WEDNESDAY, MARCH 15: Former 500cc motorcycle world champion Kevin Schwantz today announced he would race in this year's Australian Safari international cross-country rally in the Northern Territory.
The charismatic Texan, who won the 500cc title in 1993 before the five-year reign of Australia's Michael Doohan, will contest the Moto Division of the Safari from August 20-27 on a four-stroke Suzuki DR-Z400 with support from Suzuki Australia.
Schwantz won 25 grands prix and claimed 29 pole positions as fastest qualifier on Suzuki machinery during his glittering 500cc career from 1986-95, and since then has raced NASCARS and touring cars in the United States and Australia.
The General Manager of Safari promoter Octagon Motorsport, Craig Fletcher, today described Schwantz's entry as a coup for the 5,000km event from Alice Springs to Darwin.
"Kevin Schwantz is one of the greatest 500cc riders of all time, and his status as a world champion brings an additional star quality to the Safari field," said Fletcher.
"Personally I can't wait to see him blasting his way through the outback with that spectacular style that is his trademark. This type of racing is new to him, but he is motivated to do well - I can't image Kevin Schwantz being anything other than full-throttle in any form of motorsport."
Schwantz said it was difficult to predict how he would perform in the Safari because he had never competed in a cross-country rally before.
"I understand some of the stages require more than 600km of riding in a day, so that's going to be different," said Schwantz. "In a 500cc grand prix you go flat-out for 45-minutes, and I can't ever remember riding more than two to three hours non-stop before. I'm no expert in cross-country racing, but the only way to find out what it's like is to have a go."
Schwantz said he intended to begin preparations for the Safari in the near future by riding a Suzuki DR-Z400 in the United States to become familiar with the machine.
"I'm going to do as much riding on a DR-Z400 as I can before coming to Australia, and modify it to the way it works best for me," he said. "I will be making notes and transferring those ideas and set-ups onto the bike I race in the Safari."
"From what I hear it may be best to run the bike pretty much stock-standard because reliability is obviously the most important factor in a long-distance race like this. With the support from Suzuki Australia, I think we can put together a good package."
Schwantz said an attraction of the Safari was it offered him the opportunity to travel through outback Australia, which he had been unable to do on previous visits to compete in the 500cc motorcycle grand prix races at Phillip Island and Eastern Creek, and in NASCAR and touring car events.
"I've been to Australia many times over the years, but I've never really seen anything except the Eastern Seaboard," he said. "The Safari is going to be like an adventure because I've never been to the Northern Territory before."
"One of the other things that appeals to me about this race is it's something different. I had 10 years as a professional road racer, which was great, but now it's good to be able to do some new things like the Safari. I used to watch the guys in cross-country races like the Paris-Dakar on television and think 'you're crazy'. At the same time you always wonder how you might go in something like that."
Fletcher said that Schwantz would be allocated No 34, the number he made famous during his 500cc career, in the Safari.
"My uncle raced with No 34 as a professional when the AMA was dirt-track and road racing," said Schwantz. "Then Wes Cooley (1980 Suzuka Eight-Hour winner) had No 34 and I got it back when he retired."
Schwantz said that he had no regrets about retiring from 500cc grand prix racing during the 1995 world championship season.
"I had some problems with wrist injuries - at the time I thought maybe I should go on a little longer, but looking back I'm now sure I got out at the right time," he said. "The motivation wasn't there and you can't race 500s unless you have the total commitment to win. There were some ups and downs, but if I had my time again I wouldn't have done it any different."
The Australian Safari is for motorcycles and four-wheel-drive vehicles, and is sanctioned by the world controlling Federation Internationale Motocycliste (F.I.M.) and the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (F.I.A.).
KEVIN SCHWANTZ - FAST FACTS
Born 19.6.1964, Paige, Texas
First road race 1984
Raced 500cc world championship from1986-95
25 500cc grand prix wins
21 500cc grand prix lap records
29 500cc pole positions
1993 500cc world champion