Kevin Schwantz hopped aboard a motorcycle with the engine of a lawn mower when he was just 3 years old. Forty years, 25 Grand Prix wins, 21 lap records and a Grand Prix World Championship later, Schwantz has retired from motorcycle racing.
But the champion hasn’t left the race track completely — he now teaches others how to turn corners like a pro at the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School at Road Atlanta in Braselton.
"I always enjoyed going fast," Schwantz said. "I remember as a kid, my entire life growing up, man, if I could ever race a motorcycle professionally and make a living doing it, that would be the coolest thing anybody could ever ask for."
And that’s just what he did. Schwantz raced dirt bikes as a teenager, but started road racing motorcycles professionally at age 20 in 1984. Schwantz said that his parents owned a Yamaha motorcycle dealership in Houston while he was growing up, and that it was one of their friends that first convinced him to get out of the dirt and onto the track.
"It was just some local races," he said. "There’s no jumps, there’s no dirt, it can’t really be that hard," he recalls thinking when the family friend invited him to participate in an endurance road race in Texas. "But yeah, okay, I’ll give it a try," he said.
"I had a great time. I rode all weekend," Schwantz said. "I think I found what I like," he told his parents when he got home.
At the end of 1984, the Yoshimura Suzuki Superbike Team offered Schwantz the opportunity to race their SG 600 motorcycle on a racetrack in Southern California. The 20-year-old raced faster on the motorcycle and on the track than anyone ever had before.
Soon Schwantz signed on with Suzuki and raced in Grand Prix events all over the country and in South America, Europe, Japan and
Australia. In 1988, he won the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka, the first GP event he entered.
He now cites the first GP win as his favorite race of his 10-year road racing career that he describes as "steep, short and right to the top." Schwantz celebrated the win with a victory lap where he stood on his motorcycle’s front pegs while waving to the crowd.
His antics on the track have won him admiration from fans across the world.
"When we travel outside of America, he is so incredibly popular," said Marnie Lincoln, director of the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School. "He signs autographs for hours," she said. "We still receive fan mail weekly."
"When he raced, people said his style was crash or win," Lincoln said. His aggressive racing style earned him big points with fans, as well as several broken bones.
Schwantz said he has broken his wrists multiple times, and has broken his collarbone, arms, legs and fingers. "Just little stuff," he said of the injuries. "I probably crashed more than most, and I probably crashed in the lead more than most."
Schwantz said that his fastest crashes have clocked his body slamming into the pavement at 175 mph. His career record for speed registered at 197 mph near Hockenheim, Germany, he said.
And in 1993, after coming close to winning the world championship title in previous years, Schwantz number 34 won the 500cc World Championship.
He decided to retire in 1995 and later began his motorcycle school at Road Atlanta in 2001. The school offers 10 two-day schools and two three-day schools each year.
Thirty-six students participate in classroom instruction at Road Atlanta. The less track-experienced street group and the advanced group alternate between rides on the 2.54-mile Road Atlanta track.
Schwantz and a crew of 11 motorcycle champions or longtime racers teach students about visual awareness and concentration, body position and steering technique, cornering lines and gear selection.
Lincoln said that the school regularly draws people to the Road Atlanta track from as far away as Japan, Europe and South America. She said that after the school’s annual schedule is released on Nov. 1, the 12 schools are sold out within days, and the waiting list starts.
Helder Gomes came to the Kevin Schwantz Suzuki School from Salvador, Brazil. He has participated in the two-day school twice this month.
His 18-year-old son, Marcos, translated for him. "He’s very excited. He wanted to come twice. He almost cried when Joyce said they were all booked up," he said. Marcos said that to his mother’s dismay, his father, who has broken his limbs multiple times in Brazil from crashes, likes to ride motorcycles at the school because he can speed a lot and make turns that he can’t do on the street.
"Once you get done with this program you are considered a pretty well-rounded rider," said Bob Rodriguez of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who has attended the Schwantz’s school 11 times in the past 18 months. "I’m faster on the track, I’m a smoother rider," he said. "The most important thing about becoming a good rider is being smooth, then speed comes naturally."
Schwantz said that at the school, he never pushes anyone to ride fast. He said that instead, he pushes students to ride safe.
He said that he started the school in part because he wanted to change the bad reputation of motorcycling, 36 people at a time. He said that he wants others to experience the peaceful feeling of being on a bike — "just you and your motorcycle."
"When I was a small kid, it’s that same thing when I was in school," he said. "When I get home I get to go ride my bike, it’s going to be great. And I still love riding (motorcycles) today just as much as I ever have."