Wayne Rainey was placed on this earth to be a motorcycle racer. Raised in Downey, California, he started at age 9 when his family lived less than 10 minutes from Ascot Park. Now long gone to urban sprawl, it was one of the most storied tracks in the history of American motor racing. A paperclip-shaped half-mile course sculpted from dirt dug out of a local cemetery, the circuit offered up traction galore with its super-tacky clay base topped with a dusting of decomposed granite. It's where Rainey, backed and encouraged by his father, Sandy, lit the match on one of the greatest motorcycle racing careers in not only the United States of America, but the world over.

“I started racing at age 9 and raced at places like Ascot, and always expected to be a dirt tracker,” Rainey explains. “My heroes growing up were guys like Gary Nixon, Mert Lawwill, and Kenny Roberts. At that time, all I wanted to be was a Grand National Champion. That’s all I knew.”

Winning the AMA Grand National Championship never quite worked out for Rainey, but by the time his professional career was complete in 1993, he had won two AMA Superbike Championships in both 1983 and 1987, as well as three straight Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme 500cc World Championships beginning in 1990, before his career came to an abrupt halt one Sunday afternoon. He was leading both the Italian Grand Prix and the 500cc World Championship on September 5, 1993, at the Santa Monica track in Misano Adriatico, when he crashed exiting turn one at 120 mph and broke his back. It would take all of his determination and work ethic to recover.

1983 GPz 750
The bike that ­personified Rainey: the 1983 GPz 750.Tom Riles, Gold & Goose

Rainey still loves motorcycles and motorcycle racing, so much so that he now serves as the president of MotoAmerica. And he still has fond recollections of certain bikes he raced during his career, starting with his first Honda Z50.

­Kawasaki
Fast but terrifying, the ­Kawasaki threatened to throw Rainey every time it broke traction.Tom Riles, Gold & Goose

“My dad ended up building a swingarm for that bike, and he made a front-engine motor mount,” he says, “but what was really special was that he put it on nitromethane.... My dad checked the rule book under ‘fuel.’ It said you must use fuel but didn’t say what kind!”

Wayne Rainey
“At that time, all I wanted to be was a Grand National ­Champion. That’s all I knew.”Tom Riles, Gold & Goose

While a nitro-powered Z50 is the stuff of true legend, not everything Rainey rode in those early days was reliable.

“You know, from 1969 to around 1971, when my dad did all the bikes, I rode a lot of stuff that never even saw the checkered flag just because they would break. I had a lot of bikes like that growing up as a kid, so I got to learn a lot about how motors work and how a chassis should feel.”

But the bike that both symbolized and personified Rainey for most of us was the 1983 Kawasaki GPz750 he won the AMA Superbike title on. While speaking with Cycle News at the time, he said the bike just wanted to throw him off any time it broke traction, that it would scare him every time. Frightening or not, it all came right for Rainey and Kawasaki on September 18, 1983, at Willow Springs, when he nabbed the title from an echelon of Hondas nipping at his boot heels.

“You know, racing against all those Honda VFR750s that were water-cooled with the V-4-engine design, we were just air-cooled,” he says. “I think we got beat at the first six races when Honda first showed up at Daytona. I think they showed up with seven or eight bikes and got the top six places. That Kawasaki was, for sure, very special for me because I ended up winning the championship on that bike. That bike meant a lot to me and my career.”

Lawwill-built XR-750
Rainey’s Lawwill-built XR-750 with Simons inverted fork.Tom Riles, Gold & Goose

But what he wanted more than anything was to leave his mark on flat-track racing. He was part of the lauded Class of ’79 that contested the AMA Grand National Flat Track Championship, but he was already being typecast as a roadracing prodigy by the early ’80s. Still, with the help of famed dirt-track racer and tuner Mert Lawwill, Rainey showed up at the 1985 Sacramento Mile looking to put his name in the AMA Pro Racing Media Guide. Lawwill built him a bike, and Rainey did the rest.

“There was no faster bike down the ­straightaway.”

“It was an XR-750 Harley-Davidson, and the record book says I got second to Scott Parker at the Sacramento Mile,” Rainey says. “It was the first Harley to have upside-­down forks. Mert has also changed the exhaust-port shape design. Going down a straightaway and the way that induction noise worked, it really made kind of a weird sound, but there was no faster bike than that down the straightaway. That thing wobbled a lot, but by the time we got to Sacramento, we had the thing going pretty straight.”

Three years later, Kenny Roberts, the three-time 500cc Grand Prix World Champion who put the USA on the global motorcycle-racing map, drafted Rainey onto the Team Roberts Yamaha outfit. All things considered, it was a brilliant example of clairvoyance on Roberts’ end, and it would eventually put Rainey on a very special machine.

1991 Yamaha YZR500
Rainey’s favorite bike, his 1991 Yamaha YZR500.Tom Riles, Gold & Goose

“The 1991 YZR500 was my all-time-favorite bike because it fit me like a glove,” he says. “I could ride and race that bike and anticipate every part of the corner, no matter what kind of racetrack I was on.”

That confidence came from hours of development, with Rainey and the Roberts team working to make the bike as rideable as possible. Rainey says that by the end, it took two-stroke power and made it ­predictable, so long as he could keep the bike in the 8,500 to 12,000 rpm sweet spot. Up there, it was predictable, and that predictability gave him the confidence he ­needed to be ahead of the bike at all times.

“That particular bike, just racing it, the feeling that I got from it and the emotions that I got from it, I really think that was when I was at my best,” he says. “That bike gave me that confidence to be at that level. Yeah, it was a special bike.”

“I could ride and race that bike and ­anticipate every part of the corner.”

Now, he can’t help but marvel at the difference between MotoGP in 2018 and 500cc Grand Prix motorcycle racing in the early 1990s. Everything has changed. The bikes make more torque than ever before. Rider aids of every flavor allow the top guys to squeeze every ounce of performance from their machines, and they’re able to put down more power out of the corner thanks to tricks such as wheelie control.

Rainey
Wayne RaineyBrian J. Nelson

“The bikes are very unforgiving now, but back then, you saw many more of the high-sides because that’s where the bikes were much easier to get away from you,” he says. “Now, most of the incidents you see are mainly on the brakes going into a corner. Back in my day, it was more off-throttle stuff and the bike getting away from you because the technology in the tire wasn’t always in sync with what the powerband was. If a current guy rode my bike, he’d probably think: ‘Wow! This thing is from the Stone Age.’”

Maybe so, but Rainey says there isn’t a machine on the grid today that can come close to replicating the feeling of cracking open that Yamaha and letting it wind its way up its atmospheric redline. It’s why, all these years later, the YZR stands out from the crowd of the more than 40 bikes he raced in his career.