Athletes often have a hard time leaving the playing field behind when they decide to walk away. It doesn't matter whether it's a football gridiron, the boxing ring or a racetrack. So much of their life has revolved around the demands of the sport that the void formed by its absence can be difficult to fill. And often it simply cannot be done.
It would be easy to surmise that former racers simply miss the speed, or the so-called adrenaline rush that supposedly comes from the risk involved. Ironically, what a number of champions miss most has little to do with actually racing and everything to do with racing.
"If I had to say two things I miss the most, I'd have to say probably number one, the dead silence before the push-start," reveals former multitime AMA F-1 champion Mike Baldwin, referring to his time in the 500cc Grand Prix World Championship during the mid-'80s. "In those days we did push-starts at the GPs. Your heart's pounding out of your chest. You just don't know whether the damn thing's going to start. They'd drop the flag and everybody's pushing, dead silence, and then all of a sudden you'd inevitably hear one engine in the back of the grid catching. You're not even in your third step and you're thinking, 'What the f**k?' When I had the Honda [RS500 three-cylinder two-stroke, a production replica of Freddie Spencer's '83 NS500 title-winning machine] I always knew I was going to get a great start. But when I started riding those bikes for Kenny [Roberts], the f**king Yamaha [YZR500 V-four two-stroke], it would not catch right off the bat. You just knew you were going to be 15th or so off the grid."
Mike Baldwin was a versatile...
Mike Baldwin was a versatile racer equally at home on two-strokes or four-strokes, winning four AMA F-1 titles in a row during the mid-'80s. He rode in the 500cc World Championship for Kenny Roberts' Lucky Strike Yamaha team in 1986-87.
Baldwin was one of the most versatile roadracers of all time, equally at ease on two-strokes and four-strokes. His career hit its peak just before the era of F-1 two-strokes gave way to Superbikes in AMA racing. Before it did Baldwin won four F-1 titles in a row: 1982-85. During the '85 season Baldwin more or less commuted between Europe and the U.S., concentrating on retaining his U.S. title while racing most of the 500cc World Championship season. Kenny Roberts took notice and signed the Connecticut resident to pair with Randy Mamola on the '86 Lucky Strike Yamaha team. Halfway through the '87 season Baldwin unfortunately crashed into a guardrail in the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, effectively ending his frontline Grand Prix career.
Baldwin wasn't the only rider who savored the silence. Three-time World Champion Freddie Spencer also misses the anticipation of push-starting, even though his was a rocky beginning.
Prior to 1987, World Championship...
Prior to 1987, World Championship Grand Prix starts were "dead-engine" affairs. When the green flag dropped, the riders had to push-start their machines off the line, resulting in many start-grid accidents due to those in the back of the pack firing up their machines and taking off through the group whose bikes hadn't started up yet.
"My first experience push-starting was not pleasant," Spencer remembers. It occurred in his debut Grand Prix in Zolder, Belgium, in 1980. Riding a Yamaha under the tutelage of Erv Kanemoto, Spencer shared the second row with Kenny Roberts, who'd won the previous two 500cc World Championships. Nearby was Venezuelan Johnny Ceccotto, the former 350cc World Champion and Daytona 200 winner. "I pushed and then all of a sudden all these bikes are firing and I'm not sure that mine's even started or not. All I felt was Ceccotto hit me, and my knee came up and it broke the petcock. And I made like two laps and the thing was moving around. I looked down and gas was just pouring out. I was really lucky [I didn't crash]."
Baldwin wasn't as lucky during one Grand Prix push-start. At the '85 Austrian GP he was a few rows in front of lanky Belgian Didier de Radigus on the start line of the vaunted Salzburgring, an unforgivingly fast track that hugs the walls of a valley outside Mozart's birthplace. "[de Radigus] would always get a start before anybody else because he would take two paddles on it and the motor would be running, because it was a three-cylinder Honda. He came by me and caught my elbow, tweaked me sideways. I went end over end at the start into the guardrail and crashed. And I jumped back up and got started and took off dead last. And I think I worked my way up to 10th or 11th, something like that." Needless to say the FIM soon changed the Grand Prix start format to live-engine standing starts.
What Baldwin's one-time rival Rich Schlachter, himself a two-time AMA F-1 champion, misses is "Just the speed and being in that frame of mind, that 'zone,' as they say. I really miss that. The competition, of course, and just going really fast on a motorcycle and knowing you're in control of it 99 percent of the time. Even though I do a lot of street riding, an awful lot of street riding"-he has a Neil Hodgson replica Ducati 999 and a few other streetbikes-"it's just not the same. Although I just love to be on a motorcycle going through country roads or whatever, it's completely different when you're racing. I do miss that.
"Winning a Grand Prix, there's...
"Winning a Grand Prix, there's nothing like it." A young Freddie Spencer on his way to one of his many victories in 1983.
"But I know that I can never be at that point again. When I think back at it or think about the times, I'm not bummed out about it, or I don't feel bad. You get to a level and then those guys [Rainey, Spencer, Doohan, et al] know more so than I do because they were at it for a longer period of time and probably closer to the pinnacle than I was. That feeling and what you miss about that adrenaline, that whole mental-physical everything, being part of the motorcycle."