Motorcycling hero Kevin Schwantz won his only world title 25 years ago. Only recently did he reveal how he did it depsite serious injury
Kevin Schwantz is one of motorcycle Grand Prix racing’s all-time greats, even though he won only a single world championship.
Fans adored the Texan for his win-it-or-bin-it attitude – second place was never an option. He almost certainly would have won more titles if he had been able to alloy his astounding talent with a certain reticence, but that wasn’t his style. He was the same off the track: full throttle all the way and damn the consequences. A great guy with whom to share a night out!
Schwantz won his only world championship in tragic circumstances in the autumn of 1993. That season’s title battle was a straight duel with fellow American Wayne Rainey. In fact this was the climax of a mano a mano that had raged since 1987, when the pair fought for the US superbike title. Back then they were like kids at school who hated each other – Schwantz the bad boy at the back of class, Rainey the diligent pupil at the front.
“We just really, really didn’t like each other,” Schwantz recalls. “I don’t know why I didn’t like him, except that I knew how much he disliked me.”
They arrived in the 500cc world championship together in the spring of 1988; Schwantz with Suzuki, Rainey with ‘King’ Kenny Roberts’ Yamaha squad.
“At that point in our careers all I was concerned about was beating Wayne,” adds Schwantz. “We hated each other so much that all I was really worried about was where he was.”
Schwantz won more of their battles, but suffered too many accidents and mechanicals, while Rainey won more wars, taking three consecutive 500cc crowns in 1990, 1991 and 1992. Meanwhile the hatred mellowed into mutual respect. By the start of 1993 they were on talking terms.
“Wayne told me he could notice I was different in ’93,” says Schwantz. “He could tell I was a different person and I was going to be much more difficult to beat. It was both me and the bike that were better.”
Schwantz’s Suzuki RGV500 had finally turned a corner, thanks to the input of British engineer Stuart Shenton. “Almost everywhere we went in ’93 the bike was good, the best I rode. All credit to Stuart.”
While the RGV had improved, Rainey’s YZR500 had gone backwards. Yamaha was experimenting with chassis stiffness and built a frame and swing-arm that were so stiff that they overworked the tyres, causing chatter.
Halfway through the season Rainey switched to a French-built ROC chassis, but by the time the Grand Prix circus arrived at Donington Park for the 10th of 14 races he was way behind on points.
Everything happened at Donington. Both riders had purling crashes during practice. Schwantz broke bones in his hands. Rainey crushed several vertebrae. Both also suffered concussion, although they kept that very quiet.
“I was so concussed that I was sat in the garage [during qualifying] and for the life of me I couldn’t think which way to go when I left the garage,” says Schwantz. “So I said to Stuart: just put the bike on the pitlane and I’ll be good, because otherwise I probably would have turned the wrong way and everybody would have gone, holy f***, he really is concussed!”
The race was even more dramatic. Schwantz got taken out on the first lap, damaging his hands further. Rainey finished second, despite seeing double. Now Schwantz led by only three points.
Rainey won the next race at Brno to take the championship lead. There were three races left: Misano, Laguna Seca and Jarama. “It was like my whole world had fallen apart,” Schwantz remembers. “I’d planned to go home after Brno but instead I went straight to Italy and spent all week riding bicycles, trying to convince myself that things weren’t over.”
The drama continued at Misano, where it was overtaken by tragedy. Schwantz’s hand injuries were the first problem. “My right hand was still bad, so I was having to ride down the back straightaway cross-handed. I’d come out of that fast kink, shift gears, then reach over and hold the throttle with my left hand, so I could release the right hand and shake it for a couple of seconds, just enough to get some circulation back. Whenever I tell people that story they go: holy f***!”
Rainey led the race, only to crash. The Californian rarely had accidents but this one severed his spinal cord. Schwantz finished in third place to return to the top of the championship.
“So now I’ve got a five-point lead and we’re going to Laguna! It was all drama. Then an hour after the race somebody tells me Wayne’s never going ride again. I was like, ‘What?’ I thought it was a ploy – so that I’d go home, relax for a week and lose my focus.
“Then we knew it was true about Wayne. It was one of those times where you go: how much more of a rollercoaster can this be? It will always be one of the big unknowns – if Wayne had finished that race I don’t know if I could have beaten him for the championship.
“I was definitely a changed person in ’94. Wayne’s injury changed my attitude to racing – do I really want to do this? I had a big crash in testing at Phillip Island. I came to a stop, then the next second, boom, the bike lands right next to me! I thought, ‘Holy f***, if I’d not rolled that last revolution I’d probably be dead. That accident wouldn’t have bothered me in ’88.”
Schwantz effectively stopped racing when his old rival got hurt; he just didn’t know it at the time. He finally quit midway through the 1995 season.
Mat Oxley has covered premier-class motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner