Sunday was to have been a homecoming for Wayne Rainey.
The three-time world motorcycle road racing champion from Downey moved his family into a new home in the hills above Carmel Valley last March. From the 2 1/2-acre estate, he could look down on Laguna Seca Raceway, where Sunday he expected to be riding in a world championship Grand Prix he had won three times.
Now things are on hold.
Last Sunday, while leading the Italian Grand Prix on the Santamonica track in Misano Adriatico, Rainey fell hard. The crash broke his back, punctured a lung and left him paralyzed from the middle of his chest down. Rainey, 32, suffered damage to his sixth lumbar vertebrae, Dr. Doriano Zappi told Associated Press.
"The doctors said they won't know the extent of the (permanent) damage until the swelling and the bruising go down," Kenny Roberts said from the hospital at Cesena, where Rainey was helicoptered from the track. Roberts owns the Marlboro Yamaha team for which Rainey rides and is also promoter of Sunday's United States Grand Prix at Laguna Seca.
"It's not life-threatening, but beyond that we don't know," Roberts said. "Wayne is conscious, but we don't know how long it will be before we can move him."
Rainey was listed in stable condition in the neurological intensive care unit.
The accident occurred as Rainey exited the first turn after completing nine laps of the 28-lap race. At the time, he was just ahead of Luca Cadalora, his Yamaha teammate, who went on to victory. Rainey's bike went out from under him on a corner and as he slid through a gravel safety pit, the 285-pound bike hit him.
Rainey's wife, Shae, was not at the Italian race, but she flew there Sunday from Monterey. The Raineys, who have a 1-year-old son, Rex, also have a home in Barcelona.
"No one knows just yet where Wayne will go when he gets out of the hospital, but we don't expect him back here for some time," said Bob Barnard, who is handling preparations for Sunday's Laguna Seca race in Roberts' absence.
Even though Rainey won four races and regained the lead from Kevin Schwantz after 11 of 14 races, he had struggled all year trying to develop an all-new Yamaha after three seasons of racing with bikes that were only slightly modified from year to year.
Rainey won in Malaysia and Japan with the new bike, but then went into a tailspin that saw him finish fifth twice. He became so frustrated trying to work out the kinks in the factory bike that he switched to a French-built ROC frame. With it, he won wire-to-wire in the Grand Prix of Europe at Catalunya, Spain.
Two races later, he switched back and rode the factory Yamaha to victory in the Czech Republic and regained the points lead. He also was fastest qualifier for the first time since 1991 and appeared to have championship No. 4 in his sights with an 11-point lead over Schwantz going to Italy.
"I hated to see Wayne crash," Schwantz said after the race. "It was a disappointment. I felt it would be a good race (for the championship) with Wayne."
At the time, Schwantz did not know the severity of Rainey's injuries.
The accident essentially gives the world 500cc championship to Schwantz, from Austin, Tex. Schwantz, who finished third in Italy, regained the lead from Rainey with 219 points to 214 and has an insurmountable lead over the third-place rider, Mick Doohan of Australia.
Ironically, during Rainey's early years on the Grand Prix circuit he was known as "Mr. Perfect" because he fell so rarely, but Sunday's fall was his second career-threatening accident in less than two years. On Sept. 22, 1991, he crashed while practicing for the season's final race in Malaysia. His right leg was broken at the knee joint, along with a toe on his left foot and his left hand. He also suffered from dehydration during a long flight home to San Francisco.
After months of rehabilitation, he began preparing for the 1992 season and fell three more times, reinjuring his hand and suffering a broken right foot before recuperating sufficiently to win a third world title.
"I can say that I have never met a stronger athlete, both physically and mentally," said Dean Miller, Rainey's physiotherapist. "He did an 18-month rehabilitation in six months."