It could never happen today. Kevin Schwantz was all set to begin his first season as a full-time factory Grand Prix rider in 1988. Then Suzuki called. There was a little favor they had to ask of him. Would Kevin consider racing in the Daytona 200?
Schwantz had accomplished a lot in a short amount of time racing in America, but the one thing he hadn’t managed was a win in the prestigious Daytona 200. He had a great chance to win in 1987, but crashed in the chicane, so he was eager to get back and he’ll freely admit that Suzuki didn’t have to twist his arm.
Schwantz was actually excited about the prospect of racing Daytona one more time. He was further bolstered by the fact that he would be the only leading contender on the new 1988 Suzuki GSX-R750, dressed in the livery of his GP sponsor, Pepsi. The other Yoshimura Suzuki riders would be on the previous year’s machine.
“Once I got there, I felt like we had such a great bike in ‘87, that whatever was coming in ‘88 must be better,” Schwantz recalls. “Well, big bore, short stroke, high revving, no torque, it was horrible to race. The ‘87 was an easy five miles per hour faster at the start-finish line. After practice I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?’”
On top of that, a new, undeveloped racing motorcycle wasn’t the only thing Schwantz had to worry about. A crash in practice just about ended his week.
“It had an electrical problem,” Schwantz continued. “And as I was going off into the chicane it cut back to three cylinders, it felt similar to what a compression release might do, which is help slow you down a bit more, and it pulled me off into the grass and I crashed. I landed on my left arm and it was the same size from my elbow all the way to my knuckles.”
X-rays revealed a fracture. The doctors discouraged Schwantz from racing, but didn’t completely rule it out.
“They said they’d let me decide,” Schwantz said. “Here I am thinking, ‘Man, I’m supposed to go Grand Prix racing in two weeks.’ Everything was really going bad now.”
In spite of all the challenges piling up, Schwantz found a way to rally from a terrible start to his Daytona Bike Week.
“We managed to qualify on the pole and I think most of that was due to Michelin tires,” Schwantz said. “But in the race it was going to be tough, because Polen was there and his bike was handling perfect, running great, it had top end on my bike and came off the corner harder.”
Bubba Shobert was also on the factory Honda, which had won the race the year before with Wayne Rainey at the controls.
At the time the series was still sponsored by Camel and the company paid big money for its Camel Challenge, a short sprint race featuring the top qualifiers. The effort to win that Challenge would come into play during the 200.
“Our saving grace was that it rained all the way up to race time. The Camel Challenge was normally raced before the main event, but that particular year they scored the Camel Challenge on lap five of the Daytona 200. So the $10,000 went to Polen, I think I was second, but what it tempted those guys to do was run a little bit softer tire than they really should have ran. After about lap ten, they were on a steady march backwards.
“That’s what allowed us to get away like we did, because the Michelins we ran were dead consistent the whole time and those guys (on Dunlops) went with something that would get them to the front on the first five laps and win them that money.”
The other amazing thing about Schwantz’ ‘88 Daytona 200 victory, was that it marked Suzuki’s first win, in what was then still one of the most important races in all of motorcycling.
In was also a happy ending for Schwantz. He finally won the Daytona 200 in what would be his final appearance in an AMA Superbike race.
The only problem was that broken arm and the upcoming Japanese Grand Prix, the opening to the 1988 Grand Prix season. As it turns out, Schwantz said his sore arm might have even played in his favor for that event.
“Maybe it helped me not be as aggressive as I typically might have been at Suzuka,” Schwantz admits. “I had to try to finesse the thing a bit more. I think that helped me in the race and ironically enough, we’d tested there about a month before the race. It was wet all weekend up until the race and nobody had any dry time. We just went back to the setup we had in testing and it kind of played into our hands with the weather there as well.”
Looking back on his 1988 Daytona 200 victory, Schwantz is happy he got that win under his belt. One humorous thing that sticks out in his mind from that race was the podium celebration.
“If you know how heavy the Daytona 200 trophy was, if you see any photos from the podium that year I couldn’t pick it up with just one arm and my left hand hurt too bad to do anything with it. It was like, ‘I can’t pick it up over my head, anyone want to help?’ I don’t think you’ll find a picture of me with that trophy over my head.”