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A Bittersweet Title : Schwantz Is Road Racing Champion, but He Would Rather Be Second and Trying to Beat Rainey in Today's U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca

September 12, 1993|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTEREY, Calif. — Since the day Kevin Schwantz moved up to Grand Prix motorcycle road racing in 1986, he has dreamed of being world champion.

Now he has it, but it came with mixed emotions.

Schwantz, 29, clinched the championship when his nearest rival, three-time defending champion Wayne Rainey, crashed and suffered a broken back, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down, in last Sunday's Italian Grand Prix. This left the lanky Texan 63 points ahead of his nearest challenger, Mick Doohan of Australia, with only 50 points available in the remaining two races.

"I would rather be second and have Wayne still racing," Schwantz said between qualifying runs on his 500cc Lucky Strike Suzuki for today's United States Grand Prix at Laguna Seca Raceway, a twisting 2.214-mile, 11-turn hillside course. "What a terrible way to have the season end.

"I'm not apologizing for being champion; we've worked hard and we earned it, but it's hard to enjoy it when you think about Wayne. In a way, we deserved it. There were a lot of other guys who could have won (without Rainey), but we were the ones on top. We were the only one who could have beaten him on the track."

Schwantz, whose long legs make him look as though he is all knees when he climbs aboard his 180-horsepower Suzuki, won four of the 11 races--Australia, Spain, Austria and the Netherlands--and has been fastest qualifier seven times.

Schwantz was the fourth fastest qualifier here as Doohan won the pole with a speed of 91.500 m.p.h.

"To tell the truth, I don't think it has sunk in yet," Schwantz said. "A few guys have said congratulations, but mostly they've left it lay, like they're embarrassed to say it."

Learning he was champion certainly didn't happen the way Schwantz had expected, doing a wheelie in front of a cheering crowd, waving his fist in the air as No. 1.

"In the press conference (after the race in Italy), I knew I had passed Wayne in points (219-214) after he fell, but I fully expected him to be back at Laguna Seca. I was already mentally preparing myself for the race here, knowing I had to race him at his favorite track. I was already concerned about what I needed to do to stay in the lead.

"After I showered and changed, I stepped outside my motorhome and there were four or five TV crews waiting. I said, 'What do you guys want?' And they said, 'Wayne is definitely out and you're the world champion.'

"I didn't know what to think. I was already upset at having finished third that day, and I kept thinking this might just be a rumor. You know how those things sweep through the paddock. It took a while to realize it had actually happened."

Kenny Roberts, promoter of today's Grand Prix and Rainey's team owner, said that only the doctor's insistence that Rainey remain hospitalized in Los Angeles prevented him from coming here for the race.

"Wayne is in remarkably good spirits, considering his paralysis, but his main concern is not with himself, it's with the success of this race," said Roberts, who brought the Grand Prix back to Laguna Seca to showcase Rainey and the other American riders--Schwantz, Doug Chandler, Freddie Spencer and John Kocinski.

"Twelve of the last 15 world road racing champions, including Kevin, have been Americans, and yet we didn't have a Grand Prix on the circuit. It was always the biggest disappointment of my career that I won three world championships and never got to race in my home country."

Until this season, Schwantz had a reputation as the fastest rider in the world, but the championship always eluded him. He had been known as a win-or-crash rider, intent on getting to the finish fastest, or not at all.

In 1989, he won six races, more than anyone else. Eddie Lawson won the championship. In 1990 and 1991, Schwantz won five races each year. Rainey won the championships.

"This year, it seemed that every weekend I could ride at a certain level and maintain that level for the first time in my career," Schwantz said.

Even though he is the champion, Schwantz said he plans to ride today as if the title was still at stake.

"Laguna Seca is a good layout, but I've never had much luck here," he said. "I ran second in a superbike race and I was second to Wayne in 1991, but I've fallen a few times, too. I broke my arm here in the 1990 Grand Prix.

"It's not your typical track. It has no place to relax, no straightaway where you can think about your next move. You have absolutely no time to rest. . . . If you make one small mistake, it'll bite you."

Once the realization sets in that he is the champion, Schwantz will face the decision of what number to wear next year--the No. 34 he has worn since his superbike days in 1985 or the No. 1 as champion.

"I always told myself I would never change from No. 34 unless I could wear No. 1, but now that I've done it, I hate to think of parting with No. 34. I imagine Suzuki will want me to have No. 1 on their leathers, though."

Schwantz chose No. 34 because it was the national number of his uncle when he rode on the American Motorcylist Assn. dirt track circuit years ago.

Grand Prix Notes

Jimmy Filice, the U.S. motorcycle road racing champion, withdrew from today's U.S. Grand Prix 250cc championship race after suffering a broken foot and elbow during qualifying on Friday.

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