The record-setting temperatures last week drove many Austinites indoors, but for Kevin Schwantz, the triple-digit heat was a welcomed training aid as he prepared for his biggest competitive motorcycle race in nearly two decades.
Schwantz, 49, spent about two hours a day working up a sweat riding a mountain bike at Emma Long Metropolitan Park as he readied for the Suzuka 8 Hours. The Japanese motorcycle endurance race, on July 28, is one Schwantz, the 1993 world champion, was never able to win in his prime.
“Japan is going to be not quite this hot, it but will probably have 90 or 100 percent humidity. I’m just trying to get my body used to working in it,” Schwantz told the American-Statesman before heading to Japan last Sunday for practice sessions. “The opportunity to go back to the track that’s one of my favorites and race in front of some of the best fans that there are anywhere in the world, I jumped at the opportunity … I still love racing. I still love the sport. I still love motorcycles.”
Schwantz is teaming with two Japanese riders, Yukio Kagayama, who won the event in 2007, and Noriyuka Haga in riding a Suzuki GSX-R1000. Although he retired from the world championship circuit in 1995, Schwantz doesn’t plan on being merely a ceremonial rider at Suzuka.
“I sure hope they’re not expecting that of me because the main reason I decided to ride is that I still feel like I can be competitive. I want to carry my load on the team and if it ends up any more than that, that’s fine, too,” Schwantz said. “I’ll do at least two hours and, if I’m not the slowest guy after the second stint on the bike, I may ride a third hour as well.”
The Suzuka track is one of Schwantz’s favorites. He won the Japanese Grand Prix there in 1988, 1989, 1991 and 1994. The victory in 1988 was the first of his 25 Grand Prix titles while the one in 1994 was the penultimate in a career cut short by injuries.
The Suzuka 8 Hours, an endurance race, was not part of the 500cc championship circuit when Schwantz was competing. Back then a lot of the top riders went because they were contractually obligated to go.
“The manufacturers all made us set aside our world championship aspirations to go focus on this race because, as far as bike sales, they considered it maybe the most important race in the world,” Schwantz said. “We used to hate it.”
In the middle of the season, Schwantz and his rivals would rush to the Paris airport after a French race and fly some 6,000 miles across Europe and Asia to compete on slower, heavier bikes against Japanese riders who had a home-field advantage. Schwantz said the heat and humidity were so draining that some riders would receive fluids intravenously between their stints on the bike.
Schwantz began competing in the Suzuka 8 Hours in 1985, several years before he joined the world championship circuit. The best chance for his team to win probably came at a bizarre race in 1989.
That year, after an hour on the bike, Schwantz had just passed the pits when his bike started hesitating.
“I was thinking this thing is probably not going to make it all the way around. So I started babying it,” Schwantz recalled. “Well, it runs completely out of gas at the bottom of the back straightaway, which is slightly uphill all the way to (a) curve.”
Schwantz had to push the bike uphill for a quarter of a mile before getting to a downhill stretch and said he probably lost a lap or two to the competition before reaching the pits.
It wasn’t till the third hour, and his second turn on the bike, that Schwantz discovered that mechanics had left the choke on, causing the bike to consume fuel more quickly.
Eventually, Schwantz’s team clawed its way back to the lead lap and was reeling in the Honda team when the bike started smoking and the smell of oil filled the air. An oil line fitting failure had ended the team’s race.
At Suzuka this month there is only one stretch where Schwantz will have to brake really hard as he transitions from a fast straightaway to a first gear turn. Any more such turns and Schwantz’s balky left wrist, which helped end his racing career, would be too much of a disadvantage.
The oft-injured and surgically repaired wrist has more limited motion and half the bones of a healthy wrist.
This year Schwantz has been testing his wrist and his fitness, and in March he rode with a team at the 8 Hours of Texas at the Texas World Speedway in College Station.
“I think I still know what it takes to go fast,” he said.
Schwantz and his Japanese teammates have said they are hoping for a win at Suzuka, but Schwantz knows it will be a challenge to return to such high-level competition.
“I may go there and I may have a real eye-opener. I may say, you know what? I have no desire to ever go this fast again,” Schwantz said with a laugh.