Mick Doohan won the 500cc title five times. Then he became really successful…
any top motorcycle racers don’t make great businessmen. Too many cram their bank accounts with the gains of their talent, only to lose it all through doomed deals or dodgy business partners.
Some of them make profitable comebacks to refill the coffers, others go bankrupt, and then there’s the Grand Prix legend who’s been living in a caravan at the bottom of a friend’s garden.
Mick Doohan doesn’t live at the bottom of anyone’s garden; he lives on his own estate on Australia’s Gold Coast, where wallabies lope through the greenery and the Pacific Ocean laps against the boat jetty. The man who ruled GPs with an iron fist for much of the 1990s was the first bike racer to earn an eight-figure salary and the first to own a private jet. With good reason too. At the height of his powers Doohan was way better than everyone else on the grid, so if you wanted to win the world title you needed the teak-tough Aussie on your bike and you had to pay him accordingly.
After he retired hurt in 1999 Doohan didn’t fritter away his fortune on wine, women and song. Instead he got into business in a big way, utilising the same characteristics that made him just about unbeatable on the racetrack. He now owns Australasia’s biggest private jet business, plus various other companies and property interests. In other words, he’s still every bit as driven as he was when he earned a living twisting the throttle of his Honda NSR500.
“Much of business is the same set of tools I used when I was racing, just a different application,” he says. “It’s probably as boring as bat-shit for most people but I enjoy it immensely. It’s the same as in racing: you learn a lot by your mistakes – things happen that you don’t want to happen again, so you go, how did that happen? I’ve made some monumental f***-ups in business but it’s the same as in racing: that’s never going to happen again.
“It’s having that focus. If you just go, yeah, that’ll be right, you’re not going to get far. When I was racing I was fully immersed in that and I’m a bit the same now. I’m full-on, then I try and let my hair down a bit, then it’s back to full-on again because that’s the only way you can do it properly. It’s using those tools that made me different to some other guy who had similar talent. It’s how you apply yourself. It’s commitment, persistence, dedication, not giving up, it’s not saying, f*** this is too hard; well, f*** yeah, it is hard, but…
“The money is a by-product, same as it was in racing. When you’re making deals you want to get the best deal.”
Doohan was just as astute when he was racing, but his business acumen only paid dividends back then because he was also mightily talented on a motorcycle.
“Early in my grand prix career I removed second and third-place bonuses from my contract and replaced them with bigger win bonuses. I backed myself that way. What’s second, what’s third? I wasn’t too concerned about them. Also, I used to do a yearly contract which was very beneficial. The only multi-year deal I did was in my first two years on 500s; every other deal was for 12 months. That way you always have plenty of options, especially if you’re in a winning position.”
Over several years Yamaha worked hard to steal Doohan from Honda and were prepared to pay him handsomely, using their Marlboro sponsorship money. “I had no problems going to Yamaha but they couldn’t supply the whole package – Honda paid me more and were more committed.”
The bidding war between the two factories massively boosted his earnings. “Marlboro definitely helped me with some of the offers they made! I was pushing the boundaries, there weren’t too many people in motorsport full-stop who were making more money than me at that time.”
When he raced, Doohan was committed to the exclusion of all else and was famously short with the media, just like fellow Aussie Casey Stoner. “I just couldn’t be bothered putting up with the bullshit. It’s racing, not EastEnders. I was there to race, I wasn’t there to be a movie star. And I wasn’t making money from being a movie star – if I didn’t win I didn’t get paid.”
Doohan – who recently celebrated his 50th with a week-long birthday bash in Ibiza – made his GP debut aboard Honda’s scariest GP bike of all time, the 1989 NSR500. He won his first GP the following year and was running away with the 1992 championship, ahead of Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz and the rest, when he broke a leg at Assen. After narrowly avoiding amputation he came back to win five consecutive 500 titles from 1994.
“It was a special time and I enjoyed it hugely. The early days, going from superbikes to 500s was certainly a frightening time. Trying to understand how you were going to get on top of that 500 wasn’t easy – the thing didn’t stop, didn’t turn, didn’t do anything except go friggin’ quick in a straight line. Then again, Eddie Lawson won the world championship on it, so credit is due there.”
Doohan still watches MotoGP. He believes that today’s top men – Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi, Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa – aren’t much different to him, Rainey and Schwantz in their heyday.
So, do any of the 21st century greats remind him of himself? “All those guys are out there giving it 100 percent plus, so that doesn’t change whether it’s Rainey’s era, Lawson’s era or Barry Sheene’s era. Do I sit back and go, ‘Jeez, that guy reminds me of me?’ No, I’m not that much of a w*****. I’m not saying I’m not a w*****, just not that much of a w*****!”
Doohan also believes that while the bikes have changed massively, today’s best riders would have won on 500s, as Rossi did in 2000 and 2001.
“You adapt to what the bike lets you get way with, whether that be electronic aids, grip, brakes, whatever, so I’m sure guys like Marquez and Lorenzo could adapt to 500s. Regardless of whether it’s aids or no aids, two-stroke or four-stroke, there’s always going to be a handful of guys up front, maybe two or three who are really good, then the others who can hang on for a little while and then drop off.”
Doohan’s ability as the standout rider of his generation made him the richest bike racer in history. His more recent success in business would definitely give him a good chance in a wallet-off with Rossi, whose racetrack earnings far outstrip his own. But Doohan may soon find a way to slim-line his wallet. Twelve-year-old son Jack recently won the Australian under-16s karting championship. Karts are the usual training ground for Formula 1, where most rookie drivers have to buy their rides for millions. “Hopefully Jack will get too tall and have to take up basketball,” he laughs.
Words: Max Oxley Photos: Chippy Wood, Friedman Kirn, MCN Archive