In Like a Lion

1993 world champion Kevin Schwantz talks about the month of March in 1988. He started by winning the Daytona 200 and then followed up by winning the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.

1988 Daytona 200 winner. 1988 Japanese Grand Prix winner. Suzuki


1993 world champion Kevin Schwantz talks about the month of March in 1988. He started by winning the Daytona 200 and then followed up by winning the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.

Interview conducted in 2000

Q. I’ve heard it both ways, that you grew up in awe of Daytona, and that you actually didn’t. Which is it?

A. The first time I actually came to Daytona I think may have been CCS races in 1984. I don’t think I was ever here as just a kid watching. The big dirt track that we always used to always get to go to was Houston, it was kind of our ‘Oh, man, if I ever got to race in here, wouldn’t that be cool’ race. Not Daytona. 

Daytona, we just came down here and did some CCS races at the end of 84, rode an RZ350, rode an FJ600, a couple of production classes, and started, I raced a 350 ­ maybe it was ’85 that I actually did that.

I came down and rode the 600, tried to race one in an endurance race, and went out on the warm-up lap and fell off it. My claim is that there was a screwdriver in the fairing somewhere and it fell out and that’s what, I actually picked the screwdriver up, it was laying on the track there, and I said ‘This is it,’ and everybody on the crew said ‘We don’t use that brand of screwdriver.” Uh-huh. 

So I don’t know if not coming here as a kid, not having that huge awe of Daytona, it was just another racetrack to me. Everybody talks about driving through the tunnel, and yeah, maybe you got some goosebumps coming through the tunnel the first time and seeing how big the place really was, but this was just production racing and stuff. It was a fun place to ride, it was neat to really be able to draft people and see what that was all about.

Q. Were you not intimidated by Daytona because you’d ridden so much at Texas Speedway?

A. I had ridden at the old Texas Speedway before that, so I kind of had a feel for it. It was amazing to come here and see what a place, it was actually paved and smooth and didn’t have big splits in the banking from the asphalt cracking and stuff in the track (like TWS). It was a lot of fun. 

The first time I raced a Superbike was the beginning of ’85. I don’t think we got to do any testing here, just came here and got on the bike and went out, and like ten laps into the first practice session (I) absolutely destroyed a GS700 in the first turn. Drove off in there, got on the brakes, got together with somebody, and just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, front, back, front, back, junked it. So I’m sure the Yosh guys were thinking at that point, whoa, did we make the right decision? 

In the race, I broke the clutch on the line. Freddie came back and had a shield hanging off, Erv jumped over the wall, and the AMA guy had already turned. So at that point we’ve gone into gear, in gear sitting there and I think it was something between 10 and 15 seconds they held it so Freddie could get his shield fixed. Myself, Merkel, Sam McDonald, like half of the top ten didn’t even make it to the first pit stop. Clutches were dust everywhere. Mine didn’t even make it to the first turn. I was like… ‘What’s it done?’ I didn’t even know.

I leaned it against the guardrail on the inside of turn one. That’s as far as it made it. Because at that time there was 80 riders here, and the second wave was coming, and I was like, ‘I am getting out of their way.’

Q. You put the 1986 GSX-R750 on the front row, correct?

A. 1986 was the first year for the GSXR here. We came, did a fair bit of testing, felt like we had a pretty decent race bike, qualified I don’t remember exactly but I’m pretty sure it was third behind Lawson and Rainey.

The race started, Eddie and Wayne kind of split, I stayed as close as I could. Wayne ended up having some tire trouble and had to pit a couple of extra times. I just kind of stayed out there, stayed out of trouble, and finished second. At the end of the day the chain had stretched, after the third pit stop, after the last stop, (I) came in, changed, went back out. As the bike would get up onto the banking, we would accelerate great; as the suspension would try and unload as it got up to the top or as it came off the banking the chain had stretched so bad that you could hear it jumping the sprocket. I don’t remember what the sprocket looked like, exactly, after the race. But it was just a game of survival. I don’t thinking any of the other factory supported Suzukis finished that year. They had some kind of mechanicals. So I think maybe the chain was something that made us be easier on the engine, or it may not have finished either. 

But it was a good thing to come here and finish second behind Lawson, who’d won the world championship the last year in ’84. I thought we’d have something for Honda most of the year. 

Then, the reliability bug started to bite us. Everywhere we went we were having, most of the places we went, if we were running well or fast on the sheets we were normally having mechanical problems of some sort. And to be that close, we didn’t finish that close, but to say we started the season with a second place run, to have gone all the way through ’86 and never actually got a win, it was a long year.

You start thinking, gee, what am I doing different, what am I doing wrong? Lots of thoughts go through your head, lots of times sitting there with the mechanics going “what can we do, what can we do?” But Daytona I think was the highlight of the ’86 season.

In ’87 I don’t remember if we were on pole or not. I think we were. Wayne and I kind of set the pace early, came in, made the first stop, Wayne had a little bit of trouble on his stop. Wayne’ll probably tell you he had a lot of trouble. I don’t remember exactly how much trouble it was, if his was five seconds longer than ours or what, but by the time halfway through the race rolled around, lap 28, 30, whatever half distance is, we were 13 seconds in front. So it felt like everything was working pretty well, kind of wanted to maintain that lead til we got to the second stop, and we never made it. Lap 34 bit us in the chicane. My story on it is that I tried to get past a guy getting in, went on the outside of him, dove off in, he got sucked in following me, pitched me into the hay bales, and I fell. Broke my little finger pretty bad, had to have pins and all kinds of stuff done to it, so it was one of those things that I think we could have let get us down, but instead we went ahead and packaged everything up and went to the match races, because we’d done well there in ’86. And I look back on the ’87 Match Races and see pictures of me, and all the pictures I’ve got my right glove on, because I’ve got two pins hanging out of it, so I cut the finger on the glove, put a bunch of padding around it, bandaged the glove up so that the finger had protection, and ended up just having to leaving it on all day. I’m walking around with one glove on like Michael Jackson.

Wayne and I mixed it up pretty hard that year, especially the first couple of races at Brands Hatch. There was $100,000 to anybody that could win all of them, so we agreed as a team let’s see who wins the first one, you guys just go scrap, and then the before the second race we’ll talk about it. Wayne wouldn’t have nothing to do with it, because I slipped up and won the first one. And we were back and forth, back and forth, each would win a race, we went to Donington and it rained and he had some kind of fog-up problem with his visor, and he finished eighth and I won, and that was pretty much the separation.

Then in ’87 I came back, and once we got back from the Trans-Atlantic, it felt like I pretty much had the measure of Wayne. I believe we went to Road Atlanta and I won the Camel Challenge at Atlanta, and then he beat me in the race. I think we out-guessed ourselves on tires. After that I think he also beat me at Elkhart, I beat him head-to-head at Loudon, and after Loudon the season was pretty much ours.

Except when I fell off the thing. Crashed it at Laguna. Rainey and Shobert bet $5, they were in the same heat at Laguna.They used to run heats, and then you had to run two 33-lap legs to make it the Laguna 200 or whatever they used to call it. The heat race determined your start position for the whole day. You didn’t start the second leg of the race according to how you finished the first one, you started according to how you qualified in the heat. Since they bet each other $5, they both got a bit greedy and jumped the start, so they had to start both legs at the back of the field. 

So we had just about dug ourselves out of that Daytona hole, just about getting back to snuff with him on points, and then I crashed in the second leg in turn 11.


Continued …

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