Q&A: Kevin Schwantz Talks COTA, MotoGP, & the Future of American Road Racing

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The Thursday before the start of the Grand Prix of the Americas, Asphalt & Rubber was part of a quick event put on by Dainese and Ducati Austin, which allowed fans to meet Kevin Schwantz. Before the start of that evening’s meet-and-greet, I got to sit down with the former 500cc World Champion, and pick his brain not only about the current events happening with the Circuit of the Americas, but also about what was occurring on a larger scale within the American road racing scene.

While Mr. Schwantz could only provide limited answers about what was going on with the Texan track and his ongoing litigation with the circuit, his opinions on MotoGP and AMA Pro Racing were insightful, and serve as a serious warning about the state of American road racing not only here in the US, but also abroad in the various World Championships. It is a bit of a long read (Mr. Schwantz was more than generous with his time), but I think you will enjoy the exchange and perspective he shared during the interview.

Q: With the Grand Prix of the Americas this weekend, it’s hard to ignore what is going on between you and the Circuit of the Americas. How did things get to the point they are now, and how do you see things progressing as we go forward?

At the risk of sounding immodest, I am the main reason MotoGP is coming to Texas.

I began putting the race together about five years ago, and in early 2011 I signed a contract with Dorna to promote the event. I went on to help Circuit of The Americas [COTA] raise money for the event, and in 2011 I worked hand-in-hand with the Texas state comptroller to build support for MotoGP within the state legislature.

In February of 2011, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta confirmed in writing that my company would be the sole rights holder for MotoGP in Texas through the year 2022.

At my invitation, Mr. Ezpeleta and his associate Javier Alonso visited Austin later that year and met with the comptroller, who is in charge of public funding for the event. I also arranged to have Claude Danis, who was then the grand prix safety officer for Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme [FIM], travel to Austin. He inspected the track site while it was still under construction.

In spite of all my hard work, COTA soon began undermining my relationship with Dorna and my rights to the event. Sadly, my former friends at Dorna eventually turned their backs on me at COTA’s behest and began negotiating directly with COTA. In September of 2012, I was forced to file a legal action against COTA in order to protect my rights.

Since that time, COTA has retaliated by making misleading public statements about me and about the work I did to bring this race to Texas. COTA even had its security guards threaten to remove me from the track during a Honda-sponsored event that I was invited to attend.

I remain MotoGP’s number-one fan, and I still want to see the sport I love come to my home state. I’m sorry to say, however, that I will not be attending Austin’s inaugural MotoGP race. At this point, I am focusing on making my case before a jury and seeing that justice is done.

Q: I don’t think we can talk about your career, without talking about your rivalry with Wayne Rainey. How did that affect your performance on race day? Is that something that drove you to work harder, and was like a carrot in front of you?

You know, it always was. I remember going to a race on Sunday where I maybe had been out-qualified by him [Rainey] by a second, second and a half — I was maybe third row, and he was on pole — and I just thought to myself, “I’m not going to give up until we’re halfway through this race and he’s still kicking my ass and riding away from me.”

Sometimes it was even longer than that, I would push it all the way to the end — just trying to get a few more spots. It’s so funny listening to riders now, “oh yeah, we’ve only got a fourth place bike!” I went to every race with the mindset that even though we sucked in practice, qualifying, and warm-up, and everything, there was something that was going to change. I was going to figure something out, the bike was magically going to get better, something was going to happen, and we were going to find a way to win.

I don’t remember ever sitting on the grid, even from the third row thinking, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here today. I should be at home. This race is going to suck.” Because, every race was a new challenge. I mean, we won from the third row…on numerous occasions. So I kind of give that to Wayne, and I would do the same to him — I’d have a really great weekend, I’d dominate practice and qualifying, and then in the race, second or third turn, up the inside he comes shoving his way past. I’d be like, “hey, that guy was nowhere in practice, how can he be here?!”

I always thought a lot of Wayne’s performance was how good the Yamaha was…until I saw all the clowns ride it after he got off of it, after he quit racing, after he got hurt. I was like, “wow, these bikes really aren’t all that good!” He was the one that kept the Yamaha, and whatever teammate it was, there — he probably didn’t keep Eddie [Lawson] there — but, [John] Kocinski’s, the [Luca] Cadalora’s, all those guys, [Daryl] Beattie’s, the guys that rode with him, he was the center of that team, and he is what kept those Yamaha guys moving, moving, moving, and pushing forward.

Q: Is there something that has changed from then to now that has caused us to lose that in the sport?

Yeah, it is so much more about the equipment now than it is the rider. We see odd occasions like the last race weekend in Qatar, I think Rossi showed that as a rider you can still make a difference, but I’m not sure everybody is willing to try and push the envelope that far. You know, on a 500 you might start a race and have the best bike out there, but as the fuel starts to burn off and the tires go away, and it’s a short rope to the back.

You could also be nowhere at the start of the race, but as the fuel burns off — that seems to have been what happened with the Suzuki — as soon as the fuel burned off and the balance of the bike began to feel better, that’s when I started moving forward and picking people off. It was always, “did I let Wayne get too far out in front of me,” and all I could do was chase to try and close-up the gap?

I think a 500 was such a beast to ride, you know, such a small power delivery. You know when it was right, they were really fun to ride, but 99% of the time they weren’t right, so they weren’t fun very often. So as a rider, you had to learn how to compensate, and how to do things for where you may have missed in the setup. Whether it was gearing, whether it was chassis setup, whether it was suspension, brakes…whatever it might be. You had to always be adapting.

I think Rossi said it best a couple of years ago when he said, “the problem with these bikes is what you start with is what you’re going to have.” It’s going to be that way. They are so electronically controlled that they are just kind of what they are now.

Q: I remember hearing Rossi talk about how their lines are measured more in millimeters than they were in your era, which were measured in feet, and you could have that variation.

I remember Agostini said it once — he watched me race at Spa, and he said, “I stood in one spot the entire weekend, and Schwantz never hit the same line twice, but his lap times never varied very much either. That’s good to see, because there are so many people who think that there’s a perfect line, and unless they hit that, that lap is disastrous.” So I feel like I was always one of those who was trying out different ways to skin the cat, trying out different ways to get around a corner, or over a bump, or around a bend.

Q: Do you think MotoGP is more defined by rivalries, or is it more defined by manufacturers?

It’s still fairly defined by rivalries, but I think it also so much more about the manufacturers right now. It is such a Honda and Yamaha battle right now. We all would love to see the Ducati miraculously find something that gives them half to three-quarters of a second, or find something that’s going to put them right into that mix. They’ve got four great guys riding bikes, and I feel like maybe when Valentino was there they were a little too focused on exactly what Valentino wanted, and didn’t really care about anybody else.

I think now they are going to be able to find answers in so many different areas, and I really thought that in Qatar that maybe Dovi really was going to be kicking Nicky’s ass all weekend long, and possibly all year, like he’s done in some tests. But then to see in the race, they finished 3/10ths of a second apart. I think that’s great. I think once Spies gets a bit more time on the bike, maybe gets some more rehab on his shoulder, and gets his head wrapped around it a bit, then maybe he and Iannone can really help develop that thing.

Q: I know you’ve been with Blake Young a lot with the Attack Racing CRT, can you tell me about the project a bit?

I don’t know a whole lot about the project, it seems like a great opportunity and a great place for Blake. But, I think Blake has never had to do much as far as development goes — he’s always ridden a superbike, so it’s here’s what we got and you can’t do much else with it, we just have to fiddle with the setup — so I think it’s a good experience for him. I think it’s going to open his eyes to how complicated and difficult this next step could possibly be.

I think that the Attack guys, Richard and the whole crew, bust their asses trying to build the best possible thing that they can, but they are a small, small group of people competing against manufacturers. They are kind of backed into a corner. You know, if nothing else, riding a bike that is not great is going to build a lot of character. I think that’s good.

I don’t know that CRT is the direction that MotoGP needs to be headed, but I think that the next year anyways it is a good opportunity for Blake. I’ve seen him ride a GSX-R1000 in a way that I have never really seen many other people ride them, so I know what he’s capable of.

But he is in a way a little like Spies, he has to have his head completely wrapped around it and be 100% on his game, or else it’s tough. Knowing that you’re six, eight, or ten seconds off, I think it’s something that will cause you not to sleep at night. It will have a lot of adverse effects on you.

I know what it did to me when I was a second or a second and a half off. I think Blake is talented, I think he’s fast, and I think this might open a door for him to go ride a World Superbike, British Superbike, or something else. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Q: When you see someone like Blake who has been runner-up in AMA Pro Superbike the past two years, and then have nothing for the year after, how do we as American road racing develop our talent pool and have them go into World Superbike and into MotoGP, and be successful there as well?

I think our talent pool is as deep as it has ever been, but I think the opportunity to get those kids overseas is much more limited by the lack of support by manufacturers in this series. The problem is that DMG is not doing anything to help the manufacturers gain some confidence, and say “hey man, these guys are actually making some good decisions now!”

This series used to be one that was below World Superbike and MotoGP or 500cc Grand Prix racing. This used to be the next championship that people looked to bring riders up from, and it’s not that anymore. It doesn’t get the TV coverage, it just doesn’t have — what it’s mainly missing is manufacturers.

If it had manufacturer involvement, if it had Honda, had Yamaha, had Suzuki, had Kawasaki, had Ducati, had everybody — if it had everybody fighting to win that championship, the level of competition is back, and the level of excitement about this series is back. Since DMG took over, as it seems they have done with every division of racing, whether it be dirt track or road racing, they have not paid much attention to it.

They are not listening to the manufacturers who aren’t involved, they are listening to the one manufacturer who is still prominently involved, and it’s Yamaha. Anytime they veer from the path that Yamaha says is correct, Yamaha’s threat is that “we’ll stop racing! We’ll just stop racing. This series will be nothing without us.” No, it will just be missing one manufacturer’s truck, two superbikes, and two 600’s. I think Graves would still be racing.

We just need manufacturer support, because it’s those people in the big scheme of things, it’s an American racing in a World Championship, dominating races, and all that excitement is what makes dealerships like this, or the one next door, sell the shit out of motorcycles. There would be excitement around American road racing, and sport bikes would be sailing out the door, because whoever is racing overseas on a Suzuki or whatever it might be.

Some of what I had planned to do as the promoter of this grand prix this weekend, was to take some of the money I was going to make to be able to friggin’ start funding some kids! Because three races in America will never work unless we get kids in every class.

Right now we have three competitors in MotoGP, and none in any other World Championship series! Not World Superbike, not Supersport, not Superstock, not Moto2, not Moto3, we’ve got two kids in the Red Bull Rookies Cup and that’s it. If the Spanish [Dorna] feel like this is a place they want to keep three races, that better start finding a way to keep Americans in the classes, because it will never work without excitement in every class.

Q: When you look down the pipe too, there is almost a generational gap that is unaccounted for between Nicky and Ben and then what’s coming through with the Rookies Cup and the AMA. There’s almost a ten-year drought that’s coming through.

Huge. On top of the ten years we’ve already had, well it’s only six or seven years [Since Hayden’s MotoGP Championship win].

Q: What are your thoughts on Honda providing a production racer bike, and Yamaha leasing motors to teams, does that do anything to really improve what MotoGP is delivering for the fans, or is it just a stop-gap and a slightly improved CRT-solution?

I think it’s just a better solution for CRT. As we continue to see, Cal Crutchlow running around chasing Hondas all-night long in Qatar, and then Rossi runs right by him. Vale got a better run off the corner than Crutchlow did, but there needs to be more manufacturers involved.

There is a bit to blame with the economy, but until you have the Ducati’s beating on the front door, and you’ve got some Suzuki’s back there, until you get some more manufacturers in there to mix it up, you basically have two guys and the Spanish controlling the racing.

If Dorna had any real interest in trying to help what the series was all about they would be making sure there was a Moto2 series here in America. “We’ve got one in Spain, that’s all that matters to us.” It’s like they want to have their hand on everyone, and have absolute control on everything, and that works as long as you’re someone close by in Spain, but it’s not easy for us.

Q: Do you feel like Dorna isn’t as inclusive enough in the way they run the MotoGP Championship?

I think they understand that the best thing about racing is that it’s everybody competing at that level, and I think they have just gotten too focused on what their business model is, and what they want and what they think is good for the sport. But they haven’t really figured out an answer, at least not that I’ve read about or heard about, that is going to help the sport take back off in the world. They raced what? Three times in Spain, and once in Portugal? Twice in Italy?

Someone asked me, “can you support three races in America?” We’re 2,500 miles across this country! They race 15 times in less than a 1,000 mile radius! I said of course we can support three races, but we need excitement about the series. As an American you’re going to make it to one, maybe two races, but if you had kids in every class, you’ll probably try and make it to all three. There could be a chance that you could hear the national anthem three times on the weekend, and it’s great, it’s exciting, but…

Q: Is that the hook really to get Americans who are outside of motorcycling hooked on MotoGP? That possibility of hearing the Star Spangled Banner during the podium ceremony?

Absolutely. Even if the product you sell, that you want to help sponsor this event with, even if it’s not manufactured in America but you sell a lot of it here, to hear the Stars and Stripes, and to see the excitement, and to see the name of the company on the kid’s chest, and on the side of his bike, and on television, and all the exposure. It’s just like superbike racing in that, win on Sunday sell on Monday.

It’s that exposure. It’s that pride as Americans, we’ve got so friggin’ much of it, sometimes to our demise, but we love to help support things that are winners. Until we get that opportunity to have some kids out there and racing.

I think the Rookies Cup is a great program, and I think it’s proven, in ’08 the kids I coached here in the US, a lot of those kids are winning Daytona SportBike races, and Superpsort races, depending on what age group they are in. But man, the future that you have to look at, “where do the guys go in front of me?” Well, they’re not really going anywhere. They’re just kind of stuck where you’re at, instead of having that support.

When I raced in ’86 I went and did three grands prix each year, and Suzuki was very supportive of that. They were supportive of it, because Japan said, “hey we see this kid you’ve got, we want him, we need him, we’re going to get back involved in grand prix racing.” That’s what you need.

You need the American divisions to support the national series, and then to start seeing that they have some real talent up-and-coming, and then have the Japanese management say, “by the way, in two years, he’s ours.” As a racer here then in America, you’re jumping at every opportunity to go to Europe and do some racing. Now that would be Moto3, Moto3, MototGP, or whatever it might be.

[Mat] Mladin said it three or four years, he goes “you know, to be an 18-year-old kid right now here in AMA, and man this is my future, that’s pretty bleak.”

Q: Are there any riders coming up through the ranks that you keep your eye on, and that you see as being a real talent?

You know there’s a young kid right now that’s just waiting to turn 16 to do some AMA racing, and he’s Nick McFadden. I think Nick had a huge, huge, huge future ahead of him. A little older than him, we have Jake Gagne, Benny Solis…Cameron Beaubier!…I mean, he’s going to end-up spending his life here racing 600cc supersport, or eventually in American superbike, if he can’t find a way to get out.

That’s the problem, this series at one point was so important that there was enough money being made here that you didn’t really want to go do anything else. Now, there is not that much money here, but a lot of times, whether it’s the guys like Mr. Ulrich or Graves, they put you under such a long contract that you’re here for the next five years, and you can’t do it!

You can’t expect someone to be able to go to Europe at 22-years-old and catch up with the friggin’ Europeans, who have been racing those tracks since they were 16-years-old. It will never happen. We’re not that good. We need to at least be given the same shot as the Euros, and I didn’t go to Europe until ’86, I was 22, by the time I got there full-time I was 24-years-old. That’s way too late to be there right now.

Maybe not way too late, but you have to be there at least when you’re 22. But you have to spend a year learning the tracks and the new equipment. Now you’re 25, and shit you haven’t really done anything yet. You don’t have a very long chance nowadays. It’s the tracks that are all the difficult to learn, but the bikes have gotten so complicated electronically with setups, maps, and this and that, and if you don’t get a dry session all four sessions…it’s tough.

Q: What singular piece of advice would you give to upcoming riders?

National Championship or World Championship, what sounds more important? For me, as bad as it sounds, “it’s get out of America, go race somewhere else.” I don’t think Australia quite has the series that the AMA used to be, but British Superbike…many of those national Championships in Europe still have big transporters and things.

There may not be huge dollars there, but at least they have support and commitment from the manufacturers. They’re still racing and still realize, as it is here in America, that if you do well on Sunday it more than likely means bike sales on Monday. As a young riders, it’s such a big step to make, because you’re 16, 17, 18-years-old, whatever it might be, and then have to say, “I’ve got to get to Europe.”

Talk to some of the guys who are older than you, and find out who you can go talk to, families you can go spend the summer with…just try and get some exposure over there. Even if it’s not the best bike, 90% of the people that matter know what the level is of the equipment you’re riding.

If you’re beating your head against the tank, trying to get bike into the Top 10, and you get 7th or 8th place, everybody will be like “wow, that was impressive,” even though you were nowhere near the front or leading the race. Most of the people that are important can tell by watching a rider ride. The eyes they have are good enough to be able to say, keep an eye on that kid, he’s going somewhere.

Q: My last question, sort of blankly, what keeps you up at night?

You know, probably more than anything right now, trying to figure out what the track [COTA] is doing. Maybe just why they felt the need to treat me the way they have. Because besides my lawsuit with those guys, I’ve really got nothing that keeps me up at night, except the fact that I’m really, really disappointed with where we are as a country in World Championship racing.

Like I said, part of my intentions in promoting that race was that I was going to stack some kids in Moto3 and Moto2. I was going to go to KTM and say “I need to buy two of those bikes, and I need you guys to support me in these two American rounds we’re going to have.” I was going to try and elevate it to help everything. What we have in MotoGP, that’s what everyone looks at, but it’s like you said, it’s the next 10 years, it’s what we have coming down the pipeline.

Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved