Opinion: On Disrespecting Kevin Schwantz

Why you should care.

By: Reg Kittrelle

I’ve never met Kevin Schwantz, and if he fell over me he wouldn’t have a clue as to who I am. Despite this, I find myself jumping to his defense in the ridiculous brouhaha in which he is pitted against the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, TX. If this development somehow missed you, Schwantz has filed a lawsuit against CoTA contending that he holds the right to stage a MotoGP race at the track. According to Schwantz, while attending a mid-March test session at the track, CoTA asked that he "leave the track immediately and was not welcome at the circuit." Unfortunately, it will probably require the court system to unravel this mess, assign blame, and in the end, place a large black, official smudge on the reputations of both parties. I take no sides with this legal issue as I sense that it will prove to be a Hydra-like issue and I have very few actual facts at hand.

So why do I care? I care because it is emblematic of not only the way business is done today, but also the way we so often treat our motorcycle icons. In the greater scheme of things, motorcycle racing rates a very tiny blip on the radar of importance. In this country, in particular, it rates far below any number of stick-and-ball games. Those of us who are close to the sport—be it as a participant or a fan—understand the talent and dedication it takes to race a motorcycle successfully. And to reach the pinnacle that Schwantz has scaled, 1993 500cc World Champion to begin with, places one in the very rarefied air of elite athletes…and then some.

“There are but three true sports—bullfighting, mountain climbing, and motor racing. The rest are merely games.” While the origin of this quote is debatable, its basic truth is not. When you race a motorcycle, as either a rank amateur or a world champion, you put it all on the line; your skill, your determination, your life. Do it poorly and you’ll either leave the sport quickly or get hurt. Do it well and acclaim awaits you …right up to the point where you no longer do it.

Kevin Schwantz has very successfully carved out a post-racing career for himself. He is a teacher, a mentor, and an inspiration. He is also an exception, as most professional racers fade—intentionally or otherwise—from the public’s consciousness. The business of racing is brutal; you either win or you pack up your helmet. And that is the way it should be. Trophies for just showing up are worthless. But unfortunately, we the fans often treat these riders the same way; lose on Sunday, get lost on Monday.

One of the more egregious examples of this is Miguel Duhamel, a hugely talented, charismatic multichampion that seemingly disappeared overnight after his last race in 2008. Ask the average race-goer today who Duhamel is, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. Personally, I believe our two-wheeled champions deserve more respect than that. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not a fan of hero-worshipping, nor do I suffer fools gladly, be they in or out of a helmet. But I am big on respect; if duly earned, it should be duly given. Kevin Schwantz has earned respect, and it is due him from the motorcycle community. And it is due from CoTA, regardless of the legal issues.

Why respect? Because respect provides continuity and credibility to our sport. Because respected champions are role models and mentors. Because respected champions are the link between the sport itself, the general public, and potential sponsors.

CoTA’s apparent decision to bar Schwantz from the track and, it also appears, the MotoGP race beginning later this week, was anything but a show of respect. It was a stupid move on any number of levels, but most assuredly from a public relations standpoint. Yes, there are the legal issues between Schwantz and the track, but smart management would have kept them under wraps. Someone internally should have said, “Hey look, we’ve got a problem with this guy, but if we bar him from the track, we’re gonna end up with egg all over our face. Let’s smile-up and let the courts navigate the legal swamp.” Instead, they let their lawyers and their egos make a bad decision. I wish no ill will toward CoTA, but this level of arrogance should not go unnoticed or unpunished.

I think it's telling that only one of CoTA’s 12 senior managers has any motorcycle racing background. Interestingly, three of the 12 came from Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. One of these three is Julie Koenig Loignon, CoTA’s VP of Public and Media Relations. If her title is of significance this indicates that she is the driving force behind this public relations fiasco. The lone exception to the absence of motorcycle savvy is the Vice President of Motorsports Operations, Chuck Aksland. Aksland is a well-known, highly respected motorcyclist who has managed the careers of riders such as Roger Hayden and Chris Vermeulen, and was with the Kenny Roberts MotoGP team for 15 years.

Notably, this situation has not raised much dust among the followers of motorcycle racing. The exception is that current bellwether of social interaction, Facebook. There has been a bit of a firestorm of interest lit on that platform, resulting in a "Free Kevin" T-shirt, planned get-togethers, and an outpouring of anti-CoTA feelings. By the way, the proceeds from the sale of T-shirts go to the Marco Simoncelli Foundation. What are mostly missing are the opinions of race teams, racers, and sponsors. Unfortunately, this is understandable as I'll bet the farm that most all have given, or have been given, standing orders to not comment. I, for one, would be very interested in what Texan—and man of many opinions—Colin Edwards would have to say.

CoTA lips remained zipped. They’ve probably employed a hunker down strategy that believes this tempest in a teapot will go away. And it probably will, unfortunately. Schwantz will be denied his rightful place at the GP, and there will be a smattering of T-shirts highlighting his absence. At the GP’s end, CoTA will high-five itself, and begin planning for their next event, with a parting comment approximating “Schwantz who?”

The real battle will take place in a courtroom. And while I began this piece stating, “I take no sides with this legal issue,” I am compelled to support Schwantz based upon a document he recently released. It is from Carmelo Ezpeleta, the CEO Managing Director of Dorna Sports, S.L. Dorna who holds the exclusive commercial and television rights, and has since 1992, for MotoGP events, among others. The letter is dated February 2, 2011 and states,

Dear Mr. Schwantz,

This letter hereby confirms our agreement that 3fourTexas MGP, LLC is the sole rights holder for MotoGP in the state of Texas for the years 2013-2022

Kindest regards,

(signed by Carmelo Ezpeleta)

(3fourTexas MGP, LLC is the promotion company that Schwantz manages)

This issue is both a complicated and simple one. It is complicated because the lawyers have deemed it so. It is simple because the above letter is very clear. It is devoid of conditions, and it notes no attachments, amendments, referenced documents, or possible mitigating circumstances. It will probably be the smoking gun used by the plaintiff (Schwantz), and thoroughly disregarded by the defendant (CoTA).

There was a time where a word and a handshake was a contract and was, in effect, the law of the land. This was the same time that accomplishment received its due respect. Not today.

The thing is, this could be settled if the right people—absent the lawyers—sat down over a beer or two and some Texas barbecue.