Richard Cree talks to former bike racer John Reynolds about the pressure of life on the track and the accident that ended his career
Six-time British Superbike champion John Reynolds is something of a master of understatement. Speaking of the events that followed the life-threatening accident that ultimately ended his career he is talking about the Brands Hatch medical officer undertaking an emergency procedure to drain some liquid off his chest—the result of a punctured lung. “Being awake when someone has to shove a pipe into your chest is not nice,” he deadpans. Asked when he knew it was a serious accident he jokes “when I was put in the ambulance and they put the siren on. I’d been in loads of ambulances, but they’d never put the siren on before.”
Perhaps it’s inevitable that one’s life view changes after spending the best part of 25 years pushing motorbikes to their limit. Reynolds himself admits that the pressure did sometimes get to him. “There’s massive pressure. I often thought ‘how much pressure can a human take before he goes gaga?’ It was an immense responsibility. Fear of failure is the biggest pressure. People think that bike racers are nut cases who take their brains out when they go racing. But you couldn’t get further from the truth. You are handling something with 200BHP that weighs 162 kilograms and can accelerate from 0 to 60 in under 2 seconds. You have a big responsibility and you know for a fact that that thing can bite you back and hurt you. What you are trying to do is ride the bike within your limits and within its limits but also drag it around the track as quick as you can. There’s a lot to be thinking about. Far from taking your brain out, you’ve got to keep your brain in.”
So what does it take to handle this pressure and become a champion? “You need a passion for the job, a good feeling for machinery and a hunger. Those are the key things. Determination, hunger and a good feel for what you are doing.” Despite enjoying huge success, Reynolds says he never lost that hunger, which is perhaps why he didn’t retire until he was 42. “Some riders lose that hunger, but I never did. I never lost the will to win or to do anything possible to make things work out for me. It was second to none. To be a top-level bike racer or indeed to reach the top in any sport you’ve got to have commitment.”
Which takes us back to that day at Brands Hatch. Reynolds looks slightly uncomfortable as he relives the moment. “It was the third lap of practice on Friday lunchtime. I exited Druids, a tight right-hander at Brands Hatch. I accelerated down the hill and was doing about 140mph. Whether I wasn’t concentrating or I got a bit lazy, I hit the brakes and managed to run off the track. The track came at me. I made a mistake, as simple as that and I ran off the track at high speed and piled myself into a wall and the bike followed me. As soon as I hit the floor, I realised how fast I was moving. I knew it would be a big one. There was nothing I could do, I was a passenger. The impact was so heavy, everything just went black and that was it. I felt like I had been hit by a train and everything went black.
I don’t believe in life after death or ghosts and things like that. But I remember lying there and actually seeing myself on the floor. It must have been a dream, I don’t know what it was. I remember, obviously when I was knocked out, looking down on myself and seeing myself not moving and thinking “my God” and then I woke up. It was very strange.”
After a rehabilitation he describes as “long and hard” Reynolds quit racing and is now a brand ambassador for Suzuki and does some work for the Department of Transport on road safety. As he explains: “I’m just trying to pass on the message that killing yourself isn’t cool. Riding bikes fast on the road has a time and a place, but there are lots of hidden dangers. I have probably crashed at every single corner of every track in the UK. I’ve had a few crashes. That’s what happens when you push it over the edge. That’s part of racing, but it shouldn’t be part of road driving.”
And so after persistent requests to tell his story he sat down to write his autobiography, something he says was “very hard and time-consuming, but enjoyable and emotional”. But, he also learnt a lot about his family. “It’s amazing when I started writing the book and I started winding back and asking ‘what did happen there?’ and how and why things happened. I started thinking of all this family stuff. It’s really emotional and I really did enjoy it, but it wasn’t easy.”
Reasons to be cheerful
My happiest memory is my son being born. It’s the most emotional thing in your life. Winning a World Superbike Race on the Red Bull Ducati was the icing on the cake.
My favourite new toy is my new aeroplane. It’s a Piper PA38 Tomahawk, a two-seater aircraft. I love flying.
My favourite restaurant is probably the local Indian in Kimberley [Nottinghamshire].
My favourite golf course is Breadsall Priory in Derbyshire. It’s a fantastic golf course in a beautiful area and it’s a hard course. I love it.
My dream bike is the one I’ve got at the moment. It’s the new Suzuki GSXR1000. It’s everything a bike should be. It’s fast, it handles well, it stops well and it’s good in traffic. It’s just a really good, all-round bike.
The best book I’ve read recently is the Lance Armstrong autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike. I’ve got huge respect for the guy. There are parallels in terms of the determination to succeed, but this is about beating cancer.
The best music I’ve heard recently is the James Blunt album. But my taste is very wide; as long as it’s good quality music, I’ll listen to it.
What I’m looking forward to this winter is spending time with my family. I’m away pretty much every weekend in the summer and I’ve got a son who likes riding bikes and he likes me to be around. He finds it hard that my job takes me away.
Three other reasons to be cheerful are I’ve got my health and can still walk; I’ve got a great family life; and I’ve got an aeroplane.
John Reynolds, The Autobiography is out now from Haynes Publishing (£18.99).