Scott Russell Interview
The spotlight of motorcycle racing casts a narrow beam. Everyone likes a winner, but those who have fallen away from the front of the pack lose the crowd’s attention. Today’s hero may become tomorrow’s forgotten name. It’s not easy being a legend. It’s not easy being “Mr. Daytona.” Just ask Scott Russell. Seven years after his racing career ended on Daytona’s starting line, Russell returned to the scene of the crash in an attempt to revive his two-wheeled legacy.
If you’ve heard of Scott Russell but aren’t too familiar with his career, here’s a quick rundown. He started racing in the AMA in 1987. In 1988 he was runner up in the 750 Supersport class and was named AMA Superbike Rookie of the Year. He dominated the old 750 Supersport class, winning it three years in a row (1990, 1991 and 1992). In 1991 he won every single race in the series. He was AMA Superbike Champion in 1992 with Muzzy Kawasaki and was named AMA Pro Athlete of the Year. The next year, he moved with Muzzy to World Superbike and became the third American to win the championship (still Kawasaki’s only WSB win). That same year he won the Suzuka Eight Hours with teammate Aaron Slight. In 1996, he took over Kevin Schwantz’s place on the Lucky Strike Suzuki team in Grand Prix racing. In 2005, he was inducted to the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
Scott Russell has always liked to go fast. He started off on a Kawasaki Ninja, riding hard on the street, watching tapes of Grand Prix racing and then trying to emulate the world champions’ moves on public roads. In 1984 he traveled to Daytona for the Bike Week festivities and ended up at the racetrack. Sitting in the grand stands behind Turn 1, he saw Freddie Spencer ride his way to three wins and was inspired. He immediately set road racing as his goal.Racing became his life, to the point of nearly losing his life to racing. In 2008, Russell and professional motorcycle racing are back together again.
“Racing was my escape from the street,” Russell noted. “I got to the point that I knew if I didn’t get on the track I was going to end up in jail or sliding off the mountain somewhere.”
His first weekend of amateur racing he entered three races and won two. From that point on, nothing could slow him down on or off the track. Working on a front-end loader for a pipe-laying company, every dime Russell earned went to entry fees and race tires.
“Racing came so natural, so easy for me, I never had to work hard to go fast,” Russell said. “I started off just racing for fun. I never had any dreams of where this all would go.”
His most famous accomplishments, the ones that earned him his nickname, are his five wins in the Daytona 200 (he’s currently tied with Miguel Duhamel for the most 200 victories). Russell didn’t just win five Daytonas, he won them in unforgettable ways. In 1992 he pulled a final-lap slingshot move to overtake Doug Polen for the win. In 1994, it was another 200 victory on board a Kawasaki. His most famous Daytona victory was in 1995 when he crashed (an incident immortalized in a Cycle World cover photo), remounted and went on to beat his intense rival Carl Fogarty. He had back-to-back wins in 1997 and 1998 aboard Yamahas to bring his total to five.
The Daytona 200s he lost were equally spectacular. He lost to Eddie Lawson in 1993 by 0.05 second and lost to Duhamel by 0.01 second in 1996 while riding a Suzuki. Although Russell still holds the record for most Superbike Daytona 200 wins, Miguel Duhamel has tied him after adding a Formula Xtreme 200 victory to his four Superbike 200s. It’s a discrepancy that Russell notes.
“AMA racing needs a little adjusting,” he said. “Superbike is still the premier class and they need to be in the 200. It needs to be raced by the heavy hitters like Mladin and Spies.”
“It’s more professional and the technology in the motorcycles has made leaps and bounds,” he added, noting the changes in AMA racing since he retired. “When it comes to the racers, the field has such a depth of riders who can win.”
Russell’s successes are nearly matched by his controversy. He had an infamous legal battle after ending his Muzzy superbike contract early to race with Suzuki in MotoGP. He missed the 1999 Daytona 200 after getting his cheekbone broken in a bar fight. Some question his career choices, like riding for two years with Harley’s ill-fated VR1000 Superbike project. But nothing could stop Russell from becoming a fan favorite. They respected him not only for his riding skills, but his working-class rise to the top of world motorcycle road racing and his open and personable nature.
The “accident” is something that Russell doesn’t mind talking about. Nearly everyone’s seen the video on the Speed Channel or Youtube. He was with a new team, on a Ducati 996, ready to redeem himself at Daytona after two abysmal seasons on the Harley Superbike team. Anticipating the flag on a re-start, he stalled the bike. As he coasted to the edge of the track, a racer behind him clipped his handlebars, sending both riders sprawling. The other racer went into the grass. Russell went back onto the track only to have himself and his motorcycle t-boned by another bike. Parts and riders littered the track, as one of the bikes burned. He would spend two weeks in the hospital undergoing numerous surgeries to repair his shattered leg and wrist.
Russell can’t remember the accident but takes responsibility for what he calls the “rider error” that caused it. Five months later, he was back on the track, testing at Virginia International Raceway, but complications from his injuries, including nerve damage to his leg, made him sit out the remainder of the season.
“At that point I’d had enough,” Russell said. “I’d had a good run, but it had gone bad and I was ready to stay home and not go through all of that again.”
At Daytona in 2002, he announced his retirement saying, “It’s [his injuries] not going to allow me to ride the way I need to ride, at the level I was riding before – so my career is over.”
Over the next few years, there were talks of a comeback but nothing materialized. Russell ran some amateur races and even participated in some of the inaugural AMA Supermoto races, but when the series went pro, his disability pay-out from his insurance company prevented him from participating.
“If I had to do it over, I would have done it differently,” Russell says of his retirement. “Retirement wasn’t for me. I’m a terrible spectator and I can’t live without racing.”
He isn’t without regrets about his racing career.
“It was so easy for me that I took a lot for granted,” he said. “If I had to do it over, I’d do it more by the book, I would have trained harder.”
Russell has spent his retirement taking it easy and enjoying life, fishing, driving off-road vehicles. But without racing, something was missing. He continued to look for a way to get back on the track. Russell’s first serious return to the racetrack was in the fall of 2007, when he participated in the Moto-ST Eight Hours at Daytona race.
“I was breaking myself in easy on a motorcycle that topped out at 130 mph,” Russell said of his Pair-A-Nines Kawasaki 650 Ninja. “It was good to be back. I rode that race thinking about all the old times, the old wins.”
His return to AMA racing is the responsibility of former teammate and fellow AMA Superbike champion Jamie James (Russell was a runner-up to James in the 1989 Superbike Championship). James now runs Jamie James Production, a shop that customizes Yamaha R6s and R1s and has his own track-riding school. As a way to promote the bikes and his school, James thought about organizing an AMA team. When he thought about a racer, only one name came to his mind: Scott Russell, an instructor at his school. Yamaha stepped in to provide two new R1s and Russell was back in the AMA. All of the plans were made only a month before Daytona.
“Immediately I was back at the gym, getting in shape for the race,” Russell said. “Racing again is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, regardless of the outcomes of this week.”
Less than a week before Superstock practices started, Russell was running CCS and ASRA races at Daytona to get to know the R1 and re-familiarize himself with the track, which has undergone many changes in the years since he last raced there.
“It took some getting used to and it’s lost a lot of its fast flow and speed,” Russell said. “But every lap it’s getting more fun.”
The Jamie James Production team entered both the Superstock and Superbike races. In the Superstock race, Russell established the goal of a top-10 finish.
“We decided to enter Superstock, because it’s the class where we lose the least amount of ground to the factory teams,” Russell noted.
Sitting in his paddock garage, the 43-year-old Georgian seems as if he hasn’t been away. He’s relaxed and confident, with the same old Russell grin, the same soft Southern drawl, the same “Ru$ on the back of his leathers. On the track he’s hanging it out like always, never passing up the opportunity to pull a show boat wheelie for fans and photographers.
“I feel right at home. There’re no worries,” Russell said. “I will crash again. That’s for certain, but that’s not something that is always in my head.”
But this time winning wasn’t coming easy. Although Russell feels his skills are up to par with any contemporary AMA racer, the dyno sheets showed his R1 was down on power and outgunned by the GSX-Rs on the straights. In Superstock qualifying he can only manage the 21st fastest time out of 27 riders. Race day was no better. Although the James crew found some extra ponies, they didn’t have time to try the new power out with the old suspension set-up. Russell retired early after twice running wide-off the track, trying to outride a machine that kept trying to tuck the front end. Every charge came up short with his machine’s limitation. At that point Russell said he “decided to watch the rest of the race on T.V.” He and the crew made the decision to sit out the Superbike race and so ended their Daytona week.
“I’ve found out a lot about myself this weekend,” Russell said. “I’ve still got speed and I can still ride fast and feel comfortable doing so.”
For the Jamie James Production team, it’s back to the drawing board to further refine and test their new machine. They still plan to race the five east coast AMA Superstock races. Russell hopes that with success, he can run the entire season. He hopes to race next year, maybe even move to the Superbike class (which will run the 2009 Daytona 200, Russell calls it, “the best news I’ve heard all week.”) and eventually move on to run his own team. But one thing is certain. No matter what the future may hold for Russell, motorcycle racing will be a part of it.
Daytona is where it all started for Russell. It’s where it almost ended. So it fittingly seems the best place for things to start again.
“At Daytona I’ve had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” he said. “This is my home. It’s my place. We’re here to have a good time. I hate sitting at home and it’s good to be back in the garage.”
While Russell didn’t experience race day success, he garnered enough attention off the track to prove that he’s not one of motorcycle racing’s forgotten heroes. Throughout his week at Daytona, Russell was swarmed by photographers, journalists and T.V. cameras, his old fans lining the track and cheering his every lap. His return generated a buzz American motorcycle road racing hasn’t seen for a while. So over the course of this season, keep your eyes on the orange R1 and Scott Russell. Mr. Daytona is back in town and he’s trying to prove that there’s still a reason for the spotlight to shine on him.
More by Jeremiah Knupp