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 fk?' 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 fking 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."
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.
"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.
"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."
When three-time 500cc World Champion Wayne Rainey's brilliant career ended in 1993 he jumped into team management, forming a Yamaha satellite team the following year-too soon, he would later admit. He managed the team through 1998 and later raced go-karts. But it was no substitute for being at the pinnacle of motorcycle racing. And it wasn't the physical sensation of racing, the speed or the absolute exhaustion from exertion.
"I guess I miss the preparation of the mind, getting mentally focused for the race on Sunday," he says. "I really miss that." Spencer concurs: "I liked the preparation." And Mick Doohan, who along with Kevin Schwantz and Rainey defined one of the greatest generations of racing, agrees. "I think that's what it was all about. Riding a bike was just what you did. It was a lot of fun. But when you look back, you took a lot of things for granted when you were doing that. Some of the things were a pain in the ass like anything in any life. But you look back on it and it was all good and you wouldn't have done anything different."
"I liked going on the starting line and ready to race the guys that I needed to beat and looking forward to being able to exert myself in a way that gave me everything," Rainey recalls. "I loved the competition of pushing myself and trying to go out there and be the fast guy no matter what situation we were in. It was the feeling you could get by riding the bike at a certain limit that you could not find in life anywhere else. That was such a satisfying feeling. And once you did that and you had success and you could win-and you could do it week in and week out-that was something that, obviously, it's something that's very difficult for me to explain, because I haven't had to think about it for such a long time.
"Once in a while I'll just be driving down the road and I'll have a feeling or a memory of a race, and I can go right to that moment and I'll really miss it at that point," Rainey continues. "But it's something that doesn't happen much to me anymore as it once did. I think every year it's probably a bit less. There was a feeling I could get on the bike that I could get nowhere else that was more of a personal thing with the performance you could get out of yourself. And you always didn't know what the outcome was going to be. You didn't know what was going to happen. And making it happen as it was going on. It was a great thing."
As consumed as Rainey was by racing, his public demeanor didn't greatly suffer. He might have seemed distant, but it was only because he was thinking of the next session, the next race, the next test. Not so for Doohan. The Australian, who was cautiously quiet when he arrived in Grand Prix racing, became increasingly prickly as his career progressed. In the time since he was forced to retire following a horrific crash at Jerez in 1999 the five-time 500cc World Champion has mellowed. Journalists who once feared his wrath now find him approachable and, as always, knowledgeable.
"When you're doing it, it's all-consuming; you don't think about anything else," Doo-han says. "You don't think there's anything outside of it. But the more you're away from it, it's a bit like life in general, isn't it?
"I obviously miss some of the competition. Some of the preparation, some of the things that you used to think were a pain in the ass-they weren't too bad, as far as the testing and the preparation and all that type of thing. The drive to actually want to better yourself is something that I kind of miss, and it's hard to replicate that in anything yet that I'm doing, anyway," Doohan explains. "All the ways you're striving to fulfill your day, it's not the same sort of challenge, but it's never going to be. That was the pinnacle of motorcycle racing, so unless I'm doing something on that sort of level in some other field I doubt I'll ever find that again."
When Baldwin retired he took a job with Spectro Oils in his home state of Connecticut. "You know, the good thing about working at Spectro for 16 years is I've still been involved in the industry," Baldwin says. "I'm not completely out of it. Probably not out of it enough to really, really, truly miss racing. I go dirtbike riding with my friends once a week and riding in the woods and smash around. I've got an Arctic Cat snowmobile that I ride that has about 160 horsepower, that has just as much power as the 500 had. I go snowmobiling in the winter with my buddies all the time-still do. Those things are like riding a GP bike on the snow."
"Now, winning a Grand Prix, standing on the podium, there's nothing like it because you're on the elite level, top of the pyramid," Spencer remembers, "and all of those things were challenges. Being the youngest world champion and beating somebody [Roberts] that was unbeatable was rewarding, and doing the two championships." These are all feelings he can never replicate. Spencer continues to be a regular at racetracks. Much of his time is spent sharing his knowledge with students at Freddie Spencer's High Performance Riding School. And he's also a consultant to American Honda's Superbike team.
Doohan changed direction when he retired, starting a number of successful businesses after moving back to Australia from Monaco, where he lived during his career. Now married and with two children, he spends much of his time running Global Jet International, a charter jet company on the Gold Coast in Queensland. The company has a fleet of jets worth an estimated $30 million. He's also half-owner of CatHouse, a lounge in the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas that claims it "combines a world-class restaurant . . . with an upscale lounge, creating a seductive nightlife venue."
Doohan does the occasional parade lap for Honda but otherwise rides very little. "I think the last motorcycle I rode was a Harley with a few other friends in Europe," he says. Instead he flies his own helicopter most days when he's home.
Some riders don't miss the travel; some do. Spencer spent as little time in Europe as possible, more or less commuting from his home in Shreveport, Louisiana. The most extreme example came when he flew home after one Saturday's Dutch TT but was back for the following weekend's Belgian Grand Prix.
Schlachter loved the travel, the opportunity and the chance to see new cultures and meet new people. His first European adventure was in the '78 AGV Cup of Nations, a meeting that pitted the best of the world against the best Americans. The American team included Schlachter, Baldwin, Roberts, Mamola, Wes Cooley and Dale Singleton. The world team was led by Barry Sheene, then at the height of his clash with Roberts.
"That was a great time, where there were all the great international [races] where you could actually pick up some money or get to go over there and race against the Europeans and go see some of the world. And that to me was wonderful, incredible," Schlachter says wistfully.
It's something he clearly misses.