You don't need to talk to Rich Oliver for more than five minutes before you realize that this man is a machine. A sharply-focused machine, with the human equivalent of radical geometry, rock-solid stability and an impressive power to weight ratio. But with 250 GP racing gone from the 2004 AMA series, it's looking like this will be the first time since 1992 that Rich Oliver won't be racing the opening round at Daytona (or at Phoenix, as the case was as recently as 1998).
Many believed, perhaps even Oliver himself, that he was a shoe-in for a Formula Extreme ride aboard a Yamaha factory-supported YZF-R6 -- what with finishing the perfect season in 2003 at Barber and nearly a quarter-century of racing experience. Well... It's getting to be the middle of February, and that has not yet come to pass. But it's not for a lack of offers.
"I had a number of really good offers this year from teams that weren't sponsored by Yamaha. My problem was that as much as I wanted to go race, I didn't want to take my 15 years with Yamaha and treat that lightly. With my [Rich Oliver Mystery School] being a fully-sponsored Yamaha school, it would be a little weird to go out and race for some other brand and then come back and teach my school on Yamahas."
Either way, Rich Oliver will be at Daytona.
"I'm actually going to be there for the Yamaha Weekend of Champions, and I'll be able to devote more attention to that this year, because I won't be racing. I won't miss any autograph sessions this time. I always got away with [missing the PR events] because they knew I was out racing a Yamaha, so it was OK. But this year I imagine that they'll expect me to be there."
Oliver spent the vast majority of his career on the ultra-light Yamaha TZ250 two-stroke, but he did have opportunities on larger machines, most notably on Yamaha's technological 4-stroke crown jewel of its time, the YZF-R7 OW-02. You might expect that Oliver enjoyed the small fry of the two strokes over the bigger tackle, but he's not sure at first.
"I never really got the longevity in on the superbikes to find out. I started to get really comfortable with the new R7. My results were really good right out of the box, and I was doing pretty well at Daytona. I finished third, and that was fun."
But Rich had what would ordinarliy be a career-ending elbow injury on the R7. That, combined with Yamaha's race team downsizing efforts saw him part company with the 'Zero-Two. But he thinks that it was all for the best.
"Between my age and my injury, and being new to superbike but old in years, that was it for me. At 42 today, I think that I was always more comfortable on 250s. I was the master of that bike, whereas the superbike sometimes reached out and whacked me hard because I didn't understand what it was doing, exactly."
It's hard to ignore that there seemed to be a particular quality of individual at the top level of 250 GPa quality that's mostly absent from the other classes. Anyone who's paid a modicum of attention to motorcycle racing for the better part of the last decade would almost surely recognize three names: Rich Oliver, Roland Sands and Jimmy Filice; three names which are synonymous with this somewhat intangible quality. Maybe it's that there never seemed to be any really bad blood between between them -- unlike the warring factions in the 600 and superbike series', where there are always tiffs between riders -- even between riders on the same team. Oliver agrees that the professionalism seen in 250 GP might've been a cut above; just don't call the relationship between those riders 'harmonious.'
"There was no harmony. I wasn't there to make friends with Jim Filice or Roland Sands or anybody else. Being civil and professional when you're off the bike is great, but as far as I was concerned, there were no friends out there. My job was to go there and win the race and leave with all the money and all the points. Anything that got in the way of that was in the way of that."
And things sometimes got in the way of things, especially when the stakes ramped up, like when he rode as a wildcard at the FIM 250 US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca on September 11, 1994. Oliver was running in the top 15, which, as he notes, "Is really good, especially when you're on your own bike." But an engine seizure in the last lap nixed any chances of making a good showing; a showing which one day could've led to a MotoGP 250 ride.
"Yeah, I always wanted [an MGP 250 ride], but as I got older, I realized that the politics of racing were different from what I thought when I was younger. I used to think that if I was good enough I could make it. But I found out later that I was the wrong nationality. Unfortunately, I'm only one-quarter Italian [laughs]. If I were Italian or German or from Spain or Austria or somewhere like that, maybe. But not American. Because at that point, America really didn't have a 250 team over there. And anyway, the normal progression is to move from 250 to 500, and I wasn't really a 500 rider. I was a 250 rider."
Even if Rich Oliver ultimately does retire, he's certainly not getting out of the business of riding motorcycles. His Mystery School is centered around race planning and preparation, and attitudinal adjustments and a serious commitment on the part of its students to do the racing thing right. "It's not so much the secrets that I pass on to the students, but it's finding what's each person has inside that they maybe have never tapped into. I've got little tricks on how to drag that out of people and show it to them. It's a very satisfying thing to do. If I don't get to race anymore, I certainly will have plenty of fun doing [the school].
But don't count him out. "I think people who retire in this big fanfare are making a mistake because you never know what's going to happen. I don't have a ride right now; I'm talking with Yamaha about jumping into a supermoto with some Yamaha backing. My options are open, I have time now to take a little breather, which, after you've raced for as long as I have, it's kind of nice to not be frantically getting ready for Daytona, to tell you the truth [laughs]. I'm doing okay, and I'm having a really good time"
As fans, we can only hope that Rich Oliver develops a serious enough itch to get back into racing, that only racing will be the prescriptive salve to soothe that itch. The sport is certainly better with him as one of the top competitors.