Kevin Magee had a stellar domestic career and was thrust into the crucible of 500cc Grand Prix racing in the late 1980s. Looking every inch a champion in waiting, it never happened: here's part two of the Magoo story.
In part two on ‘Magoo’ we chart his Grand Prix years in 500cc racing, the highs and the lows – as well as the comeback from serious injury.
It's fair to say that 1987 was an enormous year for Kevin Magee: All Japan TT-F1 champion (won every race), Suzuka 200 and 8 Hours winner, crashed while leading Arai 500 at Bathurst, won the Castrol 6 Hour and the Swann Series and even competed in his first world 500cc Grand Prix races.
In early February that year, it was TT-F1 testing at Suzuka. At the time Niall Mackenzie held the lap record on a 500 GP machine at 2m15.52s while Wayne Gardner had the TT-F1 lap record at 2:17.80. On his first flying lap of the second afternoon session on the F1 four-stroke YZF750, Kevin nailed a 2m 16s flat – he was immediately ordered back to the pits. Yamaha didn't want to let the competition know about this insanely quick Aussie they had. He returned for the first TT-F1 race of the season later that month and won in atrocious conditions. A few weeks later he got the call he'd been waiting for: an offer to ride for Yamaha in the 1987 Japanese 500cc Grand Prix.
“We had dry weather for practice and qualifying,” says Magee, “But I chucked it down the road three times, losing the front. Eddie Lawson gave me a few tips and I sorted the problem. I'd never ridden on radial fronts and there were some tricks to keeping heat in them! Come Sunday and it was raining heavily. I got off the line okay after qualifying 6th, but back then Dunlops were a mile ahead of Michelins in the wet. Randy Mamola walked away on the better tyres and I made it as far as 3rd before coming together with Gardner and high-siding a few laps later. I was really spewing. It was a very important race for me!” Yamaha were happy – that was the main thing.
Then – disaster: April 18 and Magee was leading the Arai 500 by a country mile. It's thought the wrong pit signals meant that Magoo kept pushing: crashing and breaking a femur as a result. “I discharged myself after eight days,” admits Magee. “I had a round of the TT-F1 coming up in Japan, and so I started exercising the injured leg every day in a pool. I won that F1 race but the mechanics had to lift me off the bike at the end…”
Soon another offer for a GP ride came in, this time from Kenny Roberts but at Assen – a tricky track to learn and o fast on. Many urged him to turn it be on a hiding to nothing: but qualified 2nd behind Gardner.
“The race was wet and I was but my visor started to fog ba point I couldn't see at all. I we the grass – flat in top gear! I that, after Japan, I didn't want to be known as a crasher, so I slowed down and aimed for
10th. That gave me the point required to qualify for the
1988 Grand Prix season.
John Thompson, our FIM delegate, presented me with an engraved silverware drink tray for my first world championship point. I've still got it.”
Kevin then travelled to the 8 Hours with Aussie mechanics Warren and
Glenn Willing and Dudley
Lister. Magee was originally t team up with GP star Tadahik
Taira but when the Japanese rider was injured 250 rider M Wimmer was brought in to th “Magee was amazing that weekend,” says Dudley Lister, “He carried both of them and he needed nothing from us. We just had to work on Wimmer, who was quick on a 250 but struggling on the bigger bike. In the end Magee did most of the work. He rode two double sessions and two singles on old rubber. We saved the new rubber for Wimmer. In the last session Kevin was 27 seconds behind the leader and there were nine laps to go. He just went past them like they weren't there at all. We won the race. It was incredible.”
The season was capped off with another Grand Prix ride, this time in Portugal with the aim of helping Mamola take 2nd overall behind Gardner. Job done: Magoo took 3rd in the race behind Randy for his first podium. 1987 was a golden year, as he also wrapped up the Swann Series on a Yamaha FZR1000 ahead of team-mate Michael Dowson and secured a ride with Kenny Roberts' Lucky Strike Yamaha factory team for 500s in 1988, teamed with a class rookie called Wayne Rainey…
It was going to be a high-pressure year for many reasons. Not just for his first full-time 500 season but it included the commitment of selling up in Australia and moving to the USA, which included three months of intensive training at Kenny's ranch. Kevin would shock both Kenny and Wayne by lapping quicker than both on his first time out on one of the off-road tracks…
When the 1988 season began, Magoo would finish the first race at Suzuka behind his team-mate in a race won by Rainey's arch-rival Kevin Schwantz. While 6th and 7th was considered a decent enough result for the team, Laguna Seca was up next: “Laguna reminds me of Bathurst with all of its undulations and camber changes,” says Magoo. “I'd only tested there once but felt confident straight away. There are two key points, the Corkscrew (Laguna) and the
I TOOK POLE, FASTEST LAP AND THE VICTORY FROM LAWSON AND SCHWANTZ IN SPAIN FOR MY FIRST AND ONLY WIN. IT WAS HUGE, BUT IT FELT ALL TOO EASY!
Dipper (Bathurst). For me, both are the start and finish of a good lap if you get them right. Magee was a front-runner in practice and qualifying and was in with a real chance of a podium: sadly his YZR500 stopped on the first lap with a kinked fuel line.
Time to head to Europe for what Rainey would later call the season's ‘ground war.' Jarama was next and Magee smashed it with pole position, fastest lap of the race and a win ahead of Lawson and Gardner. It was a huge occasion for the Horsham Hurricane. “I was relieved but also confused. I just felt like it was all too easy. I couldn't believe it and it took quite a while to sink in.” Jerez was next and Magee took 3rd on a destroyed front tyre behind Lawson and Rainey…
It was around this time that a major event occurred. Kenny Roberts decided to ‘split' the team. The existing mechanics went with Rainey and Kevin was suddenly left to establish himself with a completely new team… Was it favouritism of Rainey over Magee from Kenny? Either way, Kenny was also telling Magee what he was doing wrong and right. As a result, Magee was beginning to doubt his own ability. “When an expert starts to tell you you're doing it wrong that's it. It is easy to believe them,” says Magee…
Pushing on through the season, Magee would take 5th places at Imola and the Nurburgring – in Germany he was 3rd, but crashed and remounted. Austria next and a practice crash left him with broken fingers, much pain and a hard-fought 6th. Assen again but issues with the bike (a blow up) meant he raced the spare machine fitted with experimental Ohlins forks. Despite some hideous understeer as the fuel load lightened he brought it home to 4th.
Kevin says: “At that point, I was just focussing on getting back on the podium. Finishing 4th or 5th wasn't good enough. I went to Belgium determined to win, but crashed and got concussion for the first time. I remember Mamola saying: ‘Man, I saw you. The lights were on but there was nobody home!' and I was fairly concerned about the whole thing. It was a worry if I'm honest.”
July and the Yugoslavian Grand Prix of Rijeka: Magoo takes 5th after running off track at the start. Even at this stage of the season, Kevin admits that he was still learning. “I was learning about the tyres, gearbox, suspension and gearing and jetting and so many things,” he says. “So, at the next round, Paul Ricard, I practiced on old tyres in a bid to learn more about late race set-up. At the end of the straight the bike flung me and I landed on my elbow. It would swell up to the size of an orange. Despite brake fade in the race I would take 9th place.
Back then we were mad. I recall the next day we were at the track filming for a movie.
I remember sneaking off and riding the 500 flat out in the gravel just for fun… Rainey and I also slipstreamed Schwantz while flat in top down the straight, one either side. I reached over and grabbed him in the nuts at almost 170mph!”
Despite results on the 500 taking a dip, another Suzuka 8 Hours win lifted his spirits and kept Yamaha happy. Magee called it an easier win as he had a fast team-mate in the shape of Rainey! Frustration would follow on the 500: 9th in France, 5th in Britain, 6th in Sweden. Brno would see him crash while battling for 3rd then he'd take 6th at the final round in Brazil, following a horrendous journey to get to the track from Australia. He'd finish 5th overall in the title hunt, with Rainey 3rd.
On the flight home, Magee took stock. He realised his crashes were almost always either losing the front entering right-handers or high-siding exiting left-handers. Magee traced it back to Bathurst, the broken femur and a weak left leg, he'd work on that over the off-season. 1989 would be the year he wanted to ‘do it right.' He analysed his racecraft and knew he had to practice his starts: it's harder to chase down the likes of Gardner, Lawson, Rainey and Schwantz… The 1989 season-opener was Suzuka once more – and Magee would take 5th behind the riders above, time for the Aussie GP…
Strangely, Magee had never seen Phillip
Island before. Practice and qualifying went well, and during the race Kevin caught and was out-pacing the leading group of Gardner, Rainey and Christian Sarron – could a home win be on the cards? Sadly as the fuel load dropped, the understeer problem cropped up again, leading to a 0.5 second drop in pace – he'd finish in a fine 4th place, disappointed but happy enough.
Laguna would be a watershed moment in Kevin's career. Magee qualified 3rd and was running a fine 4th in the race behind eventual winner Rainey, Schwantz and Lawson, but on the final lap his YZR500 began to run out of fuel. He managed to cross the line 4th, and decided to do a crowd-pleasing burn-out, despite his frustration at missing out on another podium. Kevin let rip through the rear Dunlop but disaster loomed. Bubba Shobert was congratulating Eddie Lawson (3rd) and he didn't see Magee's bike ahead. The collision was sickening to see: a clash of machines, Shobert (who'd taken 9th) unmoving in the gravel, Magee hopping to the side of the track in terrible pain. The crash ended Shobert's career right there and shattered Magee's left leg.
“I thought I had killed him,” admits Magee. “And that really still hurts now. It was a horrific accident, there were bike parts everywhere, Bubba wasn't moving... I don't know how it happened. He could have been looking behind him or talking to another rider, that's the story. Bubba survived and I have seen him since, but it ended his career and had quite an effect on my racing also.”
Kevin would miss Jerez and the boycotted Misano but made it back for Hockenheim six weeks after the crash after having pins removed from his leg. “I couldn't walk at
Hockenheim”, says Kevin. “My leg was very weak and the track was fast. My rear tyre was stripped off centre I it was so out of balance that I was almost on the steering lock off turns. I had a good race with Norihiko Fujiwara and finished 7th.”
Training was difficult, but the results improved: 5th in Austria, 4th in Yugoslavia and at Assen, then a tough 7th place at Spa: “That was the worst pain I've ever raced with. The bone inside my knee was grinding. At the end of the season a specialist found a piece of bone from the Laguna crash in the knee joint.”
Magee would take 5th in France, 6th at Donington Park, 5th in Sweden and 7th at Brno. The Yamahas were testing new inverted forks and carbon brakes and the Suzuki of Schwantz and Honda of Lawson were very competitive. A 5th at the final round in Brazil would give him 5th overall in the title hunt once more – enough to see him rewarded with a contract for the Lucky Strike Suzuki team alongside Schwantz for 1990…
In January Magee got to test the RGV500 for the first time in Japan and he felt good on the bike and happy with the team. A further test in Japan wasn't so positive: testing Schwantz's machine, Magee was thrown from the bike and into the barriers at 100mph, straining his neck and damaging some nerves. Magee says: “By the time the opening round at Suzuka arrived, the neck and shoulder were still weak. I couldn't carry a bag or open a door. I managed to still get 4th in the race behind Rainey, Gardner and Schwantz. Dean Miller – a top sports physio in the paddock worked with me to get the shoulder better for Laguna in early April.”
Laguna… Despite the horrors of the previous year, Kevin loved the track and wanted to do well. But more bad luck was ahead… Before the warm-up lap the bike wouldn't start. Chief mechanic Jeff Crust had to push-start Magee halfway up the hill. The bike ran but it didn't feel quite as good as normal… Kevin had a poor start and was making up places but at mid-race he was high-sided at turn six, the weakened right arm coming off the bar. Flicked into the air, Kevin landed backwards, with his head slammed hard against the unforgiving Laguna Tarmac.
“It was lights out,” recalls Kevin. “I was flown straight to San Jose Medical Center. I was operated on immediately to remove a blood clot from my brain and I also had a fractured skull. I was put in an induced coma for 13 days and by the time I could get home to Australia I had lost a lot of weight.” Kevin wouldn't return to Grand Prix racing that year and was replaced by Niall Mackenzie.
The road to recuperation was long and Magee would set himself small goals to achieve each and every day. Amazingly Kevin was back on a dirt bike by June, just over two months later, beating his personal best at a track he knew well. Would Magoo retire? Could he make it back? “Lots of small personal bests kept me motivated during recovery,” admits Kevin, “Right down to splitting wood on the family property.”
Following such a head injury, Kevin had to get his FIM licence back. “I headed to Donington in early November to test a stock standard RGV250 street bike under the supervision of the FIM
neurology expert. He
followed me around the track on his VFR750 and gave me the okay to get my FIM licence back! That also meant I was allowed to ride the 500 that day. I don't think I've ever been so excited. I thought the bike was going to feel insanely fast but it was okay. I had a bit of a go but didn't go stupid. I had the all clear to ride in the Japanese GP, which fell 52 weeks after the head trauma, the exact FIM limit.”
A weird political situation would develop around Suzuki, their sponsor and their riders for 1991. Despite a fine job as stand-in, taking 4th overall in 1990, Niall Mackenzie wasn't going to keep the ride. That would go to Belgian rider Didier De Radigues, whose manager was also one of the big money men at Suzuki's sponsor, Lucky Strike. Testing would see Schwantz as the number one, with De Radigues also testing the 1991 RGV500 while Magee used the 1990 machine.
Suzuka and round one for the three-rider team: Schwantz would win with Magee 13th ahead of De Radigues. At the Aussie Grand Prix, Magoo would finally get the 1991 bike to use, albeit the spare bike. Despite some chattering from the front, Magee would resolve the issues and only be half a second off Schwantz, who was fastest around Eastern Creek. Then, a bombshell: Suzuki management told Magee that the mileage was up on his engine, so it was changed between sessions. “That just doesn't happen,” argues Magee. “No team would change an untried engine on qualifying day. You've got to set jetting etc to get them right. That bike was so slow: I had to tug on the
I THOUGHT I'D KILLED BUBBA. IT STILL HURTS TO THIS DAY. AS IT ENDED HIS CAREER.
bars to get it to wheel-stand. I've ridden the old man's sheep around the back paddock faster than that when I was a kid.” Magee would finish the race 11th and that was the end of his Suzuki career as the team opted to stay with the Schwantz/de Radigues pairing.
With Kevin out of a ride, there was a chance to try and go into World Superbikes with Kawasaki Australia, but it came to nought. He did come second in 1991's Suzuka 8 Hours race, partnering Doug Chandler, Magee also raced and won rounds in the All-japan 500cc championship and – most satisfyingly – would return for the final round of the 500cc GP season.
Here, riding a YZR500 once more, he would take 5th place in an albeit depleted field (Rainey and Schwantz were out injured) but well ahead of De Radigues' Suzuki down in 8th. “We had some set-up problems with the bike and it had some porous crankcases,” recalls Kevin. “I still remember some of the senior staff at Yamaha looking at me in disbelief after all that I had recovered from. Some of them had tears of joy in their eyes: it was a great moment for me.”
Finally a chance came to ride in WSB at Sugo: this was in the days of almost total domination by the blood-red Ducati V-twins and champ Doug Polen in particular. Magee did well on the Yamaha OW-01, taking a 5th and 3rd place finish and better was to come at Phillip Island. Riding as a wild-card on the Peter Jackson-backed Yamaha once more, Magee would take 2nd in race one and then win race two: a rare win that year for a Japanese manufacturer.
1992 should have seen Magoo back in the big time on the world stage – either WSB or GPS but instead it was the All-japan 500cc Championship, where his Yamaha would duke it out with fellow Australian Daryl Beattie's Honda – with Beattie just taking the title from Magee on the final lap of the last race of the season. Still, Magoo would repeat his wild-card WSB ride and win once more on the OW-01 in the first Phillip Island race.
Kevin would finish the 1993 All-japan 500cc Championship in 9th overall on a bike that was seriously down on topspeed compared to champion Norick Abe's Honda NSR500.
1994 would see a move to the AMA series on a very standard Honda RC45: even the factory V4s were
having a hard time of it in both national and WSB… Kevin said: “That was a joke of a bike if I'm honest! I headed back to Japan to race the Yoshimura Suzuki but a severe knee injury put an end to my racing days: no regrets as I had a huge career.”
Clearly a man of immense racing talent, sadly Kevin Magee didn't quite get the breaks needed to be one of the Australian 500cc title winners, but his expertise is still in use. Magee is a co-commentator for Fox Sports' motorcycle racing coverage in Australia for Motogp and WSB and remains an Aussie icon. Meanwhile Kevin's son Jake Magee is a successful pro cyclist living in the USA where he also races flat track: a real chip off the old block…