Kevin Schwantz will always be remembered as one of the sport’s great entertainers.

As well as his cavalier riding style, exuberant celebrations, and rivalry with fellow-American Wayne Rainey, the 1993 500cc World Champion’s on-track antics became the stuff of legend.

Still involved with Suzuki and a keen observer of MotoGP, Crash.net recently sat down with Schwantz to take an in-depth look at his racing career.

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Crash.net:
How did you initially get into motorcycle racing?

Kevin Schwantz:
My parents owned a motorcycle dealership. They had a Yamaha franchise in 1964, the year I was born. I kind of grew up around bikes. Both parents worked at the dealership. My uncle dirt-track raced professionally, so I got a feel for it. The pro guys and Kenny Roberts [Senior] used to come and race at the Houston Astrodome, which was not far from our house in Houston. So did my uncle. I got to see what motorcycle racing was like from a very young age and always thought to myself how great it would be if I could make a living racing motorcycles.

Crash.net:
Was the 500cc championship always something you were aiming for when you were growing up?

Kevin Schwantz:
It was never even something that I thought about, you know? I rode dirt-bikes as a kid. I observed trials, motocross. I actually rode some professional motocross. I rode the Houston Supercross in 1982 and 1983. But I graduated high school in ‘82 and my parents were firm believers that this business was going to be how I made my living. ‘Yeah you can go race on the weekends, but you can’t have time off work to go train, get ready.’ I just realised after the Houston Supercross in ’83 that I didn’t have the ability to commit the time and effort to be able to be competitive. Not that I could have ever really been competitive. With a bit more training and work I could have gotten faster. But could I ever have raced the McGrath’s and that? I doubt it.

Then when I quit, gave up racing dirt-bikes in ’83, some friends of mine at the end of that season asked me to do an endurance race at Texas World Speedway. So I did that. By the time I finished riding for an hour I was as fast as these friends of mine who had been racing ten years. I thought, ‘Wow, I kind of enjoyed that. That was pretty fun.’ I got my parents’ dealership to give me an FJ600 Yamaha to race in 1984. I started as a novice, started winning races and moved up to an expert. After that I continued to win at the expert level. At the end of that year I got a try out with the Yoshimura team. John Ulrich is a journalist in America and has a team of his own. He went to Yoshimura and said, ‘I think you should give this kid a chance. I’ve been watching him endurance race and club race all year long. He’s not got a lot of experience. He’s not a spring chicken’ – I was already 20 at that point in ’84. Anyway, I got the tryout, broke the track record, won the two races and it goes on from there.

I was a late bloomer as far as road racing goes, and a pretty steep learning curve, because in ’84 I was a club racer. In ’85 I was a pro-Superbike racer. The first time I left the country in ’86 to go to Europe for the match races. I went back and did some 500cc races. Barry Sheene got me a bike to race in Europe and that turned into two grand prix – two years after I started road racing! I got thrown in at the deep end of the pool, but I liked that. I always thought to myself, ‘I’m doing stuff that I know people had tried years to do, and never achieved it. At least I’m doing it at a level that is pretty special.’

Crash.net:
Considering it was such a rapid rise, what was your first impression of the 500? Did it feel like, ‘Wow, what is this?’

Kevin Schwantz:
You know, I was lucky because at the time there wasn’t a factory Suzuki. The last bike they had developed and then raced was maybe in ’83. So it was the old square four. It was probably 130-140 horsepower, which is about what my Superbike was making. But this bike was a lot lighter and had a much more abrupt power-band to it. So yeah, it was a learning curve. I liked the lightness of the motorcycle, because I could do things on it that I really struggled to do on the bigger bike. I always felt like the faster the bike, the more fun I was going to have. As the 500 developed in ’86 and ’87 the V4 came back and I rode it three times. I finished in the top ten three times in ’87 and I went full-time racing in ’88. And it still wasn’t the fastest bike out there by any stretch of the imagination but by the end of ’88 it was. And at that point we started winning grand prix consistently. Had I not made some silly mistakes crashing out of races late, and had we not had some silly mechanicals as well, we could have won that world championship. We didn’t, but we were a threat all season long.

Crash.net:
You mentioned ’87. Three top tens in three outings and you were fifth at Jerez…

Kevin Schwantz:
And had Randy [Mamola] and [Pier Francesco] Chili and Christian [Sarron] behind me and I was like, ‘Wow, check that out!’ I remember leaving there thinking, ‘Jeez, I think I can do this.’

Crash.net:
Was that a surprise how quickly it seemed to come to you? Obviously you won the first race of ’88? As you said earlier, it was a fairly rapid rise.

Kevin Schwantz:
You know, I think every step I took… I did the race of the year at Mallory and led that and the bike that Barry got me, had two of the throttle cables not disconnected themselves and still been operating, we’d have won that pretty easily. I thought, ‘That was Roger Burnett, Roger Marshall, all the fastest guys in friggin’ England, and I was just handing them their ass!’ Then to get on a 500 and do OK on a bike that we knew was nowhere near as fast as the Yamaha and the Honda through the speed traps. It left you kind of thinking or hoping, ‘You know what? When I get something competitive underneath me, I’ll run right at the front of this.’ It was funny because when I won Japan in ’88 Lawson and Gardner were beside me – the past two world champs – and both said, ‘Well, you’ll never do that again!’ I thought, OK… So the next time we had some inclement weather in Germany I kicked their asses again [laughs].

Crash.net:
You must have been pinching yourself…

Kevin Schwantz:
Absolutely.

[This interview took place at the Grand Prix of the Americas, two weeks after the Grand Prix of Argentina, and is being conducted on a picnic table outside. At this point Christian Sarron walks past and greets Kevin]

Christian Sarron:
One thing I’d like to say that we were together for years – Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner and so on – and not one time did we hit each other. Not one time. In all those years. Not one of us has anything bad to say. But we were trying hard.

Kevin Schwantz:
Man, some of the closest racing ever!

Christian Sarron:
But not one time. I wanted to mention that. I keep thinking of it. But this guy is my mate.

[Christian walks off]

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Crash.net:
You mentioned 1989. That year you were probably faster than Wayne Rainey and Eddie Lawson, who ended up fighting for the title. But there was inconsistency: the crashes at Phillip Island and Jerez, the breakdowns at Assen, Hockenheim. Do you look back on that year with frustration?

Kevin Schwantz:
Oh, absolutely. Had I had an engineer like Kel Carruthers in my garage going, ‘Hey, you’re f***ing a second a lap consistently faster than everybody. Whatever happens, don’t worry about it until the end of the race. Just take your time!’ Just somebody like that. But at that point to win a race and for me to really feel like I had won that thing, I needed to lap everybody. I wanted to finish a full lap ahead of everybody. Until I fell off at Jerez in ’89 leading by six seconds, with five laps to go, I hadn’t ever even looked and seen what six seconds on the track looked like. I went and watched the 250 race and six seconds on a 250 was over half the length of the front straight. I was like, ‘Holy s**t, that’s what six seconds looks like!’ I was like, ‘What was I thinking?’ At that point I started to process that whether you win by a tenth or two or a full second, that’s plenty. It’s still a win. It goes in the book that you got the most points.

Crash.net:
You started working with Stuart Shenton at the end of ’91. Was that another pivotal moment that helped you become a greater championship threat?

Kevin Schwantz:
We got him at the end of ’91 and started testing in ’92. We worked the whole season. It was absolute crap for us everywhere we went. At the end of ’92 we left the last grand prix and we did a three-day test at Jerez. We went back to Japan and said what we thought the thing needed, you know, a lot of Stuart’s data that he had gathered through the season. We went back and did that same test three months later and had found a second consistently. When I said earlier if I had had a Kel or a Stuart Shenton in my corner… Stuart didn’t have the experience Kel did. But if he was there in my corner in ’89… Simon Tonge was my crew-chief [then] and, no disrespect to him, but he didn’t have so much experience in grand prix racing as I did. He had none. If I had someone to point things out to me and say, ‘Man, you’re going to be fine.’

Crash.net:
So Stuart was like that?

Kevin Schwantz:
Stuart was very calming. When he changed the bike he’d say, ‘Here’s what I’ve done Kevin. I’ve changed the geometry or the fork load or whatever.’ And I’d say, ‘Tell me what your interpretation is of what that’s going to do to the motorcycle so I know what to expect.’ He could express that perfectly, and I’d be like, “Ah, f**king great. I’m going right back to riding this thing just as hard as I was. Whereas the guy before, Simon, on Sunday morning, we’d be f**king throwing the toolbox at it trying to fix stuff. Instead of thinking, ‘We haven’t made up all the ground we wanted but let’s do this because we’re not going to completely tune ourselves out of this race.’ At the time it was great because I thought, ‘OK, it’s not good enough. Let’s fix it!’ It could have been some of my youth and exuberance too that made him do those kinds of changes but it was a learning process and once I got Stuart in my corner I think I was a different rider, a different competitor. I was much more consistent and in Sunday morning warm-up we never changed more than a click or little stuff to see what it was like.

Crash.net:
What was the principle reason you stayed loyal to Suzuki through your career?

Kevin Schwantz:
I tried at the end of ’89 to leave. I signed a deal with Ago and Ago went to Japan and Yamaha called and said, ‘We really love that you want to come and ride but we think grand prix racing’s in a good place right now.’ I thought, ‘Wow, thanks. You guys could have just hired me and f**king forgot about me and then you wouldn’t have had to worry about trying to beat me.’ A lot of respect to Yamaha on their behalf. Then I tried to put together a Kanemoto deal to ride for Erv [Kanemoto] at the end of ’91. I tested the waters but just never made the commitment. I always had the utmost confidence in everybody at Suzuki, and knew they could build the best bike out there. I knew those engineers were as capable as anybody. It was just, when was it going to happen?

Crash.net:
Grand prix racing in the late 80s/early 90s was, in some ways, defined by your relationship with Wayne Rainey. Where did your dislike for one another come from?

Kevin Schwantz:
You know, you should ask him. The reason I didn’t get along with him was because he verbally stated that he didn’t like me. He felt like I, and I think this is the answer he’d give, got given way too much. I didn’t earn it. Well, at least whatever I got given, I made the most of, didn’t I? I didn’t get it given to me and do nothing with it. Anyway. Along the line I dated his sister. The animosity between us escalated at that point. But I think once we both got to Europe, and even when we were coming through the US ranks, we thought the f**king world wasn’t big enough for the both of us. I think things for he and I started to get better after he won his first grand prix. When he finally won it at Donington in ’88. By that point I won two. If you ask him, and I think I’ve heard him say this before, those were the most miserable six months of his life. He was like, ‘That f**king kid that I don’t think deserves anything has kicked my ass twice and won world championship races and I’ve been trying forever! Ridden a 250, can’t do it! Ridden a 500, can’t do it!’ I think both of us motivated each other. My result didn’t matter. It depended on where he was. If he was behind me, I was OK with it. I’d sleep that night. If he was in front of me, it was absolute hell until the next time I got the chance to beat him.

Crash.net:
When you started ’93, did it feel as though this was your best shot of winning a championship?

Kevin Schwantz:
You know, not really until we got to Europe and we were second and third in the first couple of races. I beat him [Rainey] pretty handily in Australia. I ran him down like it was nothing on the last lap of Suzuka when I got clear of the two Hondas. I took an ass whipping from him in Malaysia but we never had a bike that worked very good there. I thought to myself, ‘Now that we’re back in Europe on home soil’ – not American home soil, but once the series gets back there, everyone’s at home – I felt like we were going places and we were already testing race tyres by the time second practice started. We came off the truck and Stuart and the guys knew enough about what we had in ’92 and where we were going, what this bike was like and the adjustments we had to make to it early on, we’d get off, unload and the first practice session we’d start putting race tyres on and doing ten-lap runs. So that’s all credit to Stuart and the team he had assembled.

Crash.net:
I read an interview with you a few years back​ ​​​​​​in which you said Suzuka ’91 was your best race. Is that still the case?

Kevin Schwantz:
Absolutely. The bike had been absolute crap. We were on Dunlops. We hadn’t been on Dunlops in my career, except here in America on Superbikes. And to go there and win that race, go to the front, go to the back, go back to the front and win it at the end, with five or six guys all in the group. It was a bunch of us there. To win it in the fashion we did, it was a win over a bunch of guys on a bunch of really good bikes. I think you can tell by watching the video after the race, there was some happiness there for sure. It didn’t continue that way that season. I think what we always found was the Suzuki was good as long as it was almost friggin’ perfect. When we were 3% off or 5% off it was not a top five bike. You had a hard time winning world championships finishing fifth, sixth, seventh when your buddy Rainey’s finishing first, second or third. I mean, they were on the podium every weekend. You can’t give up that. The consistency that Stuey brought to the programme was a big factor.

Crash.net:
Kenny Roberts Senior said he got his greatest satisfaction from doing things on a bike that no one else could do. What was yours? Winning?

Kevin Schwantz:
It’s winning and it’s getting back to the garage and seeing the team and the sponsors and friggin’ everybody through the roof. The dinners afterwards and hearing the sponsors talk about what a great race, what a great weekend it was. Hearing the engineers, and just seeing that grin on their faces that you can’t wipe off until the next weekend and you don’t win. For me it was interesting that there was never really a team-mate that could threaten me. [Doug] Chandler finished close in ’92 but I had a dislocated hip and a broken arm when Lawson ran into me in Holland. Anyway, there was never a team-mate that kicked my ass on the same equipment. [Alex] Barros when he got there in ’93 showed us the way round at the couple of places. He didn’t get the result he deserved in ’93 at Jerez. He crashed which gave us the win. He actually helped me get away from Rainey when he came by. Wayne and I had been in a battle, Barros came by and I pulled over going into the last corner. I was like, ‘Show me.’ I had been watching my board and the times were coming down three quarters of a second per lap. I watched him come by, jumped on his wheel and he and I rode away from Rainey. I made a mistake, went on the grass and allowed Wayne to close back up. Then Alex crashed. I helped him in qualifying in a couple of places, at Assen, Mugello, and then he won the race in Jarama.

Crash.net:
I spoke to a journalist that was in your garage after the race at Donington in 1994. He said the emotion after watching what you did, with the injuries you had, was something special. As far as last grand prix wins go, that must be right up there.

Kevin Schwantz:
I wasn’t on my deathbed but I was anything but f**king fit. One wrist was dislocated. Something else had happened to the other. Basically, I had wraps on both hands. At one point this [right] hand started going numb down the main straight-away. Actually we reached over a couple of times with my left hand, held the throttle open and accelerated down the front straight to give this right hand three, four, fives seconds [rest]. Then it was [put the right hand] back on the handlebars, grab the brakes and make it through Redgate. Of course, that was my last grand prix win. It was fun to make the championship go another weekend further.

Crash.net:
1994 was obviously an injury-hit year. As Wayne’s injury was still a recent memory, would it be fair to say the enjoyment had gone out of racing?

Kevin Schwantz:
Absolutely. Absolutely. And you know the only reason ’94 actually came around was I fell off my mountain bike three weeks before the start of the season, the Australian Grand Prix, and broke my arm. Now I had something else. I had to prove to everybody that I could come back. ‘F**k, you can’t even ride a bicycle. How are you going to ride a grand prix motorcycle?’ That was kind of the conversation in the pits. To come back and win the Japanese Grand Prix after a tough start in Australia and Malaysia, it was good. But Wayne’s injury, like I said earlier, my results, if they were good or bad depended on where he was.

Crash.net:
You had lost your reference…

Kevin Schwantz:
You know, beating Doohan was fun. Beating the other guys was still fun. Winning was still great. But to beat Wayne and be able to stand there and stare him and Kenny Senior down… I felt like I f**king had to beat both of them every weekend because Kenny was out there every weekend and in every practice, watching, and saying, “Schwantz is doing this, this and this in this corner,’ giving him ideas. That’s the benefits of having someone of the knowledge and the wisdom of a Kenny Roberts Senior around you, or having someone with experience helping you in an area you might be struggling in.