Kevin Schwantz: The Guy Who Got Under Rainey’s Skin
By Scott Rousseau
This Archives edition is reprinted from issue #23, June 15, 2005. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. To prevent that from happening, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
Although it’s poor journalistic etiquette, sometimes it would just be easier if I let an Archives subject tell his own story simply because it is so good that setting up the quotes with time-and-place narratives wastes valuable space in this column.
That was pretty much the case when I managed to steal 15 minutes with 1993 World Road Racing Champion Kevin Schwantz at Road America during the AMA Superbike Championship round to get the lowdown on his relationship with fellow World Champion Wayne Rainey. The topic of discussion was supposed to be their legendary duel at the Transatlantic Match Races in England in 1988.
But, as Rob Reiner’s character, Marty DiBergi, states in the spoof rockumentary comedy This Is Spinal Tap, “I got that, and much, much more.” More than just rehashing the story of the Match Races, Schwantz, now 40, opened up about a man who was his nemesis, his polar opposite, a guy who hated him with a passion—and vice versa. Through it all, they defined each other’s careers on the way to becoming friends. The ball is in Schwantz’s court from here onward:
“What happened was that in ’86 I went over to England for the Match Races, but Wayne didn’t go. None of the factories in the U.S. sent any of our stuff over. I was new enough to racing at the time that, jeez, an opportunity to go over to England and race and maybe make some money was great. I hadn’t won any Nationals yet, just Pro-Ams. So, I went over with Fred Merkel, Dan Chivington, Reuben McMurter and Jon Ashmead. We didn’t win as a team, but Merkel and I won most of the races. We just didn’t have enough depth to help us out, so the English guys beat us, but I was the high points scorer, and Merkel was the second-highest points scorer.
“Well, Wayne saw all the press we got from that—and in ’86 he didn’t really have a Superbike ride—but in ’87 we got the same invite, and with all the press that we’d gotten, the factories sent over bikes this time. Honda sent over their bikes, and they took Wayne and Bubba [Shobert]. I went and [Doug] Polen went from Suzuki… The big story was that there was a hundred thousand pounds [British money] for anyone who could win all the races, and that was three at Brands and three at Donington two days in a row.
“So, Wayne and I decided, ‘Well, we’re never gonna win ’em all. I ain’t gonna win ’em all and you ain’t gonna win ’em all, so let’s race the first one and see what happens, and then we’ll decide how to handle it after that,’ because Wayne and I felt like we should be the two guys to win more than anybody else. Then we raced the first race, and I beat him, and he never even came over to talk to me after that.
“To hear him tell it now, he says, ‘I saw all the press you got the year before and how you just turned into an international f—in’ everybody wants you to race their bikes, and I felt like I missed out,’ so there was absolutely no way, even though I beat him in the first race, that he was going let me win all the rest of those races, because that would make me seem like even that much bigger of a name.
“So, at the second race at Brands Hatch, someone had blown up an engine going into Paddock Bend, where you go through this big, fast right-hander that crests the hill and drops into a valley. Bubba [Shobert] crashed there on like the third lap of practice and hurt himself, and I don’t think Bubba ever rode. Anyway, somebody blew an engine going in there and went just off the paint on the inside, so where there was about a foot of clean track on the inside. It was a really hard place to pass normally because it was such a sweeping corner.
“So, Wayne drives it in there and hits me, knocks me across the oil-dry and then drives a little wide himself. As he does that, I turn the thing out wide and get back past him up the hill, but then I out-brake myself and he comes underneath me again. There’s a lot at the bottom of the hill and then a left/right double combination back onto Clearways and then the lap’s done. So, as he went to go back right, I went left and jumped the curb going right and tried to get underneath him. But I guess he must have known I was coming, and he just stayed leaning on me. I was working the bars trying to get him off me, and he was headed toward the inside stripe, and I was running out of track. I ended up hanging my knee up on the inside grass and it kind of stood me up, and he ended up winning the race.
“But then after the race, he comes over, and he goes, ‘Hey, what did you think you were doing?! Look at all these black marks!’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but look at all these black marks on my bike from where you hit me in the first turn!’
“That was that. At that point in our careers, we really didn’t have any respect for one another, and we really didn’t think that there was enough room in motorcycle racing for both of us. There wasn’t two spots in Europe for us. There wasn’t two spots on any Grand Prix team. We really felt like one of us was going to make it and one of us wasn’t. You could see that by the Daytona ’87 pictures. I was on pole, I think, and there were six of us all standing in a room to have our picture taken—all the Camel Challenge guys. Wayne’s at one end of the line, and I’m at the other end of the line, and we’re both intentionally not staring straight ahead but both looking away in different directions and not caring what we were doing there. We hated each other.
“I read somewhere where Wayne once said that if he could have done something to get rid of me back then, he would have done it, because he felt like I’d had everything just handed to me and that I didn’t earn it. Well, I did get some lucky breaks, but I feel like I made the most of ’em. It wasn’t like I was floundering around for three years and then all of a sudden, I was making it.
“It was just as bad when I got to do a few GPs in ’86 and ’87. Then, in ’88, I won Daytona and went straight to Suzuka [Grand Prix]. It rained all week there and then on Sunday it stopped but the track was still wet. Well, I had just tested there three weeks before Daytona, and we had a wet setup that we knew, and we just threw it at the bike, and we ran away with the race. Then I won the fifth round in Germany, and Wayne told me later that after that happened, he couldn’t sleep at night, wondering how I’d won two GPs when he hadn’t even won his first one yet. It really ate on him.
“But when he won Donington, which was about round 10, that’s when it sort of changed. We started acknowledging each other when we’d walk past each other in the pits. I think at that point we both had factories that we had good relationships with and strong ties with, and I think we just finally realized that there was enough room for both of us. And we started to respect each other.
“Then, in ’89, I won a bunch of races, but Wayne was always the guy who was the championship contender. You could tell that he was the more mature, more experienced racer. He was the smarter guy, and that was his way of going about things, and all of his fans realized that. I think all of my fans realized that I was the guy who was young and inexperienced and just wanted to win races.
“I have no doubt that Wayne Rainey is the single most motivated, hardest-working sum bitch I have ever seen. He made those Yamahas that he rode everything that they were, absolutely, every year. There’s that story that goes around where Kenny Sr. told him, ‘If you keep winning like this, we’ll never get anything better.’
“It’s funny now. We talk about it all and just laugh. Probably the most fun we’ve ever had debating our careers was when Wayne released his book at Donington. I was there, and Lawson, Mamola, Kenny [Roberts] Sr., Dean Miller, all the guys who used to drive the motorhomes and stuff. We all met at the bar one night and started drinkin.’ We must have drank beer for six hours and told stories like, ‘Ah, you sumbitch, when you hit me that one time, why I shoulda…’ Then Lawson would tell a story, and Mamola would tell a story. If somebody would have videotaped that, it would be worth millions.
“I could do a book that could tell some stories that would be pretty entertaining, but maybe that’s something that Wayne and I should work into over the next few years. Wayne has already taken the family-man approach, and I’m going to start settling down one of these days. Maybe we could sit down and tell some stories and have someone take notes. That thing would sell, but it would take both of us together to do it right. It would be a fun project, for sure.”
If such a book should ever be published, just know that the line forms to the left… CN