Kevin Schwantz: How I rode, Part 2


Kevin Schwantz, the hugely popular 1993 500cc world champion tells us about some of his scariest moments, some of his nastiest crashes and his greatest victories

Kevin Schwantz 1989 Pepsi Suzuki

Schwantz commenced his full-time GP career only four years after he’d started roadracing

Thomas Zimmerman/PA

Kevin Schwantz won 25 500cc grands prix and one world title between March 1988 and July 1994 but his impact on the sport of motorcycle racing was much greater than that.

The American’s wild riding technique, his ability to magic victories apparently out of nowhere and his willingness to ride way beyond the limit – sometimes with painful consequences – made him a huge favourite with fans.

Schwantz simply never knew when to back down, which was as much a negative as a positive. He also spent most of his seven and a half seasons as a full-time GP rider aboard Suzuki’s RGV500, which was mostly out-performed by Honda’s NSR500 and Yamaha’s YZR500. Therefore he often had to take huge risks to race with his rivals.

Schwantz came from U.S. superbike racing and continued riding Suzuki’s GSX-R750 four-stroke in the Suzuka 8 Hours during his GP career. He also rode a GSXR-R to victory in the 1988 Daytona 200, three weeks before his debut 500 win at that year’s Japanese GP at Suzuka.

The 500s were very light and lively, so I suppose you had to be careful with your upper-body inputs through the handlebars?

In fact, what taught me that lesson more than anything was Daytona 1986, on that year’s GSX-R750. The new bike was awesome, breaking track records like crazy, then we got it to Daytona and mine wouldn’t go in a straight line to save its ass.

“The solution was to relax. Don’t get rigid on it, let it shake a bit and it’ll settle itself down.”

I was trying to lock my elbows in front of my knees to force the handlebars to stay straight – I’m not going to let this thing shake its head! The guys from Yoshi were watching. They said, Kevin, you’re too tense on the thing. I said, you go ride that thing at 170 miles an hour when it starts friggin’ shaking and tell me you don’t tense up!

But the solution to the problem was to relax, don’t try to be a part of the chassis, don’t try to make the thing rigid. Let it have its head: come out of the chicane, spin the rear a bit, don’t get rigid on it, let it shake a bit and it’ll settle itself down. By the time I’d loosened up on the bike I could’ve eaten a sandwich between the chicane to the start finish line. It was that solid.

Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey at Hockenheim in 1991

Schwantz and arch-rival Wayne Rainey during their unforgettable duel at Hockenheim, 1991

Thomas Zimmerman/PA

What was the scariest thing you did on a 500?

Macau! [an Armco-lined street race in China]. And some of the passes I made up at the top of the hill at the Salzburgring [a super-fast and dangerous Austrian circuit that was removed from the GP championship after 1994].

You’re aiming at the top of the hill [a 160mph left/right/left kink between Armco and a cliff-face] and you’ve got the draft off one of the Hondas, whether it was Mick Doohan or Wayne Gardner or whoever. At that point you’re, like, man, I’ve got to make this pass here because I need to make time through the next three corners to try and stay in front until we come back up this hill again, because if I get stuck behind then it’s over.

Up the hill you’re just focused on the bike in front of you, making the name on the back get bigger and trying to work the lap to perfection so you can either get him at the top of the hill, squeezing past by the guardrail, or out-brake him getting into the horseshoe at the bottom of the hill, so you’re in front at the last chicane, so you can win the race.

“Over the top of the hill you had to wrestle the bike to the left and the thing is going all light and shaking and wiggling”

You don’t think about how fast you’re going and what the danger factor is, because if you ever did think about that, especially at those places, you were already halfway shot. Ten-foot tall and bulletproof – nothing can hurt me – is the mentality you had to have going into those places.

Then there was that pass between Alex Barros and Shinichi Itoh at Hockenheim in 1993. We were coming out of the first turn for the long run before the first chicane. It was only in qualifying, but I was like, oh my God! There’s a double draft! I got such a run on them off the corner and as I went towards them they started moving closer together. I’m, like, I don’t care – I’m going between you! When I went between them I actually cocked my shoulders a bit so I was narrower.

What about Eau Rouge and Radaillon at Spa-Francorchamps? You’re accelerating downhill out of La Source hairpin, round the fast right, then you’re aiming at the pit wall before you sweep left into the compression of Eau Rouge and uphill through Radaillon?

You were going downhill pretty damn fast into there, maybe getting off the gas just as you peeled off by the pit wall – and you were right up against the wall – no real brakes into the left, just close the throttle to get the transition over the top of the bike, through the big compression at the bottom of the hill and head back to the right as you’re going up the hill.

Over the top of the hill you had to wrestle the bike back to the left again and the thing is going all light and shaking and wiggling. Even though the bikes were only 130 kilos they were hard to change direction at speed, because all that mass wants to keep going in the same direction.

To my mind that was the toughest sequence of corners in racing, plus it was so important because right after that you had a loooong straight and it was uphill too.

The other thing at Spa was the street sections of the track. They had white lines in the centre of the road and those f**kers were slick, especially when it was wet, which it was most of the time at Spa. If you went across one of those the thing just snapped sideways.

1994 500cc British Grand Prix podium with Kevin Schwantz

Schwantz celebrates his last GP win with Mick Doohan and Niall Mackenzie, still hurting from a big crash in qualifying


You had a lot of highsides back then – everyone did – so can you describe a highside – the flick, the silence…

Okay, this is the one I had during at Donington, 1994, in qualifying. I come in and Stu [Shenton, Schwantz’s crew chief] says, ‘The Michelin guys say THIS is the tyre’. So I pull out of the pits and at the end of my out-lap I drop the hammer. I’m going to destroy the lap record, it’s gonna be great.

But I didn’t get enough heat into the right side of the tyre – so, into the Old Hairpin, back to the gas and it just snaps. Then it’s that big, long silence when you’re up there in the sky and the whole time you’re processing – where am I gonna land? What’s around me? Where’s the motorcycle? That last thing is what you think about the most. You’re hoping the bike doesn’t catch up to you – whether you and the bike are sliding or bouncing, both scenarios can be less than desirable.

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Bruno Bonhuil [a Roc Yamaha privateer] almost ran me over and actually spun me around – I was spinning one way and he hit me enough to spin me around the other way!

The main thing I tried to do after a crash like that was to go back and try to figure out what had caused it – did I not get the bike set right before I asked too much of the rear tyre?

I had another big one at Donington, during Friday practice in 1993. I was coming through the left down Craner and the friggin’ thing snapped sideways. They’d put some new gravel beds in there and the edge of the beds must’ve been a foot tall. Anyway, I saved it, ran across grass, thinking, this is fine, then I hit the gravel and went flying.

I got up and Wilf [Needham, Suzuki mechanic] picked me up on a scooter. He asked if I was okay and I said, yeah, I’m fine. Then I’m sitting in the garage struggling to work out which way the track goes – I’ve got no idea! – so I don’t know whether to turn left or right when I ride out the garage on my spare bike.

I’m sat there for 30 minutes and Stu says, you know, you need to do a lap to qualify because it’s supposed to rain all day tomorrow. I said, just point the bike down the pit lane and I’ll be good. Stu knew I was a bit rattled.

I walked out, got on the bike and the third lap I put it third or fourth on the grid. I was lucky there was no concussion protocol back then!

Schwantz and Rainey sweep into turn two at Jerez during the 1993 Spanish GP. Schwantz won by 1.6 seconds

Your greatest pass was probably the last lap at Hockenheim in 1991, when you out-braked Wayne Rainey for the win. Run us through that…

I thought, you know what, I’m gonna be better through that big fast right at the back of the circuit and beat him to the other end of the straight before the last chicane. I go past him and in the chicane I get the bike turned really good, got it spun up in the middle and got it driving out.

Then I’m thinking, if he’s going to come by me on the final straight before the stadium section he’s going to come past me on the right of the track, so I stay stuck to the paint on the right, which is not where you want to be going into the right-hander into the stadium – you want to be over to the left.

“That Marlboro on the back of his seat is getting real big, real quick. I’m thinking, God, I can’t hit him!”

So I start moving to the left and he’s in my draft and comes past me on the right. There’s a crosswalk [bridge] that I used as a brake marker. I remember going under the crosswalk and thinking, holy shit, because when he hits the brakes he’s in way deeper than he’s ever been.

When he came past me there I got in behind him and I hadn’t thought about getting out of his draft. So when he hits the brakes the first thing I have to do is take evasive action because that Marlboro on the back of his seat is getting real big, real quick. I’m thinking, God, I can’t hit him! So I move over and as I move I’m thinking, I’m so far committed that it’s going to be a problem getting stopped for the corner.

I start braking, squeezing as hard as I can, then the bike’s getting out of shape, so I’m on and off with the brake and using a bit of clutch to straighten the bike up. In fact I pull in the clutch in completely and meantime I’m going down through the gears.

But because I’ve got the clutch in I don’t realise I’ve gone back to first gear for a second-gear corner. So when I let the clutch out and get back on the throttle the engine goes bleeugh, because it’s frickin’ 3000rpm over what it needs to be. Oh shit! So I shift back to second and in the video that’s when you see me looking over my shoulder because I figure Wayne’s going to be raging around the outside of me. But I had just a little more into the next left.

Kevin Schwantz on Yoshimura Suxuki GSX-R750

Schwantz aboard a Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R750 EWC bike during the Suzuka 8 Hours


Another memorable win was at Nürburgring in your 1988 rookie season, when the rain was pissing down, the track was like ice and you beat Rainey and everyone by 25 seconds.

I probably ‘crashed’ a handful of times in that race. I almost crashed on the last lap going into the final chicane – jumped the kerb, into the sand, into the mud and came out the other side. Wow, that was close! My Michelin technician from back then said it was my best race ever, because our rain tyres sucked compared to the Dunlops.

How do you ride a 500 on ice?

What I used to do when I went out for a sighting lap in the rain was grab the clutch and spin the tyre all I could, just to see what the grip was like, to see how slick it was.

You were fired up at Nürburgring because when you won at Suzuka earlier that year Gardner and Eddie Lawson had told you something on the podium…

Yeah, they both said, this won’t happen again! What do you know, five races later it did happen again!

Those were the days when most of the 500 guys did the Suzuka 8 Hours, including you, so how did your riding technique change on a four-stroke?

I don’t think it changed at all. Maybe the physical side of it, because the four-strokes were harder to transition back and forth and so on. But the bikes we raced at Suzuka were usually really good bikes – they handled well and they had decent power. They might not have been quite as fast as the Honda RVF, but Yoshimura always built us pretty good bikes.

The only time the bike wasn’t good was 1992 when the factory did it instead of Yoshimura. Doug [Chandler] and I spent the entire first two or three hours we had on the bike trying to blow it up.

Mick Doohan used to de-clutch all the way into corners with the four-stroke to make the bike feel more like a two-stroke, what about you?

No, I rode exactly the same as I did the 500. Except sometimes the gear-shift pattern. I always used a normal road-shift pattern [one down, five up], whereas most guys shift the other way. So a couple of years at the 8 Hours I tried shifting their way. It was okay, mostly.

One lap in the 1989 race, I think, I’m getting towards the end of the back straight, so I go to shift from fifth to sixth but instead I go from fifth to fourth and blow it up. I get back to the pits and tell the guys that the engine let go but I almost caught it! They pull off the valve cover and all the friggin’ exhaust valves and springs and everything are in bits. They say, that’s an over-rev from a backshift

How I ride

What does it take to ride at the top? Mat Oxley speaks to the sport’s leading riders to uncover the secrets of their individual techniques