No mention of Wayne Rainey is complete without the “three-time World Champion” prefix, but he was probably on his way to making it “four-time” when he crashed out of the lead that fateful day at Misano, ending his racing career at age 32 and along with it that whole illustrious era of U.S. Grand Prix domination. Many of us remember where we were when we heard the news, like 9/11 or even JFK. Ten years earlier, though, Rainey had won his first AMA Superbike championship on a Muzzy-tuned Kawasaki, and six years before that, the blue-eyed kid from Downey, California, had been racing the Kansas county fair circuit for $20 a win. Not a bad run, all in all. We had the privilege of asking WR a few inane questions at Yamaha’s recent 60th Anniversary celebration.
JB for MO: Do you have any memories of the specific best day you ever had on a motorcycle?
WR: Fwaaaaahh … y’know I don’t know if there’s been one more than the other. Obviously there’s days when you achieve, when you win the world championship, but that’s a part of many days that were just as important as that day. I remember my first world championship, that day, crossing the finish line at the Czech Republic. Winning the world championship and feeling the relief of … it’s been a grind your whole racing career and then when you get to where you’re actually in a position to win it, it’s ahhhh, I can feel it now, crossing the finish line, I not only remember those emotions I can still feel them. But when you think about it, that race was no more important than all the races that came before it.
There’ve been races where I got beat and, I remember one time at Salzburg, in Austria, I got third place, and it was a distant third place – I couldn’t even see first and second. But the guy I was racing for third, I had no chance to catch the guy and somehow I was able to do it on the last lap. Those type of races make me smile. You also have races that you remember aren’t so fun. Getting beat on the last lap. I don’t know if that answers your question?
MO: I think it does. The flip side of that question, and the one I always ask is, what was your worst day? In your case, I hope that’s not totally insensitive; I don’t mean it to be at all.
WR: No, that’s fine. Obviously the last day I rode a motorcycle is a day I don’t think about a lot. But it had a profound affect on the rest of my life. But it also opened up a lot of other opportunities too. When you say “worst,” that’s a strong word. Motorcycles, they just give you so much joy, and to have a bad day – even a bad day’s not too bad. Everything about racing motorcycles and going out there and being able to compete the way we did … or whether it was riding bikes in the desert with your buddies, just the enjoyment of riding bikes, that’s what I miss now. That I’m not able to go and enjoy it as I once did is hard. But what we achieved, the work we put into it, the suspense, the joy we experienced getting there … I don’t think I ever had a worst day on a motorcycle. I don’t think I’d take back any of it.
MO: Have you come close to finding anything to replace that feeling? You were doing the karts for a while.
WR: The karts were thanks to Eddie [Lawson] and my father for putting the thing together. They built a weapon for me to drive, and got it to where I could compete, but, ummmm, I realized this thing was probably more than I should be messing with. Did it fulfill that need? Yeah, there was a time when I was racing and I was only thinking about how am I going to pass the guy I’m racing with, which in motorcycle racing that’s what you do. In car racing too. I didn’t think about some of the difficulties I was having to try and compensate for my situation, I was only thinking about being a racer and how to pass the guy. But it’s much different than racing at the level that we were before. It was okay, but in the end there’s no returning to the place we’d been, as far as racing goes. In life, you don’t always get to get up every day and be at the ultimate high every day.
MO: What would you have done with your life if you hadn’t decided to become a world champion motorcycle racer?
WR: I remember when I was 16 years old, racing dirt track, the AMA Pro circuit back in 1977 I think. I was racing the Kansas county fair circuit. I was 16, a buddy and me were in my van, the speed limit was 55. We had to win the race. It was $20 to win the race, we’d have $15 to put back in the truck, $5 to eat, to split at McDonald’s or whatever. And I remember thinking, I’m not gonna be able to make a career out of this. What am I gonna do with my life? And now here I am.
MO: I still think that. Funny how it all works out.
WR: I guess this is it.
Wayne Rainey Interview: Inside MotoAmerica