It was not the first time Randy Renfrow been cut out of his leathers, but there was no choice. Nine broken ribs, a broken right knee, broken right ankle, and shattered right foot. Somewhere between 23 and 28 bones were fractured in his foot, depending on how you counted the tiny pieces that were left. Plus internal bleeding and nerve damage. The pain was severe. To counter it, he bit on a dampened washcloth.
"How're you doing?" he was asked, as if the answer wasn't obvious. "Not too bad," he answered, "I'll be OK."
Randy Renfrow never fully recovered from those injuries he suffered back in March 2002, when he was rammed off his John Lassak-tuned Honda RS250 on the warm-up lap of a Championship Cup Series race at Daytona. Renfrow was competing in the CCS races in order to be ready when the real racing began in the AMA National races the following week. He'd been off all winter and wanted to get the edge back.
Instead, a simple household accident would be his undoing. Five months later, while still on crutches, 46-year-old Renfrow fell down the stairs in his parents' house, and suffered severe head injuries from which he would never recover. Mick and Edith Renfrow ended up making the most difficult decision parents could ever face in agreeing to remove their child from life-sustaining equipment. He passed quietly on Sunday morning, August 11, the day of the final race of the AMA calendar at VIR, a track only a few hours from his Fredericksburg home. Before the accident, Renfrow had planned on coming to the track to watch the race, although how patient he'd have been as a spectator was questionable.
On August 13, Randy Renfrow was laid to rest in a set of racing leathers and wearing the yellow Dunlop cap of champions. Never was it more appropriate. Randy Renfrow was a champion-three times in fact-but he was also one of the toughest, most resilient, and most determined riders ever.
"The most brutally honest man I've ever worked with," was how Martin Adams, one of his former team owners, described him. In the late '80s, Adams decided to lead Honda back into American roadracing, a discipline they'd largely abandoned. Adams freely admits it was a fool's errand, made mostly out of chutzpah, ego and navet. The vehicle was a home brew, a Honda RS750 V-twin dirttrack engine in a frame custom built to Honda RS500 specs in England, with various parts from other Honda models grafted on, and even others built from scratch by Ray Plumb, now the crew chief for American Honda.
Though they were facing the Fast by Ferracci Ducati 851, which was coming into its prime in America, it was, both Plumb and Adams agree, the time of their lives
"I would say that the best race and the best championship was on the twin," Plumb says. "Professional to the T," he adds, when describing Renfrow. "Not a whiner. You didn't have to babysit him. He was just a regular guy."
The 1989 Pro Twins championship fight between Renfrow and Dale Quarterley, on the Ferracci Ducati, came down to the final race in Topeka, Kansas. Plumb remembers he "had to work on that bike all the time. It was a constant. I'd bored it, sleeved it. Had a [five speed] gearbox (Ed. note: The original dirttrack engine was a four-speed), clutch, intake. Everything was kind of custom, not one of these modern-day Superbikes. To put all that work into it and win that last race and the championship was probably the highlight of what I did anyway. Randy was the guy that made it happen."
Adams said that Renfrow's honesty tended to reinforce the desire of the crew to find a mechanical solution. But if that wasn't enough, Renfrow would do the rest. "I honestly believe there are too many people who look for a mechanical solution, but there's only so much of an edge you can put on a razor blade," Adams says. "The really great ones know how to get a little more out of the mechanical package than is in there, and see the checkered flag first while doing so."
The twin was not without its problems. Despite grafting on works forks from a VFR750, and bracing the front end, there was a persistent front end chatter. "I was frustrated," Plumb remembers, "and he (Renfrow) just said, 'Ray, it's just kind of got its own style. The bottom line is you're going to do the best you can with it and the rest is up to me.' He made you feel like the rest is on his shoulders and you don't have to go off the deep end. He'd go out and win on the thing. He was always able to push it just a little bit more to make it do more than it would do. He would always save a little in reserve for the race."
Without being prompted, both Adams and Plumb separately recounted a story from the same race, Road America in 1989, to make their point. They were well behind Quarterley in qualifying, so Renfrow hid in the team's box van with a yellow legal pad. When he emerged, he'd drawn out every single problem on the track, and how to do it better. Adams saw the yellow legal pad sitting on the driver's seat and curiosity got the best of him. "There were about 12 or 13 things on that page," one in four was about mechanical solutions, the others "were all intensely personal notes, many of which I didn't understand and [made me feel] really invasive after I'd looked at it. I had no intention of reading anyone's diary. I didn't want to think any more about it. Intensely personal observations that he obviously used as a motivational tool to reach down in himself to find a sixth gear [when the bike actually] had [only] five gears."
Adams chose Renfrow for the team because he fit, literally. Adams conceived the Commonwealth Honda RS850 as a 4/5-sized motorcycle in order to capitalize on one of the laws of physics which states that decreasing mass increases speed. They wanted a 4/5-sized rider, which didn't allow for many choices. "Randy Renfrow was at the absolute head of the queue, that being the time. What I left unsaid there is that rider not only had to be 4/5 in size, but had to have 6/5 the heart, and 6/5 the desire. [Renfrow] may have been small in stature, but he was large in desire and competitive ability."
Adams was a student of the sport and had watched as Renfrow beat Honda's Wayne Rainey for the final Formula One Championship in 1986 by being scrupulously organized and unwaveringly focused, all while racing on a shoestring budget. More than once the team ran out of money. Somehow, they persevered. He'd also seen Renfrow win the 1983 250 Grand Prix title. Renfrow had to be talked into the twins ride because he wanted a Superbike seat. The twins title led to a ride on the Commonwealth Honda RC30 in 1990. In his first full year on the Superbike, he finished second to Kawasaki's Doug Chandler, winning the final Superbike race at Willow Springs. It would be the final win of his AMA career, though for all the wrong reasons.
Testing the RC30 the following winter at Willow Springs, Renfrow hit a dip in turn eight and fell off, his right hand severely mangled when it was caught up in the machine while sliding along at 140mph. Renfrow's thumb was so severely damaged that a decision was made a few days later to cut off the big toe on his right foot and graft it onto his hand. The surgeon told him it may not work; Renfrow could end up without a thumb and without a toe. As it turned out, there was enough of a nub left of the thumb that it did work. To most other people, it might not seem important-but Renfrow obviously thought it was necessary.
"God almighty, can you imagine cutting your toe off to have it grafted onto your hand?" Adams asks. "Toughness isn't a corollary of size, it's a corollary of heart, and this guy is so tough and so full of grit that I've just never known anybody like that. Whenever I think I've got a hard time and I'm suffering, the memory of Randy Renfrow rears itself in my conscious so I can dissuade that thought."
Eleven surgeries later, one of which lasted close to 12 hours, Renfrow made his return to racing in 1992 at Daytona on a self-sponsored 600. Against a crowded factory field, he finished third. Dunlop's road racing boss Jim Allen, one of Renfrow's oldest friends, said, "I remember seeing him in the winner's circle. I was just crying. He'd gotten on the box."
Renfrow was determined to keep racing and did, though never with his earlier success. In a career that spanned nearly 20 years, he was always near the top. In 2001, he entered four MBNA 250 GP races, finishing on the podium at Daytona and VIR, while adding a fourth and a sixth. He was the only rider to race against Kenny Roberts and both of his sons, Kenny Jr., and Kurtis. In 1998, he saw that Kurtis was being a little wild on the track, and asked that a message be relayed to his father to slow him down. Roberts the elder, who'd noticed the same tendency in his youngest son, was grateful for the message.
"Randy, he's one of those caring guys," Plumb says. "He's not your typical racer. When I was doing the twin, we were kind of low on manpower. He had a good relationship with Dunlop. He'd always take the tires over to Dunlop, and that helped me out. One of those professional guys that always had something good to say, and never picked on you, never made you feel like you were a slug, always made you feel good about what you were doing."
"I wish I had the pulse of him a little bit better," Adams says. "Randy was one of those guys that kept a lot inside, too. Having worked with him for three years, there was an awful lot that I wish I knew, that I didn't know. I guess you can say that about anybody once they're gone."
In the end, Adams says, "A little piece of immortality goes with professional sports if you excel. For the survivors, that's nice. There's always someone who's going to look at the record book; somebody to look at for a retrospective, somebody to read about in the program. They'll show that in a former generation this or that happened, and, voil, there's our star. Your accomplishments will outlive you. To me, that's a comfort for knowing Randy: that his accomplishments will stay in the history books when I'm gone."