1989: When GP racers were superheroes and traction control hadn’t been invented

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“The winner of the 1989 Miss Brazilian Grand Prix beauty contest has just been declared and here comes Randy in Rolex and briefs. How the ladies swooned.”

The following is an excerpt from Mat Oxley’s new book “An Age of Superheroes” which tells the tale of Grand Prix racing’s golden era, 1988-1993, from a rider’s perspective. The book’s available to buy on Amazon right now and this isn’t the only time Mamola’s pictured undressed. — Ed.

The racing world was turned upside down in December 1988 when Rothmans Honda signed Yamaha’s three-time world champion Lawson and Marlboro Yamaha signed Honda’s three-time champ Freddie Spencer. The two greatest riders of the 1980s had swapped teams, but the Americans weren’t about to renew the rivalry that had dominated earlier campaigns.

While Fast Freddie’s comeback floundered, Lawson found himself embarking on what seemed like mission impossible. Honda’s 1988 NSR had been a horrible piece of kit, so it seemed like he had been a fool to switch teams, especially since he didn’t have a full HRC deal. Instead Lawson worked in a satellite team run by famed fettler Erv Kanemoto. With dogged determination the two Americans set about the task of transforming the NSR into a winner. Neither of them can remember how many revised chassis they tried in their efforts to tame the NSR. HRC puts the count at 13.

Rainey was their biggest rival from the get-go, leading the points chase from round two. Lawson meanwhile had a disastrous start to the year. He broke a wrist in preseason testing and suffered further injuries in a high-speed collision during practice for the second race in Australia. He had a mountain to climb, but that shouldn’t have come as a surprise – in four decades no rider had won back-to-back premier championships on different makes of bike.

During the first nine races Rainey steadily pulled ahead on points, taking three wins to Lawson’s one. But then the pendulum swung. The NSR started to behave itself, so Lawson got more and more difficult to beat. In fact he defeated Rainey in each of the last six races, the Yamaha rider lacking the grip he needed to raise his game to match the improving NSR. The points lead finally changed hands at Anderstorp where Rainey crashed while chasing the Honda. Lawson made sure of the title at the season finale at Goiania.

Lawson’s 1989 success is one of bike racing’s all-time greatest achievements. It is also his own favourite title win, because he managed to prove so many people wrong; Lawson liked to prove people wrong. More than two decades later Rainey still feels the pain of losing a championship he led for more than four months.

Schwantz should also have been in there, battling for the title. The Texan scored more wins in 1989 than he did any other year, but the bike and the rider were too unreliable to challenge those ever-consistent Californians. He crashed out of two races and the RGV broke in three more, enough to leave him fourth overall behind Christian Sarron, who put together the most consistent season of his 500 career.

This was also the year in which a chubby-faced rookie called Mick Doohan began his adventure in 500s. The Aussie had a horrific time, mangling his left hand in several grisly accidents. Doohan became uncertain that he had the mettle to make it on 500s, but underwent something of a transformation while taking time off to recover from his injuries. He finished his rookie season ninth overall, just ahead of team-mate Wayne Gardner, whose year was also blighted by injury. The 1987 champ broke a leg at Laguna, which forced him to skip another five events, and he also missed the Czech GP through injury.

Rainey’s team-mate Kevin Magee ended his second 500 campaign just behind Schwantz but it wasn’t enough to keep his job at Team Roberts. Pierfrancesco Chili was sixth overall, largely thanks to his victory at Misano, a race boycotted by all the big guns. Niall Mackenzie, riding alongside Spencer in Ago’s Yamaha squad ended up seventh, scoring a single podium finish at Jerez.

The 1989 season was one of the most deadly of modern times, with four deaths at GP events: three in France and one in Germany.

GARDNER ON WINNING AT PHILIP ISLAND: ‘Winning in front of your home crowd is always going to be very special. To win that one was a bit of a fairytale. I went into the event completely shattered because I’d done three months of PR for the race, so by the time I got there I was completely fucking rooted. I remember saying to my mechanics that I didn’t think I could do it; it just seemed too hard. But I gave it my best shot and the way it worked out in the race I got into a good position and made my mark in the last few laps. There were 92,000 fans that day, the biggest crowd they’ve had there. Early in the race I could hear them screaming but as the race went on and the pace picked up I had to tell myself to stop looking at the crowd and start focusing on what I was doing. In the photo I’m coming out of MG on the last lap. I’m trying to get the thing home, keep the small lead I’ve got and not get passed onto the main straight. I was just trying not to make any mistakes. In fact a few corners earlier at Siberia I braked so hard that I lost the front. Somehow I got it back, stood the bike up and took off. How I didn’t lose any time there I don’t know. It’s hard to beat winning your country’s first GP; looking at the people in this shot says it all.’

GARDNER ON THE FIRST CARBON BRAKES AND CRASHING AT LAGUNA SECA: ‘That was the first year we had carbon brakes on the bike. The brakes would never work if they were cold, so I was riding along using a bit of lever to get some heat into them and they locked and threw me straight over the ‘bars. I went over the front of the bike and landed on my back, that’s why my leathers are torn to pieces. I didn’t enjoy that moment, it was my first lesson on carbon discs – they heated up so rapidly they’d lock the front before you knew it. Laguna Seca and I were never great buddies. I found it hard to get into the track’s rhythm. In the race I lost the front into the left-hander that takes you up to the Corkscrew. I put my foot down to catch it but the foot caught the kerb, which pulled the leg around and gave me a spiral fracture of my tibia, before I was even down. Then I couldn’t control the bike, so I went into the dirt and crashed, which shattered the tibia and the fibula. Then a marshal came across and managed to kick the broken leg! I had no one to blame but myself for the crash. But I’d had a real bad, restless night because I was jetlagged. We had only got in from Phillip Island a few days before, and we had a beach apartment, so I couldn’t sleep for the noise of the surf. I wasn’t feeling good that day and I pushed myself too hard.’

RAINEY ON WINNING LAGUNA AND THEN LEARNING OF BUBBA SHOBERT’S INJURY: ‘The race was 40 laps and we were close to running out of gas, though I could usually get a bit better mileage than Kevin. On the last lap his bike was running out, so Eddie passed him before the finish line, beat him for third. Kevin wasn’t happy, so on the cool-down lap he pulls off the racing line to do a burnout. As he starts, Eddie and Bubba are riding side by side, looking at each other, then Bubba is gone. Eddie turns around, sees the carnage, stops to lay his bike down and runs back. He could see Bubba was not good. Bubba and I started hanging out ten years before and we ended up such good mates that he was best man at my wedding and I was best man at his wedding. What that accident told me is that you have to pay attention until you take your helmet off. I knew racing was dangerous, but for that to happen after the chequered flag… After that I had to keep my focus on the championship. My thoughts were with Bubba and I was checking with his people every day, but I was on my way to the next race at Jerez.’

DOOHAN ON HIS FIRST SEASON ON A 500: ‘I started the 1987 season riding a TZR250 production bike and two years later I was on a works 500 Honda, so it was a big step for me. It was like “Wow, jeez, I’m up against these guys I’ve only ever read about”. The ’89 NSR wasn’t a good thing, that’s for sure. I got along well with [fellow Rothmans Honda rider] Eddie, who I’d met at Sugo at the end of ’88. I felt like I could talk to him easier than I could talk to Gardner, so it was easier to pick his brains to see what I could do to get on top of the bike. I never really recovered from the hand injury I sustained at Phillip Island, then I amputated a little finger at the Suzuka Eight Hours, so I came back to Australia, missed a few races and got myself healed up as best as I could. I focused on getting myself physically stronger and mentally preparing myself better than I had been, getting rid of the weight I was carrying from my party years. It was a bit of a regroup, then go back and attack again. I got back for the last race in Brazil. Goiania was one of the first tracks I’d been back to on the 500; I’d tested there earlier in the year, so it was a track I was going into that wasn’t completely foreign to me.’

DOOHAN ON HIS LEFT HAND: ‘When I crashed at Phillip Island I could see the bone, and the tendon had been torn away. By Laguna the fingers were just starting to grow a film of meat when Gardner ran into me; then at Jerez I tried changing up another gear through the fast rights behind the paddock. The thing just spun up and sent me straight into the hay bales. That didn’t do the hand any favours. First time I met Eddie he told me a lot of people can go fast on a 500 straight away. Then they have one crash, two crashes, three crashes and they take a big backward step. I’ve never heard a truer word. My confidence had been knocked about and I actually feared hopping on the motorcycle.’

LAWSON ON SWITCHING TO HONDA: ‘After Ago’s Marlboro Yamaha team, the grass really was a lot greener on the other side. Sometimes you get over to another team and go “Oh shit, this was a mistake, this team’s no different to any other team”. But Erv was a lot different. When I fell off during testing in Japan, he was like “Are you okay? It was the bike’s fault and we’ll make the bike better”. I’d never heard that kind of thing before. The race in Australia was a low point [Lawson finished fifth]. I’d got beaten up in practice and the result wasn’t great, but he was still 110 per cent behind me. He said we’re going to make this bike better, so I was like “Son of a bitch, I want to ride this thing!”. I’d never heard that where I’d been before. With Ago’s guys I’d get second and they’d go “What happened? What happened?”. I’d go “I don’t know… those guys beat me. I don’t know what the fuck to tell you, they just went faster”.’

RAINEY ON RACING FOR THE KING: ‘Mike Sinclair would make a lot of our stuff back in the workshop in Amsterdam. That’s kinda what I grew up with – going racing with Kawasaki against Honda in the US. We were the little guys fighting the big guys and that sat well with me. After me, no one won a championship on the YZR ever again, so that group of guys we had there was pretty special: Kenny, Mike, Howard [Gregory, mechanic] and Bernard [Ansiau, mechanic who later worked for Doohan and Rossi].

SCHWANTZ ON LOSING: ‘In 1989 I felt like we had a really, really good bike. That was the year I should’ve won the championship. Lawson was on the Honda and was creeping up on things, while Wayne was making mistakes and gave it to Eddie. In most of the races I was at the front. I was on pole nine times, I won six, broke in three and crashed out of two. If I’d just crashed and the bike had never broke, we would’ve been in the hunt. But even in ’89 I was still trying to find a riding style that suited me. That took until about ’90 or ’91. Until then it seemed like I was changing race to race; I was still trying to find stuff that worked and what made things better and what made things worse. I was always riding like I was on the dirt, a little bit loose, a bit of a loose cannon. I didn’t really crash that much when I started out racing production bikes in club events; the crashing didn’t really happen until I tried to make the next step to national racing. I guess I still wanted to be the fastest guy, just like I had been in club racing. Sometimes I’d push that envelope and end up on the ground. It was a pretty steep learning curve, I remember trying to learn something every time I followed somebody. It was non-stop trying to get stuff into the memory bank.’

RAINEY ON WINNING HOCKENHEIM: ‘Eddie was always telling me “Wait till we get to Hockenheim”. He goes “I can’t wait to ride the Honda at Hockenheim and now you’re going to have to follow it. Wait till you see what I’ve had to do all these years”. I wasn’t going to argue because the Honda was fast and Hockenheim had a lot of straightaways. I was in his draft for 22 laps, I couldn’t pass him. I thought he’s going to be right, I’m just going to follow the Honda all the way to the end. The last lap, I just waited till he braked into the stadium and I passed him going in there and I won the race and he was not happy about that. It was one of my most satisfying wins.’

LAWSON ON LOSING HOCKENHEIM: ‘Oh, I was so mad at myself. I thought I had another lap to go, so I didn’t worry when Wayne came past. I followed him, thinking “I’ve got one more lap, I’ll just do him on the last lap, I’ve got the power, no problem”. Coming onto the start-finish I look up and it’s the chequered flag. Fuckin’ out of my mind, out of my mind! It was the same thing Wayne had done when he was racing Kevin that year at Suzuka. I just knew I had another lap…’

SPENCER ON GETTING FIRED BY AGOSTINI: ‘At the end of 1988 I had neck surgery. They took out four bone chips, opened up the nerve canal and I could feel the hand again, so I thought I could race again. But as soon as I started riding week in, week out, the lack-of-feeling problems returned. The nerves were too damaged to handle the stresses of riding a 500. I had my best ride that year at Phillip Island where I chased down Wayne [Rainey]. That track is flowing, it’s not so stressful. But I wasn’t great mindset-wise either – my mind was on the injury, not focusing on my motorcycle, my preparation, my race strategy.’

SCHWANTZ ON CRASHING PORSCHES: ‘After the race in Austria, Eddie and I decided to do a lap and honest to God, we didn’t do it fast. We just drove around and talked about the race, but when we were done there was this security guy, about eight feet tall, and he’s like “What are you doing? You’re not supposed to do that”. He goes to pull me out the car but I had the seatbelt on, so he couldn’t. Eddie’s laughing now and that pissed the guy off, so he’s slammed my door, shattered the window and the glass cuts my face. There’s blood gushing out, so we both unclip and go after this guy. He’s running, because there’s two guys half his size out to kick his ass and Eddie kicks him in his nuts as hard as he can. After that we went into town. We came back to the paddock at three in the morning, we’d probably had just a little bit too much to drink, and Eddie stuck his Porsche in the ditch, with my coaching.’

RAINEY ON SPA: ‘Spa was just awesome, I loved it. Eau Rouge [arguably the world’s most famous corner complex] was intense. Going up there the bikes would get light on the exit and real loose and sideways, especially in the rain. Probably the most intense corner was Blanchimont [a 150mph Armco-lined left-hander]. To get a lap time you had to go through there fast. It was fifth gear, no runoff. Everybody was pretty much the same around the rest of the track, so you knew you had to pick up time through Blanchimont. That’s where you didn’t want to have to do that, but you just did it.’

SCHWANTZ ON SPA: ‘I enjoyed places like Spa – I really liked those fucking fast lefts [Blanchimont]. I remember getting pole there in ’89 and hearing Gardner or Lawson or someone saying “I don’t know what the fuck Kevin’s doing out there – obviously nothing scares him”. I wasn’t smart enough to realise the imminent danger, but places like that allowed me to make a gap over the other guys. Suzuka was the same – most of the other guys would go “Fuck, the guardrail’s right by the track in that 120mph turn…”.’

SCHWANTZ ON CREATING LEGENDS: ‘I don’t suppose I thought those years were a special time when I was racing.  I just thought grand prix racing was an amazingly difficult sport to find a way to get to the top of. I wasn’t ever much of a fan, I didn’t read books and I didn’t keep track of it, so until I started roadracing [in 1984] I didn’t even know who Ago, Hailwood or Surtees were. The only guy I knew was Kenny Roberts because I’d seen him racing dirt track in the Dallas astrodome a few times. I guess I only began to realise that the years we did GPs were special when I saw what the sport went to when Wayne and I and Eddie and Gardner were gone. It was like “Wow, now it’s just one guy killing everybody [Doohan]”. And now I hear people say it all the time: “Oh man, back in the late ’80s and early ’90s when you guys were all racing, it was such a great time”.’

LAWSON ON WINNING SPA: ‘I think Erv and I are the only ones who know that I snookered them in this race. It started raining, so I held up my hand [to stop the race], and of course Kevin and Wayne put their hands up too. So I’m looking behind and I’ve got my hand up, but I’m grabbing a handful of throttle and gassing it. I knew they were going to stop the race and time it, so I pinned it and got a four second gap on them. That happened at Silverstone in ’83 and I got screwed – Kenny [Roberts] knew to gas it and so did Freddie [Spencer] but I didn’t. That wasn’t going to happen to me again. Sure enough it worked out, I ended up winning the race because of it.’

SCHWANTZ ON LOSING ASSEN: ‘My ’89 bike was almost as fast as the Honda and it was considerably faster than the Yamaha. I remember the bastard breaking with less than a lap to go at Assen. Wayne and I had had this big race-long battle. I’d just started to get the better of him when the thing shit itself on the last lap. The crank broke – I was like “Oh my God! Grrrrrrr!”. Suzuki definitely made a big step forward in ’89 but after that everything seemed to go a bit flat until we got a big bang motor in ’92.’

SCHWANTZ ON WINNING DONINGTON PARK: ‘Being popular was okay, most of the time. People always said I was good with the fans; well, I wasn’t on Sunday mornings, especially after warm-up. The fans would be queuing up outside the pits and it was like “Don’t you know I’ve got a race today? Leave me alone!” But for the most part I enjoyed it.’

SCHWANTZ ON CRASHING YET AGAIN: ‘At Phillip Island I crashed on the first lap coming out of MG corner, looking back to see where [Tadahiko] Taira was, because I knew he was close behind me. I thought the only reason Yamaha sent Taira to races was to get in my way and help Wayne. Even though it was the first lap and I was running second and Wayne was the guy in front who I needed to worry about, I was still looking back to see where Taira was, because I had a picture in my mind of him passing me, parking it in front of me at MG and letting Wayne get away. Yeah, you could probably say I was a bit paranoid about that stuff.’

GARDNER ON LE MANS AND HONDA’S BIG SECRET: ‘It was real hot and Suzuki had their awning rolled up, right over the way from where my motorhome was parked. I told the Japanese, “Hey, you should take some photos”. So one of them came in with a big lens and spent all day there behind the mirror windows taking rolls and rolls of film. Then they went back to Japan, blew up the shots and laid them over shots of an NSR. After that the penny dropped, they realised they had too much weight low down. The Suzuki engine was much higher in the frame, so they realised maybe they should go that way. All of a sudden Honda worked out how to make a bike handle and it took off from there. To cut a long story short, they didn’t have a fuckin’ clue until then.’

LAWSON ON WINNING THE SWEDISH GP: ‘Just where we thought our bike really wouldn’t work well, at a little rinky-dink track like Anderstorp, the tyres actually got better as the race went on. The lap Wayne fell off, I was right in the middle of the corner going onto the straightaway and I just grabbed a handful, early. I knew Wayne was right on my ass and he went with me. I remember thinking “Man, I can get on the gas early!”. I kept getting earlier and earlier. That one lap I just grabbed a handful and it stepped out and I just drove out of the turn. Wayne tried to go with me. If he had been on Michelins it would have been a different story that year. I think he could have won the championship with Michelins, no problem. I’m glad he was on Dunlops.’

RAINEY ON SWEDEN: ‘That really sucked. I’m still pissed about that. Eddie pretty much had that Honda sorted out by then, while we were maxed out, as far as tyre performance went. That day I could’ve maybe not tried to get on the throttle as hard as I did, but I would’ve got beat, so I had no choice. I had to do what I did and it just so happened I jumped off. I was trying to get that championship and we were real close on points. We were really struggling at the banked turn onto the back straightaway, but I needed to get out of that turn good. It had stepped out on me a couple of laps before. I was running out of time, we getting close to the last lap…’

LAWSON ON PLACING SECOND IN BRAZIL AND WINNING THE CHAMPIONSHIP: ‘I guess this was my favourite championship win, just because at the beginning everyone said it wasn’t going to happen. But bit by bit we got there, till near the end it was like “Hey, we can probably do this”. At the start of the year it was no hope; people were saying “You might as well retire and go home”. I broke my wrist in Japan before the first race at Suzuka, so I was riding hurt. Then we went to Phillip Island for the second race, where Magee’s bike seized right in front of me. I hit him and crashed going fast and that really beat the piss out of me. I was really sore, so we didn’t have a great race there either. It just wasn’t looking at all good. But bit by bit things started getting better. A lot of it was down to Erv.’

“An Age of Superheroes” is a 240-page hardcover coffee table book packed with Schwantz, Rainey, Lawson, Kocinski, Doohan and Gardner telling the story of their golden age in their own words. The forward is written by another man who needs no first name: Valentino Rossi, who describes his awe at watching his heroes tame the evil two-strokes. “Superheroes” is packed with stunning period photographs of both the racing and the playboy lifestyle.

Buy “An Age of Superheroes on Amazon” and rue the day traction control reared its boring head.

The following photos are all of “An Age of Superheroes.”

  • http://www.postpixel.com.au mugget

    Cool stuff. Thanks for the heads-up on that book. It’s on my wishlist, definitely heading my way with my next Amazon order!