Sanding Against The Grain: Kevin Schwantz, World Champion

Schwantz, world champion, acclimates to racing without Wayne


(I think I wrote this in late 1993 or 1994)

Kevin Schwantz is the most charismatic world champion since Kenny Roberts, a legion of fans have followed the daring young man for his entire racing career. A darling of the papers, they read him in the back pages of Cycle News when he was an amateur and surveyed his progress ever so closely as he became a professional racer. Whereas Wayne Rainey was probably closest to a white knight as anyone in the roadracing fraternity would come, Schwantz showed a darker, mischievous side to draw them in. On and off track Schwantz epitomized everything in a true racing superstar: astoundingly fast, Kevin performed incredible feats on motorcycles others could not even venture. Ordinarily, he got away with threading the needle, shattered windscreens and boots pointing to the sky while he wrestled the bike back from the edge. And sometimes he didn’t; he crashed bikes and remarkably walked away with only a smart quip in explanation. His off-track exploits kept him in print between race weekends, he dated Playboy centerfolds and put a few 911s on the trailer. Young Turks envied him greatly.

Jim Schwantz

He came from Texas with nothing more than a pair of battered leathers and a burning determination to win. No sugar daddy backing him or factory paid riding coaches in accompaniment, nosireee. The motivation to win seeped from a burning desire to impress his Uncle Daryl Hurst. A top level dirt track racer in the seventies and eighties, Hurst is the original Texas Cowboy racer, ten gallon hat and the number thirty-four on his racebike. Once Schwantz began roadracing (trials riding, motocross and dirttrack preceding) he would excitedly tell his Uncle Daryl his results. No matter the accomplishment, Hurst would immediately up the ante, throw another carrot in front of the lad. If Kevin won production races, he was told that he wasn’t doing anything of real value until he won on a modified bike. That accomplished, he was wasting time until he won regional races, made pro and began winning superbike races. Kevin conquered motorcycles and competitors with a voracious style that awed even his Uncle, among other notables. It is said that the first time he saw Kevin ride, at the infamous Transatlantic Match races, Barry Sheene, well known for his voracious appetite for oxygen, said only, “Mother of God …”

Superbike racing beckoned Kevin, aboard a Yoshimura Suzuki he at once crashed antlers with Fred Merkel, the reigning American champion. Headlines screamed, Unknown Texan smokes everybody at Willow Springs Superbike finale. In American Superbike racing he would meet his one true rival, the remarkable Wayne Rainey. They left two abreast black streaks exiting corners the world over in a contest of will, nerve and sheer talent. Like the rivalries of Spencer versus Roberts and Ballington versus Mang before them they were fairly evenly matched, yet never had two young riders burst forth with such intensity and so obviously destined for greatness. Who can forget the Schwantz versus Rainey battles at Laguna Seca, Le Manns and Suzuka? “Wayne once said, Schwantz recalls, “we were like two kids in school who hated one another. But we developed a fairly friendly rivalry.” That they ended up rivals seemed inexplicable, their study in roadracing, not to mention riding styles, so contrasting. Rainey came from the old school, he dirt tracked his way into a superbike ride, made some sorties into GP racing while young to get a taste, established himself as the premier Superbike rider in the world, then went GP racing full time. Kevin, it seemed, merely appeared. At Sheene’s urging he rode the old Suzuki XR70/75 500, (a bike he astoundingly found to be slower than his Yoshimura Superbike), at a series of GPs in 1986/87, crashing out of most races. Rainey won the American Superbike championship in 87 and both he and Kevin leapt to the international scene. Learned GP scribes predicted Schwantz would accumulate a stack of top ten finishes in his first full learning year. Wrong. He showed up at Suzuka in 1988 on a thought to be barely competitive Pepsi Suzuki and psyched the reigning world champion into making big mistakes, on his way to winning his first GP. Who can forget that standing on the pegs victory dance?

In the seasons that followed Schwantz became a small buzzing insect in the grand scheme of Wayne Rainey’s plans, never really unwavering enough to be a season long threat, but a menace just the same. Kevin didn’t win world championships, never had. Schwantz, in addition to the world championship, has only a collection of obscure WERA titles and an RZ Cup Challenge to call his own. Yet, with his tightrope riding style he won races and hearts. Loyal too for an impressionable young man, with the exception of Freddie Spencer, Schwantz is the longest contracted Ariai helmet rider currently riding and he has been associated with Suzuki even longer than that.

Doubtless, his least touched upon yet most characterizing trait as a racer is that if left unchecked, Kevin flat out refuses to lose races. Earlier in his GP career he was convinced that any race could be won; even if the tires were greasy and the leaders were six seconds up, he backed his Suzuki into corners in dogged pursuit. He did whatever it took, performed whatever riding miracle deemed essential. He displayed a no fear attitude towards the world. After Schwantz stuffed Eddie Lawson several times during that period, Lawson gave him the signature “don’t ever do that again” glare on the podium, Schwantz merely smiled and glared back. “World champion, ex-world champion, I never think of the other competitors in those terms. If you do that you may just psyche yourself right out of the game,” he told me then.

In a perfect world the fastest rider would be world champion, but because of the points spread from first to fifth and the importance on consistency, Schwantz would have to do a reorganization of his racing if he was not to justly become The Greatest Rider Never to have Won a Championship. Kevin’s allegiance in purely winning changed in mid 1992, the ever hyper Schwantz began to unpsyche himself before races with the intent of gaining consistency in his riding. Consistent, tactical riding came naturally for Rainey and Lawson, but with Schwantz it was like sanding an expensive piece of wooden furniture against the grain. He forced himself, assuredly grinding his teeth across the line, to finish second and fourth. Rather than take huge chances that a season ago a second thought would not have been granted before the move executed, Kevin forced himself to click his riding back one painful notch. Consistency came to him immediately, although his then team mate Doug Chandler began finishing in front of him on occasion and other pretenders began to sneak through and win races. That must have been quite humbling and frustrating for Kevin, although he never once uttered a word of discontent and seemed genuinely happy for Chandler.

Suzuki changed their approach to racing as well. As Kevin was tossing away races and championships they were swapping parts and design theories comparable only to Cagiva, throwing frames, front ends and cylinders at the machine in a confusing season long parade of experimentation. Once they would get the package dialed-in towards the final GPs, Suzuki would scrap the entire project in preparation for the coming year, starting with the a new ground zero. As Schwantz conditioned his riding to somewhat mimic Rainey’s, Suzuki brought their thinking more in line with that of Yamaha’s very controlled, methodical approach to GP development. Preparations had been made and now it would only take perfect execution by Schwantz and Suzuki to make a serious run at the championship.

1993 showed the true new Schwantz, winning when he could in Australia, Spain, Austria and Holland, he backed that performance up with podium finishes when winning wasn’t in the cards. He lead the championship until Britain where he was savagely knocked down on the second lap in what serious Schwantz watchers call his second worst crash, the first being the Phillips Island first lapper in 1988. That DNF brought he and Rainey nearly even in points and forced a showdown between them for the championship. Then came Italy.

On that fateful afternoon in Misano, almost in an instant, the factors that on the surface have motivated Kevin for the past five years disappeared, just as he grabbed the carrot it turned to dust. Three time world champion Wayne Rainey, to whom Kevin has been linked for years of heated battle, was tragically paralyzed and will no longer race a motorcycle. After just as many years of near misses, Kevin has finally won his world championship, following Barry Sheene (76-77) and Franco Unichi (82) into the record books as riders to win the world title on a Suzuki. What will he do for an encore now that he owns the mark he gave himself to accomplish and with his most feared rival no longer racing? The Rainey incident and the resulting championship haunt his psyche. “It does haunt me, and the only way I can stop it, I think, is to win some more championships with my title rival not falling by the wayside.”

But who could put together a season long fight for the title? No matter the criteria, Schwantz’s direct competition is now limited. Schwantz agrees, “I think Mick will go well from the start and I view him, now, as the biggest threat. My team mate Alex had a couple of good races last year, he just didn’t finish the last few laps of those races, he’ll be right there. Luca and Beattie should do well and it may take some time for Beattie to get used to the Dunlops. Doug could be right there. John, ahh, I don’t know, he could be tough or he could be asleep in his motorhome as the race starts. As for direct rivals I guess I don’t know. Anyone on the first three rows of the grid could become a title rival but for a true rival, I don’t think anyone will ever replace Wayne. His consistency and tactics to win were such that my performance was judged by them.”

Schwantz, it seems, cannot utter one sentence regarding his championship without adding something concerning Rainey. At times it seems he is more concerned with talking about and explaining his deeply felt sentiment regarding Rainey than he is about his new title. “Wayne was the best rider, no doubt. He is a true champion. You hear that phrase a lot but people don’t ponder the fact that it really defines Wayne as a champion. He made no mistakes and without him I doubt I’d have accomplished all I have. The world would be a whole lot better place if there were more …” He let’s the sentence end.

Motivation in racing is everything. Photogenic young men with plenty of their father’s money come up through the ranks every few seasons in pursuit of racing glory. They receive the best equipment money can buy and with a clear mind and easily focused goals leap the ladder of success. But, with the exception being the aforementioned Barry Sheene, they are almost always stopped dead just short of their final goal. The final rung is an arena where the fastest bikes don’t always win races and the contents of your heart matter more than those of your crankcase, welcome to GP racing boys. The motivation here has to transcend competitiveness as most know it and be festered in escapism or the pursuit of triumph that knows no bounds; merely being talented and having a good jaw line won’t cut it. Kevin Schwantz’s 1993 world championship proves that coming from nowhere with nothing but total dedication to winning and motivation to be the best will conquer nearly any rung thrown in its way.

True to form, the moment he realized his ten year old dream of winning the world championship, one of Kevin’s first transatlantic phone calls was to his uncle Daryl in Houston informing him that another carrot, perhaps the final one, had been snatched. How did Hurst react? “He was as happy as anyone, calling the Governor of Texas and getting them to formally recognize the championship,” Schwantz says. “But with the way it all happened, nobody was really ecstatic.”

Schwantz, perhaps knowing of his days of racing with his friend and competitor Wayne Rainey are gone, lets a long breath out and says, “I know I wasn’t.”

Misano '93. The eyes tell the tale.
Misano ’93. The eyes tell the tale. Lucky Strike Suzuki

 


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