s turn nine. Actually they call it Rainey Corner! I’ve told them in the past this needs to be fixed, and I’ve already fixed it as far as what needs to be done so we would have to change the corner and we would slow it down some. We could take all the challenge out of it just to make it safe, but that corner does need to be addressed, but that would be the only one.
Q: Eddie Lawson, how is he enjoying himself and what’s he doing?
A: He’s as grumpy now as he has always been.
Q: I thought back in America he would be happy.
A: No. Eddie and I, we get on better now than we ever have, probably because I can’t race against him head-to-head. We keep my dad (Sandy) busy, he works on our karts, and we’ve got a race coming up here after this weekend and it’s a fairly big-sized race for us. I think there’s 50 or 60 karters from six or seven different countries – and Eddie has won the race over the past two years. I finished fifth both times. Eddie is very competitive still, he wants to just kill everybody, and he works very hard at it. I think the only thing that Eddie does different now that he didn’t do when he raced bikes is that he works on the karts now. He even works on my kart! I have got to keep him happy.
Q: You mentioned your dad. How is Sandy?
A: My dad, he is getting a bit up there in age. We just got him out of the hospital about a month and a half ago. He had some problems with some blood clots in his legs and stuff, so we had to get that fixed up for him. Eddie and I, we keep him busy. We’ve got a shop (workshop) for him down in LA and he is part of the team without my dad, for sure, Eddie and I wouldn’t be doing this.
Q: The karts we are talking about presumably are superkarts, or what we in Australia know as superkarts? Something that’s a lot quicker than the average go kart.
A: Yes, it’s not a go kart. We call it a superkart and there’s a lot of titanium, all the bodywork is carbon fibre, and they’ve got adjustable wings and we’ve got metallic brakes and they’re TZ250 motors in there. Eddie is about a second and a half quicker than what a bike has ever been around Laguna Seca in. With a kart you can brake much deeper, you can go around the corners in a gear higher, and they don’t go down the straightaway as fast, that’s about it. For my situation, I do everything obviously with just my hands, so I’m quite busy, so when I run into these guys I just tell them I just ran out of feet. Slow down.
Q: Have you had much success with it, Wayne, because we don’t obviously hear much down here about what happens in the karting world over there?
A: I’m about three seconds slower than what Eddie goes but I do about the same lap times that the world superbike guys do in the race, so it’s not too bad. I’m not going to win against the quick guys in a kart, I’m not going to compete, I’m not going to beat those guys, obviously. As I say, I don’t really do it to go out there and try and win, I just do it because I enjoy that I can challenge myself and the situation that I’m in.
Q: Will we ever see you back here in Australia, Wayne?
A: You never know. Yamaha has tried to get me to go to a few races the last couple of years and either something has come up and I’ve just not really had the motivation to go, do the travelling bit. I don’t miss that part at all. I do miss the GP scene because I have a lot of friends that are still competing and that still work in that arena and I haven’t seen them in a long time, so it is (would be) nice to go back there and see everybody and say hello. I might go to Motegi (Pacific MotoGP in Japan) this year to go and see my friends in Japan, so some day I will probably come back.
Closer: You are always welcome down here. Good to talk to you Wayne, it’s been a pleasure.