This is a story about a former world champion that signed to race a V-twin motorcycle for an iconic manufacturer. It was a relationship that was heralded from all corners when it was announced, and one that if it brought success would cement the rider in as a true legend of racing. But, after much fanfare, and two long seasons, the good results never came and the promise most saw from the pairing went unrealized.
It is not a story about Valentino Rossi or Ducati. Not directly anyway.
"Mentally, it was the end for me as a rider," American Scott Russell says today of the two seasons that he spent racing a Harley-Davidson VR 1000 Superbike in the AMA Superbike series in 1999 and 2000. "The bike just never got any better. I think most saw it as they were moving the same stuff around on the bike. My best result was tenth place."
Perhaps you have to be an American to fully understand the full potential that was possible when Harley-Davidson announced that they had signed former World Superbike champion Scott Russell to race their V-Twin Superbike. On the surface this was a pairing of the American motorcycle manufacturer and a former national and world championship Superbike champion. However, Russell's championships were really just a minor sub-plot of why this relationship promised so muchit was Russell's place in the fabric of American racing that gave VR 1000 program such credibility...and so much promise. Russell, at the time, was the most successful racer in the Daytona 200. He had won it five times, more than any other rider. The unstated potential was that if Russell could win the Daytona 200 on a Harley-Davidson Superbike, it would be an event which could transcend motorcycle racing itself. Harley-Davidson, Daytona and the American rider of his generation in one giant blast of racing glory, with a plate of apple pie beside it.
In the end, Russell struggled on the Harley-Davidson VR 1000 Superbike, and he never really got close to the front of a race, even in two seasons. For Russell, it didn't begin well or end well. He rode the VR 1000 for the first time at the Daytona tire test in December of 1998, did one lap of Daytona and returned to the pit. As he idled down the pit lane, he saw a friend on the pit wall. Their eyes locked momentarily. Russell rolled his eyes. Was the verdict in early?
"Mentally, I knew that it was the end for me as a rider. I knew when it was happening that it was probably the end. In fact, I remember fearing when I signed the contract with Harley that it might be the end of Scott Russell," the rider known as "Mr Daytona" says today. "It was an all-time low, confidence wise."
Confidence is an apt term to discuss when the subject of Scott Russell comes up because Russell's bravado was legendary. His former teammate, Aaron Slight, once said that the sight of Scott Russell on a racing motorcycle was, at times, otherworldly, because Russell was able to ride past the limits on machines with weak brakes and substandard suspension. How did he do it? Good question. Even Russell was not able to explain it, saying once to a friend "I dunno man, I just ride." He won Daytona on a crashed motorcycle, one ridden into victory circle with bent clip-ons and a missing footpeg. He missed first practice for a WSBK race onceallegedly because he had been, ahem, detained by some of Atlanta's finest over a driving infraction. He showed up late and still qualified on the front row. Another time, angry and bored in a German hotel room, he seethed to team boss Rob Muzzy and his mechanic Gary Medley that he wanted to "do something". To Russell, "do something" meant fly back to America and use Tiger Sohwa's back up bike to win the Loudon Superbike racein the rain.
He was very unique, even for a rider. For example, Scott Russell did not require much sleep and just hanging out with him drove friends to near exhaustion. He bought giant houses he rarely spent any time in. He didn't bring street clothes to the racetrack, finding it easier just to stop and buy new clothes on the way to the hotel for a shower. Did he have a valid drivers license? Who knows. For a while he didn't even carry a wallet. His travel agent once drove to the airport just to watch him board a flight on time. He rode as he lived. Maybe a little wild, but with an abandon, a willingness to push harder that nearly anyone, on and off the track.
But he could not push against an immovable force. Which is what Russell found in the VR 1000. "It wears on you, I can tell you that," he says. "It's an old cliche: showing up with a knife for a gunfight."
Two seasons before he returned to America and agreed to race the Harley, Russell had ridden the factory Yamaha YZF Superbike in the World Superbike championship. Just the transition from Europe to America was difficult for him, not to mention the technical differences between what he had ridden previously and the VR 1000. "It was tough, coming back from Europe, knowing that my run in Europe was over. It was a step back for me; I knew it."
|There are similarities if you compare the seasons Valentino Rossi spent at Ducati to the two seasons Russell put in at Harley. Both riders left those teams basically shell-shocked, out-shined by their teammates. And very, very rich.|
As the two seasons on the Harley played out, Russell was left mulling what might have been. "It's devastating, when the results go bad. I remember thinking then 'God I had a short career. I probably should have tried harder.' Russell won the AMA Superbike title in 1992, raced in Europe in 1993, winning the WSBK championship, but was back in America by the end of the 1990s.
There are similarities if you compare the seasons Valentino Rossi spent at Ducati to the two seasons Russell put in at Harley. Both riders left those teams basically shell-shocked, out-shined by their teammates. And very, very rich. "At the time the money I was being paid by Harley didn't matter to me," Russell says. "At the time, all that mattered was that I was riding a bike that I knew that if it didn't rain that I had no shot at winning on. That's all I thought about. I was overwhelmed by it. I never thought about the money." Russell was the highest paid rider in the AMA Superbike paddock in that era.
"Now? Now it makes me smile," Russell says. "I am still getting paid by Harley-Davidson, and will continue to get paid for two more years. I sit on my porch and look at my land and my things and my life and I am very happy I rode for Harley. I am very fortunate."
Asked to sum up his two seasons at Harley-Davidson, Russell says: "Humbling. Isolating. Difficult."
Russell did race after the Harley-Davidson contract ended. He rode an HMC Ducati at Daytona for his friend, Mitch Hansen, at Daytona in 2001. He was fast in practice and you could see glimmers of the old Scott Russell, spinning it up, taking the high line on the shadowed portion of the banking, a tactic only endorsed by either the fully confident or the fully insane. Any promise shown on the Ducati ended when he was savagely rear-ended when the bike stopped running. The crash ended Russell's two wheeled career and almost his life. "We had some speed on the Ducati," he remembers. "It was fun to be back on something that was close, had some speed. We looked good all the way until the race, I thought. Then it ended."
He's envious that Rossi will get a second shot, an opportunity to live down the humiliation. "Valentino has a bright light at the end of the tunnel. He has the opportunity to clear something up and make amends with himself. As a rider he can show people that he has still got it. I never really got that shot. He has a top, factory bike to use, make people forget the two previous seasons. I wish I'd had that."