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, recently sat down with Schwantz to take an in-depth look at his racing career.

Most successful riders in MotoGP history!

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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.
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.’
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.
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.’
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].
You must have been pinching yourself…

Kevin Schwantz:

[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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