Moto Online catches up with 1987 500cc World Champion Wayne Gardner to reflect on his rapid rise to stardom in bike racing's golden era.
It seems like just a few years ago that Australian motor sport hero Wayne Gardner took the World 500cc Grand Prix Championship by storm and won the 1987 title, but believe it or not, it’s been over 20 years since the Wollongong Wiz’s gigantic feat.
The big break
After beginning his road racing career in 1977 on a second-hand Yamaha TZ250, Gardner was living up to his reputation as the ‘Wollongong Wild One’ as he learnt the ropes of racing ’bar to ’bar on the asphalt, and his big break came at the end of 1980.
It was at the final round of the Australian Unlimited Championship where legendary Japanese engineer Mamoru Moriwaki witnessed Gardner dominate the wet race at Sandown Raceway on a Honda CB1100R — perfect timing as Moriwaki was in Australia scouting new talent. He also won the important Castrol 6-Hour event outright for the first time in 1980.
Gardner then raced for Moriwaki Kawasaki in Britain in 1981 after impressing in what was supposed to be a one off race at Daytona where he finished fourth.
“I was asked to race by Moriwaki at Daytona in 1981,” reflects Gardner on how his full time break came to race overseas. “I was going to race Daytona, do one race in the UK and then head back to Australia.”
“Things went really different because I finished fourth. So they sent the bike to England and I went in an Unlimited championship race on the ‘sit up and beg’ style bike that I raced at Daytona.”
He shocked himself and onlookers by winning his first race in England over the likes of Graeme Crosby and Ron Haslam, in what was a huge statement from the new kid on the block. That race triggered Moriwaki to sign him for the entire 1981 season where he would do well enough to capture the eyes of many important teams to kick start his international career.
“I’ve always been a person that jumps at opportunities, so when they said I could stay for the rest of the season I thought…‘great chance, yeah!’. It all fell into my lap. I was lucky I think.”
Although his equipment wasn’t completely up to scratch with the factories in 1981, he focused on building a fan base and gaining attention by becoming a showman on the race track.
“I looked at Crosby’s career and why he was successful over there. Not only was he fast, but he was an entertainer. I took a leaf out of his book and thought ‘well if he’s going to do wheelies and things then so am I!’
“So I was on the back wheel down all the straights and showing off. I had an amazing year and it was a lot of fun,” said Gardner on a year he enjoyed immensely.
Gardner also went on to take out the Swann International Series in Australia at the end of that season as a parting gift to Moriwaki before moving on to Honda Britain in 1982 after receiving offers from a number of major teams.
A sign of things to come…
He had a solid first season with Honda Britain, but the big results came in 1983 when Gardner won the British TT Formula One series and the Masters on four-stroke machinery, while also winning the British 500cc championship on Honda’s potent three-cylinder, two-stroke RS500.
“Honda Britain wanted me to race the 500 in the British series that year, so I thought that was a good chance to learn how to ride the 500 because that’s where I wanted to go,” he said about his first season on 500cc in England.
Gardner’s world championship debut also came in 1983 when Honda Britain entered him in the Assen round of the title. After a top ten qualifying position, a horrific crash saw the debut end in the opening laps as he collided with fallen world champion Franco Uncini and his Suzuki.
“That was a very sad moment. It made me very famous, but not in the way I would have liked it to be and nearly ended my career,” Gardner describes in a way that it’s easy to see it truly affected him at the time. “I thought he was dead, even though it wasn’t my fault I still blamed myself for it.
“I visited him in hospital and he was laying there on a steel slab, twitching and moving – I just bawled my eyes out. I wanted to quit there and then. I thought this is not for me… but I did get a lot of respect out of it. I learned to never ever underestimate how dangerous this sport is.
“What I took out of the crash is a positive. It was don’t ever f#ck with the sport. It can bite you. It left a scar, but it was a good one and was to help keep me safe in the future.”
After taking time to settle from the crash and recuperate, he made a return and was relieved when Uncini survived. In 1984 Gardner did a handful of world championship races out of his own pocket, taking Honda Britain to the races on his way to seventh in the title after a limited schedule.
“They said ‘we’ll loan you the bike, Dunlop will supply the tyres, but you have to pay for it’. I looked at the prize money and thought that was a good deal and I could do well. So I went for it and succeeded.”
He also raced full time in England where he won the British 500cc title as well as the TT Formula One championship for the second time. He also took out his second Swann Series crown in Australia.
World championship regular
Gardner teamed with Haslam at Honda Britain for a full assault on the world championship finally in 1985, although the season was difficult as the four-cylinder machines of Freddie Spencer on the factory Honda, plus Eddie Lawson, Raymond Roche and Christian Sarron on the Yamahas were almost unbeatable on the three-cylinder NS500.
“The three-cylinder was a good bike to ride hard, ride fast, but it didn’t have the horsepower. It was still a good season to understand what the tracks were like, the travel, and it was a good starting point.”
Never mind, as the man from the south coast town of Wollongong in NSW focused on being the first of the three-cylinders in the championship, and did so by finishing fourth in the title behind wonder kid Spencer and Lawson.
His year was topped by taking yet another British 500cc championship, Masters title, and a third Swann Series title.
“After a pretty good season in grand prix, Honda wanted to draft me in to the factory the factory team for 1986 as Spencer’s teammate so they supplied me a four-cylinder [NSR 500] for the Swann Series as a test,” said Gardner on why he kept returning to his home country to race.
“I had a lot of fun and everybody remembers it. I was sliding the tyres, had big puffs of smoke, but really it was to get mileage on the bike for 1986 and to race in front of the home fans again.”
A major highlight of the year would be his first win in the prestigious Suzuka 8 Hours event in Japan — his first of four as he would win it again in 1986, 1991 and one final time in his last season in 1992.
“That event was huge, they had around 200,000 spectators in that period. When you’re one of Honda’s star riders they always want you to do the Suzuka 8 Hours. But I liked four-strokes, and still do, and I really wanted to win that race because it’s Honda’s track,” explained the Wiz on his success at Suzuka.
Training began to get serious around the mid-1980s after previous racers were known as party goers, and Gardner’s dedication helped his focus and endurance in both grand prix racing and the 8 Hours.
“I was running a lot and doing a lot of weight training. The mid-80s were when it started to get serious and I had to lose a bit more weight and be sharp with good stamina and mental preparation.”
In fact, Gardner had a special relationship with the Japanese fans throughout his career as it was Moriwaki who kick started his international career way back in 1981 and he won a variety of races in Japan throughout his motorcycling career.
“I always had a strong relationship with Moriwaki and they are still my friends. Sometimes I’d ring Moriwaki up with problems and he would say ‘you can not quit, you can do it Wayne-san — you can be world champion’.”
If anybody was uncertain the man who would soon become known to the world as the Wollongong Wiz had hit the big time in Europe, it was confirmed at the beginning of 1986 when Gardner was snapped up by the official factory Rothmans Honda team to partner new world champion Spencer on the four-cylinder NSR500.
That year marked the beginning of a run of spectacular years in the spotlight for him, after favoured teammate Spencer had a disastrous season with arm problems and would never win a grand prix race again.
This mounted the pressure on Gardner to perform as the factory Honda star, and he rose to the challenge, finishing second in the championship behind Lawson after scoring his first ever world championship victory at the opening round of the season at Spanish circuit, Jarama. He would go on to win two more grand prix that season to prove his might as Honda’s leading star.
“I was supposed to be the ‘apprentice’, but Freddie never turned up so I became Honda’s star rider. It was a really tough year, but it was a good year. Second was an outstanding result considering I wasn’t meant to be in that position [of number one rider].
“The unfortunate thing was after finishing second in 1986 there was only one way to go so I knew I really had to have a go in 1987!”
And have a go he did, as after years of climbing the ladder to the top of the table, 1987 saw Gardner win seven races on his way to the world championship victory in just his third full season of world 500cc grand prix racing! He was the first Australian to win the ultimate crown.
“I was thrilled to win obviously. It was a weird feeling. It’s a sense of achievement, a sense of reaching your goals, and it is a dream that comes true, but it’s also a bit of a sad period too,” he says enthusiastically on his life time goal.
“It was like, well you’ve got to the peak of the mountain already. Where do you go? Well you go over the hill and back down it! So you have to set new targets and goals. You go from jubilation, to remorse, and then go ‘well lets set new goals’. It was kind of good, but bad, but good! A real mix of emotions.”
Lawson would take back the title in 1988 after a fierce battle that saw Gardner finish second, just 23 points behind the talented American Yamaha rider after machine failure proved a major setback.
“I was mortified and bitterly disappointed. I remember crossing the line and hitting the tank that hard that I caved it in, and I was really angry with the machine failure,” reflects Gardner on the French race the put an end to his title hopes.
A broken leg at Laguna Seca in the United States in 1989 put a stop to his roll of top three championship finishes as he managed 10th in a spoiled year that also saw long time rival Lawson join him on the factory Honda team in a surprising move from the ex-Yamaha rider.
“I lost the championship in 1988 and Honda thought I did it, but the bike was totally wrong, and they obviously didn’t believe what I was saying. When Eddie got on the bike in 1989 he just said ‘what a heap of shit these things are’.
“That was a disappointing season, but I sort of blame Honda for that as they made me try extra hard by putting me in that position. I had enormous pressure because my teammate was Eddie Lawson and I was trying to beat him on the same equipment.
“It was really bad business sense and Honda didn’t ask me about [Eddie’s signing]. It was a secret that happened without me even knowing. I just had to wear it.”
But the highlight was a hugely famous victory at Phillip Island’s inaugural Australian Grand Prix in front of 92,000 ecstatic fans. The event was huge for Australian motorcycling, and still a memorable race to this day.
“You know when you ride really well some days? Well Phillip Island was one of those days and the event happened because of the profile may career brought to the sport here,” Gardner said about the history-creating race.
“To go and win a race that was put on because of my career was enormous, and one of my greatest memories in racing.”
He would bounce back to score fifth in the title in 1990 with two victories, again taking a well deserved and popular win at Phillip Island in front of his home country fans with a freshly broken wrist, while new Australian teammate Michael Doohan began to find his feet in the factory Honda squad.
“That second Phillip Island race was won of those miracle races where you go in against all the odds, with a broken wrist and the fairing hanging off, impossible to win. But I just didn’t want to see Mick Doohan ride off into the distance and win it, so it was just like try harder, try harder, and I managed to catch up and win.”
Calling it quits
By now his drive for the world championship had began to die down after a broken foot hindered his chances for the 1991 title, but he still managed fifth overall, although he went winless for the season before deciding to return for one final crack in 1992.
A wet opening round of the championship at the Suzuka Circuit in Japan saw Gardner streak through the field in a heroic display of riding before an untimely crash broke his leg upon impact into a barrier.
“There wasn’t just one thing that was the clincher on why I decided to retire, but there were a number of things. Obviously the injuries, nobody likes getting hurt. I was 32 years old and getting tired of flying around the world and the scene. And finally, I was getting tired. I guess because I lost some interest.”
His return mid season saw him pick up one final grand prix victory at his second home in the British Grand Prix at Donington — ironically the same race where he would announce his retirement from the sport at the end of the season. He finished second in his final grand prix at Kyalami in South Africa, also earning the lap record in a strong final outing.
“I had tears and it was horrible when I announced my retirement, but I wanted to show my fans I was retiring because I chose to – not because I wasn’t competitive anymore, then I went out and won the race the next day,” he said on his final grand prix win.
“It was really said at the last race. I got the lap record, was catching the leader, finished second, then got off the bike and thought ‘well that’s it’. It was really weird. And the end of my career. Just walked away from it.”
It wouldn’t take long for the Wiz to get back on a race track again, this time on four wheels where he would begin a successful career in V8 Supercars that saw him begin his own team, Wayne Gardner Racing, in 1994.
Podiums at Bathurst and round victories proved he had what it took and it wasn’t long before he became a Japanese GT Championship driver in a factory Toyota where again he would prove his ability to adapt to a new form of racing.
“I went straight out of bikes and into cars after HRT [Holden Racing Team] offered me a drive after I drove a Honda in a race at Bathurst. The GT cars in Japan were great and more like driving a real race car, not like driving a Taxi. I enjoyed it a lot.”
Life after racing
Since his retirement from motor sports, Gardner has paved a successful career after racing that has seen Australia’s first major grand prix star build his distributing business, Wayne Gardner Enterprises, into Australia’s fastest growing motorcycle accessories distributor while also still managing a growing property development business.
“I have two great businesses, two great kids, and a great life. We live in Manly [NSW] and also have a farm down the coast. I also do a heap of hours in the offices now! It’s very hard work, but interesting. And again, I’m applying the same focus that I put into motor racing.”
To this day Gardner is still a well known face in Australian and global motor racing, and with a couple of youngsters learning the ropes of motorcycle riding, it might not be the last we hear of the Gardner name at the forefront of motorcycle road racing.