Crumpled face down in a sand pit at the Misano racing circuit after crashing, tumbling and cartwheeling at 130 m.p.h. in the Italian Grand Prix last September, Wayne Rainey thought he was dying.
He heard the roar of motorcycles racing only a few yards away and thought they were going to run over him. He tried to get up. He couldn't. In 24 years of racing, Rainey had fallen many times, but only once before had he been unable to move his legs.
"My first reaction was, 'Damn, I just lost the world championship,' " Rainey said. "I never lost consciousness. My next thought was, 'How could something I love doing so much cause me so much pain?'
"I has having trouble breathing, both my lungs had been punctured, and all of a sudden, my sight went black. I was sure then that I was dying, but I wasn't ready. I was too young and had too much to live for. My vision came back and I realized that God had left it up to me. If I wanted to live, I had to do it on my own.
"Every breath was a terrible struggle. When I got to the track medical center, my only thought was about staying alive. I knew something awful was wrong when they cut my leathers off and I could see the look on the face of Kenny (Roberts, team owner) and Dean (Miller, team trainer). I'd never seen a look like that before."
Besides the punctured lungs, Rainey's aorta had been stretched, three ribs were broken and his spinal cord was snapped. He was paralyzed from the waist down, but no one wanted to tell him.
"In the ambulance ride to the hospital, I kept thinking how easy it would be to close my eyes and give up," Rainey said.
But he would not let himself sleep until his wife, Shae, had arrived from Monterey, where she had gone the week before to put the finishing touches on their new home before Wayne's arrival for the 1993 U.S. Grand Prix the next week at Laguna Seca Raceway.
It was 5:15 a.m. when the phone rang in Monterey. Shae knew something was seriously wrong. She knew the race had started at 5 and she wasn't expecting a call until sometime around 6.
The accident occurred on Lap 7.
Kenny Roberts told her to come quickly, that her husband was badly injured. She arrived Monday night.
"Shae was the first to tell me I was paralyzed," Rainey said. "I knew my racing was over, but the only thing I cared about right then was living."
Watching Wayne Rainey hunched over the handlebars of a brutish Yamaha motorcycle, cresting a rise at Laguna Seca at 160 m.p.h., the front wheel lifting slightly from the 175 horsepower being poured through the 500cc engine, was one of the most breathtaking moments of motor sports.
Rainey, 33, learned the art of motorcycle racing from Roberts, America's first great international champion who is also his boss and close friend, and then raised it to another level, taking it, as riders like to say, "to the edge of the envelope."
World championships in 1990, '91 and '92; three consecutive victories in the United States Grand Prix, and 24 Grand Prix triumphs overall in the most competitive era of motorcycle racing gave the former dirt-track rider from Downey an aura of invincibility.
Then came the crash.
On Sept. 5, 1993, on the Misano track in Italy, Rainey was wheeling his Yamaha out of the first turn--a third-gear right-hander--on his seventh time around when the bike got away from him. His career was over before he stopped tumbling.
"Looking back, I have no regrets," he said while sitting in a wheelchair in the living room of his split-level home high in the hills above Monterey, overlooking Monterey Bay and the Laguna Seca track on the right and Carmel Valley on the left.
"I accomplished everything I set out to accomplish in racing. I was out in front, on the gas (when he crashed). What could have been better?"
Rainey's home, where he lives with Shae and their son, Rex, who will be 2 next month, has been outfitted with handsomely crafted wooden ramps that enable Rainey to move around in his wheelchair. To get to his pool, built on a hillside at a cost of $100,000, Rainey rides a tiny elevator where once there was a dumbwaiter.
Reminders of Rainey's racing success fill the house. A gleaming red and white 1990 Yamaha YZR500, the one he rode to his first world championship, sits proudly in the entry hall.
Showing visitors through the house, Rainey zips up and down the ramps, across one room to another, dodging chairs, lamps and Rex's toys--one of which is a wooden cycle--with all the determination and dexterity that made him world champion.
When Rex crawls up on his dad's lap in the wheelchair, Wayne pops a wheelie, and the smiles that light up their faces tell how much being alive means to Rainey.
"Don't call me handicapped," he says. "I'm just a normal guy with a wife and a son who happens to not have use of his legs.
"I guess you could say that God wanted me to slow down, so he put a chicane in my life."
A few minutes later, however, he said more somberly, "When your legs are taken away after 31 years, it's pretty devastating."
What happened on that right-hander at Misano?
It is a 2.16-mile circuit in a summer resort about 160 miles from Rome. In 1989, the track was considered too dangerous, and most of the top riders boycotted that year's Italian Grand Prix. When the 1993 race was scheduled, it had been approved again.
Rainey had an 11-point lead over Kevin Schwantz, the tall Texan who was his closest competitor, going into the race. His fourth consecutive world championship seemed close. When he fell, Rainey was 1.9 seconds ahead of Schwantz.
"I didn't have to win that day, but I was obsessed with being first," he said. "When you're on top, the world champion, staying there becomes more important than getting there had been. When you've won the world championship three times in a row, there's really nowhere to go. I was too intent on winning, I was putting too much pressure on myself. I wasn't relaxed, like I'd been before.
"In the back of my mind, I knew I was a year older, that there were more young kids out there coming at me. What had been a fun existence had turned into a job. It wasn't until after the accident, I realized I had put racing ahead of everything in my life, ahead of even my family. I was like an addict. Winning was the drug.
"I told Kenny that morning, 'It's going to be a long race.' I never said anything like that before. That wasn't like me.
"To tell the truth, I was scared of getting beat."
So, instead of smoothing through the corner, in the Rainey style, he leaned over a little too far, flicked the throttle a touch too much and lost it.
"When you hit the ground at that speed, you lose all orientation," he said. "You don't know which way is up. You just tumble like clothes in a washing machine. Somewhere I felt a 'pop,' and suddenly my back hurt like crazy.
"Videos of the crash show my arms flailing while I was bouncing, but I couldn't see where I broke my back. At first, I thought maybe the bike had hit me. Months later, when I saw a picture in the National Enquirer, I think I might have learned the reason."
In the final picture of the crash sequence, which was not published until January, Rainey appears to be doing a headstand, his face buried deep in the sand while his back is twisted at an angle no back was ever designed for.
"To get in that position, I must have taken a hell of a whiplash," Rainey said.
As difficult as it might be to believe, Rainey has ridden a motorcycle since his accident.
"Yamaha gave me a bike last Christmas and it was in the van when I decided I wanted to sit on it," he said with a mischievous grin.
"My nephew, Scott, got it out of the back and helped me up on it. Suddenly, I reached over and started it up. It felt great. The noise, the vibration, the old feeling was kind of intoxicating. I said to Scott, 'Get me my helmet, we're going for a ride.' It was probably crazy--I was still in a body cast--but I had to do it.
"I had Scott sit on the back to act as my outrigger, and I gassed it. I was wobbly, but I was riding. I held on so hard, my arms ached. I probably never held on so hard in a race."
Rainey enjoyed the experience so much that he is having the bike outfitted with training wheels so he can ride around the hills near his home without falling.
He also has a three-wheeled bicycle that he pedals with his hands.
Rainey's rehabilitation has been on fast-forward.
After six weeks on his back at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood and five weeks in rehabilitation, Rainey checked himself out of the hospital and into a motel in Culver City.
"I'd probably have been better off staying in the hospital," he said, "but at that point I wanted to be where I could have my family around me," he said. "I also wanted more of a feeling of freedom. I've never been a patient guy.
"It was a strange existence. My insurance was willing to keep paying the hospital bill of about $1,000 a day, but they wouldn't pay $39 a day for a motel."
Rainey became obsessed about making it to the opening race of the 1994 season, at Eastern Creek, Australia, near Sydney. The race was on March 27, less than six months after his crash.
"Getting to Australia was a big challenge for me," he said. "When I made it, it was like winning my first world championship. I had mixed emotions, however. I was proud that I made it, but when I saw the field lining up and Kevin (Schwantz, the new world champion) and Mick (Doohan, the No. 1 challenger from Australia) and Luca (Cadalora, his former teammate from Italy) putting on their helmets, I couldn't believe I wasn't going to be out there.
"In my mind, I was still a racer. I don't know if I'll ever get over that feeling."
After the Australian race, Rainey decided he wanted to go to all the races. Roberts gave him a job, managing the 250cc team with Kenny Jr. as the rider. Running Marlboro Team Rainey, as it was designated, was something Rainey had planned for 1995, but impatient as always, he decided to do it immediately.
His first move was to buy a twin-engine prop plane and hire a full-time pilot. He went to 10 races before skipping the Czech Grand Prix last month to get ready for the U.S. Grand Prix this weekend.
"We couldn't have done it without the plane because when I traveled in passenger planes, I couldn't get through an airport without getting mobbed." Rainey said. "In Europe and Japan, the top Grand Prix motorcycle racers are as recognizable as Joe Montana or Larry Bird in this country."
In Spain last year, Rainey was named man of the year by Spain's daily sports newspaper, El Mundo Deportivo.
The 250cc project hit a snag when Roberts Jr., 20, broke his arm on a practice ride and missed most of the season. Rainey kept the team going with a succession of substitute riders, but Roberts Jr. will be on the bike Friday when practice starts for the U.S. Grand Prix.
"Next year, it will be my own team, with my own mechanics, my own team manager," Rainey said. "But running the team Kenny put together this year has given me a head start. Basically, I'm a year ahead of schedule."
Friday, Rainey will leave his home and drive down the hill to the twisting Laguna Seca course where he has won the U.S. Grand Prix three times.
"I don't know what my reaction will be, going to Laguna Seca without my helmet," he said, "but I'll have my team-manager hat on. Laguna has been good to me, so I hope I can pass along something to Kenny Jr.
"Damn, though, I'm going to miss racing my Yamaha around the track."