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.

October 1991By Comments

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 mechanics. With its steep climb, corkscrew descent, and treacherous turns where the road surface has been rippled by heavy race cars, Laguna is a track where suspension, not power, determines speed. Optimally adjusted front fork, rear shock, and overall geometry gain a rider more time than the fiercest riding, yet no two bends call for the same settings. This means suspension adjustment for any sequence of corners has always been a matter of finding the best compromise. Until now. Just this year the top factory teams began using the onboard-computer-adjusted suspension systems that now prevail in Formula I cars.

Unfortunately, Suzuki wasn’t one of those teams. What they had instead was Kevin, Shirley, and Jim, and what the Schwantzes were looking for was crucial: some clue about weather, track surface, or tire compound that they could pass on to the Suzuki mechanics down in the pits, something that might be translated into a mechanical adjustment to give them that tenth of a second that could keep them abreast of more lavishly equipped teams.

The world of Grand Prix racing is a difficult one to visualize, not only because of the danger but because everything takes place in a nearly horizontal, radically vibrating universe. Only a handful of athletes in peak condition can do it at all, and fewer than five men in the world are capable of winning. Cornering at speed, for instance, means laying the bike over so far that—in seeming denial of gravity—the rider’s thighs and sometimes even his elbows skim the pavement. What’s more, he stays that way, body canted sideways, helmet thirty inches off the deck, for at least half the race, one armored patella or the other scuffing the asphalt at double the national speed limit. It is a blurry, video-arcade universe, a world of unremitting centrifugal force—the only thing holding a rider up at 55-degree angles of lean when both his tires are drifting, catching traction, then skidding sideways again, all the way around every turn.

The physical courage and skill motorcycle racers possess are equally difficult to imagine. Since, unlike race cars, Grand Prix motorcycles have no roll bars or driver-protection cages, in a crash a padded leather suit is all that stands between a rider and death by high-velocity abrasion. A mistake means the rider falls, at anywhere from fast to horrendously fast. When Schwantz hit the pavement at Phillip Island in Australia last September, he had been accelerating through sixth gear, which is a bit over 160 miles an hour. On the video replay, he is flung the length of a city block, spinning like a beer can tossed from a speeding car, in two and a half seconds.

“To get the hang of high-level pavement racing,” Jim Schwantz observed, “you have to have been at it fifteen or twenty years. The majority of racers in the U.S. started skidding around vacant-lot dirt tracks when they were kids. Nobody else in the world does that.” Kevin, true to form, started at age six, with the fine art of motorcycle trials—a two-wheeled contest of balance played out across terrain too rugged to hike.

Motorcycle competition came as naturally as Little League to the Schwantzes, for Jim (an acquaintance of mine from the pavement tracks we both raced during the late sixties) had been Texas’ 350cc champion. He was also part owner of Hurst Yamaha in Houston, which he and Shirley ran together with her brother, Darryl Hurst, a flat-track racer. Given the family’s expertise, it was inevitable that Kevin would start racing early. When he attended St. Mark Lutheran elementary, he did trials riding; during his tenure at Spring Branch High he switched to motocross. But it wasn’t until he tried racing on pavement that he shone.

Vernon Davis, who has hung out with Schwantz for years, remembered the first time he saw Kevin on asphalt. It was at the 1985 Austin Aquafest road races, when Kevin was 21. As Davis told it, “This kid from Houston had dragged out one of his uncle’s old flat-track Yamahas and was leading the rest of us into the bend past City Coliseum on that dirt-tired dog. Then, bam! The Yamaha goes flying up the road, and I’m looking down at this skinny dude sliding along on his back.” Davis’ eyes were as big as they were at the time. “We’re still doing about fifty, and I’m just on the brink of running over the kid’s outstretched arm when he looks up from the pavement, pulls in his hand, and waves me by.”

During the pause to clean up the ensuing mechanical carnage, the riders moved into the shade next to Town Lake. All but Kevin. “He was sitting there by himself, so I went over. I was going to apologize for almost killing him, but then”—it is the highest compliment Davis can bestow—“I saw there was this insane person inside, so I leaned down and whispered, real loud, ‘This where I get the drugs?’ Cracked him up.”

It was a meeting of the minds. Vernon, in fact, may be the only person who really understands Schwantz. He built Kevin’s first serious racer, a 1,000cc Yamaha V-twin, and on it, right from the start, Schwantz was on fire. Why? “Kevin seems to have escaped an emotion most of us learn in early childhood,” Davis deadpanned. “Fear. Kevin never had a problem with authority, either,” Davis mused. “None whatsoever. He simply ignored it.”

Fearlessness set Schwantz apart, though, and right off the bat it fomented a kind of mythology. During a six-hour endurance race at Texas World Speedway the year after Austin’s Aquafest race, Kevin was slogging along on an outpowered street bike when it started to rain. Then it poured, stormed, and deluged. Low-water crossings formed on the track, two feet deep and sixty feet wide, but the riders soldiered on. “We were pretty serious-faced, tiptoeing through those ponds trying not to destroy ourselves and our equipment,” Davis recalled with a shiver, “right on the edge of adhesion.” Not Schwantz. “Kevin was way beyond adhesion. He had his face-shield open, and he’d come flying by on the outside at a hundred miles an hour, steering with one hand and looking back over his shoulder, waving us on. In the low spots he’d stick his feet up on the bars and aquaplane across like a jet-ski. That’s when we knew he wasn’t like everybody—like anybody—else.”

Just now, though, back at Laguna, Kevin’s crew is mired in its season-long dilemma, trying to offset the high-tech advantage of what they ruefully term the Evil Empire—the $10 million steamroller of an organization known as Marlboro Yamaha. Its top rider is the current world champion, Wayne Rainey, and its owner is Kenny Roberts, the richest team owner in motorcycle racing. Even more extravagantly armed with the latest technology is the Honda squad, sponsored by Rothmans. Its pair of Aussie riders—former world champ Wayne Gardner and quiet, Tom Cruise—handsome Mick Doohan—enjoy solid-state wizardry so elaborate and so protected by security guards that only the magnetic sensors mounted here and there on wheel rim, fork leg, or swingarm hint at its presence.

“Electronically programmed suspension,” mutters Suzuki team manager Taylor. On Friday, 21-year-old Kid Kocinski, the hot new rider on the Yamaha squad, had posted a time five one-hundredths under Kevin’s best. Easing into the heart of the enemy camp, I stand for a while behind a bank of beige computer monitors, watching Kocinski’s performance on the track. The blue cursor on the screen indicates his throttle, the yellow and green ones his suspension loading. As Kocinski rips around Laguna’s hilly bends, his bike traces jagged lines of force across the screen. For an instant, the shock lines dip, indicating that Kocinski’s machine is at the peak of the track’s hilltop crest, just short of lift-off. “Corkscrew,” says one of the technicians. “Watch.” A second later both suspension lines nose-dive under the force of hard braking, just before Kocinski goes into the downhill dogleg of turn nine at ninety miles an hour. Watching his wrenching vectors on screen is as scary as seeing the Kid on the track.

Over in the Suzuki tent, bereft of computers, Kevin is also transmitting data, only his receiver is Simon Tonge. Exactly Schwantz’s age, Tonge is one of the top tuners in Grand Prix, though he seldom handles a wrench. His tools are pen and clipboard, and the reason he’s risen so far is his ability to communicate with racers. Especially to listen.

After each session, Kevin mentally re-rides the course, feeding Tonge his impressions with sound effects, body language, and gestures. “Had to tip it in too early there,” he groans, right wrist twisting an imaginary throttle. “Brrrrrup! No way to keep it on past the bump.” Tonge nods in understanding, grimacing when the bike’s rear end steps out, his pen flying across the page as he mentally streaks with Kevin around Laguna’s every bend and rise. Faceting Schwantz’s impressions into the mechanical solutions that will smooth the machine’s progress is Simon’s half of the bargain.

“After the dip it really crosses up,” Kevin continues, his torso doing a sideways hula to show how much. “The rear shock damping,” Simon asks, “better there, or worse?” Kevin scowls, trying to recall. Impressive in its intensity, Schwantz and Tonge’s debriefing is the same phenomenon Tom Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff, observed among test pilots, another group of wild-man perfectionists who routinely put their lives in the hands of engineer-confessors. In a moment, Schwantz has finished and is gone, back onto the track with his alternate bike to test another of Tonge’s mechanical recipes.

While he’s away, I prowl the paddock, struck by the contrast between the Suzuki camp and competing teams. Other pits are separated into corporate tiers: expansive team owners, celebrity riders, executive-level managers and tuners, and near-anonymous, wrench-spinning mechanics. Not the Suzuki bunch. They’re a family, one whose closeness is much of the reason for Schwantz’s success.

Shirley and Jim are the kind of parents who got married early, had their children, then remained so slim and athletic into middle age they seem like their offsprings’ slightly older siblings. Now Shirley arranges Kevin’s international travel, answers every one of the five-hundred-odd letters he gets each month, and with Jim as Kevin’s business manager, goes on the road from May to September, living in the forty-foot Bluebird motor home they steer from Spain to Czechoslovakia.

“No way I ever expected such a thing,” Shirley sighed, folding a pile of quilts that had just been used by her son’s squad of Suzuki mechanics when they stayed with the Schwantzes earlier this year. “After John Ulrich wrote about Kevin at Texas World Speedway and made him famous, Suzuki invited us out to Yoshimura for a tryout. We raced three seasons for them in the U.S., and now it’s Europe. Half our year.”

There was never any doubt they would go: The efforts of Shirley, Jim, and Kevin’s girlfriend, Amy Martin, are what lets Schwantz tend to business on the track. Free from the logistics of customs, foreign food and hotel reservation hassles, mountains of race entries, motor vehicle registry forms, and television interview schedules, Schwantz can devote every bit of his intensity to wringing milliseconds of momentum from hundred-mile-an-hour bend-and-chicane sequences. It’s the only way he can go up against the big factory teams. They have technology; the Schwantzes have each other.

Kevin, especially, draws much of his strength from the family home, set deep among the pines and post oaks of Bastrop County, where his parents now ranch. White-blotched Longhorns amble past a dirt practice track that circles the low brick ranch house, winds through a dozen acres of pasture and woodland, and finds its finish line in front of Jim’s bike barn, where rows of motocross and enduro racers wait in various levels of tune. After this spring’s Australian Grand Prix, Kevin brought the whole Suzuki pit crew—a quintet of hip young Brits and a genial, balding Italian—back to the ranch.

“None of the other riders would have invited their mechanics home,” observes Amy, who knows her paddock protocol, having met Schwantz at the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix, when she was seventeen. Protocol doesn’t count with the Schwantzes, though. Between late-April hailstorms, Kevin had his guys out on some of Jim’s off-road bikes, ripping through their wobbling pack with his every sweeping lap. It was a motocross rodeo, but it was more than just play. At Schwantz’s level of performance there really is no room for play: His dad’s track is where he gets the kind of loose-surfaced, low-traction training that can gain him fractions of a second per lap over his competitors when dicing on rain-swept European tracks.

Those fractions are eked out in a global arena unknown a decade ago. Until then motorcycle racers were, for the most part, as lean and hungry as bronc riders. Then, in a spin-off from Formula I car racing, they were discovered by European television marketers, and for the top riders nothing has been the same since. Grand Prix auto racing is now the world’s largest spectator sport, delivering to its backers hundreds of millions of television viewers over the course of an eight-month racing season. (Only soccer—plus a few once-a-year spectacles like Wimbledon, the Indy 500, and the Tour de France—come close.)

That season-long car-racing audience was simply too big not to exploit further, so promoters tried broadcasting a parallel set of Grands Prix for motorcycles, competing on the same glamorous circuit as the automobiles. To everyone’s surprise, the bikes made an even better show. Festooned with all the banners, bravado, and high-heeled babes of the F-1 scene, motorcycle riders added the thrill of out-in-the-open, ass-on-the-line performance. Cycles slid, reared, and banked way over. They skidded into corners, their pilots visibly fighting for control, and when they lost it, the riders ricocheted off the track alongside their machines. Audiences stayed tuned, called their friends, and every month new national stations joined the net-work. Laguna Seca would be seen in 24 countries.

It was worldwide theater, but by the weekend’s last practice, the Schwantzes were struggling to maintain their leading role in it. Kevin’s best time was still 1:26.58, eight tenths of a second behind Rainey’s fastest lap. And there was a new threat. Doohan, rock-steady and running consistent laps in fourth position, had lowered his times to within a few tenths of the three leaders’ times.

Race day: ten o’clock. By the time I’d made my way down from the helicopter landing pad, passed the Swiss satellite uplink, and reached the Suzuki camp, Kevin and Simon were lost in their analytical world. It was their last chance to get things right. With the rest of the Suzuki crew, Shirley and Jim stood patiently off to the side. She looked drawn, but Jim was fine. “I’ve got a lot of faith in Kev,” he told me quietly. “He knows when to stay with the bike, and when—if it gets in trouble—to abandon it. There’s a point, you know. How to get off, too: to slide without tumbling.” He paused. “I just have a lot of confidence in him.” Then Amy arrived, resplendent in a high-fashion toreador outfit. Flashbulbs froze Kevin and Amy standing side by side, and in a blink Schwantz was out of the tent and on his way to the grid, a public figure once more and well aware of it.

Under the glistening parasols of the Umbrella Girls—Lucky Strike’s answer to the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and the Laker Girls—Kevin pulled off his old red, white, and blue helmet and tugged on a new one: a Desert Storm special that had been specially painted in camouflage, with a billowing Old Glory emblazoned across the back. The crowd was hushed for only a second.

“Stormin’ Kev!” one kid yelled.

“Stormin’ Kevin Schwantz!” came an echo.

“Schwantzenegger!” someone shouted, to cheers.

Push-started by their mechanics, eighteen  engines snarled to life, the riders swept once around the track warming their tires, then took their positions behind the start line. At the flag, engines screaming at redline revs, the pack shot forward toward the hill, Kevin in the lead. By the time they had reached turn three, the announcer had picked up the Desert Storm theme and 80,000 spectators—plus Lord knows how many Swiss, Germans, Malays, and Indonesians—heard how Stormin’ Kev had led the pack through the first two bends, then lost the lead to Rainey on the computerized Yamaha coming out of three. Kid Kocinski was up there too, running in second for three laps until he spun his rear tire and was flung off the track, unhurt. Schwantz, meanwhile, throttle control as smooth as he could make it, kept hanging on.

“Without Kevin, Suzuki would be nowhere near these guys,” Taylor shouted over the roar of engines. “But he can only compensate up to a point.” It was a point approaching rapidly in the form of Mick Doohan. His dark blue Honda, shod with electronically spin-controlled Michelins, was knifing across the ripples in turn six. Six was the bend Schwantz’s compromise suspension couldn’t handle, and its bumps churned the Suzuki’s front wheel into a side-skipping blur. Lap after lap Kevin fought to control his bike, losing a little ground with each go-round until, just past the race’s halfway point, he saw it was hopeless and calmly moved over, handing the fast lane to Doohan, who squirted through into second place. Far in the lead, Rainey nodded to the crowd on his final lap, then lofted his front wheel in triumph across the finish line.

Down on pit lane I was prepared for Schwantz’s defeat. Except that it never happened—at least not in the eyes of the crowd. Kevin shot past the checkered flag in third, giving the high sign to a flurry of wildly waving spectators. He caught Rainey—who was standing on the foot pegs—and shook his hand. Good race. Then Schwantz dropped back for Rainey’s victory lap.

It was a California track, with a blue-eyed, golden-haired, native-son winner riding the fastest bike in the race. Kevin hadn’t even been close. But he was still Schwantzenegger. All around Laguna, “Schwantz” placards still bobbed over fans’ heads, and the cheers that greeted Rainey from bend to bend accelerated to a crescendo as, fifty yards back, Kevin drove into view. Doohan, in second place, might as well have still been Down Under.

At the finish, Amy took it all in with a veteran’s perspective. “This crowd is great,” she said. “But you ought to see them in Europe!” A few feet behind us, under the Suzuki banners, Simon and the Lucky Strike lads were starting to pack their gear. What lay ahead was all that mattered: the midnight flight to home base in Kent, England, a complete rebuilding of each of the machines, then testing them the following week in Italy at Misano. Next came Spain, nine more races in Europe, then Asia. It would be a tedious road through a tough, labor-intensive season that wouldn’t end until late September.

As he stepped from the podium and headed for his motor home, drenched with celebratory champagne, Kevin caught my eye. “Hey! You’re comin’ to Spain with us, aren’t you?”

Epilogue: After mechanical problems in Spain and Italy, Schwantz won the Grands Prix of Germany and Holland. Then Suzuki came through, and for the British World Championship, provided a computer-suspension race bike. Schwantz won the race, but the new equipment had come too late for 1991. As of September Schwantz remained third in the world standings, but for 1992 no one looked stronger.

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