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Wayne’s World

As promised, on Tuesday night I joined a huge crowd of motorcycle racing enthusiasts at Wollongong’s main movie theatre to see the premiere of the Wayne Gardner documentary. The movie had previously been shown in both Melbourne and Sydney but Wayne was at pains to remind the audience that this showing, here in his home town, was the REAL premiere!

It certainly was a great night with lots of old friends and acquaintances from then and now being in the audience. The movie was produced by Jeremy Sims who has a long career in film-making in Australia (though I’d never heard of him) and is, as noted, a documentary rather than a dramatisation, (thankfully) of Wayne’s rise to the top of the motorcycle road racing tree. It features interviews from a veritable who’s-who of motorcycle road racing and is narrated basically by Wayne himself and by his ex-wife, Donna with whom he maintains an excellent relationship.

It’s a great movie if you were there back in the day because there is just so much footage of wonderful races and racers that we remember from those times. As well it features interviews with a huge number of people who helped Wayne in his career and had an important part to play in his life. I may be just a bit biased but that’s probably because half a dozen of my photos were used in the movie and my name appears in the credits! (ahem).

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I’d recommend it to any enthusiasts who wants a great nostalgia trip. As a documentary it steers a very clever course between dramatics and fact and cleverly avoids the awkwardness that could so easily have entered the scene when dealing with the life of someone who is still alive.

Wayne comes across as just exactly the person that he is, a rough-nut kid from a tough industrial town who never changed despite being thrust into the limelight of the world stage. I can say that because I have been privileged to have known him and to have followed his career from the beginning. It is a “warts and all” movie with Wayne calling a spade a spade when it is necessary to do so. His bitterness about Honda’s hiring of Lawson behind his back in 1989, for example, is still present, as well it should be. And, speaking of Lawson, he comes across as one of the less likeable characters in the movie, both from the contemporary footage and the interviews that were done for the movie.

After the movie there was a Q&A session with Wayne, Donna and Jeremy where questions from the audience were sought. Of the few audience members who actually got to ask them, most of them were crackers, including some from Wayne’s old boss at Tubemakers when he was an apprentice there. The old Tubemakers site is just around the corner from my house and I pass it regularly though the business itself has closed down. Unfortunately, the compere, a local ABC “journalist” seemed to feel that the audience would much rather listen to HIS questions so the whole thing was a bit disappointing.

However, during the Q&A, Wayne did get the opportunity to expand on the controversy surrounding his unsuccessful title defence in 1988, a disaster that was covered in some detail in the film. When asked why the 1988 Honda was such a dog compared to his title-winning bike in 1987, Wayne explained that that was the way Honda did things, a fact that I have often mentioned here. “Basically, they said, OK we’ve won with that bike, now let’s build a new one,” was Wayne’s explanation. But he then went on to explain WHY that happened and why the bike was so bad. Apparently Honda brought into the team an engineer who had been a part of their Formula One effort and he brought design parameters with him that were appropriate for cars but not for bikes. He said that the bike needed to be lower, with the centre of gravity as low as possible (F1 cars do need that). So, when the bike came out, it was practically unrideable. All the things that had made the 1987 bike work so well were thrown out the window and a whole new bike with entirely different parameters took its place.

Now I’m no engineer, but even I know that you can never start with a clean slate in racing. Racing bikes are, almost always, evolutionary rather than revolutionary (just look at Honda’s own NR500 if you want proof of that). But the 1989 bike, while looking similar to its predecessors, was not. It was a revolution in design and it simply didn’t work. Wayne went on to explain just how he changed Honda’s mind (albeit too late in the season). “We noticed that Kevin Schwantz’s Suzuki was parked next to our motorhome and I got one of my mechanics to come inside and take photos of it through the window. The windows were tinted so nobody could see what we were doing and we shot rolls and rolls of film of it while it was sitting next to us. The films were rushed back to Japan where they were developed and Honda then blew up the photos to full scale and had their draftsmen make full-sized drawings from them. What they found was that all the pivot points and centres of Schwantz’s bike were much higher than those of our bike. Because of this, on our bike, all the angles were wrong, the leverage points were wrong and the way that the bike reacted to inputs was all wrong.” Wayne then took the information to his engineers and showed them why the bike was such a dog’s breakfast. “They rubbed their chins and said,,’ Interesting, Gardner-san'” He asked them if they had any plans to do anything about it and the answer was that they didn’t.

Remembering that saving or losing face is a very important part of Japanese culture it was clear that Honda, faced with the fact that hey had messed up, were still not prepared to admit their mistake. So Wayne’s team took it on themselves to modify the bike, they took the hacksaw to the rear subframe, changed most of the geometry and turned the bike into a winner. So successful were they that Wayne was set to win the 1988 title and would have done so had not the bike gone sour in the last race of the season when he was leading the race and within sight of victory. It was a fascinating story and right from the horse’s mouth.

The movie is not the full story of Wayne’s racing career, obviously. It follows his rise, his 1987 500ccc title win, the battles with Honda in 1988 and Wayne’s epic win in the 1989 Australian GP at Phillip Island. To have bitten off any more than that would have been a huge task and the producers wisely kept their focus on the most important bits.

In the foyer afterwards we were able to meet Wayne and the crew and, for Paul and I, it was an opportunity to touch base with a guy who has never forgotten how we supported him in the early days of his career. Now Wayne gets a lot of bad press in Wollongong and I have never understood why. It doesn’t matter how long it is between the times that we meet, he is always the same and has been always the same.

If you get the chance to see the movie, and it is due to be released commercially in September, get along and see it, you won’t be disappointed.

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