Kevin Schwantz Talks MotoGP
Kevin was born in Houston, won the 1993 500cc World Championship, at the time the premier class of worldwide motorcycle racing just like MotoGP is now. Kevin used an aggressive, all-out style to earn 25 victories during his Grand Prix career, second on the all-time list among American riders.
Kevin is still very involved in the sport today. He is an advisor and a rider coach for the Red Bull Rookies Cup series for aspiring MotoGP riders in Europe, and he also runs the Schwantz School which provides classroom and on-track performance motorcycle riding instruction. It’s a big weekend for the Schwantz School coming up as it will have a session tomorrow and Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
MEDIA: The Grand Prix Commission is due to meet, and they’ll be discussing the proposal with the MSMA is going to put forth about leasing just engines instead of whole bikes as a way to get more bikes on the grid. This was as a counter to the 1000cc production engines which Dorna has suggested. What is your take on that? How do you think we can get more bikes on the grid?
SCHWANTZ: Well, I haven’t heard in detail what their ideas are with the 1000cc production-based engine or whether they’re going to allow the 1000cc to run standard cases, which I think is one of the big stumbling blocks that they had about maybe running 1000cc production motors before.
Absolutely, positively there needs to be more bikes on the grid. Kind of a unique assessment that I made last weekend in Czecho was (Michel) Fabrizio was there riding a Ducati, and I know he’s maybe a little beat up. And I think I talked to him Sunday, and he said he was — something was broke, whether it was a collarbone or something that he had hurt previously or what. But the lap times that he done on his World Superbike when they were at Brno to the lap times he did on the MotoGP bike, there wasn’t a huge difference in them.
I’d like to think that had a little bit to do with maybe he wasn’t 100 percent. But at the same time, maybe the power plants of modern-day production bikes at 1000 cc’s could compete really closely with this next level of development that these 800cc projects are at right now. So there’s a whole lot of question out there as to which direction is the right way to go. But from a rider’s standpoint, I really feel like there needs to be more bikes on the grid. At a Laguna Seca, we have 11 bikes finishing a race: That’s not what we need. The competition has always been great at the front of MotoGP, but we need to see a little more depth through the field, I think.
MEDIA: I wonder what the mood was after Brno in that are the other riders just signing off this championship to Rossi? He’s got what, 50-odd points now?
SCHWANTZ: I think it’s right on 50 points. Lorenzo is enough of a competitor that I doubt he’s given up until it’s mathematically over. From an outsider’s perspective just kind of standing back, looking and seeing what’s going on, trying to think maybe what some of the other riders are thinking, absolutely. You know, I knew Lorenzo was going to be better this year than he was last year, and he showed some real consistency. I don’t know if I’m the one that put the hex on him or not but I was talking about it at Donington on Sunday, I did an interview with Suzi Perry on the grid, I said I just can’t believe how consistent Lorenzo has been. Now it’s been two races in a row he’s tested the ground late in the race or at least into the race. He’s given 25 points away each weekend.
So I see the Yamahas having a bit of a performance advantage right now. What it is they found that the other guys haven’t, I’m not quite sure. But I think it’s more of a two-horse race and especially like I talked about earlier with no Stoner out there, I think there’s going to be the odd guys that will challenge at the front.
Here at Indy, I’m sure Nicky and Colin are both going to be really strong. But I still think championship-wise the 46 (Valentino Rossi) seems to kind of have the measure of everybody. I don’t know if it’s just a mental edge that the guy has, because I really felt like in watching practice both at Donington and in Czecho, that Lorenzo was fast, and he was smooth, and he was consistently fast. But Rossi has a way of just upping his game a little bit on Sunday afternoon, and it’s been devastating to Lorenzo both weekends.
MEDIA: The year that Wayne (Rainey) won the championship when Mick Doohan broke his leg and three months before then it looked like Doohan, was Doohan’s championship. So a smart rider is just going to keep pushing now, do you agree?
SCHWANTZ: Absolutely. I think Rossi has shown that — he’s been on the ground a couple of times the past two weekends, too, he just hasn’t done it in the crucial parts of the race when it’s going to cost him 25 points or he’s managed to get up in the race and still get some points out of it. You know, as a racer, one of the most difficult things to do out there is to try and back off and just start thinking championship now. You lose a little bit of that motivation, you lose a bit of that speed. Then when you have to, it seems like it’s even more difficult to find it back again. So I’m sure Rossi is going to continue to be Rossi here and going to love to win races just like he always has.
MEDIA: James Toseland, a lot of talk right now whether he should keep his ride or not in MotoGP. I’m sure you’ve got an opinion. What is it?
SCHWANTZ: I think James has been as disappointing to us as he has been to himself. I know James probably didn’t expect to come here and start winning races immediately, but I’m sure he felt like he was going to be a guy that could contend for the podium. When you’ve got a veteran such as Colin Edwards alongside you in the team who’s managing to put the bike up on the podium or somewhere right near the front somewhat consistently, I think there’s probably a lot of doubt running around in James’ head right now.
I don’t know, maybe a year or two back ride some superbikes, get some confidence back. I don’t honestly know what the best path might be right now for James. But I know for me it’s — I was expecting big things of him and he’s done an OK job a couple of weekends. He’s had some decent results, but he hasn’t ever shown me that spark and that fire that I saw out of him riding a World Superbike.
MEDIA: Kevin, you’re scheduled to do a couple parade laps on Sunday prior to the MotoGP race on your championship-winning Suzuki. Have you spent any time on that bike since you took delivery of it a couple of years ago?
SCHWANTZ: I have not. I haven’t spent any time on it since I received the bike. We fired it up one weekend, I think, late in the year in ’95. Some of the guys from the Grand Prix team, Hamish Jameson and some of the boys came over. Hamish is actually the one that’s given the job of trying to get it prepped to run here at Indianapolis.
I’m looking forward to it. I’ve sat on it a couple of times. We’ve got some new Michelin tires for it. I’m not going to try and throw down a qualifying lap, that’s for sure, but I’m really looking forward to riding that thing here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
MEDIA: Kevin, what do you think about Colin Edwards’ chances here at this race?
SCHWANTZ: It’s funny, because Colin will pull out some of the biggest surprises you might not have ever expected. I really feel like here at Indy — he didn’t have the most flashy of Grand Prixs at Laguna Seca, and I think this is a track here that would suit Colin and his style. Obviously, the Tech 3 Yamaha is a bike that’s been working pretty well for him most of the year. It could be a weekend where we get to see a bit of a surprise out of the Texan. I’d like to see that more than anybody.
MEDIA: You’ve got an association with the Red Bull Rookies Cup, and their season just ended. What are some of the names that we should be looking for riders in the future to make an impact in MotoGP?
SCHWANTZ: You know, the two kids that fought the championship out to less than two-tenths of a second to decide it at Czecho in the final round, Sturla Fagerhaug and Jakub Kornfeil, I think they’re both kids that have a brilliant future ahead of them. Whether it’s Grand Prix racing, Superbike racing, whatever it is they choose to do, I think they’ll do well at it.
From an American perspective, Jake Gagne was one of the kids we chose for the Rookies Cup in our first series here in the States. Two years ago when we went to our first round of Red Bull Rookies Cup racing at Barber Motorsports Park, it was Jake’s first road race. Jake was a threat to win both of the rounds in Czecho, just got shuffled a little bit out of the right position. He led starting the first lap the first day in Czecho, and he was right at the front in that mix and decided to let the championship be settled out between the two guys right at the very front, and he finished third the second day. So I think Jake Gagne has a great future ahead of him, as well.
MEDIA: Kevin, you talked about how much you love the two-strokes and the sound of a two-stroke. What are your feelings about Moto2, which is due to start next year?
SCHWANTZ: I think the idea behind it is good. Once again, it’s headed a direction that we’ve seen should cost a whole lot more money than two-stroke racing; but, at the same time, I think four-stroke technology is the direction that most of the manufacturers are headed from a development standpoint.
You know, with one type of engine, everybody gets to build their own chassis to try and come up with some different ideas on what might work best or what might not. You know, I have to go into it with an open mind. I think it could be really good. The fact that there’s 40-some-odd teams, more than 40 teams interested in competing in the series, have fielded entries, I think that in itself is pretty exciting for MotoGP. Hopefully that new class and its structure will lend us some really, close competitive racing because the 250 field has really shrunk quite a bit, too. It’s a shame because I got the opportunity a couple of years ago to test all the MotoGP bikes, riding those big, I think they were still 990s back then, riding those big 990cc four-strokes, and the guys from KTM came over and asked if I wanted to ride their 250 and I said, "Yeah, absolutely." Just over maybe 110 horsepower and 90 kilos a bike, it reminded me a lot of riding my 500, it was just a little bit slower acceleration-wise. But just the precision, the sound, the sharpness of that two-stroke, everything about it was a real pleasure to ride, that’s for sure.
MEDIA: I’m getting the sense that your head says it’s a good idea but your heart is breaking at the loss of the two-strokes.
SCHWANTZ: Yeah, you know, I think my heart will always be a two-stroke heart. But we understand that technology is headed in a different direction now, and that maybe the two-strokes aren’t the most efficient thing out there. You know, it’s still racing in a world-class level, and I think that’s more what it’s about than anything right now, than what I want to see and what I want to hear.
HOST: This is Paul Kelly from IMS. I have a question just to change gears for just a minute. Let’s imagine an auto racing fan, somebody who goes to the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400 every year at the Speedway, came up to you and said: "Kevin, I’m interested in this MotoGP race and the Red Bull Indianapolis GP. Tell me what’s different and what’s cool about Grand Prix motorcycle racing that would really make me think, ‘Hey, man, I want to go to this race; this is cool.’" What is unique to just a general racing fan about MotoGP that they’re going to see next weekend that’s going to really blow them away that they’re going to go, "That’s pretty cool."
SCHWANTZ: I think, first and foremost, the speed of the bikes, the sound of the bikes; second of all, how exposed the rider is and how much the rider — how much of an input the rider has into what that bike does and how well it works. It seems to me from a four-wheel perspective, it’s one of those things, well, the car is just not right, we have to wait until they have an opportunity to come in the pits and work on it.
Throughout the weekend you’ll watch the guys coming into the pits working on the MotoGP bikes or the 250 or 125cc bikes, but then once the race starts on Sunday, it’s man and machine and it’s do everything you can on that motorcycle; climb around on the top of it, you know, stay over the front, slide over the back if the conditions are less than ideal. So many things that a rider on a motorcycle can do to affect how well or how bad that motorcycle handles, whereas in a car I think you’re in a little more of a position to, you know, you’ve just got to drive it for what it’s worth right now and then when we get a chance, we’ll get to adjust on it and hopefully we make the right adjustments to put us in a place to win at the end of the race.
It’s a little bit shorter race, a little bit hopefully more exciting. Not beating up on four wheels, that’s for sure, but hopefully a couple guys pushing and shoving and leaning on each other a little bit throughout all the classes, both 125, 250 and MotoGP, and you know, over 200 miles an hour off the end of the front straightaway just like an Indianapolis car does here at the Speedway, and driving into a first turn that’s flat and lots of change of direction, good competition, that’s for sure.
HOST: Great. One follow-up question. Indianapolis is a major sports town both in professional sports here in the U.S. and also in amateur sports. But you could make the argument that Valentino Rossi will be the biggest worldwide athlete to compete in Indianapolis this year. You travel all over the world to these GPs. Could you put Valentino’s celebrity status, his rock star status as a worldwide athlete, not just as a motorcycle racer but a worldwide athlete, into perspective out there?
SCHWANTZ: That’s really tough for me to do. I guess the one thing I read the other day or saw on a sports channel somewhere, that he was the eighth most-popular sports athlete anywhere in the world. That’s golf, that’s basketball, that’s motorsports, that’s everything that happens from a sporting perspective. That’s soccer, that’s cricket, that’s all those different sports worldwide.
When you come to a Grand Prix to see just how many people have yellow on because Rossi and that 46 are kind of synonymous with the color yellow, when you look up into the stands and see how much yellow there is there, you’ll see what a huge draw he is from a motorcycle perspective. But he’s the guy that I doubt can go anywhere without being recognized because he’s just such a — he’s not a clown, but he’s such a laid back, easy-going guy. When the race finishes, he shows his happiness and expresses it when he wins, and he kind of beats up on himself when he does something silly like he did at Donington when he fell down. You know: "I just made a mistake, I’m lucky I got up and was able to finish fifth."
I think Rossi more than anybody out there in MotoGP right now just shows that he’s human. I think that’s what makes people like him as much as they do, is one day he can be perfect and the next day he can, as he probably put it, "I can screw up just a little bit." So I think that, just that he’s a normal guy from a normal upbringing that has found a way to ride a motorcycle faster than anybody in the world right now, but also still be pretty much an ordinary guy.
MEDIA: Kevin, Laguna Seca has had a Grand Prix since 1988. You yourself have said several times you weren’t a huge fan of Laguna as a rider. You did fairly well there, really well there, but it just wasn’t one of your favorite tracks. You know, you came to motorcycle racing sort of anti-establishment. You didn’t come from California and came from Texas. From that perspective, what does it mean to have a MotoGP race here in the heartland?
SCHWANTZ: I think to have a race here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is — you know, the California thing, Laguna Seca is a great racetrack, it’s a great layout. It’s ultra-competitive. It’s one of those places that you’ve really got to be on your game. Probably what I dislike most about it was the fact that Wayne Rainey lived right across the street from the place, and I felt like it was his backyard. Normally he kicked my ass there like it was his backyard.
So to be able to come to Indianapolis and see all three Grand Prix classes here from a fan’s perspective, I think, is a huge draw. A speedway that’s got so much heritage and history in motorsports as Indianapolis does, you know, I think is nothing but a huge draw for MotoGP and everything that supports it.
MEDIA: Kevin, you’ve worked with Ben Spies since he was a young pup. It seems somewhat inevitable that he is going to end up in MotoGP. What are your thoughts about him racing the class?
SCHWANTZ: You know, I think Spies got a couple shots last year on the Suzuki MotoGP bike. He didn’t shine all that much at Laguna Seca. He did really well here at Indianapolis, and he didn’t have a great run at Donington, either, But having never been to Donington, I didn’t really expect him to.
I think Ben, when given the right opportunity on the right team, I think he can compete at the very top level. Whether he’ll step in instantly and have something, you know, to try and show Valentino Rossi, I’m not sure about. But I think with the rest of the field, whether it’s a Nicky (Hayden) or a Colin (Edwards) or a (Jorge) Lorenzo or any of the other guys out there who are competing up at the top, I think Ben has the heart and the motivation to do whatever he sets out to do. If he’s given the shot on the right team, gets the right support guys behind him, I think the sky is the limit for Ben Spies.
MEDIA: Kevin, you mentioned 46 earlier, and, in fact, when I was invited to this, I got an e-mail from Dean saying, "Do you want to talk to 34?" Do you think — your number 34 has been retired, do you think 46 will be retired when Rossi retires?
SCHWANTZ: You know, I don’t see how it couldn’t be. You know, Valentino has meant so much to this sport; he’s been such a huge part of the attraction that it is worldwide. I think, you know, is Rossi the personality, Rossi the person, Rossi the motorcycle rider? If the 46 isn’t retired, I’ll be surprised.
MEDIA: I mean, Andrea Dovizioso used to ride with 34, and he’s had to take No. 4 so far this season and given him a bunch of No. 4 positions. How do you feel about the whole number retiring? Are we going to run out of numbers, or is it just a fitting tribute?
SCHWANTZ: I think it’s one of those things that, yeah, we can’t afford to retire a number every time somebody does a little something for the sport. But I was truly honored when my number was retired, and it was an absolute 100 percent surprise to me. You know, there’s certain numbers in certain sports that I think should be hung up, just paying tribute to the person. Once again, that’s definitely my feeling towards the 46, because I feel like MotoGP as a sport has kind of created Valentino Rossi, but it’s been the past six or eight years that MotoGP, the sport, has ridden the coattails of a Valentino Rossi. Without him right now, I’m not sure exactly where this sport would be.
HOST: That concludes the teleconference today. We thank all the media for joining us, and Kevin, we especially thank you for your time. We wish you the best of luck at your school, the Kevin Schwantz School tomorrow and Saturday, pray for good weather; and, also, we’ll see you next weekend.