The 1988 Grand Prix season featured a tremendously challenging mid-season run, starting at Imola at the end of May and finishing at Spa in Belgium on July 3. Between those bookends were the notoriously wet Nurburgring on May 29 and the Austrian Grand Prix at the wicked-fast Salzburgring on June 12.
’88 was American Kevin Schwantz’s first full season of GP racing. He’d set the mark very high, winning the first GP of the season at Suzuka by beating the reigning world champion Wayne Gardner at Honda’s home circuit.
There are several indelible images from Schwantz’s first full season in Europe–his wins at Suzuka and in Germany rank high, but it’s an image that isn’t actually of him on the podium or doing a victory lap that many remember.
In the 1980s the Salzburgring track in Austria was one of the most frighteningly fast circuits that the FIM GP series visited. Looking at a Salzburgring track map today, it’s easiest to describe the track as shaped like a long rubber band with a kink in it. The two long straight sections which brought the track around had slight bends in them. The track was a 190mph ballet if you got it right and a trip into the Austrian forest at high velocity if you didn’t.
Schwantz had previously seen Assen and had won in the wet at the Nurburgring, but he’d never even seen the Salzburgring before in his life until practice began in June of 1988.
“The speed of the Salzburgring, yeah, sure, it got your attention, but for me it was the curbs which I worried about,” Schwantz remembers.
“The curbs seemed like they were a foot high and even if they weren’t, they were (still) very high.”
Examining the infamous photo above from the Salzburgring in Schwantz’s presence makes one revert to primate status, almost unable to speak. There is a black tire mark fifteen feet long and the GP bike is cranked over so far that there’s scarcely an inch of rear tire contact on the track. It’s leaned over so far Schwantz’s leg is being crushed by the bike.
When verbal skills return the first questions are obvious: how did you do that? How did you save that?
Schwantz smiles. “I didn’t.”
“A lot of people ask me that question when they see that photo,” he explained. “It was my first trip to the Salzburgring and I was racing for the world championship. I needed to be fast and find the limits. Unfortunately, I found the limit there, in Saturday practice, I think. If you look at the photo, you can just barely make out that my left hand isn’t on the clip on; it’s on the tank. I’ve already decided that this is unsaveable and I have my left hand on the tank and I am pushing myself off the bike. I bailed off,” he says.
The Suzuki GP bike was never the fastest in a straight line and with tracks like the Salzburgring on the ’88 schedule, Suzuki, Schwantz says, brought special parts to enhance the top speed of the 300 pound 500cc machine.
“We had a fellow on the team named Mitsu Okamoto. He had spent the last months trying to build an exhaust system that would give us more top speed and also would exit with both of the bottom pipes on the right hand side of the bike, giving us more ground clearance.”
Welding thin bits of cone together is hard enough, but trying to keep them working in a rev-happy, hot and constantly vibrating racing environment is obviously very difficult to accomplish, without even factoring in the somewhat crude technology of 1988.
Schwantz continues: “He’d found a solution after building a bunch of pipes that gave the Suzuki more power and also, with a new swing arm, let the pipes exit on the right. They were beautiful. I think Mitsu actually brought the pipes to the track at Salzburgring and put them on the bike. Those pipes were the culmination of a lot of work, a lot of dyno hours and many hours spent welding,” Schwantz remembers.
“When I pushed off the bike in practice, predictably, the bike slid right to the curb, then caught and threw itself into the air. It bounced, it cartwheeled. If it did not destroy the bike, it certainly hurt it really really bad.”
Post-crash Schwantz was checked out by a medic, and took a ride back to the Suzuki pits as the practice session ended. He changed out of his leathers and went to find the bike to survey the damage.
It’s nearly 30 years later, and some awareness is present in Kevin Schwantz today that might have been lacking in 1988.
“I’m a rider–okay?” he says. “There are other words to describe a rider: one starts with an A and ends with ‘hole’, okay? But at the time I wanted to win, that’s all I wanted. I wanted to win and I wanted to beat Wayne Rainey and Eddie Lawson and the rest. My mindset after a crash was ‘How long ’til you guys can get that one fixed?’.
Schwantz would win the world title in 1993. But this was 1988.
He found his master exhaust pipe fabricator standing next to the crashed Suzuki GP bike. The machine had suffered near fatal damage, including the beautiful exhaust system.
“One of the pipes was gone, I think, and most of the rest were just smashed flat,” Schwantz remembers.
“And Mitsu, looking at the bike, he was actually crying. At the time I was kind of puzzled by this reaction. I was like, ‘okay, bike parts, they can make more of them.’ All I cared about was winning and being fast. I even looked at Mitsu at one point and asked, “Hey man, why are you crying? I’m fine. I held up my hands–look, nothing is broken. We’re good.”
“Now, looking back, I am surprised he didn’t kill me on the spot,” Schwantz says.”But, he wiped his eyes and went back to work, built me another set of pipes.”