Wayne Rainey was the top World Championship 500cc Grand Prix rider of the early 1990s, winning three consecutive World Championships riding for Yamaha. In addition to his accomplishments on the world championship level, Rainey was also a star of AMA Superbike racing during the 1980s, winning that title in 1983 with Kawasaki and again for Honda in 1987. Rainey's career as a motorcycle racer came to an abrupt end when he suffered a crippling crash while leading the Italian Grand Prix in September of 1993. Rainey did not let his disability keep him down. He returned to the world championship circuit as a team owner and manager.
Born on October 23, 1960, in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey, California, Rainey grew up in a racing family. His father, Sandy, was a go-kart racer and some of Wayne's earliest memories are of his father loading up his truck to go racing. By the mid-1960s, Rainey's father began casually racing motorcycles. Wayne began riding a 50cc Honda minibike when he was 6. He also attended races at the famous Ascot Park dirt track and became a big fan of local hotshoe David Aldana because of his wild riding style.
At the age of 9, Rainey, along with thousands of other kids in Southern California, began racing on the numerous circuits in the area. Rainey quickly progressed from minibikes to amateur and junior dirt track racing before making the professional ranks in 1979 at the age of 18. Once on the AMA Grand National circuit, Rainey suffered from having less-than-competitive equipment. Rainey's first Grand National finish was ninth in the '79 Houston short track national in the Astrodome. Rainey continued to struggle in his rookie season and eventually was sidelined with injuries.
In 1980, Rainey found a bit more success and earned six top-ten Grand National finishes. That same season, Rainey began competing in club-level road races with support from Kawasaki. Even though he had come up through the dirt-track ranks, Rainey was finding that his real talents were on the pavement.
In 1981 Rainey won the novice 250 Grand Prix race at Loudon, New Hampshire, on a factory Kawasaki. Kawasaki knew it had a real talent in Rainey and promptly signed him to race the AMA Superbike Series for 1982. Rainey would team with defending AMA Superbike champ Eddie Lawson, whom he had raced against and been a teammate to as an amateur dirt track racer in Southern California.
Rainey was competitive in Superbike racing from the start. He earned a fifth-place finish in his Superbike debut at Daytona, then he garnered three straight third-place finishes in the following rounds. Rainey's first national victory came at Loudon on June 19, 1982. In that race Rainey fought off a tough challenge from Honda's Steve Wise (who crashed while battling for the lead) and beat teammate Lawson. Rainey was ecstatic after winning his first national. It would certainly not be his last.
In his rookie Superbike season Rainey finished third in the final standings behind teammate Lawson (who moved on to the world championships the next year) and Honda's Mike Baldwin.
Rainey came back strong in his second season of Superbike racing (engine size now reduced from 1000cc to 750cc for four-cylinder bikes) winning six races and beating out Baldwin for the 1983 title. It was a pinnacle of Rainey's career to that point. Kawasaki had beat out the high-dollar Honda effort and it had done so with a young, up-and-coming rider. Less than a week after he'd won the title, however, Rainey was given devastating news: Kawasaki was pulling out of Superbike racing. It was the recession of the early 1980s and motorcycle sales had fallen off tremendously. Rainey, like so many Americans of that time, found himself unemployed, a victim of downsizing.
Former World Champion Kenny Roberts, now a team owner, came to the rescue and offered Rainey a ride in the 250cc Grand Prix World Championships. But for Rainey, the GP ride was premature. He labored on a nearly stock Yamaha and managed only eighth in the championship with a season-best finish of third.
Longing to return to America, Rainey took an offer to ride Hondas in the 1985 AMA Formula One and 250 Grand Prix Series with MacLean Racing. Rainey suffered through an injury-plagued season and, despite winning a slew of races in both classes, managed only eighth in the Formula One standings and third in 250 GP.
Rainey signed with the factory Honda team to ride AMA Superbike and F-1 in 1986. Rainey won six of the nine Superbike races (including a then record five wins in a row, later broken by Miguel Duhamel in 1995), yet was still edged out by Honda teammate Fred Merkel, who had been consistent all year while Rainey crashed out at Mid-Ohio.
Rainey finally won his second AMA Superbike title in 1987. That was the year the epic battles began between himself and the young Kevin Schwantz. The intense rivalry started in England during the Trans-Atlantic Match Races and continued right through the entire 1987 AMA Superbike season. Many considered the rivalry between Rainey and Schwantz to be the best ever in AMA Superbike history.
After winning the Superbike, title Rainey returned to his first love and strapped on the steel shoe for the last time in October of 1987, riding to a fourth-place finish at the Sacramento Mile AMA Grand National. It was to be his last appearance in an AMA national.
It was back to the World Championships for Rainey in 1988, this time in the premier 500cc class, again riding for Team Yamaha Roberts. He earned his first World Championship victory with a win at Donington Park in England. Rainey took third in his debut season in the 500cc class.
In '89 Rainey took three GP wins and was runner-up to former teammate Eddie Lawson.
The dawning of a new decade saw Rainey winning the opening round of the 500cc Grand Prix series at Suzuka, Japan. It proved to be the beginning of a three-year reign as the top rider in the world. He won the three world titles (1990, '91 and '92) at a time when the field was laden with talented riders such as Lawson, Freddie Spencer, Wayne Gardner, John Kocinski, Michael Doohan and of course arch-rival Schwantz. In all, Rainey went on to win 24 world championship races during his six seasons on the circuit.
Rainey was well on his way to his fourth-consecutive title in 1993. He was leading the championship points and leading the GP when he suffered his career-ending crash at Misano, Italy.
Rainey came back in 1994 and headed up his own GP racing team, something he did through the 1998 season when he decided to retire from the rigorous travel schedule to spend more time with his family in their home in Monterey, California. Rainey still manages to have fun with speed, occasionally racing a specially designed racing go-kart, a gift from Eddie Lawson, who is also an avid go-karter.