Kevin Schwantz - Q&A (Part 1): Austin MotoGP
22 April 2011
In the first part of an exclusive Crash.net interview with 1993 500cc world champion Kevin Schwantz, the (official) MotoGP Legend talks about his involvement with the new 'Circuit of the Americas' being built in his home state of Texas.
The Austin track, which already had a long-term contract to host an F1 Grand Prix from 2012, has now also secured MotoGP in a ten-year deal beginning in 2013.
In part two of the interview (to follow) the '#34' casts his eye over the first two races of the 2011 MotoGP season...
It's an exciting time for MotoGP in America, and especially Texas. Tell us about the new track being built in Austin - how did it all get started and when did you first hear about it?
Well a really close friend of mine is Tavo Hellmund [Managing Partner of Full Throttle Productions] and Tavo is the one who put the whole deal together with Formula One. Tavo has been talking to me about it for probably 4 or maybe 5 years.
When he first told me I just kind of looked at him and shrugged my shoulders. I said 'you know, it just sounds like a really big job and really tough to pull off'.
But as time continued he just got closer and closer on it. And then two or three years ago he called me, we went and had lunch and he said, 'You know, I think the time is right now because I think Bernie [Ecclestone, President and CEO of the Formula One Group] really wants to come back to America'.
So he got Bernie on board and met the right people in Texas, as far as private investors, and found some funding for it. So he pulled off the two biggest hurdles that I thought were going to really be stumbling blocks for him and made it look easy.
At what point did bikes come into the picture? Were they always in the discussions right from the start?
They may not have been in the discussions from the start, but they were definitely in the back of my mind!
I've always felt, being a native Texan, that if we could ever find a way to get a facility built that was adequate to bring MotoGP here, it would be a resounding success.
Of course, there was also the opportunity to move my Riding School here. Even closer to home. It'll now be only 20 minutes away - there are a lot of ulterior motives on my behalf, but all stuff that I think will be beneficial to the facility as well.
How have you managed to influence the design of the circuit, in terms of thinking about bikes?
Well first and foremost it's safe. I feel like you can build a race track, but if it's not safe and you don't have just unbelievable compliments from the riders then it's a tough sell. Because if the riders are going there and making safety concerns all the time, or there are certain things about the track that they don't like. I think it's a tougher sell to the public.
But if the riders are talking about what a great facility it is. I think it's going to be an immediate success. Because it's just going to sell itself. When the media learn from the riders, after they have ridden or tested for the first time, what a great place it is and how much they love riding here then the fans are also going to want to come.
Tilke [Company headed by German engineer and circuit designer Hermann Tilke] has designed quite a few of the fairly new F1 tracks, and what Tavo and I both didn't want to happen was for this to be just like everything else that is out there right now.
We wanted this track to have some things in it from some of the favourite tracks we used to race on. Tavo raced in British F3 [single seater cars] so he knows a bunch of those tracks and of course my knowledge of race tracks. We wanted it to be challenging. We wanted it to be technically a track that you have got to be on top of your game at and riding really, really well to get around.
It's not just a straight line and then a simple 90-degree corner, then another straight line and another simple corner. We put sections of track that really lock themselves together, so you have to be really good and technically correct. There are also some fairly high-speed corners, high-speed exits and of course a long back straightaway with real hard braking at the end.
In terms of giving the track some character, are there any particular corners or sections that you think will come to define the circuit. Places that people will see and instantly know it's the Austin track?
Well the front straightaway is going to be fairly flat, but then going into the first turn there is almost 130 feet of elevation change [see elevation track map, with grey background, at bottom of page]. So it's a huge uphill.
Then as you make the first turn you come back down that hill and start a sequence of corners where I think most of the separation will be made. That is from Turns 2 all the way to Turn 9. It includes a sequence of corners similar to Maggotts and Becketts [the fast S bends] at Silverstone.
The one section that I also really like is at the end of the back straightaway. It's a sequence of corners similar to the Stadium section at the old Hockenheim circuit.
I always remember going into the Stadium there and no matter how focused you were, how hard you were racing and what those two-strokes sounded like - you could still hear the roar of the fans! So that section on our track should be really popular with the fans as well.
Then after that, from Turn number 16 all the way around to Turn 18 I think, are three consecutive right-hand turns that will have an exit speed of over 150mph on a bike. It's going to be really fast.
So there's a bunch of really cool sections of racetrack out there, but I think Turns 2 to 9 are going to be the really challenging part.
Will the track layout be the same for F1 and MotoGP, or will there be some corners that are different?
You know that was one of the things Tilke immediately started talking about 'we can do this different for the bikes, or we can do this different for the cars'. But Tavo and I really want to see the cars and bikes race around exactly the same track.
We don't want to have to change things by having different sections and we want to make sure that the safety is built in, whether it's two wheels or four wheels, and that the track is demanding for whatever you are driving or riding.
And just to confirm, this will be a day race - you're not going to spring a surprise night race on us are you?!
Even though we have quite a bit of heat here at Austin in the summer, I'm hoping that either at the beginning or later on the calendar - and not right in the middle - will be ideal for Austin. I don't think we need to do it at night, yeah.
What's the construction schedule now Kevin, leading up to the first F1 race in 2012?
The scheduled completion date is June of 2012. I had dinner with some of the guys from Tilke the other night and they think they are right on schedule. If you go out on site most of the land has been cleared now.
You still can't quite get a feel for the design of the track yet - there is no sketched layout or stakes in place - but you can stand at the top of the hill at the first turn see the landmark in the distance, which is the far end of the track. The left turn that leads onto the back straightaway.
You can really see how long this track is now [3.4 miles] and you can also get an idea of what it'll be like for fans when they come to watch. There's going to be great spectator viewing.
We're really trying to build that fan experience in. We're going to make some great hillside seating around turn one. That will allow you to see all the way over to Turn 11 on the back straightaway and also downtown Austin ten miles away.
The track's also really close to the airport. There are a lot of things that make this track really convenient for the fans and the competitors. Everything about it is going to be a real home run for us.
How do you see Austin fitting in with the two American tracks already hosting MotoGP? Do you think there is room for three US tracks on the calendar or do you think Austin will have to replace Indianapolis or Laguna Seca?
That's a tough one to answer. Of course I feel like Indy and Laguna have been great venues for MotoGP. Whether America can handle three grands prix I think is a question.
If you look at the distance between us, we're over 1500 miles from California [Laguna] and we're 1000 miles from Indianapolis. If you go to Europe you have races much closer than that. You never know.
All we can concern ourselves with is our 2013 date and try to do the best we can for MotoGP.
Have you got your eye on being the first person to ride a motorbike around the track?
When I was talking with the Tilke guys the other night they were saying 'you gotta be the first one to go around the track'. I said 'I don't know, I'll probably ride it on my bicycle'. They said 'no, you gotta do it on a motorcycle'. I said it sounded like a real good opportunity to have the first crash!
End of Part 1. For more on Kevin Schwantz, visit KevinSchwantz.com.