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Aussie Rules: Doohan v Stoner

Published: 06 June 2016

Updated: 03 May 2016

Comparisons are inevitable when you’ve got two uncannily fast, feisty Aussie battlers born 65km apart making history on Repsol Hondas. Originally published in 2011

ick Doohan and Casey Stoner – sometimes you can’t help but think they were extracted from the same mould. The pair share so many similarities that it’s tempting to fantasise that there’s a bike-mad geneticist holed up somewhere in Queensland churning out a new Aussie battler every 20 years: Doohan in 1965, Stoner in 1985, another in 2005, which means that right now, somewhere on the Gold Coast there’s a six-year-old racing genius thrashing round on a dirt bike, bound for MotoGP glory in 2025.

There are plenty of reasons why Doohan and Stoner – born just 40 miles apart (Doohan in Brisbane, Stoner in Southport) – share many of the same racing attributes. Most importantly, they are both products of the high-achieving Aussie sporting world and more specifically of the country’s hugely competitive dirt track scene.

That’s why they are both ultra-tough competitors, famed for their mental tenacity and their ability to wrestle a motorcycle into submission. 

They grew up going sideways on the dirt, balancing the motorcycle with the throttle wide open and the handlebars on opposite lock, so they don’t panic when the bike threatens to get out of control. Indeed that’s when they are at their most impressive – witness Doohan’s mastery of Honda’s evil NSR500 and Stoner’s brilliance aboard Ducati’s otherwise untameable Desmosedici.

When Doohan first arrived in GPs in the late 1980s, his riding style really got your attention. He would slam that NSR into the corners so hard that it seemed certain the front tyre would let go. Sometimes it did but mostly it did not. Eventually his technique would change GP racing forever. Until Doohan arrived 500s were all about rear tyres and corner exits: in slow, out fast. Doohan was in fast, out fast. His radical style demanded better front tyres which helped European riders – bred not on dirt track but on 125s and 250s – to master 500s once again after the class of kings had been dominated for two decades by Australian and American dirt trackers.

Stoner’s technique also sets him apart. It was his unique use of throttle, rear brake and riding position that allowed him to do things on the Desmosedici that even Valentino Rossi cannot do. Now on the Honda, the rest of the grid is in awe of the man.

The pair’s aggression, like their talent, was also born of the Aussie dirt track scene. Both Doohan and Stoner are famed for always being on the attack. They learned to ride that way by contesting dozens of heats and races in the same day, some lasting seconds rather than minutes. 

That kind of competition instils a need to immediately go on the attack – there is no time to hang back and wait. It’s the same in practice – you never saw Doohan ride a slow lap and you never see Stoner ride a slow lap. It’s head down, straight out of the pits.

The rest is murder

Off the track, the likeness persists. Stoner keeps himself to himself just as Doohan did, and neither has a liking for the media or for PR nonsense. Doohan had several famous run-ins with journalists during his career. Most amusingly, while resisting a rather daft line of questioning from a local journalist during a press conference at Buenos Aires in 1998, he resorted to wartime name, rank and number mode, refusing to answer any further questions with the words: “My name is Mick Doohan and I’m riding in the Argentine GP for the Repsol Honda team”.

Stoner has also had some tense moments with the media. “I am here to race and the rest of it is just murder to me,” he said a couple of years ago. “I hate attention... I’d really just prefer to be a little mouse in a corner, forgotten about.”

More recently he is happier in the spotlight and is fascinatingly articulate when he talks about riding a MotoGP bike. Doohan was never so open about his riding skills. “Really, I don’t know what I’m doing,” he used to say, which was just his way of saying that he couldn’t be bothered explaining how he rode a motorcycle to some hapless journalist.

Of course, just as Doohan and Stoner are the same, so they are different. If they both learned how to race in Aussie dirt track, their careers haven’t followed quite the same path. Doohan’s was more haphazard, as was the norm back in the days before the sport became more regimented. He started riding several years later than Stoner and contested his first race at the relatively advanced age of ten – a full six years later than Stoner.

Both kids were introduced to the sport by bike-mad fathers, though Doohan’s early career was interrupted by the death of his dad Colin. Without his father to guide him, take him to races and fix his bikes, Doohan drifted out of the sport. Every few years he had another stab at racing but his heart was never really in it. He seemed more interested in thrashing around on road bikes and jet-skis and generally having a good time – drinking, smoking and chasing girls.

Even when he discovered his local roadrace circuit, he only went down there for a bit of fun. Doohan used to turn up at Surfers Paradise to ride his RD250LC during open track days with no thought of actually going racing. 

“He never used to check the tyre pressures or anything,” remembers older brother Scott. “He’d be sliding around because he only had 15psi in the tyres, with his shirt hanging out between his two-piece leathers. He was a bit loose in those days – it was just all good fun.”

It was only after a lot of cajoling from mates and the owners of a couple of local bike shops – who knew he had a huge talent – that Doohan took up 250 proddie racing and stuck at it. Even when several superbike teams started chasing his signature, Doohan wasn’t sure he wanted to race anything more than a 250 street bike. “Anything faster than 200 kays seemed too stupid!” he recalls.

The dawn of dominance

Contrast that to Stoner who has pretty much done nothing else but race all his life and who spent most of his youth focused on one goal: MotoGP glory. Mentored and guided by his father Colin, Stoner’s life has been all about racing from the day he turned up at the Hatchers dirt track in Queensland at the age of four. Indeed, Stoner’s career didn’t only dominate his own life, it dominated his family’s life.

Once he started ruling local dirt track events, his parents moved from Queensland to New South Wales in search of tougher competition to accelerate his career, then they moved to the other side of the world to get an early start in roadracing. At the time the minimum age for roadracing in Australia was 16, in Britain it was 14, so for Colin and Bronwyn Stoner it was a no-brainer: sell everything they possess, move to Britain and live in a caravan for a couple of years. That’s quite a sacrifice to make in the name of racing.

When he wasn’t racing Down Under, Stoner was sat in front of the telly, watching videos of Doohan crucifying the opposition in 500 GPs (he was too young to stay up to the early hours to watch European races live). By watching those videos again and again Stoner developed an enormous respect for Doohan and modelled himself on the five-time champion, learning not only from his riding ability but also from his gritty comeback from the horrific leg injury he sustained in 1992.

“I dreamed of following in Mick’s footsteps,” he says. “But it’d be impossible to really follow in his footsteps – to do that I’d have to break a leg really badly and come back from that.”

Although Stoner did follow Doohan into the premier class, he took a slightly different route, via 125s and 250s, not superbikes. Stoner’s earlier years were also different to Doohan’s in that he didn’t live the life of the wayward teenager – partying hard and getting into trouble with the cops. Doohan had lost his road licence five times by the time he was 20. Stoner is on the opposite end of that scale – he doesn’t drink and he doesn’t hold a bike licence.

It’s way too early to know if Stoner will emulate his all-time hero by winning five premier-class world titles. But if Honda’s 1000cc RCV is a real rocket-ship, don’t bet against it.

Words Mat Oxley  Photos Gold and Goose

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