He was the guy who inspired Rossi, Simoncelli and a whole generation of sportsbike-loving kids to scrape their knees, pop wheelies and wait until they saw God before even thinking about applying the front brake. Of course it helped that Kevin Schwantz had the coolest bike, with the coolest paint job. And that anyone could recognise his gangly riding style at 400 yards. But he really caught the world’s imagination because he rode like a warrior, on the nerve-jangling, tyre-slithering edge.
And yet the young Kevin was probably the last person to realise he might be talented. I’m sitting with Kevin in a small brick building next to the dirt oval at the Peterborough Arena. He’s been riding in an MCN-sponsored short track event all weekend. On the table in front of him is a cup of tea, his trademark Arai (completely splattered with brick-red shale) and a voice recorder.
Kevin, your parents owned a bike shop and you famously started on trials and motocross. What about road racing?
About the first pavement race I did was in 1982/83. It was such a cool race because it was in downtown Austin. You went through a parking lot and down one street, across the river, round the Auditorium Shores [a park], then back. It was maybe a mile and a half.
What were you riding?
In ’82 I was racing a YZ490 in motocross. I put on the smallest sprocket I could but it was still nowhere near – bubaaaaaaa! (mimes wheelie). I just ran an Avon 21-inch street tyre and a decent rear on it. The next year my uncle, Darryl Hurst, said, ‘Why don’t you take my 500 TT bike?’ He was a professional dirt tracker and I’d been riding his bikes since I was 15 or 16. We made up an adapter plate for a front brake and used Goodyear Dirt Cross tyres on the 19 inch rim. I won the race.
How did it go from there?
Up to that point I’d played around a bit on dirt track, and got to where I could go around my uncle’s little TT track on a YZ80 as fast as his 500. I was like, that’s kind of cool, even though it’s a little mickey mouse track. And when I raced in amateur stuff on Sunday, I’d always win at least a class in three or four, and I was beating kids that were riding bikes all year wrong. But I never thought much about pursuing it – plus my parents were pretty adamant that their motorcycle business was gonna be mine one day, and I really needed to be there and working. But at the end of ’83 some friends asked, ‘Why don’t you come to Texas and ride the road endurance race?’
So what was your first tarmac racebike?
It was an FJ600, in 1984. What I really liked about road racing was riding five classes on one motorcycle, and not having to do any work to it, and not having to do anything to the tyres.We did endurance races on Saturday – me and one of my buddies, whoever I’d pick. Then I did sprint racing on Sunday. And all we’d do is change the oil and filter, and check the valves. After the first couple of weeks I was like, ‘Hey Mum and Dad – I’m doing really good. Can I have a RD350?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, sign this document right here.’ So working at the shop, part of my pay cheque went to pay off my motorcycle.
And then Yoshimura spotted you...
I had the Yoshimura tryout at the end of ’84. John Ulrich [bike journalist and talent scout] called them and said, ‘This kid has been all around me on race tracks around the United States. He talks about me passing him on the outside where there’s no track, and what’s there is jagged and bumpy. They said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll try him out.’
And what was that on?
A Suzuki GS750ES, air cooled. We were racing at Willow Springs. I got three laps of practice and stalled it on the line. I get off and try to push, it won’t start, push, it won’t start, push, it won’t start. Then I hear someone yell, ‘Get on the bike!’ So I jump on and it fires up. The leaders were already peeling off into Turn 3. In eight laps I caught them, passed them and broke the superbike lap record.
How did you do that?
I have no idea. When I got to the pits the Yosh guys were like, ‘Can you sign this?’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about? We’ve still got another race to do.’ The one thing I remember John telling me is, ‘You’ve got to keep it off the cases. You’ve got a little more metal, then you’re gonna drag through and there’s gonna be oil. ’But I think that was one of the things I used to help me get it turned. Rush in, get down, I couldn’t use the brakes any more but getting on that side cover (skrrrrsh sound effects) I think helped slow me down so that I could pull back for the corner. Had you been to the track before?John had taken me to Willow to let me test his endurance bike – a GS1150 with a custom frame. It had slicks and brakes, and it would shift one up, four down. We’d talked about it when I was riding and he thought I could get through Turn 8 better. So I worked on it, worked on it, worked on it... and ended up knocking two seconds off the fastest that bike had ever been around Willow. And he was like: ‘I think you’re ready to go.’
What did it feel like, thinking you were normal, then realising you’re not?
All I was thinking was I’m riding the friggin’ coolest, fastest motorcycle I’ve ever seen: let’s see what I can do. Never did I tell myself that if I fuck his up, I’m never going anywhere. It was just, ‘This is by far the biggest thing I have ever done.’
What was the race that got you into GPs?
Definitely the 1986 Match Races, because that’s when I met Barry Sheene. He said, ‘If you stay and come to Snetterton you can do a test on my 500. I’ve got one that’s in a museum and we’ll prep it.’ I was like, ‘Really?’ I stayed and did the test and later he rings and says, ‘You know the Race of the Year is next weekend. Why don’t you come back for it?’ I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? Of course I will!’ It was meeting Barry that got me that race entry, when I qualified fourth or fifth, and ran second. By the time I left for Race of the Year I was slated for three GPs in ’86 and three in ’87.
How did you learn the new tracks?
Many riders go out with the attitude of 'gotta go fast, gotta friggin’ brake as hard as I can – first lap.’ Yeah, yeah. You never find that rhythm that you need. You gotta go out and get smooth first – and then it is so much easier to add speed. To try and go as fast as you can without finding the smoothness first, I found it was much, much more difficult. You need to find out how you need to build it, how you need to shape the corners, how you need to do what you need to do. And then worry about, ‘Woooraaaaaaarrr!’ driving it in there and getting the turn and trying to hit that same mark.
When did you learn this?
After I quit, I guess! Maybe a little bit in 1992 when the bike was real difficult.
Has it always worked?
The first practice I did at Barber Vintage in 2011, when I rode Ken Macintosh’s Manx, I’m like slow, slow, slow... build up. And he came over and was like, ‘Is everything ok? ’‘Yeah, no problem. Why?’‘ Well, we’re seven seconds off the Triumph right now. ’And I’m like ‘Shit! Seven seconds? That’s forever!’ But then you just go out, and once you’ve found that smoothness you add a little aggression to it, and it all comes a lot easier.
Nortons must be a shock after GP bikes.
That 1950 factory Norton I rode at Goodwood last year – 1.6 inch rims on it, right hand shift – I’m like, ‘That’s going to friggin’ kill me.’‘Oh, you’ll figure it out,’ they said. First practice I went for a last-minute downshift and hit the rear brake (cue hilarious sound effects) and crashed it. There was however many thousands of pounds sliding down the road. That’s a bit embarrassing but to bring back to the pits was even worse, as it was on the friggin’ chicane just before. So basically it slid into the pits.
What did you say when you got back?
I was like, ‘I told you!’ Looking back, it worked out for the better. It got the guy who owned the bike to listen to us on what it needed, because it really didn’t have any ground clearance. And it got it then: the footpegs up so they didn’t drag, and a flat in the pipe. By the Sunday we were second fastest bike on track. I was sorry I had to do that to his bike to get him to do the work, but I really didn’t like flinging my body down the road either. The guy I was riding with, Adam Child, he goes, ‘Oh my god! I was about to ride over my hero!’ I was like, ‘Thank you for not riding over me.’