Daytona 1985: The events transpiring in front of the crowd would shape world championship roadracing for years to come. Freddie Spencer blitzed across the finish line, winning the newly prestigious Daytona 200 Superbike race. Spencer was at his unbeatable best, he triumphed in the Formula One and 250 races as well. An awesome display, one that Freddie would continue in Europe, winning both the 500 and 250 titles.
Amongst the witnessing masses, in the Roberts grandstand stood a twenty-two year old southerner. He had come to Daytona both to watch his hero Spencer, and to mingle with the never-ending stream of college students who share Daytona with motorcycle enthusiasts each March, students whose single purpose at the time seemed to be devouring all the alcohol and flesh they could procure.
A ticket-buying spectator at the races, he spectated where the college students were concerned as well. Other than youth, intelligence and enthusiasm, he shared nothing with them. Students, when not in Daytona had direction in their lives, futures.
Back in his Georgia home he had very little in the way of a future: divorced parents, leaving high school early and sweating in a factory for a living were the more notable details of his life. The factory job, a noble occupation for some, yet the young man dreamed of more, constantly. I've got to get out of this place he emphatically said to himself.
While working, he looked around at his older co-workers, and did not like what he saw. It was his likely future staring back at him. The anxiety gnawed at him like a ponderous cancer, the thought that he might spend his entire life in that hot factory, never reaching his potential. A potential he was undoubtedly positive dwelled somewhere deep inside his being.
He stood and cheered Spencer on. From his seat he could faintly see the winners circle ceremony. Separated by only five hundred feet, he and Spencer may have well have been on two different continents, or so he thought. If the lad knew the similarities between Spencer and himself, that Spencer had fought his way to the top of the world from his own dirt poor southern obscurity, the colossal task that in a few moments would lie before him would perhaps have been easier for him to accomplish. Then something in the young man metamorphosed, snapped likely.
Seeing Spencer spray champagne on the podium the young man decided then and there that he would become a roadracer. His racing experience before that had been minimal, motocross and wild street riding. How many young men in the stands that day vowed to become a world champion? No matter.
He decided that motorcycle racing would become the one true focus of his life. Before that moment, his life had little direction. Now it had one, straight up. That young man with the lofty dreams of racing glory is none other than Scott Russell, and he's still a Freddie Spencer fan.
Now, seven years after watching Spencer win at Daytona and go on to win several world championships, Russell has become America's newest World Superbike champion. As he moved into his new apartment in Atlanta, we sat down for a talk, tape recorder humming.
Q. Donnington looked to be the crucial race of the season, was it?
A. Donnington was a pivotal weekend. We went into that race, a lot of people thought for sure that Carl (Fogarty) would walk off because we were in England and he was on such a roll .. even I expected him to do really good there. In practice he was quick right off the bat and we were struggling with a front end chatter problem that I didn't really expect from Donnington, it being such a smooth race track but it gave us our fair share of problems. We were behind the game a bit, I wasn't very happy with what was going on, we were struggling. Then, in the last qualifying session, we were third fastest and about a second off what he was doing. I put a qualifying tire on and went out to see if I could get a good lap in. I didn't give the tire enough time to scuff in on the left side and when I went down through Kraner Curve, a fourth gear left hander, I flicked it in and it stepped way out. I knew right away I was in big trouble. That's probably the hardest crash I've ever had, yeah, there wasn't anything to hit but I hit the ground so hard on my tailbone. Instant pain. Normally you don't feel it until you stop rolling and sliding, but I knew as soon as I hit that I was hurt. When I stopped and laid in the gravel trap, I thought that was ... I laid there for a minute to see if could move everything. I tried to get up and my tailsec ... my ass, was hurt bad. I though that I was done, my ankle started to hurt and my knee started to hurt, so I though this is the end of the season right here. I thought for sure that I broke my leg. They hauled me back to the hospital there and x-rayed everything and everything was a go. They wheeled me back from the hospital to my motorhome in a wheelchair, I wasn't about to walk. I wanted no part of that. I was just praying that I'd be able to move the next day. That was a rough night that night, trying to sleep and then trying to get ready and everything for the next day. I knew I'd be doing good to get fifth in either of the races. Race day we lowered the footpeg on the right side because I'd done some damage to my knee so I couldn't sit on the bike very comfortably. I borrowed one of Tripp Noble's boots, a size ten and fit my ankle in it. Went out the next morning, with a pad on the seat to jack me up a little bit. We were second fastest behind Aaron in the morning warm-up. I thought, hey, this ain't too bad. It hurt to ride. It hurt to change directions but we were comfortable with it. Come to the first leg and I pulled a holeshot and I was able to hold those guys off. Then the restart. I didn't get such a good re-start that time and had to fight my way to the front, but I made it. That was a really good weekend, I had to dig deep to find out what I was all about, in the end I finished right behind Carl and with the aggregate time, it gave me the win.
The second leg was a really good battle and he ended up falling down. I just kind of put it on cruise mode and then Aaron caught up and got by me. It was probably the best weekend I've had all year, although a painful one.
Q. When did you find out that you'd broken your leg?
A. I made it to Portugal without any doctors help and raced there. Then I came back and got ready for Mexico and went there, supposed to race but didn't and then came home. When I came home I found out my leg was broken right above my ankle, there is a small bone there that was broken at Donnington. My doctor said it has healed pretty well, but my ankle is still as big as a baseball. My knee is still very sore, I've got some ligament damage that we're rehabbing that now and if it doesn't come around I'll have orthoscopic done on it. I was hurt a little bit worse that I thought, I knew I was always in pain, in real bad pain since the Donnington weekend. The knee isn't that good, it doesn't give me very good support especially on the bike. I went to Mexico and it hurt worse than it has yet.
Q. Tell me about the Mexican round, when did you realize that you'd won the championship?
A. Mexico was a pretty wild weekend. I had a bunch of people go down there with me, my whole family and friends went to watch me take it. I was looking forward to really riding and I was the quickest in both session and the bike was really really slow in that altitude while the Ducati is really fast, so I was pretty happy with that. I was a half a second faster than anybody out there, we were looking good for the race. Saturday comes along, qualifying time, and they postponed it because of all the soccer games and stuff going on.
We just kind of held on, an hour went by and then another hour and another. Then all the riders got together and had a meeting and then another hour went by and we all said, this is crazy. If they were not willing to make the changes and stop the games and control the track, the corner workers didn't even have communication from corner to corner, we were out of there. It was pretty hokey.
We went around the track, Carl and I, we were the only ones who had a chance at the championship at that point. We looked at one another and said, 'we'll see each other next year,' it was over. He had already been beat before we even got there, he said in the press conference at Donnington that he had lost the championship.
Q. What do you think of Fogarty as far as his riding?
A. He's a good rider, but he has the best bike on the racetrack, no question about it. It's got the most acceleration and more top end than anything on the racetrack. Before they weren't the fastest on the top end but now they are, they have done a lot of work to that thing and really have it running good. It makes it really hard to beat those guys.
Q. What was your motivation for going to Loudon this year?
A. I'd won two Loudon's in a row, the two seasons prior to this one. I really wanted to go back up there and I called Rob from Japan (where I was) testing, I did a 200K race that it rained during too. I called him and he said, yeah, call me back tomorrow. I did and he said yeah, lets do it, c'mon out. You'll have to ride Sohwa's back-up bike, he said. So that was fine, I got on the bike and it wasn't very good. Probably the slowest thing I've ever been on and it wasn't set up very good.
We worked on it all night, the next day we put it on the pole immediately and bettered our time the next day. Then it rained and it was just one of those deals, when it's right, it's right. Nothing could stop us, that's basically what it was. I just missed AMA racing to be honest with you, I'm happy that I won it. We'll see what's happening next year and maybe I'll come back and do it again.
Q. Miguel DuHamel, your American counterpart on the Kawasaki team and yourself have never been close, what was he like that weekend?
A. I walked in, got on the bike and did what I did, that was it. I talked to him a little bit about his bike and they seemed to have trouble all year struggling to find the set up of the bike. Me being on it for three years, I knew what made it work and what didn't. It wasn't a problem for me to come in and say change this, this and this. I went back out and the thing was almost perfect. As far as me and him getting along, there wasn't a real big problem. I don't think he was real happy that I came in there and did that, he was quite off the pace that day.
Sorry, that's life. You deal with it or not. But I was just hoping that it lit a fire under him for the rest of the year. They still had their problems so I was happy to see him win at Sears Point.
Q. You had some problems with Aaron Slight, your WSC teammate too ..
A. At Monza he passed me and won the race when everybody thought he should have stayed behind. When it first happened I was real happy for him, because he hadn't won a race all year and he races good, I was very happy to see him win. He didn't win easy, I made him work for it. We talked it out and everything was kosher and I told him I was real happy for him. Then everybody started in on him, people from other teams and, come to find out, some people on our team were not real happy about it. I never said anything about it. It's just one of those deals, he's a racer and he wanted to win and he felt like at that time that the point spread at the time with Fogarty, that it was okay.
In the end it all worked out okay but it could have backfired and I could have lost the championships by two points. He had to catch some heat from that, but me, I never said anything to him about it, it never bothered me. Aaron was the best team mate I ever had, we got along really well, he's very easy-going. We did many things together off the track and it was just a good relationship. I'm happy now that he's going to Honda, that he'll be the number one guy there.
Q. The Grand Prix championship parties in Brazil are legendary, what was your party like in Mexico?
A. Saturday night after the Mexican's called the race, we didn't plan too much what happened, the people at the Hard Rock Cafe had something to do with the race. They asked us if we would like to have the party there and about thirty or forty of my friends came with us. They gave us the run of the place and we went out to the disco all night. Even with my hurt leg I wasn't feeling too much pain that night.
And then we did it again Sunday night and then we took off for Acapulco to kick back on the beach for a few days. It was very relaxing. We crashed up some golf carts and had a good old time.
Q. You were linked to Ducati for a brief period this season with the talk being you may join their WSC team. What can you tell us about that?
A. Ducati came to me after Monza, I toured the factory with Mr. Castiglioni, he was at Monza and Roche brought him over and we met. He said he wanted to have me come by and have a look at his place and I did, that was with Mr. Bordi who kind of runs that place, they showed me the new bike and everything.
That same day I went down to Cagiva which is a couple of hours away and toured that factory. We talked and they wanted me to stay overnight and continue the talks. They really wanted me to ride for them, they sounded pretty sincere about it and at the time we had to talk to them.
I didn't have a contract for the next year at that time and definitely we were talking with them. To begin things, they didn't offer me what I wanted, we hit them with a big money demand and they came back saying that we were pretty far apart, so we haggled with them back and forth.
My manager Tom Shehee did all of that, he and my mother went over and had a meeting with them just before Monza. It turned out that the dollars that we were looking for eventually came up to where we wanted to be. At that time I knew I had to start talking to Kawasaki because I owed them that much at least. Certainly I was still very happy with where I was, I'm not happy about being beaten by a Ducati every weekend.
But, you know what? Deep down inside, instead of joining them I'd rather beat them. Something different. I got to thinking about it and Kawasaki, we did a three year deal with them and we pretty much got everything we were looking for. To me, that was all I needed. To me, even if the money was the same or even if Ducati offered me a little bit more, I wasn't going to go. Because Kawasaki has been too good to me in the past, Rob has and I feel that there is something in being loyal to a company. I kept thinking of the Jeff Ward thing, he was a Kawasaki rider for thirteen years.
I was perfectly happy with Kawasaki and I wasn't getting GP offers, so I wasn't about to leave Kawasaki because they have done everything I've asked for. So in the end I had to call Ducati back and tell them thanks but no thanks.
Another reason I didn't go to Ducati is that they already have a Doug Polen, a Fallappa, a Carl Fogarty. They don't need a Scott Russell. They've got that covered. If I was to leave Kawasaki, I'm not saying they don't have anybody, but they'd have to go out and try and hire another top guy, I don't want to leave a happy family to go into a deal that I don't know anything about.
Q. I know you are very content with your championship but I have a feeling that you would be happier if you'd beaten Doug Polen for the championship. True?
A. I want to beat everybody anytime I'm on the track. As far as Doug goes, Doug has always succeeded in whatever he's done, that's wowed a lot of people. He's proved a lot of points, he's talked a lot but he's always backed it up. So for me to beat Doug, it's really just another guy out there. As far as talent, Carl and some of the other guys I raced against this year, they're every bit as good as Doug ever will be.
Every bit as fast as Doug will ever be. So for me to have not beaten Doug for the world championship, it's not a valid point because I worked as hard to win this championship as I would have if Wayne Rainey had been there. But yeah, honestly, I do get a big kick out of beating Doug Polen, I really like beating him. Especially when he's been beating up on everybody else.
Q. You spent some time in California and have now moved back to Georgia. Did you tire of the California environment?
A. Yeah, California was neat and all and it was good because I was out training with Kenny and that crew and Rob, but not as much as I had hoped because not everybody is around. That deal didn't really pan as well as I thought it would.
I met a lot of people and found out that a lot of people aren't real. So I had to let that deal go, and before I did that, I'd made plans that I was coming back home.
It was good, I learned some stuff out there. I probably needed that year and a half living that life in California just to realize what I was missing. I did and now I'm back and this is probably where I'll be staying. I haven't bought a house yet but I'm hot on that and getting back with my old girlfriend, get some roots going. It'd be good for me, I've done all the wide open single lifestyle that I need. Get married, who knows? Single life ain't all that it's cracked up to be.
Q. I hear you there brother. There seems to be a group of people who glam onto every champion that comes along, who probably don't have your best interests at heart, has this been your experience?
A. Yeah, there's always the people that are along for the ride. And as soon as that ride is over they are gone to the next guy. I'm finding that a bit true but, really, I'm not letting people get that close to me, only the people that are there for me, like my family. And Tom my manager, he's not just a manager so to speak, he's a friend of the family and he has got my best interest at heart. We talk everyday and we have a real good relationship going. He's not doing this for the money, he makes plenty of money as a Delta pilot. He's an ex-racer and he gets a real kick out of this. I like to have people around me that get as much of a kick out of racing as I do.
Q. You were the recipient of some advice from Eddie Lawson too ..
A. Lawson and I talked a little bit about what I was doing and where I was going and on and on. He enlightened me on some of this stuff that he's been through with various companies and how he went about it. It was good, Eddie's a great guy. For a while we were getting on pretty good. The advice that he gave me, I took it and did what I did with it. But, we're in two different boats here. He's done. He's a four time world champion and people just die for him to ride for them. I'm not really in that situation. And they way that he talked ... it was good for me to hear that, hear what he's all about. Basically he didn't help me as far as that goes but, I'm just happy that I got to meet Eddie Lawson. And got to race with him because he has always been one of my heroes, as well as Freddie and Kenny. It is a real good feeling knowing that I can go out there and put it on the line with the best of them. Good feeling.
Q. In the eyes of the Japanese your victory at the Suzuka eight hour was probably much more important than your WS Championship. How do you feel about that?
A. A little background. Going into the race I knew we were going to have a real hard time to win it. With Eddie and Mick and those guys I knew that we were going to have to have some luck on our side and really ride hard. In every practice session from the first day, our bike was number one and Doohan's bike was number eleven and every time it was either number one or number eleven on the board as fastest. I knew then that we were right in the middle of it and when I cut that twelve five lap time, I'd never been around that track that fast, I knew we had a chance.
When the race started, I knew that I was going to lead that thing at least one time regardless of what I had to do. I did too, lead it for quite a while. Our bike was very hard to ride after the tires went off. It didn't respond well to used tires. I held them off as long as I could and then settled into a pace that was good for us.
Importantly, everybody made the mistakes that they had to make and we didn't. It all turned out and that was the greatest thing ever. When I crossed the line on that one there hasn't been a feeling like that one yet. My heart was just flying, but ... it was THE best thing that has ever happened to me. It felt better than winning the championship actually, the championship was kind of anti-climactic with not racing in Mexico and it being over by somebody saying, okay, you're the champ. Suzuka, I really had to work for, actually both of them I had to work for, but Suzuka, when I crossed the line it was a very special feeling. Yeah!
When I was riding around on the cool off lap and Mick Doohan gave me the thumbs up, you know you did something. The fans were really into it, we had a good time after the race. The sea of people that covered the pit road was just unbelievable. We were up on the podium with champagne going everywhere and it was just an unreal feeling. Every time I'd bring my arm up (they'd) just go crazy, unbelievable, like nothing else.
Q. How has your family acclimated to having a world champion in the family?
A. My family has gotten pretty jacked up about me winning the world championship, they can't believe it, I can't either. Sitting here, I don't feel any different but, to be honest I always felt I could do it. I knew I had what it took when I was coming along. Last year I got a little bit of a taste of it over there, we had some problems with the bike.
The bike wasn't as good as it could have been and at the same time we were right in the middle of things. I knew that if we ever went back with a good effort we were going to win. I had to take that attitude to it too, if I hadn't we wouldn't have won it. It was no cakewalk, it was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, very straining mentally and physically. It's gonna take me some time, like until Daytona to get everything back where it needs to be. Body-wise I'm a little rough right now but mentally I'm ready, physically I'm not.
Q. Do you believe anything you hear anymore? Rumor-wise?
A. Rumors just go crazy, Europe is just as bad as America and I try not to listen to them at all. I've kind of ... I don't like to talk to the press that much anymore. I just want to go out and ride, and at press conferences I don't have much to say hardly after the races.
I feel like I'm one of the next guys, a Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson or Rainey, and whether it's in superbike or not, it's a good deal for America to have somebody doing that, winning a championship. If somebody wants to take a shot at me and knock me, they're knocking the flag. This sport is too small to try and tear it down.
Q. Coming from the one race per event in AMA racing, how do you feel about the two race arrangement in WSC racing?
A. I love the series and the two race format in World Superbike racing. If you had a bad run in the first race it gives you a chance to come back and redeem yourself so to speak. It really keeps you on your toes and you have to finish all the races to be there in the end. I love racing in Europe, it's something I've always have wanted to do. I know what it's all about now after a full season under my belt.
The only thing I'm not happy about in WSC and even in AMA racing is the rules. They're lopsided with the Ducati, clearly there is a problem there that is not being addressed. But ... I could be on a Ducati right now. But I'm not and I chose not to be, so I'm not going to bitch about it, I'm gonna deal with it. The Ducati for next year is going to be good, they've tested it and they say it's faster on top and more aerodynamic. But, that's okay. They were faster all year and I still won it, so I'm not going to let that bother me. I'm going to go out and take it to them even harder next year.
Q. And your opinion of the effects that the rule change will have on the Ducatis in WSC racing?
A. I think the rule change will have an effect but the weight limit they tacked on the Ducati for Europe was the same weight Giancarlo ran his bike all year. He wasn't running it as light as he could, he didn't like it that light. For us I think it might help a bit but we'll just have to see.
Q. When you were a fledgling Yoshimura Superbike rider you told me your career goal was to ride a 500. Is that still true? Is the money a big draw for you to do it?
A. Well, that's a good question. There is a possibility that if I got the offer I could go do that. I'd like to still do it just to prove to myself that I could do it, compete and win races. I'll never ever believe any different, I know I can. It's a different world and it's not a happy world I don't think. In the case of the GP series I don't think the people get along as well as we do in World Superbike. As far as the money I don't need ten million dollars in the bank to be happy. I'm really not that concerned about GP racing that much anymore, I'm perfectly happy being a Superbike guy. It's good to know that we're closing that gap on GP guys lap times wise. We use the same tires and the same wheels, same brakes, same suspension. We're just riding a four stroke, that's the only difference. I really respect what those guys do and hopefully they do the same for us. If I end up being a superbike guy for the rest of my career, I'll be happy.
Q. Still no WSC race in America, is that distressing to you?
A. Yeah, the fact that there is not a WSC round in the States is upsetting to me. They were talking about Elkhart or Atlanta so I thought for sure we'd get one, and when it came out and there was nothing on the schedule I was really disappointed. One day it will be back here in the US and until then, it just means I'll just have to come back and run some AMA. It would be fantastic to see World superbike bikes at Road America, just unbelievable! Elkhart would certainly qualify as a WSC track, I've run on tracks over there that aren't near as nice as Elkhart.
There are some parts on Elkhart that are dangerous, but there are places on Zelwig Austria that are every bit as dangerous and that's on the schedule. It's political, I think. That's something I really don't know anything about. I mean why? We'll be back in the States one day.