Matt Blair remembers Mick Doohan in the ‘80s
It was an extraordinary gathering, almost pre-ordained. About 12 hours after the news of Mick Doohan’s retirement broke in Australia on 10 December, 1999, a group of people was engaging in what Doohan had done in earlier in his career. Racing motorcycles under a hot Aussie sun. Wayne Gardner was there, racing for the first time since his emotional swan-song at the 1992 South African Grand Prix. So too Doohan’s one-time prodigy Anthony West, and the man who was already feeling the pressure of being Australia’s only contracted works 500 rider, Garry McCoy. There were people who had worked on Doohan’s bikes, and sundry hundreds that had rejoiced in his enormous success or rallied when he was fighting to save his career.
For a three-hour race on Honda-powered Moriwaki 80 road racers around a tiny-half mile go-kart track at Eastern Creek, it was taking on momentous significance.
Along for the ride were some of Australia’s brightest local stars, like Broc Parkes. Then there was Matt Blair.
Blair was a gun local rider in the ‘80s, and came up against Doohan in the 250 production class and later in Superbikes. They were mates. Before and after quitting racing, Blair had been watching the GP telecasts – until Doohan had his career-ending crash at Jerez in May 1999.
“Yeah, that was it. It just wasn’t the same without Mick,” Blair said. “I’ll probably be back watching next year , ‘cause hopefully he’ll [pointing to McCoy] will have a real go.”
Having a go. It’s a very Australian term. It doesn’t mean you have to go out and win. It just means that you, well, had a go. You gave it your best. And according to Blair, every fibre in Doohan’s being was attuned to doing just that as far back as 1987.
“I was pretty quick in those days, and I always fancied myself, especially at Bathurst, but I wasn’t prepared to do what Mick did,” Blair said. “He rode that 250 proddie so hard, scrappin’ the bellypan more than anyone. At the one-hour race at Lakeside, he was awesome. I finished fourth, but he ended up lapping me.”
Before that was Bathurst, Easter 1987. Blair and Peter Goddard were fighting for the lead at the end of the second last lap when the heavens opened. At the left hander at Hell’s Corner up Mountain Straight for the last time, Goddard had a big moment and so too did Blair, all of which gave Doohan, who had been some distance back, the chance to strike.
“Going in to the next fast uphill right-hander [Griffin’s Bend], Mick went underneath me, and he had a huge slide trying to get on the gas. He just gathered it in, then took another handful and had an even bigger slide! He was so desperate, so aggressive, he rode like that all the time. He put his body on the line every time he went out,” Blair added.
“Desperate” is a word Blair often uses to describe Doohan, more as an ambitious sportsman than as an out of control rider. As hard as he was on the track, Blair said he was a very clean rider. The ambition, though, was palpable.
“Mick was a fun-loving guy, and he liked a drink like everyone else after a race, but I knew there was something different about him. I remember he gave me a lift in his rent-a-car one day when we were riding Superbikes in Adelaide I think, and I was telling him about my work as a carpenter. He said, ‘do you really want to be doing that for the rest of your life? I’m goin’ motorbike racing!’ He was absolutely desperate to go all the way, like he knew it was going to happen.”
Blair was highly-rated by his rivals like Peter Goddard and Aaron Slight, but as so many have found out over the years, Doohan’s pace and consistency could be crushing. “On a Superbike, I could stay with him for a while, but no way could I get around him. He was in a different league,” Blair says with pride rather than embarrassment. It was also an acknowledgement of Doohan’s talent, commitment and courage. “I just didn’t have the gonads to do what he was doing,” Blair added.
And so it went on. That desperation to be the best, to dominate, didn’t flicker once during Doohan’s career. From people like Blair, who knew Doohan as a young tearaway, to the national television networks, the tributes flowed. The news of Doohan’s retirement rippled around Australia from late on Friday night, 10 December, 1999, and was carried as its headline news item – not sports item – the next day. The Ten Network ran it as its lead story on the Saturday edition of its national news program. It signed off with this: “Mick Doohan will go down as one of Australia’s most decorated sportsman – not only of the decade, but this century”. In a sports mad country, which in 1999 alone boasted some 60 world champion teams/individuals/world records, this was a bold claim.
It was and is, however, accurate. In the Australian sporting pantheon, Doohan will, and should, sit alongside those individuals who have already been lionised: the freakish cricketer Sir Donald Bradman, triple Olympic Gold Medalist and female swimmer of the century Dawn Fraser, and tennis player of the century, Rod Laver.
This was the reaction from Australia’s leading bike racing identities at the time of Doohan’s retirement:
Mick Smith – then Honda Australia race manager: “It’s a sad thing for motorcycle sport in Australia, but a great thing for Mick. In hindsight, I would’ve really loved to have seen him go after his fifth world championship. Unfortunately, it was an anticlimax without him this year. What can you say? The sport is desperately going to miss him. I think Australia is definitely going to miss him. We have had such a high profile for such a long time and it’s all due to one person and now he’s gone. There is a vacuum there and I hope we can recover but I can’t see it in the immediate future. Everybody in the sport has a massive obligation to find another Mick Doohan to maintain the profile we’ve become accustomed to. I’m just sad. It’s a sad day.”
Murray Sayle – former Team Kawasaki Formula 750 rider, team-mate to Gregg Hansford: “It doesn’t matter if you’re Mick Doohan, you can’t keep riding forever, especially when you’re injured. I wish him all the best in his future endeavors whether that’s as a team owner, or as a consultant for the grand prix. I think the guy has a wealth of talent, and has unbeatable record for the current crop of riders to attain.”
Garry McCoy – Red Bull Yamaha 500 rider: “He’s had his falls and he’s busted himself up enough to think about giving it away. I’m sure if I was his age, and had the crashes he had, and been through what he’s been through, I would’ve had enough for sure. There will be a vacuum and there hasn’t been anyone there with the experience to do the job that’s he’s done. At the moment, I’m the most experienced Australian out there, which should put me next in line. I’m feeling the pressure already and there’s more build up, but I’m just trying to ignore it. I spoke to Mick, I wish him all the best and I think he’s done a lot for the sport, and I’m happy he’s come to his decision.”
Wayne Gardner – 1987 world 500cc champion: “I’m happy for him. I’m happy that he’s finally made the decision to stop. He’s done a lot, he’s been one of the best. You know, he’s been hurt and busted up in the past and I hope he can lead a happy life after it. I’ve been talking to Mick quite a lot and I knew it was coming – it was a matter of time.”
Barry Sheene – 1976-77 world champion, GP commentator: “What’s so sad is the fact that he’s retiring from racing not because he wants to but because his body says he’s got to. He’s been the best rider of his era, without any shadow of a doubt.”
Anthony West – 250 GP Rookie: “It’s think it’s good what he’s done in his career. It’s good to see that he’s retiring – it’d be bad to see him go out and hurt himself again.”