This issue made us think of Mick Doohan for two reasons. First, as you'll read in our Wayne Rainey story, he was one of the American legend's primary rivals during the Golden Age of Grand Prix roadracing. And second, the Honda NSR500 he rode pioneered the "Big-Bang" firing order that ultimately led to our coverbike, the 2009 Yamaha YZF-R1.
Stories vary, but the big-bang concept is most often attributed to American dirt-track racing, where savvy tuners would time their Harley-Davidson XR750s to fire both cylinders at once, like a big single. These so-called "Twingles" put their power to the ground in a far more predictable and user-friendly manner, making them the weapons of choice on slick miles and, especially, half-miles.
Honda had experience in dirt-track racing, its RS750s winning the AMA Grand National Championship under both Bubba Shobert and the late Ricky Graham. In 1992, the Honda Racing Corporation-with input from Doohan's crew chief Jeremy Burgess, who today tunes for Valentino Rossi-applied the concept to roadracing, producing an NSR that timed all four of its cylinders to fire within 65-70 degrees of crankshaft rotation. In a time when the V-4 two-strokes made close to 200 horsepower, the big-bang NSR made less peak power but proved far easier to ride. Gone were the hair-raising, slip-and-slide corner exits-and all-too-frequent high-sides-of the so-called "Screamer" 500s, replaced by smooth acceleration and a flat, droning exhaust note.
The other teams took notice immediately, and used trackside oscilloscopes to determine the Honda's firing order. Before long they, too, had big-bang motors. But by then the damage was done, and Doohan was well on his way to his first world title when an accident in practice for the Dutch TT at Assen left him with a badly mangled right leg.
An ordinary man would have sat out the rest of the season, but Doohan is no ordinary man. Under the care of GP medic Dr. Claudio Costa, he endured experimental surgery that saw his legs sewn together so one would nourish the other, had his bike's rear brake connected to a thumb lever and just eight weeks later was back on the starting grid. Rainey edged him out for the title that year, and Kevin Schwantz the next. But after that the Australian went on a tear, winning five consecutive 500cc world championships from 1994-'98 before again breaking his leg and retiring from racing in '99.
Christian Lacombe of French magazine Moto Journal shot the photo shown here. "It was at the Barcelona Grand Prix, I don't remember the year," he says. "In this corner everybody was sliding like this, but Mick more. It was during the race, after a very bad start, but Mick won."
Of course he did: The record book shows that Doohan made 137 starts in the 500cc world championship, scoring 54 wins, 95 podium finishes and 58 pole positions. Following his racing career he did a stint working for HRC, and tried his hand at television commentary and car racing. All the while walking with the bow-legged limp that reminded everyone just how tough-and determined-he was.