Future world champion Kevin Schwantz had just one thought when he scraped his racing leathers against a wall on the first turn of the Macau Grand Prix in 1988. “Holy shit,” Schwantz told me this week. “Don’t do that again.”
Macau is a former Portuguese colony located across the bay from Hong Kong, best known for its casinos and opulent hotels. The racing circuit along public roads there, however, is best known for being lined by guardrails and walls, providing next to no runoff for errant riders.
British rider Tom McHale suffered brain injuries and broken bones when he crashed in the 150 mph Mandarin Oriental bend last year. Two other riders have died on the track in the last decade.
Schwantz is the only American ever to win the race that is scheduled for its 50th running on Saturday afternoon local time (2:30 a.m. EST).
Schwantz had just wrapped up his first full season in the 500cc world championship with Suzuki, and taking part in the street circuit race in Macau offered an opportunity to reward five crew members with a week off in Thailand once the competition was over.
“At the time seemed like a great idea when I went and did it,” he said. “But man, that place is definitely a scary place to ride a motorcycle.”
Schwantz remembers hitting the ground running in practice and qualifying, and then starting out the race with a full head of steam. But once he gathered a healthy lead, Schwantz was able to back off and spend the balance of the race popping wheelies on the straights and showing off for the audience.
The Texan returned for the 40th edition of the race a decade ago to ride in a ceremonial role. It was terrifying.
“The parade lap scared me,” Schwantz says. “So I guess with old age, I’ve gotten a little bit wiser.”
The Macau Grand Prix was developed as an open wheel car race, a sort of Monaco of the Far East. Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher won there before going on to become Formula One legends.
On the motorcycle side, the urban nature of the race contrasts with the more rural settings of other famous street circuits.
Safety standards on the MotoGP circuit have improved vastly since Schwantz burst onto the scene in the the 1980s. But safety interests sometimes conflict between the auto and motorcycle race organizers.
For example, Schwantz says that when he helped design the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, he had to fight a push to line a section of the track with Armco barriers.
“I said, ‘Guys, that will not work,’ he said. “That was just not suitable on a motorcycle.”
His argument ultimately carried the day in Texas, and Schwantz proudly notes that MotoGP rider Cal Crutchlow was the first rider to slide all the way to tire barrier during last year’s race.
In retrospect, Schwantz says the risk of a circuit like Macau just wasn’t worth it.
“I can get myself hurt bad enough on a track that’s real safe, much less on one that’s less safe,” says Schwantz, who remains a Grand Prix fan favorite for his all-out racing style that led to many wins but also included several memorable —and painful—crashes.
Before and since Schwantz’s 1988 win, the Macau race has been dominated by British riders who often compete in other street circuits like the Isle of Man TT, the Ulster Grand Prix and the North West 200.
Michael Rutter has won Macau eight times, followed by Ron Haslam’s six. Other winners include Carl Fogarty and Robert Dunlop, the brother street circuit legend Joey Dunlap. Peter Hickman won last year.
“To be able to go out and race at the speeds they’re going, knowing there’s absolutely no forgiveness when a mistake is made, to me is racing every lap with your life on the line,” Schwantz says.
“It definitely takes a special breed of person.”
Erik Schelzig is a Nashville-based journalist who has been trying to sneak his motorcycle on to assignments for two decades.But mostly he just uses the bike to commute to work.