Schwantz on Schwantz

Published: 17 January 2013

When former GP world champion Kevin Schwantz dropped into the MCN office, we threw a net over him and dragged him into the cavernous vault of our picture archives.

There he was forced to earn his freedom by talking us through innumerable photos documenting his glorious heyday, from superbike racing in the Eighties to GP victory in the Nineties.

The result, we hope you will agree, gives an unusually intimate insight into one of the brightest and most watchable careers from one of GP’s most competitive eras.

The triumphs, the mistakes, the crashes and injuries, the ferocious rivalries - we didn’t let the 48-year-old Texan go until we’d got literally quite a lot of it. 

MCN: Here’s a shot, from 1986. You’re obviously number 34, on a Suzuki GSX-R750, and Californian Fred Merkel is number one on a Honda VF750R. Didn’t you turn up and completely show-up the British?

KS: And you know what? If you look, it’s factory bike, factory bike, factory bike. There’s another Rothmans Honda bike with Roger Marshall on it there somewhere.
Fred Merkel was on a decent bike but all the rest of us really just used bikes that we’d been supplied over here.

Fred and I won most of the races. I won and got more points than anybody, so I was the high point-scorer that year. But it was just Fred and me basically.

That’s why we decided to come back a little better prepared equipment-wise the following year.

Then Wayne and I won every race there was.

From one year to the next, the factory support for the British was done. Haslam was there on a white frigging road-going VFR. And it was like “You guys don’t expect him to be able to do anything on that, do you?”

MCN: This shot from Laguna Seca in 1989 shows a bit of your riding style, which has been described as unorthodox. What can you tell us about it?

KS: What I think my style is, and what it was kind of built around, was trying to get the most out of what I had. I think the level that MotoGP bikes are at now, with all the electronics, means the more hung-off you are the better.

But because of all those electronics you’re never going to have to react in the same way. That’s why you see, nine times out of 10, when it begins to go, they crash. They’re not right there on top of that seat, feeling that thing move. They’re counting on the electronics.

And what you see here is, knowing what coming down the Corkscrew is like, I’ve got as much pressure as I can get on that outside foot, trying to increase the traction. It’s a negative camber and I’m doing everything I can.

This bike is probably 115kg, not a big-bang engine yet, so if it goes it’s just frigging instant. And I’m getting myself in the position that if it does, I can get up off the seat and try and compensate for that big moment.

MCN: You took risks and were no stranger to crashes as a result. What’s going on in this picture of you and Ron Haslam from the 1988 British GP at Donington?

KS: I just flat-out ploughed him down. It was the first year of carbon brakes. You can see they don’t have any covers on them yet. Off the back straightaway, I’m thinking I’m going to get a position. I grab the brakes and they didn’t stop and didn’t stop and then they finally got some heat in them.

Had I been a bit more experienced I might not have panicked. Perhaps I could have split a couple of bikes and gone through to the gravel. But what I probably did was I just saw Ron and thought, oh s**t, it’s him, and hit him. I think Ron had qualified pretty well. He and I were lying in the gravel and I’m thinking, man, I wish I had a shovel so I could bury myself right here.

MCN: Who’s this kid?

KS: Me. That looks like the back of a late sixties vintage Chevrolet, so I’m guessing it’s 1970 and I’m about six. It looks like I could be about to get backed over. That’s the first house that I lived in as a kid.

MCN: What’s the bicycle?

KS: I think it’s a Schwinn Stingray. I liked the big banana seat on it because I could sit on the back and wheelie the thing much easier. There’s a street near the house that has telephone poles every so often and me and my buddies used to see how many poles we could wheelie past.

MCN: Had you started riding motorcycles yet?

KS: Oh yeah, for sure, but not at home. It was much easier to ride at my parents’ motorcycle shop. There was a vacant lot next door and a big place across the street with a bunch of trees and trails.

I rode my first mini bike just before I turned four years old: Lawnmower engine, throttle, a big paddle on the rear tyre for a brake.

I honestly think I learned how to ride a motorised vehicle before a bicycle. I was like, why would I want to pedal this thing? The only reason I liked pedalling a bike was because I could wheelie it.