Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Thursday, February 18, 1999

Motorcycling's Master Takes a Break

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - As most of motorcycle racing's leading teams began their last official winter testing in Jerez, Spain, on Wednesday, one competitor was missing. While the contenders are spending five days tuning their machines and honing their skills, the man they are chasing won't be there.

Mick Doohan, a 33-year-old Australian, has won the sport's most prestigious title -- the 500cc class -- every year since 1994. He took part in tests last month at Phillip Island, Australia, and broke his own lap record by a full second. He then decided to take a holiday before the season starts in April.

''I'm ready for the new season,'' Doohan said in an interview. ''I'm motivated and enjoy what I'm doing and I will carry on pushing while I feel like this.''

This is not how Doohan felt at the end of the 1993 season when he added a broken shoulder and a broken wrist to his collection of injuries, the worst of which resulted in having to have his right ankle fused. But none of that has stopped him from going on to win as many world titles as only Juan Manuel Fangio did in Formula One, or three more Grand Prix victories than Alain Prost's record of 51.

But because Doohan did it all on two wheels rather than four, he does not have the same international acclaim of those car drivers. Not that the racer of 500cc motorcycles is ignored. Doohan was Australia's sportsman of the year from 1996 through 1998. His sport is popular in many European and Asian countries, and last year it was granted provisional recognition by the International Olympic Committee.

In the 500cc record books, Doohan lies second only to Giacomo Agostini, an Italian who won the title eight times, the last in 1975.

Doohan compared his sport with the more popular four-wheel type of vehicle. ''With Formula One it's all about the atmosphere and the show, and the race is secondary,'' he said. ''Our racing's a spectacle that keeps you on the edge of your seat.''

Grand prix motorcycle races are neck-and-neck sprints fought out on many of the same circuits as Formula One, but lasting about half as long. The 16-round championship takes place on five continents. Doohan blames the sport's lack of popularity in the United States on its ''Hell's Angels stigma.''

''Today,'' he said, ''everyone from XYZ in the street to your chief executive of a major corporation rides motorcycles for leisure. We're not Hell's Angels. We're not sitting around taking drugs and we haven't got guns hidden inside our leathers.''

In 1992, Doohan broke his leg during trials for the Dutch Grand Prix at Assen. The operation should have been routine but the leg became infected. The doctor recommended amputation. Doohan insisted on a second medical opinion and the leg was saved, but the ankle is permanently locked into one position.

Doohan said that had he won the title the season before the crash -- when he was runner-up -- he probably would have quit racing after the accident. The crash happened in June after he had won five of the first seven races of the season.

''Mentally I knew I was strong,'' he said. ''If I could get myself back to being fit, I knew that I could beat the best of them. I had some unfinished business.''

The locked foot is the one used to work the rear brake, so Doohan's mechanical technicians created a brake lever on the handlebar that he controls with his thumb. He rode the last two races of 1992, but lost the title by four points to Wayne Rainey, an American who was later paralyzed in a racing accident.

In 1993, Doohan broke a wrist, then a shoulder, but used the recuperation time for another operation on his leg. In addition to winning every world title in the 500cc competition since 1994, he has obtained a record number of pole positions. In 1997, with 12 victories, he beat Agostini's 25-year-old record for victories in a single season.

Like all racers, Doohan rationalizes the danger: ''We run around a purpose-built street circuit with a lot of runoff, so it's quite safe. If you look at the IndyCar ovals, or the street circuits they run on in Monaco, we're running 300 to 320 kilometers per hour, almost 200 miles per hour, and the IndyCars are running at an average speed of 250 miles per hour on some circuits, and they hit a wall. So we're not too bad.''

It was the safety worries of his parents that started him racing at age nine, after he was inspired to ride motorcycles by an older brother. His father was the manager of an earth-moving company in New Guinea, and the boys would ride their motorbikes around the construction sites and mines. His parents enrolled them in a dirt-bike racing club to keep them on a track, under supervision, and with nearby medical facilities.

Doohan is racing for the Repsol-Honda team again, the manufacturer with which he won all his titles, but he will not commit himself beyond one season.

''In any top-line sport these days,'' he said, ''you get to where you've got on natural ability -- then the work begins. If you want to succeed, you've got to take it to the next level.''

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