Humans have been racing motorbikes for a long time now, but very few have left an indelible mark on motorsports. These men are continued to be measured against and are referenced as the greatest of all time, not only for their talents and determination, but also for their character. Seen as bench marks for other riders to compare themselves to.
Top Motorcycle Racers Of All Time
First allow me to preface this story with some notable mentions- to not do so would be careless. There are so many greats and very few lines of text cite them. Sheene, Rainey, Agostini, Bayliss, Stoner, Surtees and McGuiness all could be on someone’s top five list. After all, they're in their own rights considered magnificent sportsmen.
The five extraordinary men on this list are here for their lasting impact on racing and their character on and off the motorcycle.
The Unbeaten Joey Dunlop
Joey Dunlop is not just a famous motorcycle racer. He’s a national treasure. The Northern Irishman won 26 TT races at the Isle of Man, an unbeaten record to date. He has been awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by the Queen for his contributions to British motorsports and for his humanitarian achievements. He was also at the forefront in bringing Irish road racing to international attention and his legacy lives on today with his road racing nephews, Joey and Michael Dunlop.
In 1979 he won the first Ulster Grand Prix in Northern Ireland and then proceeded to win it another 23 times over his career. The Ulster GP is known as the world’s fastest road race—pushing riders to pin the throttle for 7.7 miles with 130mph laps along narrow Irish road way. Thirty-five years ago Joey was doing this on a 1000cc beast, shod with wooden tires and rudimentary suspension. Yet, he set the bar high by managing laps with an average speed of 110 mph.
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Between 1979 and 1988 he won 13 times competing in the North West 200 in Northern Ireland and won the FIM Formula One TT world championship five years in a row from 1982 to 1986. He had his hand in almost everything: the Macau Grand Prix in 1982-1983 where he stood on the podium twice, the FIM Grand Prix in 1979 and 1985 where he raced 350cc and 250cc machines finishing in the top ten in all his outings. He was a wildcard in the first season of the fledgling World Super Bike series in 1988 where he took 3rd place at Donington Park.
What cemented Joey as a legend was the Senior TT at the Isle of Man in 2000. At 48 years young, he won the F1 race that year on a Honda VTR SP1 after a 12-year hiatus. The Honda RC-51 (Honda VTR SP-1) had a HRC factory spec motor that produced well over the stock RC-51’s 170 HP that Honda had decided to give Joey straight from the factory.
Tragically Joey Dunlop died racing at the Estonia Pirita-Kose-Kloostrimetsa circuit in 2000 while crashing out of the lead in a 125cc race. Prior to that race he had won the 600cc and 750cc events. Fifty thousand mourners attended Joey’s funeral, which was televised across the UK.
Joey Dunlop united not only fans from across the world, but also in England and Northern Ireland as well. He is a true legend.
A Hero, Fast on Anything with Wheels, Mike Hailwood
“Mike The Bike” Hailwood is known for riding anything with wheels and doing it fast as hell. The Briton dominated in Grand Prix motorcycle road racing and Formula One—breaking records along the way.
After winning the 1961 250cc GP championship on the Honda RC162 and two 500cc GP world championships in 1962 and 1963 for MV Agusta, he climbed into a formula one car. In 1969, Hailwood went on to take 3rd place driving a Ford GT40 in the famous French Le Man 24 hour race. He raced in Formula 1 between 1963 and 1964 and then again from 1971 to 1974. Hailwood never won a race, but he is still one of only a few men in history to compete at the Grand Prix level in both motorcycle and automobile.
During the 1973 South African F1 GP Hailwood rescued fellow racer Clay Regazzoni from his burning car after a heinous crash. Hailwood himself caught fire as he pulled the unconscious and trapped Regazzoni from the flaming wreck. His actions saved Regazzoni’s life. He received The George Medal, which is the highest award for bravery that can be bestowed to a civilian in the United Kingdom.
Hailwood arguably won the greatest Isle of Man race of all time: the 1967 Senior TT. After winning the 250cc and 350cc races on the mountain course Hailwood rode his 500cc Honda against his Italian rival Giacomo Agostini, who rode the more reliable and proven MV Agusta. Hailwood handled a fast four-cylinder 85 HP Honda RC181 (Honda’s first 500cc GP bike ever) and set the TT’s lap record during the race. He topped an average speed 108.77 mph that stood for eight years.
After lap three of six, Hailwood’s crew chief haphazardly attempted to fix his loose throttle grip in the pits with a handkerchief and sent him back out on track to attempt to catch the flying Italian. Hailwood recovered most of the 12-second lead that Agostini had made on him, but on the last lap Agostini’s chain broke, knocking him out of the race, giving Hailwood the well fought victory.
In 1978, after an eleven-year retirement from racing bikes, the then 38-year-old Hailwood went back to the Isle of Man and won the Formula 1 race riding a Ducati 900SS and cemented his name in legend as one of the most durable and brave riders to throw a leg over a GP motorcycle.
Hailwood eventually retired in 1979 at 39-years-old with 76 Grand Prix victories (37 in the 500cc premier class), 112 total Grand Prix podiums, 14 Isle of Man TT wins and nine World Championships (four of which are in the 500cc class). He also received a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) and a George Medal recipient of the master class. Unfortunately, Hailwood died in a tragic car accident in England in 1981… CONTINUE READING
CONTINUE READING: For the top 3 in the list and more photos, continue on here.
Dr. Valentino Rossi
Rossi is the most prolific motorcycle racer of all time. More than likely, if someone is riding on two wheels, they know him by his nickname Valle —especially in Europe.
Monster energy drinks, pizza boxes, apparel and knickknacks of all sorts are labeled with the magical numero 46. Best of all, Valle is easy to like and has been the face of Moto GP for over a decade, providing entertainment to fans worldwide. He is an absolute institution.
With 108 wins (82 in the premier class), he has raced and won every 125, 250,500,990,800 cc world championship and has accrued 196 podiums with a total of nine world championships under his belt (seven in premier class). Only Giacomo Agostini has won more races: 122 GP wins, 159 podiums, and 15 world championships.
Rossi dominated Moto GP from 2001 to 2005 by winning the world championship for five straight years. He went from winning the 2003 championship on-board the Honda RC211V to winning the next year on a Yamaha in 2004. He won against his Roman rival, Max Biaggi, at the first round of the 2004 season in South Africa, making him only the second rider ever to win consecutive races for different factories. This was all done on a supposedly inferior machine compared to the dominating Honda.
Up until his crash at Mugello in 2010, Rossi had never missed a race. Only 41 days after the accident, he was back at it where he scored a 4th place finish at the Sachesenring. Seven podiums (including a win at Malaysia) later he finished third in the overall standings in 2010. He has had many rivals and beat them all accept for one. Rossi was able to size up Seti Gibernau, Max Biaggi, Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo, but the younger version of himself, Marq Marquez, has yet to really be beaten by Rossi.
Rossi has never been a one trick pony. In 2001 he and Colin Edwards won the Suzuka eight hour endurance race aboard a Honda VTR1000SPW—a bike Rossi knew little about. Rossi was also offered rides with Ferrari in Formula 1. He tested in 2006 and was lapped only a second behind then world champion Michael Schumacher. Today he still dabbles in World Rally Car and is the owner of Sky Racing Team by VR46, which debuted in Moto3 in 2014 with Rossi’s young padawan, Romano Fenati, at the controls.
At a minimum Rossi has already accomplished enough to retire and ride into the sunset. But at 39, he still has two more years of racing ahead of him and it’s shaking out to be an interesting 2015 season.
The American King, Kenny Roberts
“King” Kenny was the first ever American Grand Prix World Championship winner. He earned two AMA Grand National Flat Track Championships riding for Yamaha (1973 and ‘74), three Daytona 200s, and won three 500cc Gran Prix World Championships in 1978, 1979 and 1980. As a competitor, he was fierce. As a pioneer, he was instrumental in changing the racing landscape that we see today in every aspect of motorsport: safety, riding style and directions in technology.
He left the US and went to Europe in 1978 to win the 500cc Grand Prix world title on his first attempt. Even though he had never seen most of the tracks before, Roberts applied what he learned back home on the dirt track to the European road courses and took many by surprise. In the final race of the season at the daunting 14.2-mile long (22.8 km) Nordschleife racetrack in Germany, Roberts finished in third place, ahead of Barry Sheene. The rest was history.
Back in the late 70’s Roberts used a cornering style that was contrary to the norm of the time. By wrapping duct tape around his knees, Roberts was able to what we know today as “dragging a knee.” Knee sliders are now complimented with elbow sliders, and current Moto GP stars are taking what Roberts started even further. “Backing it in” is a term that is commonplace today and its roots come from dirt tracking. Roberts did not invent the maneuver; however, he did bring it to the forefront in European GP racing where the whole outlook of racing differed from what Americans saw as normal.
Riding the ferocious 1975 Yamaha TZ750 dirt tracker probably gave Kenny Roberts the ideas he brought to Europe. The bike is somewhat of a legend in itself, linked forever with the man who dared to ride it. The TZ750 had a liquid cooled, four-cylinder motor pulled out of a road racing bike and it produced 125 HP. Roberts was able to reach 150 MPH on a straight and was quoted saying, “They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing." And ”they” probably did not considering it had no front break and technology that in today’s standards are pre-historic. Getting on that bike took some balls.
Roberts did many things as King. He brought Grand Prix racing to the states by promoting the development of Laguna Seca by forcing the FIM’s hand in 1980 to re-write the rule book on track safety and improving the pay for riders. He also went out on his own to build Moto GP bikes for his own team. Satellite teams and non-factory bikes that currently sit in the Moto GP paddock have Roberts to blame or thank for that.
Strong Man, Mick Doohan
One word can describe Mick Doohan: tough.
Piloting ridiculously fast two-stroke monsters that churned out 240 plus horsepower looked easy when Mick was at his best. The man from “Down Under” is known for his triumphant comebacks from injury, and against almost impossible odds, he dominated GP racing in the 1990’s. All that success came after coming close to losing his leg from gangrene.
In a horrible crash at the Assen GP in 1992, Mick broke his right leg and what seemed routine at first became a much larger problem and eventually, life threatening. Gangrene was setting in from compartment syndrome he had in his swelling limb. By the third day after the accident, Doohan still was having a shortage of blood to his muscles and nerves. The doctors were going for the hacksaw.
Enter Claudio Costa. He was the same man who saved Valentino Rossi’s father from certain doom in 1982. Costa served as the trackside doctor for Moto GP until his retirement this year. Costa flew Doohan to Italy and eventually saved his leg by stitching the two together and setting them in a cast for 14 days. Eight weeks later, Doohan was back on his Honda barely able to walk and his leg still oozing blood. Doohan was so fiercely competitive he would stop at nothing to keep Rainey from winning the World Championship-- and he came close to it.
By the end of the season Rainey won the title by only 4 points, even with Doohan missing 4 races. After his recovery from the near career ending crash, Doohan had a custom thumb brake attached to his left handlebar similar to a thumb throttle on an ATV. He used this to assist his damaged right leg when using the rear brake pedal. The Australian went on to win his first world championship in 1994, and he didn’t stop winning them until 1999.
In 1999 while qualifying in Jerez in Spain, Mick Doohan crashed at over 200kph. This was the last time he would ride in anger. After breaking a wrist, his shoulder and his bad right leg he retired from professional racing.
Today he is still involved in Moto GP and HRC. He has been spotted in the pit box on occasion with the likes of now retired Casey Stoner and recently with Marq Marquez, who by the way, beat the long standing record that Doohan set for most wins in a single season (12). Marquez one-upped Mick by grabbing 13 wins.
Lead photo courtesy of Piaggio Group.