MECHANIC: Dick Smart – the Doohan years
By Brett Murray
Saturday 25th April, 2020 - 10:01am
Dick Smart was a mechanic for two of the greatest riders in the modern era of grand prix motorcycle racing, but he had many other roles, including that of nurse.
A tough Kiwi-born racer who was a loyal lieutenant to Honda factory team boss Jeremy Burgess through all of Mick Doohan’s 500cc championship seasons and for the first three of Valentino Rossi’s seven, Smart just got stuff done.
It was his attention to detail and his no frills dedication to the job that kept him a part of one of the winningest combinations in motorcycling history and which sees him in a similar role for Doohan in his successful aviation business to this day.
Smart grew up in New Zealand and was a student at Timaru Boys High before he picked a mechanical apprenticeship at the local Holden dealership where his father had sold cars.
Smart rode a bit of motocross and some minor road racing before he decided to join the exodus of his mates to Australia in 1984.
Just before his move he met a Kiwi production bike racer by the name of Rod Harris, who he ended up doing some races with.
Smart eventually picked up a job with Australian racing heavyweight, Frank Matich, who had made his name on four-wheels, but who had established a bike team under the leadership of his son Kris.
Early in his new gig, Smart forged one of his longest and most important friendships of his life with talented rider and later industry heavyweight, Paul Feeney.
Not long after they had been introduced, Feeney offered Smart a job with a new enterprise he was establishing at the Lakeside track in Queensland teaching Japanese visitors how to road race.
A building that Feeney built at Lakeside to host the riding school, remains in place to this day.
Smart settled into the Gold Coast lifestyle which had a strong motorcycling culture and he was right in the thick of it through his relationship with Feeney.
During this time he also did some spanner work in the US with expat Kiwi Ian Pero , following races up and down the West Coast from a base in Los Angeles.
He also did a series in South Africa in which Feeney and Mick Doohan competed and it was during this time that he realised an international career at the highest level was a possibility.
“We used to have beers most Sunday afternoons on the Gold Coast when we were not racing,” Smart told Speedcafe.com.
“We were all mates and racing was our life.”
In 1989 Doohan got his big break with the factory Honda team in the 500cc world championship and not long after Smart got an offer to join the Brussels-based team as a truck driver.
Burgess was the team boss and there were two other mechanics and Smart, who drove the truck and was the general hand and tyre guy at the race tracks.
After a season Smart was offered the opportunity to step into a mechanics role where he forged an incredible successful career over the next 15 years.
“To be honest we all used to have a crack at driving the truck, which wasn’t the best in the world,” said Smart.
“I remember JB (Burgess) and myself had a memorable moment driving from a race in Spain to a test in Italy.
“We had a few issues with the brakes on the way to Spain, but thought he would take it easy and risk the trip to Italy with low gear being a priority.
“We had done an all-nighter and were coming into this town and JB yells out ‘look out’.
“There was a pile-up in front of me and JB just yells out ‘go for the smoke’.
“It just pointed the thing towards the smoke, put my foot down and somehow we came out the other side. I guess that was our ‘Days of Thunder’ moment.”
While the world of 500cc racing was a little different to production bike racing back in New Zealand, Smart settled into his new role with few problems.
“The first bit was probably a bit of an eye opener, but I can never remember thinking, ‘Oh Jesus, this is all way different,’” said Smart.
“I’m quite happy to roll along with what’s going on. I enjoyed it.
“I had to learn a few things on those bikes initially, but to me they’re easier than working on a street bike, because everything was accessible.
“One good thing with Honda was they did build a good bike that was mechanic friendly.
“And it got better and better as the years went on because we used to ask them, ‘Could you do this and could you make this a bit more friendly?’ And they would.”
Doohan finished ninth in that first season and then fourth in his second and clinched his first victory in the penultimate round of the championship in Hungary before finishing second in front of a home crowd in Australia to team-mate Wayne Gardner at Phillip Island.
In 1991, Doohan finished on the podium in 14 of the 15 races, including three wins, and finished second in the title chase to Wayne Rainey who won six races in a season where you dropped your worst two results.
The 1992 season would be more memorable in more ways than one.
Doohan won the opening four races of the year, was second in the next two and then won again in Germany to give himself what looked an unassailable 65-point lead in the championship.
All that came unstuck with a practice crash at the next race in Holland which left his right leg with serious damage to a point where amputation was being considered by the local doctors.
“It was a real disaster,” Smart recalled.
“There was a lot of complication and that’s when Dr Costa got involved and got him out of there.
“I remember after him getting to Italy one of Dr Costa’s assistants would put him in a station wagon and, driving like Italians do, drive him every day down to a decompression chamber to try and get the blood flowing. Can you imagine the ride in that car?
“We (team members) were sort of loaned out to other teams and kept racing so we did not get to see much of Mick unless we had a weekend off and could get to Italy.”
Doohan returned for the last two races of the season in an effort to clinch the title in what is regarded as one of the bravest efforts in motorsport history.
“They basically sewed his legs together for skin grafting and then just before the race in Brazil they cut his legs apart bandaged him up and stuck him on a plane to Sao Paulo,” recalled Smart.
“When he turned up he wasn’t looking good.
“He had a fitness test and got on the bike and I think we finished 12th and picked up a couple of points, but it was a hard weekend.
“He then went back to America or Europe, I can’t remember, but I picked him up at the airport in Jo’burg (Johannesburg) for the last race in South Africa and he looked a different man.
“Incredibly he got on the bike and finished sixth, but we lost the championship by four points.”
Smart says that losing that championship just made Doohan more determined than ever.
“He dug in and went, ‘right, I’ve got this’,” said Smart.
“Mick was very headstrong and you could see him in a race, no one was going to beat him.
“It didn’t matter what happened, he was going to win that race.”
The 1993 season was basically a recovery year for Doohan and the Honda team rallied around him as he recorded one win at the San Marino Grand Prix on the way to fourth in the championship.
While Doohan continued to have medical treatment the team were already looking at developing a thumb-operated braking system which would play a significant role in the success that was to follow.
“With Mick’s ankle fused there was zero moment so the thumb brake was developed,” said Smart.
“We worked with Honda and then Brembo and eventually we ended up with a thumb brake mounted under the left-hand handlebar and I think we just took the footbrake off.
“It was all within the rules.
“I think if you asked Mick he would have preferred to have the foot brake, but the thumb brake worked and that started another revolution in the paddock.
“Mick was winning everything with a thumb break. So next thing every rider and his dog got thumb brakes on their bikes.”
In 1994 Doohan finished on the podium in all 14 races, including nine victories and clinched the first of five consecutive titles.
Smart says the day the championship was clinched in the Czech Republic is a little vague, but the team would have treated it like any other.
“I know everyone was pretty nervous, but we just kept our heads and didn’t change what we did every day,” said Smart.
“Don’t try and reinvent the wheel, just keep it simple.
“The reliability of the Honda meant that the only thing that was really going to stop you was a crash.”
Once that first title came Smart said they went to every race track knowing they had a chance of victory.
“Once he got that ball rolling, man, it was just easy,” said Smart.
“We just had to keep the bike up to him.
“Most times we would be the first team out of the place and joked with the other crews as we were walking past their garages to go home.
“There were always a lot of Kiwis and Aussies in the paddock and always a healthy banter between us.”
Despite all the success, Doohan or the team never became complacent.
“In 1997 I think we had won 12 of the first 13 races of the season, including 10 in a row when we turned up for a race at the Sentul circuit in Indonesia,” recalled Smart.
“Mick’s Japanese teammate Tadayuki (Okada) got underneath him on the last corner to win the race. Mick wasn’t happy bringing that winning streak to an end.
“That’s just the way he was. He wanted to win every time he was on the bike.”
At the end of the 1998 season, which included victories in the last four races of the year, the then Honda Repsol team and Doohan clinched a fifth successive title and were one the most successful teams in 500cc history.
“It was pretty cool when we won the first championship, but at that point we never thought we would go on to win five in a row,” said Smart.
“I’m not one for the limelight, we just did our job every day.
“We made sure the bikes were right and that everything was prepared for the following day.
“We had the odd problem like an engine braking while warming it up the night before a race in Spain, but we just changed it before we went home, which wasn’t that difficult on those bikes.
“We had a process and Honda had a process.
“If you start short-cutting you are going to have problems. It’s that simple.”
After an off-season break back in Australia and five championships in the back pocket, there didn’t seem to be an end date to the success that Smart was enjoying.
That all came to a numbing halt on Friday May 7, 1999 when Doohan was involved in a crash that would ultimately end his career.
“Yea, I remember that day quite well, it was not a good Friday,” Smart told Speedcafe.com.
“I was on the pit board and it had rained a little bit.
“The track was a little damp and Mick (Doohan) just sat in the garage and watched and waited as the others went out.
“When the lap times got down to what they should be he said ‘okay, let’s go and have a bit of a look’.
“The ripple strips are not flat and I guess there was some water sitting in the dips of them.
“He got up on them and it just spun the back wheel.
“The pits were opposite to that corner and I just heard this noise and just caught a glimpse of this muffler flying through the air.
“I remember saying ‘Jesus JB (Burgess), that was a Honda muffler’.
“He replied that he thought that Mick would have been about that point of the track according to the stopwatch.
“We then heard the commentator mention Mick’s name in Spanish and we knew it wasn’t going to be good.”
They were right!
Doohan had re-broken his right leg, left wrist and right collarbone and had muscle damage in his back as well as major other bruising.
Doohan was transported to hospital in a nearby town and while the local authorities were doing what they could, the 1992 crash had the team prepared for such an incident.
Doohan had made up his mind that he needed to get back to San Francisco to renowned Orthopedic surgeons Dr Ting and Dr Louie as soon as possible.
“The team just told me to go with him (Doohan) and just do whatever I needed to do,” said Smart.
“Mick had a little citation jet and we managed to get him on it and directly into London where some tickets had been booked on a British Airways flight to San Francisco.
“They had a catering truck waiting on the ground and that’s how he got loaded on to the plane.
“Selina (Doohan’s then girlfriend), who was pregnant, had flown up from their house in Monaco and was on the flight when we got on board.
“He had broken everything, but Dr Costa had given him plenty of stuff for the pain. I’m still not sure how he did it (made the trip). It was a 12-hour flight.”
For the next six weeks Smart’s skills as a truck driver were conveniently converted into chauffeur, but there was not much correlation between his mechanical skills and being a nurse.
“Selina had to get back to Monaco because she was pregnant with Alexis, so I stayed on with Mick and I was there for about six weeks,” recalled Smart.
“I was his chauffeur, driver and nurse, basically I was there to help him with anything that was needed.
“We had a little self-contained Marriott apartment just south of San Francisco and I think Mick was in hospital for about three weeks after the operation.
“The first thing he wanted when he was out of hospital was an exercise bike.
“It was one of the arm and pedal ones.
“He would put his bad leg up on the couch and have his good foot on the pedal and work out like you’ve never seen him, trying to keep his physical core fitness up.
“And so at that stage he was doing that he was coming back. He was going to get fit.”
WHAT MICK HAS TO SAY….
“I think when I first met Dick he was working for a Kiwi guy guy called Ian Pero,” Doohan told Speedcafe.com.
“When I joined the 500s they were looking for a guy and Dick and JB (Jeremy Burgess) got along so he got the job.
“I guess that was really the start of a long working relationship and we have been mates for a long while.
“He is trustworthy and if there is something that has to be done, he just goes and does it.
“He was always good on the tools and very thorough.
“We have had the odd blow up over the years as you do because you don’t always agree, but we just get on with it.
“He joined our aviation business 10 years ago or so and has worked him into the role of Aviation Manager and is an important part of what we do.”
Doohan even recalled Smart’s time as a nurse in California.
“I ended up in California after that crash and Dick came with me to do all the heavy lifting. That included me and the bags,” recalled Doohan.
“There was a bit going on, but it was good for me to have him around.”
Tomorrow we chat to Smart about Doohan’s retirement, his years working with Valenino Rossi and his own life beyond racing, which ironically has him working with Doohan again.