Kevin "Q-Tip" Schwantz, rancher, philander, playboy, racer and former world champion has retired from racing a Grand Prix 500, making the formal announcement at the Italian GP of Mugello.
A racer who will be remembered as the most popular and flamboyant rider of the era has thrown in the towel on a seven year Grand Prix pursuit and his Grand Prix racing career. Why? After looking at himself in a full length mirror recently Kevin observed in the immediate reflection a young man who had sacrificed much of his health to get where he was in racing, and in the distant reflection Wayne Rainey, unable to use his legs because of a racing mishap.
Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey flew home to the United States together from the Japanese Grand Prix. Schwantz had done well to qualify fastest at Suzuka in the wet but he had not been able to keep the pace in the race and moved back through the pack finishing an eventual sixth. He got off the bike his often injured wrist was ached and an old hip injury made it difficult to walk. When he and Rainey began discussing Kevin's present situation at thirty thousand feet, Schwantz's only comments were that he wanted to get out of GP racing with what little of his health he still had. Rainey, all too well, understood where Kevin was coming from. Rainey said that if Kevin felt he could no longer compete at the level he was accustomed to, he should stop.
When Schwantz failed to board the plane for Barcelona weeks later, Lucky Strike issued a press release shortly before the Spanish Grand Prix stating that Kevin would miss several Grand Prixs because of his lingering injuries. Suzuki hired Brit Sean Emmet to run some fuel through Kevin's bikes and to keep the mechanics from destroying hotel rooms if they didn't have a rider to care for. Emmet was the right nationality for the British based team.
However, all GP racing insiders were aware that Schwantz would not be returning, ever. In evidence, his surgeon mentions that Kevin's oft-punished wrist is no longer up to the job of manhandling a 500 and will not improve in the future. But that is only part of the story.
Schwantz is gone. More accurate perhaps is the statement that Schwantz has been gone for some time. In reality, Kevin Schwantz's career ended more than a year ago. His racing career ended on the same day that Wayne Rainey's did at Misano in 1993. Schwantz went on to the world championship and even won races the next season, but we have never seen the Schwantz of old since Rainey stepped out, there is simply no one to push him to that level.
Recall performances that became defining moments in Kevin's career, when he rode the Yoshimura Superbike or the Suzuki Grand Prix 500 and how he seemed to be fighting the machine every mile, every corner, and winning that brawl. After Rainey and the world championship Kev's style was altered to fit present circumstances, no longer did he exit corners with the bike completely out of control or make impossibly late braking moves on the competition. He extracted a nine-tenths performance from himself and the machine, bringing everything home intact. For the loose and emotional Schwantz, this is like sanding hardwood against the grain.
Injuries have been a constant partner in Schwantz's racing career. They came with the territory, a territory that necessitated riding far over the acceptable edge and if wounded, riding with his leathers modified to allow a plaster cast under the cow-skin. In the end it is these injuries that took Kevin from us before he was really ready to leave the greatest racing arena of all. As any surgeon will explain, a human being cannot break bones and injure ligaments repeatedly and train and ride on those fresh injuries before they are fully healed, without the body putting a stop to it. A mending bone that is traumatized time and again begins to crystallize and if knocked again will shatter like a wineglass. Muscle refuses to grasp the bone from where it has been repeatedly torn. For many years Kevin escaped any permanent damage by virtue of his luck, temperament and a high threshold for pain.
Sadly, as he approaches his thirtieth year, it is time to pay for youthful exuberance.
That, and the fact that on several occasions last year he fell from the bike and found himself boots up in a gravel-trap, ala Wayne Rainey, initiated a thought process that Kevin had never had before: that he wanted to leave this game and still have a chance at an active existence after racing.
In writing this analysis I moved once for the telephone to call Kevin at home to get his account of these final days. But I realized that he could not verbally tell me anything more than one long visual pull from an photo here on my desk of Kevin qualifying for the soggy Japanese Grand Prix a few months ago. His eyes are no longer riveted on the leader board as they once were when he and Rainey battled for pole. They are focused on his surroundings, and the internal fire that once burned so intensely, is gone.
Before the 1995 season began in Australia, reports filtered back from that this would assuredly be Kev's last year, and that he may not even make it the full season. He crashed in pre-season testing after being given ample time to heal from his qua-zillionth savage crash at the USGP last August. Insightfully, his first post crash questions reputedly were not, "When can I ride again, Doc?" but, "When can I be fitted with camouflage casts so that I can hunt deer on my ranch?"
He went to Europe and began doing part-time duty - he would fly in to practice and qualify the bike, race on Sunday and fly home to Texas on Monday morning. The time when he would fly to Europe for the first Grand Prix and stay on that continent for the majority of the season, enjoying the circus and his life there, seemed oh so long ago.
It is clear that Kevin no longer enjoys Grand Prix racing, to get him to flash that signature Schwantz smile, one must mention stock car racing or a point count on ventilated deer carcasses. Grand Prix racing and the life that goes along with it ceased to be enjoyable some time ago. Post that, riding the bike was the savior. He found a re-newed enthusiasm in ripping the bike through the gears to near two hundred mph and alone behind the bubble, not being assailed by fans and others wanting every moment of his time. Now that riding a 500 in the manner it should be done is growing more impossible, there is simply nothing left for Schwantz.
Kevin Schwantz came to us as a mighty funnel cloud that touched earth and exploded, laying many pre-existing records and conventional wisdom on riding, to waste. He will be remembered as a world champion and as the most visually exciting roadracer to ever come from the colonies. He accomplished the impossible on many occasions and did things on a 500 that no one in the world could duplicate, it seemed as if the normal laws of physics did not apply to Schwantz in the same way it did other riders.
He, with Lawson and Rainey and an occasional stand-in by Wayne Gardner, were the show in what may be remembered as Grand Prix racing's most exciting age, 1988-1992. He is the subject of a colorful coffee table book, chronicling the early years and accounts from the seemingly scads of people who claim to have discovered Kevin Schwantz.
It is a viable thought whether or not Grand Prix racing can withstand a blow like this, after so many great riders and the always interesting Cagiva being uprooted from the series. For many, Schwantz defines racing at Suzuki and to have a GP bike without the number thirty-four on the flank is inconceivable. Spanish youngsters who once had to ride as if they were possessed by Satan himself just to get into the top ten, now will win Grand Prixs. Are they winning because they have improved or because the riders that once made up the positions from fourth to seventh are now gone?
Fear not, he will assuredly ride again and if adequately motivated will reveal the riding style that can only be described as loose, neither end never completely planted. Schwantz has promised one and all that he will give Daytona another try next March on the new Suzuki and he may do an occasional one-off motorcycle race if his body will allow, not winning the Suzuka eight hour race is a sore spot. (note, Schwantz has not raced since retiring)
But Kevvy's immediate racing future is in four wheels, NASCAR SuperTruck racing and post that, NASCAR racing here in the United States. His personal fortune is said to be in excess of ten million dollars, therefor he has ample money to do whatever fanciful endeavor strikes him.
And, thank God, he is concerned about America's future in Grand Prix racing. Many believe that if Schwantz had sought out a mentor like Kenny Roberts early in his career he would have become a modern Agostini, winning countless titles. Perhaps Schwantz can be that mentor for a younger American rider. He is very interested in Colin Edwards and young Colin's career in racing.
So, we bid a farewell to a man who, forgive the cliché, pushed the physical limits of roadracing further than anyone else in the modern era. There are images of Kevin Schwantz that must be retained : the epic Transatlantic battle between Schwantz and Rainey in 1987 when even Dave Despain became slack-jawed at what he was seeing on track between Schwantz and Rainey; Kevin's triumphant first Grand Prix win over Wayne Gardner at the Japanese Grand Prix of 1988 and his first lap crash at Phillips Island a few weeks later.
Seek out the video tapes of the many Schwantz/Lawson/Rainey battles of 1989, including, of course, their epic race at LeMans when the three pushed front tire adhesion to new limits. In twenty years Schwantz's style will be as original, exciting and ... deranged as it was then.
Although friend, foe and competitor alike are dispirited to see him exit at least one season early, it is refreshing to see him cut the cord so cleanly, without the embarrassing end of career tricks we have seen in the past from Schwantz's racing predecessors.
But then, following was never Kevin Schwantz's style.