Mat Oxley

The Rainey legacy

Twenty-five years ago Wayne Rainey was preparing to defend his first 500cc World Championship. Rainey was your archetypal 20th century Californian sporting hero: beachside good looks and always prepared to go the extra mile to see the Stars and Stripes raised in triumph.

He grew up in the crucible of American racing talent – the dirt track ovals of the west coast – and became the protégé of racing icon ‘King’ Kenny Roberts. At first, Roberts coached him from several thousand miles away, because the three-time world champion was still racing in Europe as Rainey graduated from dirt bikes to superbikes in the US.

“I’d work with Wayne over the phone when he was having trouble at races,” Roberts says. “I called him from Europe when he was struggling at Daytona in ’82. He was rushing everything – getting into the corners too hot so he couldn’t exit – which is typical of a dirt tracker going road racing.”

It didn’t take long for Rainey to get the hang of the asphalt. He won the US Superbike championship for Kawasaki in 1983 and hit Europe the following year, contesting the 250cc class for Roberts’ first Grand Prix team. This was a bruising baptism on uncompetitive machinery, so Rainey returned home to win the 1987 Superbike crown for Honda, commencing a rivalry with Texan Kevin Schwantz that would define their careers.

In 1988 he was back in Europe, again riding for Team Roberts, this time in the premier class. Although the 500cc two-strokes of the day were truly malevolent, Rainey scored his first win halfway through his rookie season. The next year he challenged for the title and in 1990 he dominated.

Rainey had everything going for him: fierce intelligence, impressive physical strength, unerring consistency, huge ambition and raging determination. He also had ‘King’ Kenny on his side, guiding him along that narrow path to the very summit of motorcycle racing.

The always go-ahead Team Roberts gave him everything he needed, pioneering various car technologies in bike racing, from data-logging to carbon brakes. Roberts was also there for moral support. “When Wayne was down I was someone to talk to and lift him back up. And when he was too high I was somebody to say, ‘Hey asshole, just back her down a bit!’ ”

Aboard a 500 Rainey was rarely anything less than awe-inspiring to behold. His technique had an explosive intensity and a highly focused aggression. While Schwantz was rodeo wild and fellow Californian Eddie Lawson silky smooth, Rainey was somewhere in between. His physical technique defined each phase of the corner with a sudden shift in body position, the bike shaking and shimmering as he bent it to his will.

“What I wanted was to open the throttle to get the weight off the front,” he says. “If the throttle is on the rider is in control; if the throttle is off the bike is in control. So I always wanted to get through that danger zone – where the throttle is off during the flick into the turn – really quick.”

Rainey made it a hat-trick of 500 world titles in 1992, matching his mentor. Looking back he wonders if those three successes made him incapable of accepting defeat. “I think in our era, us Americans had a lot of pride. Even if you got beat you would never admit the other guy was faster.”

In 1993 Rainey duelled for the title with Schwantz. With three races to go they were neck and neck. At Misano Rainey was just a few yards ahead of Schwantz when he fell. What should have been an innocuous accident left the reigning champion stranded in the gravel trap with a broken back.

Inevitably, it was an end that Rainey had contemplated and feared. “I thought about it when I raced and it’s your worst nightmare. I saw guys in ’chairs at the circuits and I saw Gary Cowan [Team Roberts 250 rider, paralysed at Daytona in 1990] in a ’chair. I was always thinking I don’t want to be that guy, I don’t want to be in a wheelchair.

“Of course, the day of the accident wasn’t only the last time I’d ever ride a bike, it was also the last time I’d be independent. That was all taken away that day.”

The last time I visited Rainey at home, just down the road from Laguna Seca, he was awaiting a workman to fix a roof leak. “There’s nothing that makes me madder than having to depend on somebody else to do such a simple task. But that’s where I’ve had to grow and learn to be patient.”

Just six months after his accident Rainey was back in the paddock, running his own team. He bravely stuck at that job until deteriorating health forced him home again at the end of 1997. Last year he returned to the sport for the first time in almost two decades, taking a lead role in the revamped US Superbike championship, MotoAmerica.

“Nowadays I’m like any other man,” he says. “I have my struggles, trying to go through life as we do. There’s still struggles because of my disability, that’s still very prevalent. And I think about how easy it used to be, but I’ve realised that this is the way it is. You move on, you take what you get and you go. I don’t know, it could get worse. We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring, so I just live for today and thank God for what I have.”

Rainey won 24 Grands Prix and three world titles, but everyone knows it should have been so much more.