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Suzuki’s AMA Superbike dynasty started with Kevin Schwantz

After a successful amateur motocross career as a teen, Kevin Schwantz practically walked onto the Yoshimura Suzuki Superbike team at age 20. His professional roadracing debut at the 1985 Willow Springs AMA National quieted any questions about the high-profile team’s decision to sign a relatively unknown club racer, after the Houston, Texas-born rider won both Superbike races on the Yosh-prepped GS750ES. Schwantz was a playmaker from the start, finishing seventh in the ’85 championship despite only competing in half the races.

Schwantz’s aggressive, all-or-nothing riding style quickly captured the attention of the Suzuki factory. That summer he was invited to Japan, where he teamed with New Zealander Graeme Crosby to contest the famous Suzuka 8 Hours endurance race—one of the very first professional outings for Suzuki’s revolutionary new GSX-R750. Schwantz and Crosby finished third behind the winning Honda RVF750 of 500cc Grand Prix star Wayne Gardner and Masaki Tokuno, and the second-place Honda team of Mike Baldwin and Dominique Sarron.

Time at Suzuka gave Schwantz an early introduction to the GSX-R, the bike he would race in the 1986 AMA Superbike series. The GSX-R’s American debut came at the season-opening Daytona 200, where Schwantz finished a close second to Eddie Lawson’s Yamaha FZ750—an impressive result for the new and largely undeveloped bike. Yoshimura initially struggled with the GSX-R, having trouble delivering power and reliability at the same time. Then Schwantz broke his collarbone in a qualifying crash at Brainerd, causing him to miss multiple rounds. He again finished seventh for the season.

Yoshimura’s GSX-R750 Superbike was much more reliable in ’87—it never broke in a race—though Schwantz still struggled with what he described as “nervous” handling. He would later say that riding these early GSX-Rs was great preparation for his future Grand Prix career aboard the buck-wild 500cc two-strokes. This season also marked the beginning of Schwantz’s epic rivalry with Wayne Rainey, who rode the American Honda Superbike at that time. Rainey won the ’87 title but Schwantz finished the season strong, winning five of the last six races. Closing his U.S. Superbike career with an exclamation point, Schwantz and the GSX-R won the ’88 Daytona 200—his only victory at the World Center of Speed.

Schwantz headed overseas shortly thereafter, making an immediate impression by winning the Japanese GP at Suzuka—his first start as a full-time GP rider—and eventually capturing the 500cc World Championship after rival Rainey suffered career-ending injuries in ’93. Meanwhile, Schwantz’s Daytona win set into motion a GSX-R racing juggernaut that continues to this day. After GSX-R750-mounted Jamie James won the ’89 AMA Superbike Championship—Suzuki’s first AMA title in nine years—GSX-R racers went on to win an amazing 33 AMA national titles, more than any other sportbike.

Many of those titles belong to Australian Mat Mladin, who after winning his first AMA Superbike Championship in ’99 won a record six more, all on GSX-R750s and 1000s. Gixxers have worn almost every AMA Superbike crown since, including three on the trot by Ben Spies from 2006-’08, the streak broken only by Nicky Hayden’s Honda RC51 in ’02 and Josh Hayes’ Yamaha YZF-R1 last year. The GSX-R’s domination extends beyond the Superbike class, including multiple Supersport, Superstock and Formula Xtreme titles, and it shows no evidence of waning. Just this past March, Schwantz protégé Blake Young rode his GSX-R1000 to double Superbike wins at Daytona, contributing the latest verse to the epic tale his mentor began writing 25 years before.