Kevin Schwantz was the epitome of the “wild American” rider when he burst onto the 500cc World Championship scene in 1988. His style of sliding the rear tire while pushing limits of gravity and traction was legendary among his peers even before he became a world-wide sensation and fan favorite.
Schwantz learned to ride a motorcycle at the age of 4 thanks to his parents’ ownership of a motorcycle shop in his hometown of Houston, Texas. Schwantz was a competitive trials and top regional motocross rider throughout his youth but eventually quit motocross due to an injury in 1983. In late 1984 he was offered a test ride with the Yoshimura Suzuki superbike team and immediately impressed. Yoshimura Suzuki signed him to a contract for 1985. He began his domestic AMA Superbike career in impressive fashion, winning both legs of the 1985 Superbike National at Willow Springs. Schwantz finished second in the 1986 Daytona 200 and was runner up to Wayne Rainey in the 1987 AMA Superbike National Championship, winning five of the final six races to close the gap to just 9 points.
I was in my early 20s when I was introduced to Kevin Schwantz as a rider in 1986. At that time, he was in the early stages of his fierce rivalry with Honda Superbike rider, Rainey. The rivalry would grow to be considered the fiercest in AMA Superbike history. Making the 90-minute drive to Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin every summer to watch the races was the highlight of my year. His AMA Superbike career didn’t last long as Suzuki realized his talent could help them sell motorcycles globally and he moved up to the FIM Road Racing World Championships after only 3 seasons. It was a bittersweet feeling for me and his many other U.S. fans when he bid farewell to America and made the jump to the 500cc World Championships in 1988. But his rivalry with Rainey wasn’t over.
In 1988 Rainey also made the move to the 500cc World Championships and for the next 6 seasons Schwantz and Rainey battled for World supremacy as the fiercest of rivals.
Schwantz and his Suzuki always seemed to be at a disadvantage when it came to horsepower versus Honda and Yamaha. It was this lack of horsepower that often saw him push his bike to the limit in an attempt to beat his rivals. Unfortunately, his pushing the limits often lead to spectacular crashes and less than stellar results, yet his aggressive and fearless riding style endeared himself to fans the world over.
In 1993 Schwantz was finally able to put it all together, winning the 500cc World Championship over rivals Rainey – who tragically suffered a career-ending crash while leading in Italy that left him paralyzed from the chest down – Daryl Beattie and Mick Doohan. With just two races left in the season, Rainey’s injury all but handed the championship to Schwantz.
Schwantz would race only one more full season in the 500cc World Championship. His 1994 season campaign was marred by crashes and other difficulties, and early in the 1995 campaign, after only 3 races, the toll of years’ worth of crashes and the career-ending injury to Rainey caught up to Schwantz and he made the decision to retire from competition.
Over his 10-year Grand Prix career, Schwantz was able to amass 25 wins and 51 total podium appearances. Along with his World Championship in 1993, Schwantz finished in the top 4 five other years, including runner up in 1990. His win total makes him the second most successful American rider behind only Eddie Lawson. This accomplishment led to the FIM retiring his race number (34) in a display of respect to Schwantz. In 1999 He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame and named a Grand Prix “Legend” by FIM in 2000.