Wayne Rainey isn't listening to a word I'm saying. I know this from his eyes. They tell me he's lost in a world where all that matters is gearboxes and fork springs and shock linkages and tire compounds and the exponentially increasing minutiae he must deal with to win on Sunday. Winning is everything. Nothing else matters.
It's Friday afternoon at the 1993 British Grand Prix. On Saturday, Rainey will crash in practice and crush some vertebrae. On Sunday, he'll finish second while teammate Luca Cadalora wins his first 500cc Grand Prix, denying Rainey valuable championship points in his battle with long-time rival Kevin Schwantz. In the post-race press conference, Rainey is smiling. For a man who lives to win, it's out of character, but he just finished second in a 500cc GP with a broken back. Unfortunately, his racing career would end two races later.
Mick Doohan saw the end coming. "The only way to understand the anticlimax was to keep on pushing to win it again and again, until [Rainey] ended up hurting himself. When he looked back, he realized that he'd been obsessed. I always thought that you had to have this very strong obsession with winning as well. I do think it's the mark of a champion." Motorcycle racers are different. Theirs is a relatively brief career where the pressures increase with each mounting success. The better you are, the better you're expected to be. It's a treadmill that doesn't have an easy "stop" button and one you can't just step off.
A racer's world is largely delusional. If a racer doesn't win he convinces himself it's because he doesn't have the right equipment, the right tires, the right team. Most likely it's the right approach.
Yet riders approach racing differently. Doohan and Rainey were consumed with winning and miserable when they didn't. Schwantz wanted to be the best, but his life wasn't consumed with racing. There was always the belief that he wasn't serious in his preparation, that it was his immense talent and joy for riding which carried him through.
Which way is right? None of them walked away from racing on their own terms. For Rainey, it was the paralysis he suffered in turn one at Misano, Italy, in 1993. For Doohan, it was the practice crash at Jerez, Spain, in 1999, which damaged the nerves in his arm so badly he couldn't hold a coffee cup initially. With Schwantz, it was repeated damage to his hands that made racing impossible.
Each has his regrets and they all would have done something differently. But all suffered from the same affliction that defined their greatness-they were obsessed. Whether it was with winning races or championships, making a technical breakthrough or just beating each other (as with Rainey and Schwantz), they were, in one way or another, obsessed.
"I definitely was obsessed with winning on Sunday," Schwantz says. "I was going to find a way to pull [it] off."
For Rainey, the obsession probably formed as he worked to adapt to a 500 GP bike's unruly nature. "When I [first] went to GP, I wasn't obsessed with winning, I was working hard to try and understand what it took to go fast on a consistent basis without falling down. That took a couple of years to learn to where you could just go out and ride the bike and give feedback and understand what the bike was going to do before it happened.
"A little bit of success when you first start off is second, third, fourth, and then you get that win and it's pretty exciting. Then the second year you work for a championship and you lose it and the third year you win the championship and then it's just like, 'OK, I've got to do all this over again.'
"I was looking for perfection. I was looking for never being happy with the combination of circumstances that I was in, and trying to make the best of those, whether that's technical feedback or tires or changing your riding style a little bit or how you adapt to a racetrack. All those things you're constantly thinking about and trying to improve, but for me it was that I didn't want to lose.
Mick Doohan would later see the parallels in his own career, "because you never want to be second. You know you're going to retire one day, but you can't see the end, and you're not willing to let yourself be less than the best. I guess that's an obsession.
"Definitely I was over the top. A lot of things I've spoken to [Rainey] about were the same for me. You keep pushing yourself, more and more, to do a little more than you did last year.
"The first time I won the championship-I've said [this] before-it was a relief to win, but it didn't really mean a great deal to me. You need to win the championship back-to-back, not one here and one there. That would really prove to yourself that you had won a championship.
"When I won the second [championship], it was the same thing. I enjoyed racing, [but] it really didn't change the way I felt. I still didn't feel like a world champion, so to speak. Conversely, once Rainey was an impartial observer he could see what was happening to Doohan. "I can remember certain times in the motor home and being so upset-I guess it was just that I was losing. Winning wasn't giving me the buzz that it used to, yet losing was worse. I think in Mick's case he won so many races that he just focused on winning, [since] he was so dominant. I think when I raced, there were five world champions that I was racing against, so when you won it was just by a little bit. You're intense all the time because somebody was going to take it away from you. I think in Mick's case the only guy that could take it away from him was Alex [Criville] and he was on the same bike. I think it was a different type of intensity that I raced against in my era as far as the competition goes than what Mick had to race against.
Rainey grew to take the burden of winning on himself, to the dismay of his team owner Kenny Roberts. Yamaha wasn't spending the money necessary to keep pace with Honda and Suzuki. Rainey knew the only way he was going to win was if he overrode the machinery. "That was something that I knew that was going to happen on Sunday no matter what happened during the week." And it motivated him. "Kenny said 'Wayne, you keep winning [and] we're never going to have a new bike.' I didn't have time not to win. I couldn't just get beat and hope that in winter time we were going to get a good bike." By this time Rainey was slipping away, lost in the fog of perfection, unaware of those around him.
"When you don't have some other aspects of your life that you can fall on when you're away from racing, when racing consumes you all the time and everyone you hang out with and everyone you're associated with is in racing, it's hard to get away from it. The fun disappears when that's all everybody wants to talk about," Rainey now says. "At the time I didn't realize it, but my family would tell me that when I was home, and we were together, I wasn't there," he recalls. "Not like I am now."
Doohan's comments are eerily similar: "At the racetrack I was a totally different person than I was at home. People couldn't believe the transition that would take place. And I didn't even really notice it was happening to me. I was obsessed with getting out there and doing my best. I thought I'd be letting down a lot of people if I did anything less than that...if I didn't keep pushing. And I guess the main person I'd feel like I'd be letting down would be myself."
Schwantz's approach was different, however. "I never let racing dictate everything I did. Some of what I did on Sunday night, after the races, was probably not the best thing. I felt that [in] racing, with all the sponsor stuff and factory support, there was enough pressure. With Wayne, everything he did away from the track was that much more intense, that much more focused." The tall Texan was never as intense as Rainey and he now thinks it may have cost him more championships. "I think you can do it without that obsession, but it's that much more difficult. Yeah, it can be done. I've done it."
Rainey remembers that racing stopped being fun for him toward the middle of the 1992 season, his third consecutive 500cc title-winning year. "It got to be more of the same routine over and over again. We never had an advantage with the bike. It got to the point that I knew before the next two races, this was it. There's nothing coming and there's no way we're going to make this bike better. You're pushing [the limits of] yourself and everybody around you and it becomes no fun for anybody. In the beginning we enjoyed racing, but in the end, nobody was even smiling at second place, and that was not good. But I brought that on myself because of the way I was pushing everybody and myself. There was no option."
Doohan knew his career was over long before he announced it. His horrific practice crash at Jerez last year was more damaging than he let on; he still has limited use of one arm. When the end came, he says it was almost a relief. "That I don't have to push myself...it's a sad way to go out, and if I could have come back then I would have, and probably ridden one or two races and then walked away. Unfortunately I couldn't come back, but when I announced my retirement, it was a relief that it was all over.
"So far it's a different way of life for me. It's hard to slow down, and be of a different frame of mind. When I get to the racetrack, I almost feel...like [I did] when I was racing, and I have to remind myself to relax. Same at the beginning of the year-come January I felt like I ought to be testing. It's hard to get out of the habit of racing, but definitely I felt relieved that [I didn't] have to be out there."
Is there anything any of them would change? "There're a few things I'd change if I could. I wouldn't have gone around that corner so fast," Rainey says of the first turn at Misano where his career ended and his life changed. Rainey's life now centers on his family-his wife, Shae, and son, Rex. Occasionally Rainey races his go-kart, but he keeps contact with the Yamaha race team to a minimum. Unless you attend the races at California's Laguna Seca, you're not likely to see Rainey at a racetrack, and that's the way he prefers it. Doohan is the general manager of the Nastro Azzurro team, which fields Italian sensation Valentino Rossi and is run by Doohan's former technical crew. His contract calls for him to attend 70 percent of the races, which is enough. There are things he, too, would have done differently.
"Obviously it would have been nicer not to [have] touched the white line in Spain, but I did, and I can't change that," Doohan laments. "Everyone messes up, and I'm no different from everyone else. I've enjoyed every part of what I've done. I wouldn't say there's one part-except the mess-up in Holland," where shoddy medical care nearly cost Doohan his leg after his 1992 practice crash in Assen. "That's the only thing I wish I could change.
"[The Spain crash] was just an accident, and it's part of life. Everyone crashes, and whenever you're pushing to the limit all the time you're going to make a mistake. But Holland is the only thing I really regret, because...it was purely medical treatment that in that particular place wasn't up to scratch."
Schwantz knew it was over before he retired, but he needed confirmation. Rainey provided it while they were flying back from the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka in '95. "You're not having fun," Schwantz remembers Rainey telling him after his sixth place finish. "You're racing because other people think you should do it, not because you want to. You should get out." Three races later, Schwantz bade the sport an emotional, tearful farewell at the Italian GP at Mugello. "It was a hard separation," he now says, but it had become too much and it was time to go. There were too many commitments, too many struggles, too many injuries to make it worthwhile. But when everything was right, there was nothing like it. "I'd still be doing it today if I still could. That hour on Sunday was to die for. All the headaches, the PR, the travel, that was all worth it when Sunday showed up."
After his retirement, Schwantz mostly stayed away from the track for a few years, until the 1999 season when he provided the mentoring for Larry Pegram, a resource which he never had (having Roberts around to advise Rainey was invaluable, Schwantz believes). This year he's employed as an advisor to the Yoshimura Suzuki team and attends most of the AMA races. He's also planning to race in a grueling Australian off-road event, which he's training harder for than he ever trained in his GP career.
But the urge never truly goes away. "Still today people say, 'You could still be winning 500 GP races.' Maybe I could. Then I end up kicking myself in the ass. 'Don't be stupid,'" he tells himself. For champions, perhaps even not racing requires an extraordinary level of commitment.
This story originally appeared in the December 2000 issue of Sport Rider.