Kevin Schwantz: In Like A Lion. In 1988 American Racing Hero Wins Both the Daytona 200 & Japanese GP in Three Weeks Time

The ‘Dang, that thing’s all swole up … story told …

In 1988 Kevin Schwantz won both the Daytona 200 for the first time and the Japanese Grand Prix, his first GP win, in three weeks time. He talked with about that incredible period of his early career.

Interviewed by Dean Adams March 10, 2000

An old Soup decal we did to celebrate the rider some called ‘Q-Tip’. No, we don’t have any more. Tim Beaumont

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.

Victory at last. Schwantz is in ecstasies as he walks into victory circle at Daytona in 1988.
Victory at last. Schwantz is in ecstasies as he walks into victory circle at Daytona in 1988. TIM BEAUMONT

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.

Kevin Schwantz grew up Yamaha. His parents co-owned a Yamaha dealership in Texas and he raced just about every 1980s Yamaha sport bike made. Here he is on the grid at Daytona in 1984 on his RZ350. He won the RZ350 Cup that season.
Kevin Schwantz grew up Yamaha. His parents co-owned a Yamaha dealership in Texas and he raced just about every 1980s Yamaha sport bike made. Here he is on the grid at Daytona in 1984 on his RZ350. He won the RZ350 Cup that season. Tim Beaumont

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 pounds 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.

Schwantz was the first rider to embrace his support of the US military. Here an artist sketch of "Stormin' Schwantzkof's tank running over Rainey and John Kocinski's Yamahas.
Schwantz was the first rider to embrace his support of the US military. Here an artist sketch of “Stormin’ Schwantzkof’s tank running over Rainey and John Kocinski’s Yamahas.

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.

Q. Vindication came in 1988. You came to Daytona on the works 88 GSX-R750, but fell early in practice, right?

A. We came here in ’88 I think without doing any testing. The bike was kind of late showing up. There weren’t a bunch of them, so they just sent one. At the time, all of the R&D that we’d done on the ’87 was very similar to the ’86 as far as engine goes. I think there were some differences in the chassis.

But when we got here in ’88, this was a different engine, the development on it wasn’t as thorough as the ’87 was, and the ’87 was a faster bike. I went out and was having some electrical problems, off into the chicane, I just started to get on the brakes and tip the thing in and it drops a cylinder, and as it does it sucks me off into the grass getting me in, spin, highside through the chicane. I’m thinking as I’m in the air, this is exactly where I ended up last year.

But I just had a small crack in my forearm, and Dr. Kieffer and the guys over at Halifax looked it and they said you really shouldn’t ride, most people we’d cast this thing and tell you six weeks. Dr. Kieffer talked them into letting me bandage the thing up as best I could and go out and see if it didn’t hurt so bad that he thought it would affect my riding, he was going to let me ride.

And I went out and still hadn’t qualified, so I had to come back and qualify the thing, about the fourth lap of qualifying I qualified at 1:55.1 which at the time was pole, and I thought that’s good enough, I’m going to give my hand a rest.

One of Kevin's first trophies. He was and remains a very good trials rider.
One of Kevin’s first trophies. He was and remains a very good trials rider. thanks, Shirley Schwantz

That was Thursday. I think the weather was iffy that week, and maybe we didn’t get to run heats, I forget. It rained all day Saturday, the Supercross was a wash. So the Camel Challenge didn’t get to be the Camel Challenge. They put it in with the 200. And I think, I don’t know what the other guys’ tire choices were, but for us, race tire was a race tire, that we were going to do our 19 lap stint and that’s what we were going to do. And I think Polen and Scott Gray and the other guys opted to run something a little bit softer that may not have the durability. Anyway, Polen won the money. But I think it was about after the fifth lap he started to kind of drift back.

Q. You and Polen put the hurt on everyone that year. He finished second. Didn’t you lap up to like fifth place?

A. I lapped everybody but him. And I don’t remember how far he got. The last guy that I got to lap was Bubba Shobert on the Honda. Bubba had fuel problems, vapor lock or whatever it was on the warm-up lap, and had to push the thing to get it back started again, and started half a lap behind us.

Q. You’ve said that Daytona wasn’t a special track to you, but was the win special?

A. When I won my Daytona 200 it was a big deal to me, because at the time I had signed a deal to go Grand Prix racing and I felt like this was my year. 1988 could be it, or else I’m going to have to come back, I’m not going to just be able to say Superbike racing, boom, done, okay I won my last race I’m going to walk away from it. To me, it was really good.

Q. From there you went to Suzuka and really caught the attention of the world by winning your first GP. Do you remember what you did between the races?

A. We tested the bike for the Japanese Grand Prix a month before we came here and I still felt like I was going to be able to go there and do well. The question mark was my arm, was it going to be strong enough, was it going to be fit enough to ride that Grand Prix bike for 22 laps around Suzuka? All in all, there was a big Pepsi ad that was done, I think it was the Monday and Tuesday after the 200, and I tried to do some riding there ­ a big TV commercial, and they had a Porsche, they took the frigging front end off of it so they could hold the camera in it, and Scott Gray helped with some shooting, and Polen helped with some shooting, and I decided it was more important to me to try and get my arm ready. I tried to take as much time off as I could until two weeks later when the Japanese practice starts.

Between the two races I’m pretty sure I went back to Texas. Just did as much as I could to sit there and look at it and hope it was healing. I forget if some of the doctors didn’t have some ideas about things that I could be doing to help it, tried to keep it as flexible as I could. It was just up above the wrist, so it wasn’t anything that I couldn’t still move my wrist on. And I think maybe I had to go to Japan to do some stuff early in the week.

I won $20,000 (for the 200), I don’t remember what I did with it.

Q. And as if things couldn’t get any better, you leave Florida with the Daytona 200 win to start your first Grand Prix season at Suzuka.

A. Suzuka was my first time on a real works GP bike, first stab at a full season, first chance to really go somewhere and test one and go back there and race at the same place. The three GPs that I’d done in ’86 and ’87 were just one-off deals and tracks I’d never been to, and the bike was not a rocket.

Most of the practice at Suzuka, if my memory is correct, was almost all wet. We ended up third, started in the middle of the front row. Maybe we had Sunday morning warm-up dry, but more or less that was what you had to get the bike working –20 minutes in the dry.

I think the fact that we’d tested there before really was a big advantage. There were some Hondas there testing when we were there too, but maybe they didn’t take good notes or something, and our bike just came out of the box Sunday morning and worked really good from the start.

I got a decent start, I remember going under the bridge the first lap second behind Gardner, who led, thinking ‘this is good, if I just stay here I’ll be happy’.

I remember coming across the line about five laps into it and looking back and thinking ‘where’s everybody gone?’ I think at that time Christian Sarron was behind me, I’m thinking man, he really hadn’t been anywhere in practice, I’m surprised he’s third. I just remember seeing that group dwindle behind me.

I really remember going into the hairpin turn and then going into that next big fast right-hander thinking, ‘where the heck are all these guys? What are they doing?’.

Traveling in Japan with Schwantz is always interesting. Here he was recognized by a fan in a Tokyo fish market with Nob Aoki. Japanese fans remember his Suzuka triumph and it is not uncommon for Japanese fans to become emotionally overwhelmed when they meet him in person.
Traveling in Japan with Schwantz is always interesting. Here he was recognized by a fan in a Tokyo fish market with Nob Aoki. Japanese fans remember his Suzuka triumph and it is not uncommon for Japanese fans to become emotionally overwhelmed when they meet him in person. Marno'

Q. Gardner was the world champion then; you were this kid from Texas. That you were there was huge.

A. Pretty much the whole time I was just telling myself, follow him, follow him, follow him, the guy’s been here millions of times, he’s won the 8-hour, he’s world champion, had the big intimidating number one on his plate, and I just told myself ‘you finish second behind Gardner at Suzuka you’ve all but won’.

I remember the first turn, right back it in left, right, and I remember getting off in that left a little bit hot one lap, he was in front of me. Wayne was always real intentional about getting the bike back up and making the next right from right on the inside.

When he did this to get back, I had gotten in hot. I’m thinking, ‘shit, you can’t pass there’. It was purely luck that I made it. I don’t know if that had something to do with the fact that maybe he was expecting me to try something like that on the last lap and was just over-riding the thing.

We came out of the hairpin and I’m still riding on his back wheel, come up over the hill go around you can just about see the Spoon Corner, and Wayne’s in big trouble: like feet over his head, wham, lands back on the Honda in a huge near highside. He rides off the track.

I think ‘Holy sh*t! watch the track, don’t watch him’. I get into the first part of the Spoon and look up and he’s getting the thing whoaed up. I think there’s a helicopter pad or something there, and that’s I think what saved him, because I know how wet everything was, and if it’d had just been grass he probably would’ve come back out on the track on the other side.

And I think that that’s one of the arguments that Marlboro had, and Eddie, was they protested that he cut the track, because if he’d had to go back and come back on where he went off, it would’ve cost him a ton of time.

I’m leading. I just remembered thinking all the way up that back straightaway ‘Holy sh*t, I’m going to have to talk to the press, and everything’. I was gob smacked.

I did probably the slowest cool-off lap I’ve ever done, thinking of stuff I was going to be able to say, should I say this, should I say that?

Q. Undoubtedly with your first Daytona 200 win and then winning the Japanese Grand Prix a few weeks later, this had to be the most significant month of your entire career.

A. It was most definitely the most significant month of my racing career.

It was one of those things that if you’d asked me at the end of ’87 what the ’88 season was going to start like, that would’ve been up in the corner in the dream section. The reality section would’ve been run good at Daytona, hopefully win, possibly a top ten at the GP.

It was really neat coming back to America after that and seeing all the stuff in the papers: ‘Japan to Schwantz’, etc.

I remember hearing Wayne Gardner and Eddie Lawson in the press conference saying ‘Yeah, he might’ve snuck up and won this one but he’s not going to win any more.’ And being able to tell how bad Wayne Rainey felt. ‘You bastard, you won a 500 Grand Prix before I did.’ And I forget where he ended up that day. It was respectable, by all means.

Q. It must have changed your life. That month.

A. After that month, I’m sure there was some difference in how I was treated, but I think what it did is it kept me from changing. Kind of my approach to racing has always been ‘dang it, I’m doing it, I like it, it’s fun, it’s a real buzz to do it’, to go over there and do that the first full season of Grand Prix racing, just kind of hey, we can do it if we get things right. If not, we’re just going to take what we can get and not really worry about the politics of it or to let it really get to you that much.

Schwantz's very iconic Pepsi Suzuki leathers. It was in this period that Schwantz was the favorite rider of an Italian boy. He had posters hanging in his room and watched the Japanese grand Prix VHS tape so often he wore it out. Fan boy's name? Valentino Rossi.
Schwantz’s very iconic Pepsi Suzuki leathers. It was in this period that Schwantz was the favorite rider of an Italian boy. He had posters hanging in his room and watched the Japanese grand Prix VHS tape so often he wore it out. Fan boy’s name? Valentino Rossi. Dean Adams

Q. It really was the defining period of your career, early on.

A. I felt that if nothing else ever happened in my career, to win the Daytona 200 and the Japanese Grand Prix, two consecutive big races in three weeks, nothing else really mattered. Everything else was just going to be a bonus.

I guess maybe I tried to carry that approach all through my career until about late ’91, the first part of ’92, when I said if I am ever going to win what I feel like I need to win­ the next step was the World Championship­ I’m going to have to do some re-thinking. I’m going to have to get some guys working on my bikes that really, really focus every weekend and can give me something good and consistent all the way across the board, not that’ll build me a rocket at one place and build me, I don’t want to say a piece of shit, but an ill-handling bike for the next weekend. Something that we can take and make it work everywhere instead of having peaks and valleys and peaks and valleys like we’d had up to that point.

Q. What’s one of the first things that come to mind when you think of that period? Something not everyone would know.

A. I remember what Bob MacLean said when I walked in to qualify on Thursday at Daytona, with my arm the same size from my elbow to my knuckles. I showed it to him and said ‘How’s that look?’.

He goes, ‘Dang, that thing’s all swole up: you should’ve landed on your dick.’

After Schwantz defeated Gardner at Suzuka their relationship is "like this" as the Italians say. Kevin brings it up a lot and Wayne wishes he would not.
After Schwantz defeated Gardner at Suzuka their relationship is “like this” as the Italians say. Kevin brings it up a lot and Wayne wishes he would not. Gi & Gi

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