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The bike and ride that transformed Schwantz from amateur racer to factory superstar for team Yoshimura Suzuki

It doesn’t look much, certainly not a factory tool worthy of a future world champion. In fact this Yoshimura Suzuki GS700 – owned by British collector Steve Wheatman – looks much like any other hotted-up streetbike. But this is the motorcycle that launched Kevin Schwantz into the big time and ultimately led him to winning the 1993 500 World Championship on a Lucky Strike Suzuki RGV500.

Schwantz and the GS first met at California’s Willow Springs Raceway in late 1984. Back then the Texan was just another up-and-coming racer, having a ball on an FJ600, an RZ350 and a weird XV1000-based superbike; anything as long as it was a Yamaha because Schwantz’s family ran a Yamaha dealership. It was during endurance races – in which Schwantz thrashed and crashed the FJ that he shared with his wild Texan friends – that his talents were first noticed.

“There was this kid on an FJ600 who was way too hard to lap,” recalls racer and journalist John Ulrich, then riding a Moriwaki-framed 1176cc Team Hammer Suzuki GS1100 in WERA endurance events. “I remember following him through the carousel at Nelson Ledges, a big sweeping right with a hook at the end. This kid went through there with the thing tankslapping the whole way, and he never even thought about backing off the throttle. He was really, really riding hard and it was the same deal wherever we went.”

Ulrich knew the people at Yoshimura R&D of America – who ran Suzuki’s AMA Superbike effort – so he suggested they give the 20-year-old a tryout on their GS700 superbike. Yoshimura needed someone to replace the departing Wes Cooley who had twice ridden a Yoshi GS1000 to the AMA Superbike title before the series was limited to 750s.

“John called me saying he could get me a go on the Suzuki and I was like, wow, really?” remembers Schwantz, who had only been road racing for a year. “I was thinking that’s one of only a couple of factory rides in the USA, so if nothing else, if all I do is go out and fall off it on the first lap, at least I’ve got to ride a factory bike once. That was my mindset. I could’ve looked at it from the other perspective: Jeez man, this is my big opportunity; if I blow this I’ll never get a good ride. So instead of putting that pressure on myself I put myself in a position of you know what, I don’t know anyone who’s ever ridden a Yoshimura superbike.”

The tryout was set for 4 December at a Willow Springs club race meeting. A few days earlier Ulrich let Schwantz ride his 1150cc endurance bike at Willow and advised him how to get around the track on a big bike running slicks. All Schwantz had previously ridden at Willow were his FJ and RZ, running street tyres.

Schwantz wasn’t the only man Suzuki was considering for a 1985 ride and some of the other candidates were also at Willow, racing their own bikes. “There were guys like Scott Gray and Todd Brubaker; pros who raced the local races at Willow to try and get even better around there,” adds Schwantz. “They all knew Yosh were looking for a new rider, so everybody was like, ‘F***, this kid from Texas is riding the Yosh bike, so we just need to hand him his arse and then they’ll hire us instead.’ What they didn’t know was that I’d done the 24 hours of Willow on the 600 so I knew the place like the back of my frickin’ hand.”

The tryout could hardly have been more low-key. “I’m at the track on Sunday morning, in my leathers, waiting for the Yosh truck to pull up. It pulls up, they unload the bike and I get three laps of practice on a bike I’ve never ridden before.”

Schwantz then had two races in which to showcase his skills: first Formula One, then Superbike. Things got off to a bad start.

“I stalled the bike at the start so I jumped off and pushed – it didn’t go. I pushed again, it didn’t go, and then I heard somebody yell ‘Get on the bike.’ It was Doug Toland, who I might add went on to win the 1993 World Endurance title that got me started. So I’m going into the first turn of an eight-lap race, and the leaders are going into turn three. I’m like, ‘F***, I’m going to have to hustle to catch those guys’, but I ran them down and broke the Superbike lap record, having only practiced three laps before getting thrown in at the deep end.

For the Superbike race I knew what to expect, so I got a decent start, got to the front, started riding away from them and went even faster than I went in the previous race. When I get off the bike there’s Suehiro Watanabe [Yoshimura’s race team manager] standing there with a piece of paper, saying, ‘Sign, sign, sign! Sign here, please’ I was like, ‘No, let’s go eat dinner.’ I signed a letter with them that night, saying I would ride for them in ’85, doing Daytona and all the west coast AMA Superbike rounds, for travel expenses and prize money only.”

The other hopefuls for the ride were stunned that this young unknown had snatched the deal from under their noses. “Some people were outraged that he got the ride,” says Ulrich. “They were saying he was just crazy and that he couldn’t be as good as I said he was. But he was really, really good – it was as simple as that.”

If his Suzuki debut was a fairy tale – from amateur production bike rider to factory superbike rider in just a few hours – the longer term would’ve been a nightmare for a lesser talent. In 1985, Schwantz had to compete against a bunch of full-factory and factory-kitted Honda VF750 Interceptors that were years ahead of the GS. The VF was a super-trick thing – a water-cooled, 16-valve V4 with a race-developed frame and 16-inch wheels. The factory bikes were crammed full of HRC goodies and parts borrowed from Honda’s NS500 GP bike. The GS also had 16 valves, but it was just an air-cooled streetbike.

“We were a few steps behind,” says Yoshimura mechanic Don Sakukura, with a hint of understatement. “I wouldn’t even consider the GS a sports motorcycle, so we were trying to make a non-sport street model competitive on the racetrack. The engine side was weak. It wasn’t water-cooled so we ran into a lot of overheating and durability issues. We had a lot of performance struggles.

Also during that period between the GS1000 and the first GSX-R750, the support from Japan somewhat collapsed because Suzuki were busy developing the GSX-R. We used some of the components from the old 1000, but we mostly built the 700 from the ground up. That’s why we were at a huge technical disadvantage to our competitors who had full-factory backing.”

Much of the trick gear in the GS engine was over-the-counter stuff: forged pistons and titanium rods from Yoshimura and a stronger 12-plate clutch borrowed from a 1979 eight-valve GS750. But Yoshimura’s US crew worked hard on two-cylinder head arrangements – one with straight ports for Daytona, the other with curved ports for everywhere else. Before all that they had to bore out the engine to 750cc. The GS was sold as a 700 in the US because the government had slapped hefty import tariffs on machines of 750cc and over to protect Harley-Davidson from Japanese competition. At its best ‘the 750 made 118hp (89kW) at 11,500rpm, almost 10hp (7kW) down on the VF.

Lack of horsepower wasn’t the only issue. “The handling was very challenging with the 16-inch front wheel but we finally worked through all that,” adds Sakukura, who helped fit 18-inch wheels and lengthened the wheelbase by a whopping 6cm.

“We had some issues with the geometry – I wouldn’t say the motorcycle was unstable but it was sort of twitchy.”

The Yoshi GS chassis was another mix of mostly over-the-counter parts – shock linkage, fork brace and steering damper – and a few one-offs, like the aluminium swingarm, milled triple clamps from a factory RG500, and forks and brakes from a production RG.

The GS might not have been very unstable before Schwantz got hold of the thing but he sure as hell made it look that way. His riding was like nothing anyone had seen before: crashing at every corner but not crashing.

In April 1985, Schwantz won his first AMA Superbike round at Willow, beating reigning champion Fred Merkel on his full-factory VF. Ulrich will never forget the sight of Schwantz screwing Honda-beating performance out of the Suzuki: “I watched him coming down the hill out of turn four and I swear to God the only thing connecting him to the motorcycle was his right hand, and he was still on full throttle.”

Months later, writing in Motocourse, Ulrich was still flabbergasted by what he had seen that day. “Nobody who was there could forget how Schwantz came first, as he pitched his slower machine into the corners sideways, grabbing great handfuls of throttle and getting crossed up, the suspension bottoming, the rear tyre sliding and grabbing, Schwantz kicked up out of the seat, feet off the pegs and his throttle hand still locked full on as he sailed down the track.”

Despite all the drama, Schwantz loved the way the GS handled. “I still say it’s one of the best-handling motorcycles I’ve ever ridden. I just loved the way that thing worked. It had big ol’ high handlebars so you could really muscle it around – you could do just about anything and get away with it.”

Schwantz believes that his way-out riding style had something to do with his motocross background: “In ’83 I’d held a junior AMA pro motocross licence, but I was working at the family motorcycle dealership so I didn’t have the luxury of riding four or five hours a day, four or five days a week. Road racing didn’t require that. Maybe my motocross days explained why I sat more straight up on the bike and leaned the bike over really far. Even when I look at shots from the first GP of ’88 at Suzuka [when Schwantz famously beat Wayne Gardner to win his first GP] it looks like the end of the bar is about to drag. I didn’t get off the side of the bike at all.”

Of course, there was much more to Schwantz than gung-ho action and gobsmacking spectacle. “When we were testing at Willow in December ’84 Kevin would come up with a whole encyclopedia for each corner,” says Ulrich. “He had an incredible number of reference points – he would dissect every corner, which was pretty unusual at that time.”

And Schwantz wasn’t just wild on the corner exits; he was also blistering fast on entry. “One of the strong points we noticed initially was his ability to brake and then enter with a very high entry speed, which was a trait he carried into 500s,” says Sakakura. “He had ability to get the bike stopped quickly, get it turned and maintain a very high roll speed into the corner. That was something we’d never seen before.”

In 1986 Schwantz graduated to the new GSX-R750, which went on sale in the States a year later than in Europe. The bike was a quantum leap from the GS – it had been designed to be raced – but Schwantz didn’t find it all it was cracked up to be.

“The first thing I remember thinking was that it seemed a lot more like a racebike, but I wasn’t sure I liked that because I liked the big high bars, the ability to muscle the thing around, like the GS700. I remember making a request to Don, ‘Hey, can we put some high bars on this thing because I’d sure like to feel more comfortable and not have to be so bent forward.’ If I was upright on the motorcycle I felt I had more control. The GSX-R finally did handle pretty well but we had a lot of engine failures and we had to keep detuning it to get it reliable. By the end of ’86 the engine was damn near standard and it almost wasn’t as fast as the 700.”

It didn’t matter. Just 18 months after his very first ride on the GS, Schwantz was in Europe, riding his first GP at Assen.