Unsung Hero

Austin’s Kevin Schwantz is one of the world’s most famous and highest-paid athletes, and no one in Texas knows who he is.

Just listening to the bikes pass is chilling. From the far side of the hill bisecting the front straight of California’s Laguna Seca racetrack, an approaching Grand Prix motorcycle gives no indication that it is a road-bound vehicle. The sound is that of a low-flying fighter on full afterburner. When each machine crests the hill, throttle pegged open, its front wheel rises higher and higher until the rider, posting over his windscreen to keep from looping backward at 140 miles per hour, forces the front wheel down again. Sitting well forward but tightly tucked behind his wind-streamed fiberglass fairing, Kevin Schwantz—at 27 the only Texan to ever reach the upper echelon of the 500cc Grand Prix class—flies over the rise, clamps the machine’s six-piston Lockheed calipers against its carbon-fiber brake discs, and slides his torso off the gas tank to the inside, preparing for the downhill 180-degree left-hand swoop called the Carousel.

One of motorcycle racing’s superstars, Schwantz is arguably the fastest Grand Prix racer in the world. Nearly unknown in his own country and home state—he grew up in Houston and now lives at Lakeway on Lake Travis—Schwantz has a top-three international ranking that puts him in the same league, earnings wise, as Warren Moon and Nolan Ryan, or as any of the Stones except Mick Jagger. In Europe, Japan, and the Far East, where big-name motorcycle competitors are media celebrities and bimonthly Grand Prix races draw 160,000 spectators for each event, he is also considerably more popular.

Wait a minute. A motorcycle racer? One of those grime-stained hulks with the tattoos? Naw—Kevin Schwantz does benefits for the Save the Children Federation. Medallioned vest, chain-slung boots, bandanna skull-cap? Get outta here—Kevin looks like a tennis pro, wears argyle socks, Topsiders, and polos. Not only that, he races a brace of wind-tunnel-designed, two-hundred-mile-an-hour Suzukis only slightly less costly—at a million bucks a copy, counting development—than a midlevel Indianapolis or Formula I race car.

A world-class athlete, Schwantz can’t walk through a major airport anywhere but the United States without being recognized. In Spain and Italy fans want to stand two inches away, absorbing his ambience; in Eastern Europe they try to hug him; in Germany they call him Schwantzenegger. So many young guns did up their street bikes to resemble Kevin’s Number 34 racers, in fact, that Suzuki released its own official model. Two years ago in a three-star Amsterdam restaurant, even the seen-it-all Suzuki team was astonished to observe a young Kevin clone in full regalia, wheeling his GSX-R750 replica bike down the carpeted aisle toward their table. The guy wanted Schwantz to autograph his gas tank, which Kevin was graciously doing when the restaurant manager showed up and ordered everyone to freeze—then dashed back to his office for a camera. “The really amazing thing,” recalled Garry Taylor, the team’s manager, “is that the following year exactly the same thing happened in Yugoslavia.”

At the moment, though, the last thing on Kevin’s mind is fame. What he’s worried about now is time. As he rockets into the bend, shimmying a little under full brakes, his dad, Jim, reads the built-in stopwatch of his highway-patrol radar aloud: “Twenty-seven point five.” Kevin’s last lap of the 2.18-mile circuit has taken 1 minute, 27.5 seconds. In her log book Shirley, Kevin’s mom, notes her son’s time, adding it to the neatly written columns of lap times that she has amassed at every practice, on every track her son has raced. Kevin is never out on the course without his folks, and when he completes his final lap today, they will be the first people he consults.

Jim continues his lap-time monitoring: “Twenty-seven-three . . . twenty-seven flat.” Finally Shirley logs a 1:26.58. It’s the fastest lap of Laguna’s first timed practice session, giving Schwantz the premier slot on the day’s scoreboard. His place there is important, because a racer’s best time will determine his starting position in the race three days away. “ There. I’m glad it’s over,” Shirley says, exhaling as she and Jim exchange grins. Kevin coasts to a halt just outside turn two, and before he has unzipped his leathers, the three of them are poring over Shirley’s charts. As Kevin floated the almost-airborne Suzuki over that rise, Jim’s radar had recorded his speed at 141 miles per hour, one mile an hour faster than anyone else had taken the crest. But it still wasn’t fast enough. Not for Kevin. He winced his perfectionist’s frown and shook his head. “Can’t really get over that hill, can I?” he said.

Getting Kevin over that hill ahead of the others is the Schwantzes’ business, and at the moment their goal is to find an edge, for here at Laguna, a track without long straightaways, there would be no time for Kevin’s specialty—his ability to evaluate and outsmart an adversary. That was the way he had won the season opener in Japan, although it had been the hardest race of his life, Kevin told me. Two days after the event he was still too wired to eat his lunch as we replayed its last moments. He was leading, but compared with the Hondas, low on horsepower: “So I move over to the inside, give them about five feet of track. That’s all. I think, ‘If you pass me on the outside, I’m gonna outbrake you. But if you can outrun me up the inside and still turn those things . . . you win. So take your pick.’

“Then I hear Mick Doohan’s Honda, wurrrrhhhh, coming up the inside. And I go further than I’d ever been into that corner, and still no brakes. Then whoosh, Doohan comes past, then gets on the brakes. But no way! He didn’t even come close to making that corner. Went up onto the curb—I was laughin’—almost into the grass!”

The strategy at Laguna would be different. This race would be won not with guts and guile but with technology wrought by tuners and

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