Road racing legend, Wayne Rainey wheelies out of the corner aboard his championship winning Yamaha YZR500 500cc Grand Prix motorcycle.
When thinking of legendary motorcycle racers, America’s Wayne Rainey ranks at the top of list. During his career as a professional motorcycle racer, Rainey traveled the globe competing in a number of different racing series including AMA Flat Track and Superbike, 250cc Grand Prix, as well as the world’s premier racing class at the time—500cc Grand Prix.
Rainey joined the 500 class in 1988 competing aboard a Yamaha YZR500 with the Team Roberts Yamaha squad and recorded a race win in his rookie season. During that era, he competed against other legends including fellow American’s Eddie Lawson and Kevin Schwantz, as well as Australia’s Mick Doohan and Wayne Gardner at a time when the 500cc Grand Prix bikes were at their fastest and most difficult to master. Humongous crashes and broken bones were the norm and the only form of traction control was the rider’s right wrist.
For the next few years these riders battled fiercely on the track with each of them exchanging wins throughout the early ‘90s. However it was Rainey who proved to be the master winning consecutive titles in 1990, ’91, and ’92 despite suffering some serious injuries along the way.
The following year the Californian nearly achieved his fourth title until he suffered a career-ending crash while leading the Italian GP toward the end of the 1993 season. The crash resulted in paralysis from the chest down. All said and done, Rainey accrued 24 wins in 83 race starts and would be the last rider to give Yamaha a World Championship title until Valentino Rossi did so in 2004 with Yamaha’s new breed of 4-stroke MotoGP machinery.
Rainey enjoys driving his TZ250-powered kart aboard the racetrack that gave him so much success throughout his career.
After recovering Rainey returned to the Grand Prix paddock as a team owner and remained part of the sport before retiring in 1994. Even after retirement Rainey isn’t far from the racing scene as his residence sits just above Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, a racetrack in which gave him much success. Recently, we spoke with him while doing research for our MotoGP: The Zenith of Motorcycle Racing feature that appears online and in the pages of MotoUSA Magazine.
WHAT’S NEW IN HIS WORLD:
I’ve been doing a little bit of kart racing. We do these TZ250 shifter karts and have a blast driving those things. They’re not real fast in a straight-line but they go around corners much, much faster than a Grand Prix bike. You’ve got a lot more rubber on the ground… and an extra two wheels [laughs]. I built a house [overlooks Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca]; I do some investment stuff with some properties and some rentals. I like to boat. My son is 17-years-old so we’re starting to look for colleges for him. I don’t really have a full-time job but it seems the days are way too short.
WHY GRAND PRIX ROAD RACING IS CONSIDERED SO HIGHLY:
The manufactures want to be in that class because that’s where the best of the best are. From the riders, to the sponsors, to the circuits, tire companies, television and print media – everybody is there. As a kid growing up racing dirt track—I wasn’t so much clued in on road racing. But when I opened up a magazine, I didn’t see dirt track—I saw road racing. But that always seemed so far away to me when I was young. Something I never thought I would ever be doing… let alone participating in. It was just never a part of my psyche growing up. My thing was riding dirt track bikes. So I think that’s why everyone wants to go Grand Prix racing. Because when you race in that class you’re racing at the very highest level you can go to. It’s basically Formula 1 of motorcycles.
HOW A RACER GETS INTO THIS ELITE FRATERNITY:
First of all, you have to have God given talent to begin with. And what you do with that determines if you go all the way. You have to have some sort of breaks along the way and you have to be injury free to get there.
WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO RACE 500cc GRAND PRIX IN THE LATE ‘80s AND EARLY ‘90s:
Rainey sits aboard his championship winning YZR500 during this summer’s Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
The season back then I think it was 15 races long. And you couldn’t win every race. Sometimes you had to get second or third and sometimes a fourth but that was the nature of the warriors I raced against. There were only two or three, sometimes four guys that would be in the championship hunt and that could ride at the same pace I was trying to ride the bike at. These guys were capable of beating me, not only for the race win, but also racing me for the world championship. It was a fascinating time for sure.
There I was racing against Americans. Those were the competitors I was racing week-in and week-out for the championship. I had [Eddie] Lawson, [Kevin] Schwantz, [John] Kocinski and a bunch of other Americans in there including [Freddie] Spencer toward the end of his career. In Australia we had Mick Doohan and Wayne Gardner.
We didn’t have to have our sunglasses on. We didn’t have to have our hats put on sideways, or wear baggy pants we were just raw bred racers. That’s what we wanted to do. We were only concerned about beating each other—not what we looked like.
My whole life was about racing. The easiest part of my job was the actual race. It was everything else—preparing for that race where all the work was. From time in the gym, time spent cross-training on bicycles, and swimming, and riding dirt bikes, doing the travel and press commitments, and all the testing we did throughout the world—it was all about how good I could be when the race started. And I think that my fellow competitors—that was their goal too. They were trying to figure out how to become the best they could for that moment when we lined up on the grid.
We were like warriors out there. We didn’t like to get beat and if somebody was a tenth of a second quicker than the other guys didn’t sleep very well. That’s just the way it was. We all wanted something that only one guy in the end could have—and that was the world championship. If you were second or third—it didn’t matter, it didn’t count. It wasn’t in the vocabulary. It was all about winning.
ABOUT THE MACHINERY HE USE TO CAMPAIGN ON (YAMAHA YZR500):
When I raced bikes we had 500cc V-Four 2-strokes and nothing whatsoever from the computer to help us. The computers we had onboard back then were very crude compared to what they have now. Basically all they did was measure suspension travel and things of that nature.
Power wise, the bikes we rode then had 190 horsepower but the powerband was from 9000 to 12,000 rpm. So you had about 3000 rpm that you were riding that beast in. So when you come to a turn and started to accelerate you’d have a sudden rush of 130 horsepower on a tire contact patch the size of your fist. The only thing keeping you from wheeling over backwards or high-siding is your right wrist—there was nothing else controlling that. It was just the seat of your pants, your brain, and your right wrist and how you dealt with that. It’s not the same anymore.
That’s why those bikes were so incredibly exciting to watch. You always saw the guy who got it wrong—it was pretty instant. You saw the consequences of that mistake. That guy was either cart wheeling off the racetrack, or was in some big tank slapper, or was trying to hold on with his finger tips.
They were bad-ass bikes back then and that’s what made those things so exciting and sometimes scary to ride—they could be very scary at times. But that was the excitement of it. That’s what I always looked forward to. Every Grand Prix that I won, I knew that there was nobody in the world that could have ridden that bike better than me at that particular time.
HOW GRAND PRIX RACING HAS CHANGED OVER THE LAST TWO DECADES:
If you look at what the races were like back then compared to what you see now it’s a big difference in terms of spectacle. I think back then if you were on the side of the track watching those machines you’d go ‘no thank you’. Even a good AMA guy would look at those and say ‘nah, I don’t think I want anything to do with that thing. I think I’m okay over here.’ I was one of those guys saying that. I remember growing up watching Eddie and Spencer and those guys ride those bikes and I was like ‘wow that doesn’t look like any fun.’ But later on I was fortunate enough to be one of them.
HOW MOTOGP RACING HAS LOST SOME OF THE CRAZY, OLD SCHOOL TIRE SLIDING SPECTACLE:
Well it’s good and bad. The good part is even the mediocre guys, the mid-pack guys like Colin Edwards and to some extent Nicky Hayden, though Nicky is starting to go a little better now. But those guys are pretty close to Valentino Rossi in terms of lap time. There are some European riders that are pretty close to his lap time too. And that’s a good thing because the bikes are more forgiving to ride now. The tire grip is so tremendously high now and the rider aids that are available let you ride the bike to a certain lap time and you can be real close.
But then you have Rossi, Stoner and Lorenzo that can go another 10% and when you do that lap after lap at the end of the race you’re going to have a pretty good gap. But you can ride that bike within 10% of those guys, or, sometimes even closer in qualifying because the bike is more forgiving for the rider that isn’t at the top of the class.
As a rider looking at it from my perspective I see a big challenge though. I’m into the technical side of it. I would have loved to have ridden bikes like these and to have some of the tools that are available to riders now to help me get the lap time I would need to achieve to win the race. I think it’s pretty cool stuff. But for the spectator it looks like they are on rails. Do you see a guy make a mistake? You never see it… unless he totally screws it up big.
HIS THOUGHTS ON THE CONSTANLY CHANGING TECHNICAL RULES:
Dorna does a really good job with promoting the series. They’ve taken MotoGP and globalized it. But the FIM which is the sanctioning body that makes the rules along with the teams needs some work. Before they were concerned about the speeds of the bikes getting too high; 215 mph or something like that. The bikes we rode back then the top speeds were at 200 mph. But the real danger point was that 2-stroke burst of power and the wicked high-sides that was hurting riders.
We don’t see that now because of the 4-strokes. But then reducing the engine size to 800cc—I don’t necessarily agree with that. But I think the next rule they need to make is a standard ECU. To where everybody has the same electronics box so nobody gets an advantage with traction and wheelie control. Put the lap time more in the riders hands instead of the engineers hands.
Also with all these tools now the cost has been driven up tremendously. So when you limit to six engines a year or 10 engines a year I’m all for that if it helps lower the cost of racing. Soon the costs will be so expensive teams won’t be able to afford to run these bikes. So they’ve got to really watch how much technology they let enter the sport because technology costs money.
HAS THE COST TO COMPETE IN GRAND PRIX RISEN?
Much, much, much more now. You know 2-strokes are a cruder engine. It’s much less sophisticated than a 4-stroke. With a 2-stroke you had a piston, cylinder, head, pipe and carburetor. Now you’ve got pneumatic valves and have much more exotic materials. There are many more moving parts in these new engines.
I think in my case, we won three championships in a row. When you win these championships the factory head would say ‘well we’re winning. Do we really need to add to our budget?’ But you have other manufactures saying ‘we need to win. So we need to spend more cash in Grand Prix so we can be winning.’
Past and present Yamaha champions Valentino Rossi and Wayne Rainey hang out during the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
So what happened, after my injury, Yamaha didn’t win a world championship for 12 years. Then finally they said enough is enough. We need to spend some money. So they went out and got the best rider and made sure he had the best bike. But they spent a lot of money. Much, much, much more money than when I raced.
THOUGHTS ON THE HEAVY USE OF ELECTRONICS IN MOTOGP TODAY:
Again the information age has made the current breed of MotoGP bikes, other than being 4-stroke, so much different. There is just so much computer power with GPS. It’s how they [engineers] watch the bikes on the racetrack. The actual onboard computer knows where it is on the racetrack.
So pick a track like Laguna Seca. You have three second gear corners. You can program into the computer how you want the power to be fed into the throttle. The rider can come out of the corner and hold it wide open. But the computer will only let so much power be used in second gear. Say the second corner that you’d use second gear in might need more rpm. Well the computer can automatically adjust for that.
They also have wheelie control so when you see the rider nail it out of the last turn at Laguna and you watch him go through the gears you never see the front wheel off the ground more than 10 inches. That’s because the ignition retards itself. And because of GPS the attitude of the bike is always kept the same so it never wheelies too much. And if it does wheelie too much, it’s usually a software glitch. It’s never the rider rolling out of the throttle to keep the front wheel down.
SHOULD FIM ELIMINATE TRACTION CONTROL A’LA FORMULA 1:
That’s what an ECU would do. They could control how much traction, wheelie, and launch control everyone has and no teams can mess with that. I’m all for that. I don’t think we need all that stuff anyway because just going from 2-stroke to 4-stroke made the bikes much more predictable to ride. The powerband are so much bigger from when I rode. Our powerband was 3000 rpm. Powerbands now go from 6000 rpm to 18. There’s way more torque to play with now.