The Wayne Rainey Story

Hero, Legend, Icon World Champion

Like a great race, a great story has high drama, a climactic arc, an epic rivalry and a stunning conclusion. The story of racing legend Wayne Rainey is no different. From his first adventures as a young rider racing mini-bikes through his fierce rivalry with Kevin Schwantz to the devastating accident that ended his career, Rainey pushed himself to the limit of his abilities while defining his sport for a legion of followers.

Dirt-track daze: A pre-teen Wayne aboard the nitro-burning Honda Z50 (above), which gave way to a notoriously unreliable Suzuki 90 and then a Honda CR125 Elsinore (left) armed with a reed valve from his father Sandy's bag of go-kart tricks.

Californian by birth, Rainey started racing early aboard a Honda Mini-Trail 50 running on 95 percent nitromethane and 5 percent alcohol. "My dad looked through the rule book and all it said was you must have fuel," Rainey recalls. He started winning almost immediately, and continued to defy expectations, moving up through the 100cc class on a punched-out Suzuki 90 whose rod would only last eight laps, and then on to a Honda CR125 Elsinore when no one else was riding them.

It was mostly up from there: riding bigger bikes, securing sponsorships and rubbing elbows and knee pads with the best of the best. Rainey earned his first sponsorship at age 15. At 18, his rookie year as a dirt-track expert, he raced in the Pro class against Jay Springsteen and Gary Scott. In his first national at the Houston Astrodome, he came in eighth. Racing then wasn't about making money; it was about being on the track, living out of the van and looking for that next opportunity. Which was about to arrive...

After a recommendation from friend Eddie Lawson, Rainey raced a Team Green KX250 short-tracker.

In the midst of Rainey's success, Kawasaki produced a 250cc dirt-track engine and wanted to race with it. Another up-and-coming Californian, Eddie Lawson, was slated to ride the bike, but had dislocated his hip. Lawson's misfortune turned into Rainey's good fortune. When Kawasaki asked Lawson about a replacement rider, he recommended Rainey--a suggestion that would have a lasting impact. Rainey took to the 250 like a natural, winning races all over the Midwest. Impressed by his success, Kawasaki asked if he wanted to try its roadrace bike. Up until then, he'd never even sat on one. Showing the true fearlessness of a 20-year-old, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "Sure, why not?"

After spending '82 as Lawson's understudy on the horrifying 149-horsepower KZ1000 (top), Rainey took over the lead role at age 21, winning six races on the GPz750-based racebike.

Rainey had found his true calling. In his first year, he won 15 of 16 AFM club races and set track records at each one. Kawasaki wanted to capitalize on this success and slated him to race in an AMA national at Loudon, New Hampshire. The Novice race was held in the rain, and in his dirt-track leathers and boots, Rainey won by 20 seconds. The next day, Gary Mathers offered him a contract to race Kawasaki Superbikes in 1982. "I went from fooling around in club racing to becoming Lawson's teammate on the 1025cc Kawasaki," Rainey recollects. "That thing was a monster!" Learning as he went, he won at Loudon, placed third in the championship behind Lawson and Mike Baldwin and was named AMA Rookie of the Year.

Rainey stood on the Superbike podium at 11 of 14 rounds in '83, defeating the Team Honda juggernaut in one of the biggest upsets in the history of American motorcycle racing.

In '83, Rainey hit his first real success streak. Riding a Rob Muzzy-prepared GPz750, he won five of seven races against Honda's revolutionary liquid-cooled, V-4 VF750, beating Baldwin at Willow Springs to become AMA Superbike Champion. When Kawasaki fired its whole Superbike team at the end of the season, Rainey was in shock. Kenny Roberts recruited him for his fledgling 250cc Grand Prix team, but the meteoric rise that Rainey had been experiencing hit a snag. International races in Venezuela and South Africa saw shaky starts and less-than-stellar results. The following year, back in America, he rode for MacLean Racing, racing against the factory teams he'd previously won races for. His performance attracted Honda's attention, and the company offered him a slot on its '86 Superbike team. Rainey wanted to focus on the two-stroke RS500, but Honda was adamant. That insistence was a precursor to one of the greatest rivalries in history.

Rainey showed up at Daytona in '87, fully prepared to live up to his reputation as a champion, despite losing the title to teammate Fred Merkel the year before. After winning the five-lap Camel Challenge, he was ready to tackle the Daytona 200, a race notable for pitting him against up-and-coming Suzuki rider Kevin Schwantz. Mid-race, Schwantz started to get away from Rainey. But Rainey, determined to hold his lead, started to chip away at Schwantz's lead. His persistence saved the day as Schwantz crashed out while leading. "He threw it away thinking about it, so I won the race," Rainey claims. Not content with the win, Rainey threw down the gauntlet, suggesting that Schwantz had cracked under the pressure. The Texan fired back with a shot of his own, claiming Rainey never should have caught him. The game was on...

Roadracing meets roller derby: Rainey vs. Schwantz at its best during the '87 Trans-Atlantic Match Races in England. Schwantz took the first round, but Rainey evened the score with a win in round two at Brands Hatch.

Going into the Trans-Atlantic Match races held on Easter weekend in England, more than the $100,000 purse was on the line. Schwantz won the first race, fueling Rainey's determination. As the two riders battled, Rainey began to pass Schwantz at Clearways. Schwantz responded, jumping the curb and muscling Rainey out of the way, but nothing worked. Rainey kept shutting the door, finally pushing back hard enough that Schwantz lost control, nearly crashing in the grass.

Rainey won the second race, and after that, the contest went from a game to all-out war. "I was the established guy, and he was the guy with the wild style coming up," Rainey remembers, "I wanted to get back to Europe, and didn't want this guy beating me."

Returning to America for the AMA Superbike season, Rainey won the next two races, but Schwantz took five of the last six. Foreshadowing their future results in the 500cc Grands Prix, Rainey held his champion status through consistent performances. Honda offered Rainey the Superbike sponsorship again, while Schwantz headed to Europe for Suzuki. In the midst of Rainey's desire to return to Europe, Roberts offered him a spot on his 500cc GP team.

But at the season-opening Japanese GP, Schwantz stole the show, arriving at the inaugural USGP as the championship leader. Rainey was devastated, but determined. He took his first GP pole at Laguna Seca and finished fourth--not a victory, but he beat Schwantz, who finished fifth. Rainey wouldn't win again until the British GP, finishing his first year third in the world championship with Schwantz eighth.

The '89 season saw a battle between Rainey, Schwantz and Eddie Lawson, who'd jumped ship from Yamaha to Honda. Schwantz won six races, but inconsistent finishes cost him in the standings. Lawson won four races to Rainey's three (including his first USGP win), and when Rainey fell in Sweden, Lawson won his fourth and final world title.

The next few years saw Lawson join Rainey on Marlboro-sponsored Team Roberts Yamahas, suffering a series of injuries while Rainey regained his footing. He was the guy to beat, and he knew it. "If I finished first, Wayne would be second," recalls Schwantz. "But when Wayne came in first, you never know who was going to follow him."

These were the glory days of Grand Prix racing as the world's greatest riders struggled to probe the limits of the savage 500cc two-strokes. The riders were their victims as much as their masters. "That was the year of the violent high-sides," Rainey remembers. "The bikes were very difficult to ride, and they had a lot of power. The two-stroke didn't want to do what you needed it to do, so you had to force it. Schwantz, Lawson, Mick Doohan, Wayne Gardner ... that was a very special era with the talent that was racing then."

The difficult '92 season was fraught with injuries--a broken leg and hand, the loss of part of a finger, an injured back--and a bike that wouldn't perform the way he'd hoped it would. Yet Rainey came from behind to win his third consecutive world championship.

Even so, the thrill was starting to wear off for the champ. Although the '93 season seemed to be preparing to hand him yet another title, it was getting harder for him to compete the way he had. The three-time champ had lost his taste for racing--it just wasn't fun anymore.

The Italian GP at Misano proved to be the breaking point for Rainey. Mid-race, while leading Schwantz, he was braking into Turn 1 when he put the front wheel a few inches off line. He recovered, but with more lean angle than before. Opening the throttle, he lost side grip and the rear end stepped out, hooked and swung back. Instantly, he was thrown in front of the bike at well over 100 mph. His first thought was of defeat--but the situation was far worse.

Rainey flipped through the air, landing in the sand trap and damaging his spine. "It was the most pain that I had ever felt," he grimaces. "I'd had big ones before, but something was not right and I knew that right away. Before anybody got to me I remember thinking, 'If I can just get up, that would be the next step.' My brain was saying, 'Get up,' but the only things that were moving were my arms. I knew something terrible was wrong. I was conscious of everything that was going on, and when everything started going black I thought, 'This is it--I'm gonna die right here. God, if you are real, if you are there, I want to see [his wife] Shae and [son] Rex."

Rainey's spine was broken, and so badly displaced that his doctors were amazed he'd survived. But that same determination that netted him three world titles and the respect of even his greatest rival was to keep Rainey going, both in his life and in motorcycle racing. Even in the face of their rivalry, Schwantz still sees Rainey as the greatest rider he ever rode against: "He was the rider I admired most. You'd see other guys get on the Yamaha after he was on it, and it wasn't nearly as competitive. That guy had a way of making a pogo stick work well!"

Rainey continued his GP story as a team owner from 1994-'98, winning the '96 Australian 500cc GP with Loris Capirossi. Later, he was instrumental in bringing the USGP back to Laguna Seca, a track near his home in Monterey, California, and dear to his heart. The fast left-hander leading down from the Corkscrew now bears his name.

"If you want to be the best, and want to be world champion, you have to be completely focused on racing with no distractions," Rainey says. "My teammates would think, 'I'll just wait until the bike gets better. I was going to push until the end, whatever it took to be champion, and we almost pulled it off for a fourth time. I think that is the same mindset that kept me alive."

Dirt-track daze: A pre-teen Wayne aboard the nitro-burning Honda Z50 (above), which gave way to a notoriously unreliable Suzuki 90 and then a Honda CR125 Elsinore (left) armed with a reed valve from his father Sandy's bag of go-kart tricks.
After spending '82 as Lawson's understudy on the horrifying 149-horsepower KZ1000 (top), Rainey took over the lead role at age 21, winning six races on the GPz750-based racebike.
After a recommendation from friend Eddie Lawson, Rainey raced a Team Green KX250 short-tracker.
Rainey's first novice sponsorship came with a 250cc Bultaco. He won 50 of 52 races that year.
Rainey (center), tuner Steve Johnson (left) and the '83 Kawasaki GPz750 that earned him his first AMA Superbike title.
Rainey stood on the Superbike podium at 11 of 14 rounds in '83, defeating the Team Honda juggernaut in one of the biggest upsets in the history of American motorcycle racing.
After disappointing seasons on 250cc GP bikes in '84 and '85, Rainey rode Superbike and Formula 1 for Team Honda in '86.
In his first year on the VFR750R Superbike, Rainey won five-straight AMA Nationals--a record that stood until Miguel DuHamel won six-straight in '95 on another Honda Superbike.
Rainey with Team Honda Crew Chief Rob Muzzy (right) and the late Sparky Edmonston at Daytona in '87.
Roadracing meets roller derby: Rainey vs. Schwantz at its best during the '87 Trans-Atlantic Match Races in England. Schwantz took the first round, but Rainey evened the score with a win in round two at Brands Hatch.
Riding on Dunlop radial slicks for the '87 Superbike season, Rainey started the year with a Daytona win.
Rainey clinched his third 500cc title with third place in the '92 South African Grand Prix at Kyalami.
Rainey dominated the '89 USGP at Laguna Seca, laying down a devastating lap in qualifying and then checking out on runner-up Kevin Schwantz to take the win.
The consummate professional off the track, Rainey--shown in '91 with his wife Shae--earned three 500cc world championships through sheer skill, an uncanny ability to adapt to the bike and an indomitable will.
For Rainey, the only thing worse than losing was losing to Schwantz. The latter's British GP win was his fourth of the '91 season, equaling Rainey's total at that point with four rounds to go. In the end, Rainey took his second 500cc title with Schwantz finishing the season in third.