Rich Oliver: Profile of a Racer
by Kent Larson
Richard Oliver is probably best known as a dominant force in AMA 250 racing. For two years, 1996 and 1997, he won every single AMA 250 race. In 1998 Yamaha give him a much-deserved opportunity to step up to the AMA Superbike series. After two years of mixed results on the superbike we now find Rich back in the 250 class and as dominate as ever.
Daytona this spring was his first event back with the 250 and Rich was a full 2 seconds per lap faster than all his competition. However, a mechanical failure prevented him from finishing that race. Rich also had a problem with the bike at Loudon, which dropped him to 20th by the finish. A fouled plug at Road America during the warm-up lap had Rich starting from pit lane after the rest of the field left without him. He still won that race.
These uncharacteristic bike problems are costing Rich valuable points in the championship but he is still out there running hard every weekend. Some of the bike problems may be attributed to the fact that it is only Rich and his girlfriend, Jocelin, in the pits doing all the work that other teams assign to a 4 or 5 man crew. Between track times you will find Rich pushing his bike back from hot-pit lane or wrenching or doing all the other things that most racers watch being done from the easy chair in their trailer.
OK, I’m not being fair to the other racers since they have a lot to do as well, but it is a very heavy work load that Rich and Jocelin have taken on. Despite all the work I’m sure Rich has waiting for him, he still agreed to spend some time with MMM for an interview.
MMM: I’ve been following your career since way before you went perfect for two years in a row. That’s one of the things I’d like to start asking you about. That was ’95 and ’96, right?
Oliver: Hmm, when was that? I think it was ’96 and ’97.
MMM: And you were still riding for Yamaha back then?
Oliver: No. No. I was riding for my own team. I was just riding their product and they supported the team with motorcycles and parts, scooters and generators and all that stuff. I rode for the factory team in ’98 and ’99.
MMM: Right, with the Superbike and Supersport 600 instead of the 250s.
Oliver: Superbike in ’98 and both in ’99, right.
MMM: So then it was the ’97 year when you had a bounty on your head?
Oliver: Yeah, some magazine guys got together and put something together and added some money in from some other sponsors. Just, you know, added a little bit of excitement into it. The first guy who could get me, I think it was a couple thousand dollars or something.
MMM: Actually I think it was ten thousand dollars. That is if I remember right. I remember being impressed by the amount.
Oliver: Were you? (Laughs) It might have been, yeah. I know I wasn’t going to get it so it didn’t help me any.
MMM: Did that put any extra pressure on you? Did you feel like you needed to make sure you won to keep that prize from being paid out?
Oliver: You know, at that stage of my career it wasn’t important to win all those in a row until it came down to the last two or three. And then it was kind of like wow, it would be neat if we could do that. But there really wasn’t any pressure. The championships were relatively easy to wrap up early. And then once you did that, there was nothing left but to try not to lose the last race or two. Try to keep your record clean.
I tell you the drawback to riding a season like that is just the fact that all there is left for you to do is lose a race. Everyone expects you to win a race already. Everyone expects that result. So it takes, uh…sort of all the fun out of being good. You know, all you can do is be bad.
MMM: I remember when you were doing the Formula USA stuff and I saw one of the best races I’ve ever seen down at Road Atlanta. They would just eat you up on the straight and then you would run all the way through the field and work your way back up to first or second. Then they would go by you on the straight again and you’d have another dozen passes to make before the next time up the straight.
Oliver: Yeah, those were good races. They really destroyed that series when they put a bunch of limits on it. The beauty of that series was that there were no rules. Anybody could run any kind of bike and winning would depend on the racetrack and the rider. Some guys were better on 250s and they were successful on relatively tight racetracks. Other guys were better on real big bikes and it gave everyone an opportunity to win a race. Then it got to where I won a few races and they looked at it like it was detrimental to their series. The 250 was winning an open class. It was just the formula. A little light bike on a twisty course is sometimes the best bike. They took it as an insult that their big monstrous bikes weren’t going to win and I thought it was a complement to the structure of their series. They did a really good job structuring their rules so that anyone had a chance. So they banded 250s and we haven’t raced since. There’s nothing to race in WERA anymore.
MMM: Most of your AMA 250 races are lonely events with you out front and all alone for most of the event. The Formula USA races had you in the thick of things battling the whole time with the other riders. Do you like that kind of racing where you are dicing with a lot of people?
Oliver: Yeah, any time that you can have a chance to win and race people is great. Any time that you don’t need to race people and you can just go out and ride at a level that they can’t match, that’s just as great. It just depends on the situation. I enjoy it. I enjoy all parts of it. Saying you want to have a lot of competition and work real hard Sure! But do you have to? Sometimes no. It just depends.
MMM: You are so dominant in the 250 class that it raises you to another level over all the other competitors. Your two perfect years are an example of that and it looked like this year was going to be the same. Down at Daytona you were putting in lap times 2 seconds faster than anyone could match. Is there a secret there that you could share with us as to why you are so clearly dominant in the 250 class?
Oliver: No. I don’t know. I don’t think I’m really that dominant. I think that the other guys need to get a little quicker. If you threw me into a world grand prix I’d be in mixing it up in the middle of the pack probably. So, I guess what I do over here is I don’t drop down to the level of competition that is here. I try to keep my standards and my abilities as high as I can just in case someone good does come along that I’m gonna have to battle with. There’s no sense in slowing down just because the rest of the guys are slower. So you win by 5 seconds instead of by 30 seconds.
I’d rather win by 30 seconds and be ready in case one of these young guys actually starts to get good and can run with me. So I look at it that way. I’m not really racing at this stage of my career for anybody but myself. And so I just go out there and do what I want to do and whether it is first place or last place it really doesn’t matter any more results wise. It matters for me that I tried to expand my abilities and my riding and if I feel like I’ve done that then I feel like I’ve had a good race. Where before it would be, What’s your lap times and what was your result and how much money did you make? None of that stuff is really that important anymore. Because the only reason that I’m still racing is for the effect it has on me as a person, inside. It has nothing to do with anything outside anymore.
So that’s kind of the fun part for me now is to see what I could rise up to and do rather than go oh, gee I hope I don’t get beat. I don’t really care about that stuff anymore. So that’s kind of nice. It’s kind of nice to get to that point, really.
MMM: When you moved over to four strokes and you were on full factory sponsorship, I was really looking forward to you going through a learning year and starting to pick it up and mix it up at the front of the field. It seemed that your progression was along the lines that I expected. Then it seemed like the opportunity was pulled prematurely. Were there any hard feeling about dropping out of that again?
Oliver: Yeah, I was pretty disappointed. I thought I deserved a little bit different treatment. Superbike is different. I think everyone expected me to pick it up quicker but I hadn’t raced a superbike in 10 years. So going from 250 to superbike is a big change. They don’t do anything the same. They run different. They’re a lot harder to ride.
MMM: It seemed that early on the four strokes you were throwing it down a lot.
Oliver: Yeah. And that’s just that everybody who comes from 250s does that. You go in there and you lean it over too far and drag the engine and crash. Or you gas it up too hard and you spin the tire. You don’t realize you have so much horsepower available. You are used to riding with a lot of momentum, with a lot of aggression. You can’t ride the same way. You have to ride with a lot of aggression but you do it in a different way. I eventually got that all figured out once after I got bruised and battered enough and came back and started putting in some good results. At Daytona the following year, after my first year, I got pole for 600 and I had a chance to win that race until I ran off the track. I got 3rd in the 200 (the 200 kilometer superbike race) and I continued to improve the rest of the season until I got hurt. I broke my elbow.
MMM: That was the year the R7 came out.
Oliver: Yeah. So at that stage, being hurt, being 37 years old and them having two young guys on the team already, it was just, you know an obvious choice for them. For me it was like well, that’s too bad because I was just starting to get it. Age to me is pretty irrelevant. I mean as you can see now, I’m almost 39 years old and it doesn’t matter if the kid’s 17 or 27 or 37. What you can do is what you can do. It’s not age. Age is irrelevant to me. I never think about age. But they do. They have other people to answer to. You can’t just say it’s your boss and your crew chief and your mechanics that make the decision. There are people all the way in Japan that decide also who is going to ride. They look at your stats and they look at a piece of paper and there’s people that are 38 and still competitive in world superbike and there are people that are 38 and they’ve been retired for 10 years. So it just depends on the person.
MMM: Do you subscribe to the theory that there are a number of years that a rider is going to be good and competitive? If he starts out when he is 18 he’ll go until he’s 32, 33 and then he’ll retire. If he starts out when he’s 26 he’s going to be out there until he’s 40. When did you start your racing career?
MMM: And 20 years later you’re still up at the top.
Oliver: But what it is, is it’s a matter of… It’s like you get to that point and anything you do in life, you have to get your second wind. I don’t care if you’re doing the dishes or you’re folding your laundry or you’re driving on a trip, you get to a point where you get burnt out and you’re tired and you have to force yourself to continue. The whole trick is that people have a bunch of bad experiences in whatever they do and they quit.
Bad experiences come and they go. Good ones come and they go. You can’t let being burned out and having a bunch of bad experiences kill your desire to do what you like to do or that you love to do. So in my case I’ve had lots of downs, but I never let them push me out of the sport. And then when things go well I don’t let it get me real happy. I don’t celebrate much when I win a race. I’m like, whatever. And that keeps you from going so high and low. You just go on steady.
You go on steady in anything you do, eventually you’re going to get it done. Also, have the right pace for whatever you’re going to do. People that get burned out on stuff, they’re just impatient a lot of times. Or they get frustrated easily.
MMM: I understand that you are still working with Yamaha as a spokesman.
Oliver: That’s right. I have an interesting job with Yamaha. My official title is media spokesperson but what I really do is I do a lot of work for the advertising department. I do a lot of the sport bike brochures. I do the photo work for the brochures. I’ve done a couple TV commercials. I go do the introductions for new models. I work with the press. I guess I’m kind of like an in-between guy. They have their corporate representatives who are familiar with the product line and are selling the bike to the distributors and the dealers and then they have a guy like me who is like a racer and who comes from a different perspective. I’m still there to show them the features of the bike but I can do it in a way that a lot of the journalists will except because of my experience. Rather than some guy looking at a spec sheet saying the R1 is capable of 186 miles an hour or whatever, I’ll just go by the guys on a racetrack at 186 miles an hour. Then they’ll be, ok I guess it goes pretty fast! So it’s a different way of looking at it. Yamaha was cool enough to kind of create this position for me that helps my racing, gives me some income and gives me something to do when I’m done racing. That’s really what it is.
MMM: So through your entire career, from independent team owner to full factory sponsored rider to your current situation, you are still working with Yamaha with a good relationship through it all.
Oliver: Yeah. We’ve had a good relationship. You know Yamaha has been solidly behind my career for the last 10 to 15 years. Every once and a while we have our little spats where, you know, I want to go racing and they want to know why. And then eventually I twist their arm and they give me motorcycles and we go and win races and then everyone’s happy again. Every once in a while I think they get wrapped up in other areas and I guess that’s understandable.
This year we ended up getting all of our racing stuff through kind of the marketing side of it not the racing side of it. Which really, when you’re racing you’re selling motorcycles. If you work for the racing division or you work for the promotion or PR division, it really doesn’t matter as long as you are out there riding Yamaha and doing well on it.
MMM: Is there any problem justifying your racing efforts as a marketing expense? I mean, I don’t see a lot of people going in to buy a 250 GP bike.
Oliver: That’s a good question. The Yamaha corporate symbol, the tuning fork symbol, is a recognized symbol. The blue and white bikes are recognized. The fact that I ride a particular grand prix bike, it’s painted blue and white, has a tuning fork symbol on the gas tank, says Yamaha all over it and on the sleeve of my leathers, to me represents the quality of Yamaha’s products. And when a guy wants to go buy a dirt bike or buy a piano or buy some musical instruments or buy a boat or buy an ATV or a water craft, he is going to think about Yamaha building good stuff that’s competitive and that’s exciting. So my position is that whether I’m racing a moped that’s made by Yamaha or an exotic bike like the 250, it’s good for Yamaha’s image that I’m winning on a Yamaha. People know that, yeah, they may not buy a TZ 250 for a street bike, but they may buy a R6 or a R1 or a motocross bike or whatever so it all pays off in the end for Yamaha. Even our scooter’s blue.
After we finished this interview, Rich went out and crashed during the heat race. Since Rich never crashes I can only fear that we were a negative influence on him. The next day, after Rich had some time to recover from our influence, he was back on form. He started from dead last on the grid thanks to his crash in the heat race. He was 5th by the end of lap one, 3rd by the end of lap two and 1st by the end of lap three and just gone after that. That’s the Rich Oliver we expect.