Wayne Rainey realizes how dominant he and his fellow Americans were in the premier class of Grand Prix motorcycle racing from the mid-1970s to the mid-2010s.
“America was really spoiled, we thought this cash cow would never end,” Rainey said. “We dominated, and a lot of people are still talking about it today. Sometimes when you have it so well, it forces others to work harder.
These other people worked harder.
From 1976 to 2015, the first motorcycle championship, now known as MotoGP, had at least one full-time American rider in the top-level MotoGP championship. These riders weren’t just field fillers: they were race winners and world champions.
American riders like Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Kenny Roberts Jr. and Nicky Hayden have all won at least one premier class world championship during this time.
But now there is not a single American rider in MotoGP. There hasn’t been one since Hayden’s last full season race in the premier class in 2015. A hell of a drop from the glory years of the 1980s and 1990s.
Why are there no American riders in the premier class? To answer that question, there is perhaps no one more qualified than Rainey, who won world championships as a 500cc rider in 1990, 1991 and 1992 and is now president of America’s top national series , MotoAmerica.
“I grew up racing on flat tracks in Southern California when I was young, at Ascot Park, to be exact,” Rainey said. “I excelled at it and traveled around the United States when I was 16, 17, 18, living in my van.”
Rainey, a native of California, first had the opportunity to race on the road in Loudon, New Hampshire. He was doing dirt races for Kawasaki when the manufacturer asked him to race at Loudon.
“It was raining during the race,” Rainey said. “It was my first time racing in the rain, but I felt quite comfortable with the bike sliding with my flat track experience. I won the race by far, and the next day Kawasaki m signed a factory contract to race Superbikes.
Once Rainey started racing Superbikes, it didn’t take long for the accolades to start piling up. But first, he got help from another American motorcycle legend.
“Kawasaki stops, and that forces me to move on to the next thing, which was racing 250s,” Rainey said. “Kenny Roberts had just retired from racing GP, he was a good friend and he was looking for the next opportunity for himself. With my situation requiring a lap and with his retirement from racing, he created a team. Then we took part in the World Championship in 1984. It was very difficult, I had never left America.
Rainey left Roberts’ team to race Superbikes, but reunited with Roberts to race for him in the premier 500cc class in 1988.
“For the next six years I was third, second and had three world championships in a row,” Rainey said. “I was leading my fourth when I had my accident in 1993.”
Rainey, now 61, was paralyzed from the chest due to injuries sustained in an accident while leading a 1993 500cc World Championship race in Misano, Italy.
After Rainey was forced to retire, there were still Americans winning championships in the premier class. Schwantz became world champion in 1993, Roberts Jr. won the title in 2000 and Hayden was the last American MotoGP world champion after winning an epic duel with MotoGP god Valentino Rossi in 2006.
Hayden’s latest title capped a string of American riders winning the world championship 15 times in 29 years between 1978 and 2006, with Lawson leading with four and Roberts and Rainey just behind with three apiece.
Rainey thinks America’s pipeline of upper-class motorcycle racers disappeared in part because of an advantage American riders had.
“Back when the Americans were really strong with Freddie Spencer, Kenny, myself, Eddie Lawson, Kevin, we rode the 500 Grand Prix bikes, the two-strokes,” Rainey said. “They were really unforgiving bikes, no electronics, very explosive power. They had to be overlapped somehow. You got them up more with the throttle. The Americans had an advantage thanks to all our flat track experience.
Then, according to Rainey, the Europeans spread after his riding career ended. Countries like Spain and Italy have started to develop flat tracks, with circuits often better than their American counterparts. European cyclists honed their skills in handling the bike on dirt, just like the Americans.
The Europeans got another advantage due to a rule change in America in the mid-2000s that helped drive away strong support from manufacturers, Rainey said.
“In the meantime, the United States has always been the home of national pride, and all the manufacturers had their great racing teams here,” Rainey said. “Manufacturers like Honda and Kawasaki and Yamaha and Suzuki and Ducati.
“The AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) changed the rules at the time for Superbike racing. It wasn’t Superbikes as the main class anymore. They made the middleweight class the main class. They were trying to slow down the gears. What that did was drive all the manufacturers out. They left the series. A lot of the good racing seats that the manufacturers provided were no longer there.
Rainey saw American opportunities decline when MotoGP raced at Laguna Seca, his home track. Hayden won the first two races there, fueled by knowledge of the home track and national pride in his Repsol Honda. But Rainey was shocked at how otherwise dominant the Europeans were, which inspired him to become more involved in American motorcycle racing as the leader of MotoAmerica for the past eight years.
Some highlights from MotoAmerica today:
- Global TV deals with Fox Sports, FS2, ESPN, MAVTV and more
- Over 900 hours of nationally broadcast programming
- Over 4.5 million TV views worldwide and another 24 million online
- Over 1.3 million total subscribers (+65% YoY growth)
- Fan attendance growth of more than 20% per race, per market
MotoAmerica can restore America’s pipeline to MotoGP’s premier class, Rainey said.
He cites the Moto 2 class, the class below MotoGP, where three American riders are racing in 2022: five-time MotoAmerica Superbike champion Cameron Beaubier, 2021 Supersport champion Sean Dylan Kelly and MotoAmerica veteran Joe Roberts.
The strength of MotoAmerica has also attracted some Europeans from the World Championship, with former MotoGP riders Danilo Petrucci and Hector Barbera racing in the series this season.
“Guys like (former MotoGP and World Superbike rider) Loris Baz, he raced here last year for Ducati, and I think he finished fourth in the championship,” Rainey said. “It showed that our league is now very competitive.
“Loris, after our championship ended, had the chance to race in the (Superbike) world championship, and he ended up getting three thirds in a row and he ended up coming back into the championship with BMW. That opportunity would never have happened without MotoAmerica.
Manufacturers are always a key for Rainey. He wants companies like Honda and Kawasaki to be more involved in MotoAmerica so that more opportunities can be created for American riders.
Ultimately, Rainey thinks American riders will be ready for big opportunities thanks to MotoAmerica.
“At MotoAmerica we have a pretty strong class structure, and we have a good relationship with the World Championship and (MotoGP organizers) Dorna,” Rainey said. If we see a young talent they can help us place them in one of their championships so they can see what kind of talent they have. It’s come a long way in the past eight years, and we’re pretty proud of what we’ve created.
At the same time, Rainey wants young American riders to be MotoAmerica champions and then represent America on the world stage. He has high hopes for the American riders, and he thinks MotoGP too.
“America lost sight of the prize, but we have our eyes on it again, and I expect we will have a world champion in the next two years, I hope,” Rainey said. “MotoGP is in a rush to race an American in the top class, so they understand how important it is for America to be successful because it’s the biggest country in the world, so we should be there.”