Compared with his present dually-truck and nice fifth-wheel trailer, Rich Oliver's first trip to Road America wasn't so grand.
A beat-up old Dodge van was his first race bike hauler and the very machine Oliver, now the reigning AMA 250 champion used to drive out from California to Wisconsin for the 1983 AMA Superbike weekend at Elkhart Lake.
Getting to Wisconsin wasn't a problem. Finding the racetrack was, Oliver drove around the Elkhart Lake area for more than a half-hour trying to find the racetrack on his first trip.
"We loaded up the Doge van and drove out. I had been racing mostly all over California then and decided to do most of the 1983 AMA Superbike season. When we got to Elkhart Lake, we couldn't find the racetrack. We were stopping by farmhouses and asking directions. Banging on people's doors and asking where the racetrack was; the people were so friendly. We found it finally."
Oliver was racing a Kawasaki 650 Superbike then, this was years before he would even swing a leg over a 250 and become what he is today: the best 250 rider in the States and the winnigest 250 rider ever in AMA 250 Grand Prix racing.
One thing for sure when Oliver found the racetrack at Elkhart, he knew that the drive out from the West coast was worth it.
"I knew Sears Point, that was my home track, and I knew Laguna Seca and some other old racetracks--like Riverside and Ontario, which are gone now. So those are the racetracks that I had become accustomed to early in my career as average racetracks. And to tell the truth I was a little bit disappointed in them, it certainly wasn't what my friends and me had in mind when we started roadracing. I was like twenty-one or twenty-two at the time, and when I came to Elkhart for the first time I was blown away. Completely blown away. We thought, 'yeah, this is what roadracing is about'. This is where we should be racing. Roadracing is high-speed ballet and this is the perfect place to showcase it. This is what racetracks should look like.
I remember just standing there in wonderment as I looked at the racetrack; you'd want for someone to build a track like this but nine times out of ten they never do, it always ends up being a compromise of sorts. Short track, walls, bad asphalt. Not at Elkhart."
Rich Oliver holds the Elkhart Lake facility in high regard. "It's my favorite racetrack. I love the place and it has been pretty good to me. It's so scenic and so unlike any other racetrack in the States. The fans too, they're the best. I have fans, and talk to them every year at Elkhart, that I have known for a long time."
Oliver has had some success at Elkhart Lake, winning the 250 GP class five times (88, 93, 94, 95, 96) but in the early days there wasn't much news to write home to his parents and friends in Fresno California.
Oliver didn't win his first 250 race at Elkhart Lake's Road America until 1988. Before that it was pretty dry. "The first year we pretty much spent running from the Dunlop truck and back. The weather changed so much and so fast that we were constantly pulling the wheels off my Kawasaki Superbike and changing from slicks to rain tires. We were a low budget deal then and didn't have spare wheels. Heck, we didn't have spare anything. I'd mount the slicks and get ready for practice and ten minutes before the session it would start to rain. I'd pop the wheels off and run down to Dunlop and try to get them to mount up rains quickly. I'd get ten minutes of practice. Then I would mount rains for the next session thinking I had it dialed, and ten minutes before the session, the rain would stop and the sun would come out. We've learned since then to bring some spares. Last year I won the race on my spare motorcycle."
His critics say that Oliver is beating the 250 class into a one man show and because of that the class is losing some of its appeal. He won very single 250 GP race (and the season opener F-USA race at Willow Springs against the hardly any rules big-bore four-stroke machines) last year and remains unbeaten this year and in complete control of the championship.
American Roadracing Magazine offered a several thousand dollar bounty to anyone who could beat Oliver last year, thinking someone would step up and run with Rich.
As for his critics, Oliver doesn't see it that way. Perhaps that's because the lean years are still very clear in his mind. "There were a lot of years when I was a fifth place guy. I watched Donnie Greene win. I watched Kocinski win. I watched Filice win. I can remember not being able to hang with Filice for more than five laps, I just couldn't do it because Jimmy had his package honed so well and was riding so well. Everybody thinks I've been winning forever, but if you look at my whole career it's pretty clear that I worked at this for a long time."
Oliver has also raced Superbikes, Kenny Roberts YZR500s and trick world Endurance machines at the Suzuka eight hours.
Much of the initial success in Oliver's career happened at Road America. Oliver's first year on a 250 was in 1986 and his first win at Elkhart came in 1988 where he beat current Vance and Hines Ducati rider Thomas Stevens on a daring last lap move. Oliver recalls, "I won the race by three inches. Thomas was riding for Kenny Roberts then and we had an awesome drafting battle going. On the last but one lap I didn't see the white flag (signaling one lap to go) and I didn't want to lead the last lap because I knew Thomas would draft by for the win. so I was leading thinking we had one lap left and I was weaving all over the place trying to break the draft and Thomas was right behind me. coming up the hill for the final time I weaved back and forth really wide and actually went a little too far. I weaved my way right onto the pit entrance road, almost. I was on the rough curbing anyway. Anyway I weaved back onto the track and that did it, Thomas couldn't draft by and I won. That was the first race win that year for me and for Lassak Racing, the guy I was riding for then."
Oliver has had an interesting career in AMA 250 Grand Prix racing. His resume reads like this: He started the class in 1986 on a self sponsored Honda 250 and didn't the same for 1987. In 1988 he rode for John Lassak on a Yamaha teamed with talented Brit Alan Carter. In 1988 Randy Mamola was p.o.'d at Kenny Roberts (Mamola was tossed off the Roberts GP team the year before and wanted Oliver to beat Kenny's star US 250 rider John Kocinski, which he did at Road Atlanta that year when John-boy crashed in practice and broke his wrist) and hired Rich for his own AMA 250 team. In 1990 Oliver rode for the Roberts 250 team and in mid-1990 was ring in the WERA series, as the King was a little upset with the AMA.
1991 saw Oliver win the WERA F-USA championship on a Roberts Marlboro Yamaha YZR500. In 1992 Oliver was back on a 250 riding for Wayne Rainey and in 1993 on a Performance South Racing Yamaha.
In 1994 to the present Oliver formed his won race team, Team Oliver Yamaha, and has raced the AMA 250 GP class.
What does it take to win in Wisconsin? Oliver discusses what he feels it takes to win at Elkhart Lake. "Being clean and knowing the racetrack. You have to be comfortable at high speeds because Road America is one of the fastest, if not the fastest track we race at in the States. I'm much better at high-speed racetracks than I am at slow tracks. A lot of it comes down to preparation and set-up knowledge."
How good is the best guy on a 250 in the States? American Roadracing got Oliver some seat time on Tom Kipp's Yamaha YZF750 Superbike and he was impressive. In little more than two practice sessions Oliver was less than a second slower on the big 150 horsepower Superbike than the factory's lead Superbike rider Tom Kipp. Yamaha continues to say that they are evaluating Rich's situation to see if they can arrange a Superbike ride at one of the nationals.
After a win in the 250 GP race last year Oliver is poised to become the winingest rider at Elkhart Lake. What are his thoughts on that subject? "I hope it happens, that it becomes a reality. Last year we were prepared not to win, but went out on spare bike in the rain and won the race. A couple of years ago we won when Jimmy Filice's bike broke a crankshaft on the opening laps. So I hope people know that I worked for this."