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Rainey vs Schwantz: an unforgettable duel

The New Year is usually a time to look forward. But the past is an easier place to talk about than the future, so please forgive me for looking backward as I struggle into 2013, having rather overdone it on too many occasions during the past week or so.

This year it’s 20 years since one of the most thrilling, weird and anguished battles for the premier-class World Championship. The 1993 duel between Americans Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey will never be forgotten, and not only for good reasons.

Schwantz versus Rainey will always be one of ‘bike racing’s all-time greatest rivalries – much more real and much nastier than anything we’ve had in MotoGP. The pair hated each other from the moment their career paths collided in US Superbikes in 1986.

motogp race  Rainey vs Schwantz: an unforgettable duel

“I don’t know why I disliked him,” says Schwantz. “Except that I knew how much he disliked me, so I figured I’d dislike him just as much.”

The pair’s fulltime GP careers began at exactly the same time, in 1988, so 1993 was their sixth year together on the World Championship trail. By then Rainey had won three titles, Schwantz none.

1993 was different from the get-go. Yamaha had taken a wrong turn in chassis development, building a chassis of extruded sections of aluminium that was far too stiff and thus overworked the tyres. This episode was almost certainly the start of the factory’s understanding of the science of controlled flex in chassis design. It’s worth remembering that Yamaha’s current MotoGP boss Masahiko Nakajima worked on Rainey’s YZR500s. At the same time Suzuki had finally got their fickle RGV500 properly dialled in, so for once, Yamaha didn’t have the best bike.

Schwantz won first time out at Eastern Creek, then the home of GP racing in Australia, but Rainey bounced back with wins at Shah Alam and at Suzuka, where he beat Schwantz by 0.08 seconds in a classic duel. That was when Rainey had his out-of-body experience.

“I was looking down at myself, laughing smiling and giggling,” said the Californian many years later. “I remember being at the press conference after the race and thinking, I can’t tell them what just happened – they won’t let me on the racetrack.” Even now, Rainey admits he’s spooked by the feeling he had that day.

motogp race  Rainey vs Schwantz: an unforgettable duel

Then it was Schwantz’s turn for back-to-back wins, Rainey struggling so badly that he junked his factory chassis and switched to a Swiss-made ROC.

By now the usually calm and collected Rainey was almost 30 points down and very badly rattled. At the Salzburgring he qualified seventh, more than a second slower than Schwantz.

“After qualifying I had a little tizzy,” he recalls. “I was so pissed I kicked my leathers around the motorhome, but after that I felt pretty calm.”

Rainey would’ve finished the Salzburgring race in fourth place, but for a bizarre incident on the final lap, which he started two seconds down on third-placed Alex Barros. Schwantz’s team-mate had been trying to get past a problematic backmarker and became so incensed that he rolled off on the back straight and started punching the backmarker’s helmet. That outburst gifted third place to Rainey.

motogp race  Rainey vs Schwantz: an unforgettable duel

And the luck kept going Rainey’s way, for now at least. At Donington Mick Doohan – still in a real mess with a wonky right leg – took out Schwantz on the first lap, so now the two Americans were just about even on points.

Schwantz’s Donington disaster seemed to unravel the sometimes highly strung Texan. At the next race he struggled home a distant fifth while a revitalised Rainey crushed everyone. But that Brno victory came too easily for Rainey who later admitted “in some strange way I felt empty. Something was lost there and I’m not sure why I felt that way, even to this day”.

Perhaps it was some kind of a premonition. Everyone knows what happened next time out at Misano. Rainey was ahead of Schwantz when he crashed and severed his spine, so Schwantz was World Champion and only an idiot would suggest that he didn’t deserve it.

But Rainey’s downfall also took Schwantz to pieces. “That’s when I realised: f**k, you’re really not bulletproof, you’re not ten feet tall.” Schwantz retired 18 months later, having won just two more races.

We still see Rainey occasionally. Last September he visited Misano for the first time since 1993. Following his accident Dorna said that MotoGP would never return to Misano, but when the circuit changed from anti-clockwise to clockwise, Dorna decided that was a good enough excuse to forget their promise.

Ironically, the circuit’s change of direction robbed the place of its best section, which also happened to be Rainey’s all-time favourite sequence of corners – a breathtaking series of three high-speed lefts that took riders onto the back straight at ever-increasing velocity. It was always a joy to watch ex-dirt tracker Rainey through there, the rear tyre spinning and jumping around as he kept the throttle pinned, almost like he was riding the Ascot mile back home in the States.

motogp race  Rainey vs Schwantz: an unforgettable duel

Rainey is still alive and still full of life, and somehow it feels like we miss him more because he’s still around. Two years ago I visited him at home in Monterey. It’s always emotional meeting the great man, because the frustration at his situation is still there in his eyes which continue to burn with the same intensity that carried him to those three world titles.

While we were talking, a workman arrived to fix a roof leak. “There’s nothing that makes me madder than having to depend on somebody else to do such a simple task,” he told me. “But that’s where I’ve had to grow and learn to be patient.”

Like I said, we will always remember 1993, even if many of the memories are far from happy.

motogp race  Rainey vs Schwantz: an unforgettable duel

Add your comments

25 comments on Rainey vs Schwantz: an unforgettable duel

  1. dave cubbedge, 2 January 2013 17:23

    Never, and I mean NEVER apologize for re-living history!! As sad as this story ends, it bears repeating. I did read – perhaps in Motorsport – about Rainey and his life after the crash. It is an inspiring story, maybe lacking only the incredible results that Alex Zanardi has achieved, but real inspirational to all of us who admired these two and their fantastic battles.

    And although I’m more of a four-wheeled guy, I often wonder jusy exactly why the USA has had so many great bike riders at this world level and yet F1 seems to be a lost cause….

  2. Alex Milligan, 3 January 2013 00:37


    Thank you for a terrific article. I remember well the Schwantz and Rainey years and my support wavered between the two. Schwantz was scarily talented but loose, Rainey at times sheer perfection and poetry on a racing 500cc motorcycle.

    Please continue in this vein – this was the golden age of motorcycle racing and how I wish 500 and 750cc two strokes would return again.

    Didn’t a recently retired ex World Champion say much the same thing??

  3. Steve W, 3 January 2013 00:46

    I’ll certainly second Dave’s comment… I absolutely LOVE reading these kinds of history stories.

  4. Uncle Iberian, 3 January 2013 01:20

    Great lesson in history for folks like myself, who got into bikes a bit late (like early 2000s). Fantastic article, quality stuff. Been looking for something to read and luckily found it here!

    PS Could somebody add Tumblr to sharing buttons? If possible…

  5. LAH, 3 January 2013 03:25

    the moment (3:23) when wayne passes kevin on the rear wheel had me off the couch!
    thanks, guys!

  6. John B, 3 January 2013 04:04

    I agree with Dave too. An excellent trip down memory lane. Isn’t this what MotorSport is all about?

  7. Anand Krishnan, 3 January 2013 07:21

    Wonderful Article , was in college when Rainy won third title , fantastic battles.
    have been following moto gp ever since.

  8. Peter Spiers, 3 January 2013 14:28

    Another great read Matt, thanks a lot.

    I was (and still am) a massive Schwantz fan but its only now I see videos of Rainey at his aggresive best muscling his YZR around that I’ve come to appreciate his genius.

    But here are few of my favourite memories of their rivallery :-

    Suzuka when Rainey misread his pit board and Schwantz beat him over the line by a couple of bike lengths. Watch the black lines from their back tyres as they exit Spoon curve lap after lap.

    Schwantz outbreaking rainey into the Hockenheim stadium section on the last lap to win the race.

    Schwantz outbreaking Rainey round the outside into the melbourne loop at Donnington from 5 bike lengths behind and going on to win the race.

    I still watch motogp but it isn’t a patch on the late 80′s early 90′s era.

  9. F1fanaticBD, 3 January 2013 15:42

    Absolutely brilliant. A great way to remember the rivalry’s 20th anniversary.

  10. Rich Ambroson, 3 January 2013 17:18

    Definitely tales from a Golden Age. I was fortunate to have seen these guys on track at Laguna Seca, and “live on the day” on TV when those battles were fierce. Laguna Seca 1993 was a bit of a somber occasion, with Rainey’s very recent injury.

    Those were some bikes and riders to watch, for sure. Thanks as always, for the great article!

  11. chris b, 3 January 2013 19:14

    Mat, excellent !

  12. Mat Oxley, 3 January 2013 20:09

    Not wanting to do the hard sell on you people, but anyone into that era might like to check out a book I wrote – An Age of Superheroes, about the ‘Golden Age of 500s, from 1988 to 1993 featuring Schwantz, Rainey, Gardner, Doohan and Lawson. It’s a large format book – stacked with great coloue shots, with loads of first-hand memories from the riders, all about those great days, wild times and mental motorcycles. It’s certainly my favourite era in GP racing, so I had to do a book on it

  13. Marty D, 4 January 2013 01:39

    Loved the article, Mat–and loved your book. Bought it as soon as it came out, and liked it so much I read it through–twice!–that first weekend of ownership.

    And hey, if we’re enumerating American greats from that era, let’s not forget Awesome Eddie Lawson. Always thought his title in ’89 after switching to Honda a most impressive feat.

  14. Tony Geran, 4 January 2013 03:33

    Mat, great read. I wonder what would have happened if that Dutch surgeon hadn’t mangled Doohan’s leg in 92. A three way battle for the championship? My favourite race from those days has to be the 1988 French GP with Gardener, Rainey, Schwantz, Lawson and Christian Sarron swapping the lead in that slip streamer at Paul Ricard

  15. Rich Ambroson, 4 January 2013 03:59

    A few more thoughts on reading the comments.

    Lawson, yes, definitely an American great.

    Those bikes. My God, you just thought wrong and they’d high side the rider.

    Hockenheim, Schwantz outbraking Rainey. One of the gnarliest bits of bike footage you can see on youtube.

    Sidebar memory. Misano was mentioned, as it had to be. I remember it for happier reasons. The 1991 250 cc race there was a last lapper between Luca Cadalora and Helmut Bradl, with Cadalora just elbowing his way past at the line after a back and forth that last lap that was something. That’s how I like to remember the old Misano.

  16. DM, 4 January 2013 18:01

    The great thing about bike racing is that I do believe we’ll see their likes again. I think Lorenzo/Rossi/Stoner competition had all the hallmarks that we look for in a rivalry.
    But that will never take anything away from the greatness of the Rainey, Schwantz, Lawson era, nor the Randy Mamola, Lawson, Roberts, Sheene eras.

    Mat, where can we find your book? It sounds perfect.

  17. tifosi, 7 January 2013 01:28

    Schwant v Rainey at Suzuki may be THE most amazing racing I have ever watched. Total commitment!

  18. Alex Mlliigan, 8 January 2013 03:33

    To answer your question Dave – US GP riders in the 70′s and 80′s had learned their craft racing dirt track ovals. They were masters of tcontrolling a rear wheel slide or drift and this skill was transferred to tarmac (okay – asphalt!!) when the crazy power of the 500cc 2 strokes far exceeded both chassis, but more importantly in those days – tyre technologies.
    Most European riders, sadly hit the deck when the rear broke sideways (watch some of the many many stacks of French Rider Christian Sarron) whilst Kenny Roberts, Randy Mamola, Wayne Rainey and of course, Kevin Schwantz were much more at home on a lively (“squirrely” was Schwantz’s euphimism) bike.
    Glory days indeed.
    Then the Aussies showed their mettle – Gardner first but much more tellingly Doohan who in his pomp would throw in demo laps towards the end of GP’s he clearly had in the bag. Many an arcing black line of melted Michelin slick was to be seen exiting corners oif the worlds GP tracks – fantastic stuff.

  19. jesse, 11 January 2013 01:15

    @d.cubbedge…to answer your question, you can track all of America’s talent on display then, back to one man – “The King” Kenney Roberts. He developed as a byproduct of the AMA racing program of the time. It’s headline battleground was on the circuit of mile flattrack ovals across the country. You learned how to steer in various ways, counter-steering, with the brake, or the way the fastest guys preferred to get it done, steering the bike with the throttle at 140mph. Kenny taught the slower guys in Europe how to do it, while he learned other techniques from guys like Saarinen (how to hang off) and the quick way around all the European tracks from all the competition. The most amazing memory I have of KK from that era, is the fact that he entered his first season in Europe trying to win the top three classes simultaneously…250, 500, & 750. Needless to say, there was a steady parade of talented Americans that followed KK to Europe while America was still dominating the world.

  20. jesse, 11 January 2013 01:39

    …whilst I forget…don’t forget one of the most incredible rivalries to ever thrill the moto-race fans…Roberts vs. Spencer. Not many people remember that it was Fast Freddie that de-throned the great King Kenny. Race fans, please treat yourself and research this also.

  21. Alex Milligan, 11 January 2013 03:41

    Jesse – Ah yes, the enigma that is Freddie Spencer. I missed his reign but was an avid fan & TV viewer when he rejoined the 500cc GP circus with Ago’s Marlboro Yamaha team.

    I so badly wanted to see him do it all again – but sadly, it was not to be with only a couple of minor flashes of his previous best, his season ended early and with ignominy when he “retired” (i.e. Ago & Marlboro dumped him).

    Great bio piece on the man for you there Mat Oxley!!!! C’mon, please write an article on the Roberts/Spencer duels and what became of the man after his GP retirement.

  22. Rich Ambroson, 24 January 2013 00:26

    I’d definitely enjoy reading Oxley’s take on Spencer. I’ve heard that Roberts viewed him as some viewed Senna in F1, perhaps thinking that Spencer took a few too many chances feeling that God was on his side. Don’t know for sure, that was just a few years before I was following super closely.

    Having ridden Honda VFRs all my riding life, and having briefly spoken with him at the track in later years, I’m definitely a Spencer fan. He definitely seems like a really good guy, on top of being quite a talent.

  23. hamish, 30 January 2013 11:06

    Great to reflect on the end of their years competing on and off the track.
    4 pics but none from 93! Expect better from you boys.

  24. Alex Harmer, 30 January 2013 11:09


    We can only work with what’s available to us. Most of the pictures on Mat’s features he’s scanned from old press releases!


  25. hamish, 30 January 2013 18:17

    True Alex, on reflection Mat wrote about their rivalry through the years not just Kevins title year in 93. Don’t think we will see raw racing like that again, bikes are just too good now to alow it.

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