Rich Oliver: Late Nights and a Lighter Toolbox

… Those Weasels!

Racer Rich Oliver's meticulously-prepared Yamaha TZ250. On the stand at Mid-Ohio, 1998.
Racer Rich Oliver’s meticulously-prepared Yamaha TZ250. On the stand at Mid-Ohio, 1998.

(Rich told me this story on a flight to Australia once. I asked him to write it.–Editor)

Early in my racing career I had some success in the AMA Superbike division with a 4th overall in the 1984 championship. During that season I rode a motorcycle my friends and I called the “junkyard dog”, a Kawasaki KZ750 assembled with anything and everything I could find at the salvage yards around the bay area.

I continued with the “junkyard dog” again in the ‘85 Superbike series, but about halfway through the season I was broke and had to stop my AMA efforts. I was still able to club race in the AFM, riding for my boss Sandy Kosman on a crazy fast 1385cc Kawasaki Z1, and racing anything else I could get my hands on to earn contingency money at Sears Point. I had Sears dialed in and was in hot demand as an AFM racer, sometimes riding three or more classes each weekend. Even with all the local racing I was participating in, I missed the Pro level and felt I should be racing in AMA. I just had to find a way to get back.

Rich Oliver Marlboro

Towards the end of ’85, I decided to sell the “junkyard dog” and use the money to buy a brand new 1986 RS250 Honda , still in the crate from American Honda.

The whole idea to switch from superbikes over to 250’s was dreamed up with Sandy Kosman and some of my other co-workers at Kosman Specialties as a way to avoid going broke again. Superbikes were going full factory exotic, but in 250 Grand Prix, a regular guy with limited funds could still be competitive and even win.

One of the guys who regularly hung out at Kosmans was Roland Cushway. At the time, he was crewchief for Donnie Greene, the current AMA 250 Grand Prix Champion. Roland was, of course, pumped on 250 racing, and really was the driving influence that got me to change from the Superbike I was used to and get back into AMA racing on a 250. Roland offered to teach me how to work my new bike, since he helped other 250 riders in his off time from Greene’s effort.

We worked out a deal for him to come over to my house and start teaching. At the time I was thinking that in a few evenings I would learn the basics and be a good 250 mechanic.

Roland is an extreme night owl; he would just get rolling after dinner, and then work all night and into the early morning hours. And since Roland is also an accomplished machinist, part of his process was not only to teach me how to take things apart, but also how to accurately measure and make sure each part was in specification. None of this wrenching happened quickly; it was all done at an extremely methodical and to me a maddeningly slow pace.  As he worked, Roland would often be heard muttering that things were “good, good”, but on occasion you would hear the statement, “Those Weasels!” when something didn’t pass his standard. We eventually got the bike torn down to the crank, and as it turned out, we had a really good engine.

The first night we spent the entire evening un-crating the bike and then making the front stand fit perfectly into the lower triple clamp. Because the stand had to also go through the front fairing that piece had to be hand filed and massaged until everything was perfect. Night one– uncrate bike, put on stands. Previously this would have been a half-hour job at the most for me. With Roland, the total time? Six hours!

Night two was toolbox night. Since the bike was ready to be worked on, Roland had to inspect my tools. Out came any tool that was old or worn; out came any tool that didn’t fit a fastener on the Honda, like the wrench for the drain plug on my Dodge van. Out…bang, out…bang, tools were tossed into the junk box at a frightening rate. Meanwhile, Roland was making a list of new tools I had to buy off the tool truck; the most important was a critical torque wrench he preferred as I had been tightening everything by feel at that point.

After many late nights and a lesson in patience, Roland had taught me how to work on, measure, maintain and tune my new Honda. He had set me up specifically with only the tools, equipment and parts needed to race a 250. I guess that’s the part I was missing in my racing up to that point. Never before was I so focused on just one racing class and just one motorcycle and never had I been so organized to do it right. I was now ready to go 250 racing. –Rich Oliver

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