Mat Oxley

Walk on the Highside

This iconic photograph (see page) symbolises The 500 Two-stroke at the apex of its wickedness. The victim – being cruelly ejected from his Honda NSR500 – is Wayne Gardner, Australia’s first 500 World Champion, who got through his career on a mix of champagne and novocaine. Gardner’s injury woes personified a thrilling era of racing that was wracked with suffering.

The year is 1990 when the phenomenon of the highside crash had the sport in a panic. So many riders were getting hurt that something had to be done. Highsides were happening because power curves and slick tyres had developed to a point where they offered riders only the narrowest of comfort zones.

The 500cc two-strokes of the era were kicking out a wild 170bhp at the top of a precipitous power curve. The tyre companies hurried to keep up, creating tyres with more grip, but crucially the latest rubber lacked feel: by the time the rider felt the rear tyre smearing sideways as he accelerated out of a corner it was too late to smoothly control the slide. Instead the tyre would suddenly regain grip and all that energy would create a disastrous whiplash effect, catapulting the rider over the handlebars to certain pain.

There is no worse way to crash a GP ’bike than a highside. Want to know how it feels? Try jumping off the roof of a car at 90mph. Gardner knew more about highsides than most, certainly more than he wanted to know. The 1987 500 World Champion had a bull-in-a-china-shop riding style and rode with his heart as much as with his head. “Emotion was absolutely a big thing for me,” he says. “It sometimes pushed me past what’s humanly possible and sometimes it got me into trouble.”

He limped away from this crash – during qualifying for the Czech GP at Brno – with a broken right wrist. Amazingly, that wasn’t enough to deter him from starting the race. Aided by painkilling drugs, he rode to second place behind Wayne Rainey.

The painkilling technology of the day was particularly nasty. Mesotherapy used dozens of pin-prick injections in the injury area, designed to numb the pain without affecting mental agility.

Three weeks later Gardner went through the same rigmarole to race at his home Grand Prix at Phillip Island. “Prior to the race I strapped up the wrist and Dr Costa [’bike racing’s controversial Mr Fixit] put 25 injections in my wrist.”

What followed was one of the most remarkable victories in Grand Prix history. Gardner fought a vicious duel with bitter rival Mick Doohan, despite damaging his fairing in the early stages.

“I dropped about five seconds behind,” recalls Gardner. “Then I went: you know what, I can’t let this happen. I just told myself, if it hurts, deal with the pain after the race.”

Gardner came back at Doohan – who later accused him of running him off the track – to win by eight-tenths of a second.

“To this day I still don’t know how I won that race with a broken wrist and broken fairing.” after Phillip Island Gardner went under the knife in Sydney, where surgeons took a bone graft from his hip to fix the scaphoid bone in the wrist.

Two years later Honda unleashed its ‘big-bang’ NSR500, with a revised firing coniguration that gave riders a much better feeling for the rear tyre. Rival manufacturers soon followed suit. Gardner thought he could win his second world title with Honda’s latest weapon, but it wasn’t to be. He slid off early on during the rainsoaked opener at Suzuka, then remounted and staged a typically gritty charge through the pack. He was pushing hard for a podium finish when he fell again, this time badly breaking his right leg.

“Lying in the clinic at Suzuka I kept thinking I don’t want to do this anymore,” he says. Gardner duly retired from ’bikes at the end of the year and switched to four wheels, racing in the Australian V8 Supercar Series and the all-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship.