America has produced many great Grand Prix roadracers, but none has spent more time after retiring from competition promoting motorcycling stateside than 1993 500cc World Champion Kevin Schwantz. Crowning moment came two years ago, when Schwantz joined Circuit of The Americas principals “Red” McCombs, Bobby Epstein and Tavo Hellmund at a press conference in Austin to announce that MotoGP would be coming to his home state of Texas in 2013. MotoGP race-winner Ben Spies, who was raised in Longview and lives in Dallas, was also on stage.
“Tavo and I have done our best with the guys from Tilke to try to make this [track] as challenging as we can,” Schwantz said at the time. “During my career, I poured everything I had—my heart and soul—into Grand Prix racing. Everybody could see that when I got on the bike. That’s exactly what we’re going to do for both the riders and spectators with this facility. Expect nothing less.”
But when CoTA hosts the inaugural Red Bull Grand Prix of The Americas this weekend, neither Hellmund nor Schwantz will be part of the show. Within months of the aforementioned press conference, both parties’ relationships with CoTA soured. In March of 2012, Hellmund sued his partners for $18 million; they settled out of court. Schwantz is currently embroiled in his own legal battle.
After CoTA blocked the Houston native from attending the race due to his pending litigation, an independent group of motorcycle racing enthusiasts, “disgusted that track management cannot put aside their differences for the greater good of the sport that they are capitalizing on so that Schwantz could attend the very race that he assisted in promoting and bringing to Texas,” deemed April 19-21 “FreeKevin34” weekend. Sales of merchandise emblazoned with a FreeKevin34 logo are earmarked for Schwantz’s chosen charity, the Marco Simoncelli Foundation.
Schwantz was pleased by the patronage. “I thought it was really cool,” he said. “It will be interesting to see on Sunday what the crowd is like and what kind of support the MotoGP riders give it. Several of those guys could make huge statements, Valentino Rossi being one of them.
“I always hoped we’d have the opportunity to bring Grand Prix racing to Texas. It was something that I’d spoken to [Dorna CEO] Carmelo [Ezpeleta] about, and as Tavo started getting all his ducks in a row and things looked like they were coming together, I wanted to help make the track safe, make it challenging, make sure it was a place that I could drive 20 minutes, not 1000 miles, to do a school.”
In a release issued last month, CoTA said that Schwantz “is not one of the investors who spent $400 million to design and build the facility. Circuit of The Americas is the organization responsible for bringing MotoGP to Texas through its promotional agreement with the commercial rights holder Dorna.”
“I didn’t ask for ownership in the facility,” admitted Schwantz. “I did what I did because I knew it was going to be for the good of the sport and allow me to showcase a series that I don’t think gets showcased anywhere near the way it should like in Italy or Spain.
“There’s no way you can make this series be accepted the way it needs to be accepted in the United States unless we’ve got Americans in every class. Right now, besides Spies, Colin Edwards and Nicky Hayden, we’ve got two Americans in Red Bull Rookies Cup, and that’s it. None in world championships—Superbike, Superstock, Supersport, nothing.
“One of the big beefs held both by CoTA and by the Spanish was how much money I was trying to make. I told Carmelo point-blank, ‘I’m going to try and make some money so I can field some American kids in Moto2 and Moto3. Everybody keeps asking me if America can support three Grands Prix. We could if we have two or three kids in each class. Hell, yeah, the excitement in America about Grand Prix racing would be unbelievable.”
Schwantz says his court case with CoTA is different from that of Hellmund, but the bigger picture is similar. “You do a bunch of work, bring everything to me and, by the way, I’m going to sidestep you and might give you a penny.”
Schwantz says he remains friends with Hellmund. “It hasn’t affected our relationship whatsoever. He was able to piece everything together so that he and his father, who has since passed away, could get to the Formula 1 race last year in Austin. His dad had helped promote the Mexico City Grand Prix, and he was really excited about everything that was happening. It was his dream to see F1 back in the USA.”
F1 and MotoGP have different needs, which Schwantz acknowledged. “You build a track suitable for F1 and it’s typically going to be a fairly boring, featureless racetrack for MotoGP,” he said. “If you take the two and try to put them together—some of the things that motorcycles need, some of the things that cars need—you can come up with a configuration that’s going to be challenging for both and allow for a lot of good passing. That was our intention.
“We had to work pretty close with Claude Danis from the FIM and Charlie Whiting from the FIA to get each division to give a little bit. If F1 wanted paved runoff all the way to the wall, well, unfortunately, when a bike falls on its side, it doesn’t slow down the way a car does, so we needed some gravel.”
Schwantz says he has no idea how much time he spent on the project, but he’s pleased to see that the track came out as well as it did. “F1 driver Mark Webber probably described it best: ‘It’s a great facility, and Tilke has once again done a great job engineering the whole thing. But different than most Tilke-designed racetracks, this has character to it. That’s what racers want.’”
Schwantz is “pretty convinced” his case will go to trial. “After I gave my deposition a couple weeks ago,” he said, “I spent two days walking around just dumbfounded by some of the questions and points they were bringing up. I think it’s going to be a fight. Is it a year away, two years away? Who knows?”
So, come Sunday, will Schwantz tune in to the race? “Grand Prix racing is still something that I really love,” he said. “I’m going to watch the race from a place in Austin called the Gypsy Lounge. They’ll have a big viewing party. I’ll be as excited as anybody when the race starts.”