Motorcycle racing and the development of the modern riding kit. The deal is – you fall off, you get hurt. Schwantz, Gardner and Doohan always had more trouble than the others sticking on-board their fiery 500cc two-stroke racing machines and each and every time they got flicked to kingdom come, they were doing their bit for motorcycle safety.
The golden age of motorcycle racing not only produced some of the greatest racing ever, it was also the genesis of proper riding gear and iconic helmet designs. In the mid-80s, leathers were just that – leather, with a thin wedge of foam rubber and an extra layer of dead cow at the knees, elbows and shoulders. Boots and gloves, ditto. If you were flash or very scared, you might strap a foam-plastic back protector against your spine, but that was it.
Maybe it was the maddest period of 500cc racing that changed all this. The old dogs were crashing a lot and getting bashed up pretty bad. And they had big, fat contracts – courtesy of the 80s global boom – with the clothing manufacturers, so they were pretty close with the people making the gear. A correspondence began, who came back with a new and improved product. Next crash, same thing and so forth.
For the first time, the leather manufacturers started thinking really seriously about the science of crashing and getting hurt. By the late 80s, there were plastic shin guards and heel protectors, then came proper, fitted body armor, carbon-fiber knuckle guards and the lot.
Schwantz and his peers were crash-test dummies on seven-figure “USD” salaries. And we thanks them, in the last 20 years motorcycle safety has improved light-years...