Skip Eaken (center) in 2011 with rider Luke Gough (left) and team owner Ricky Howerton (right). (Larry Lawrence photo)
Skip Eaken, the motorcycle racing tuner best known for working with Bubba Shobert at factory Honda during Shobert's run of three AMA Grand National Championships and AMA Superbike in the mid-1980s, died Monday at the Cleveland (Ohio) Clinic. He was 68.
Eaken collapsed in the infield while watching racing at the Knoxville (Iowa) AMA Grand National on September 8. He was hospitalized in Des Moines, Iowa, and transferred last week to Cleveland. He suffered a congestive heart condition that caused him problems especially over the last few years.
Born in Lodi, Ohio on March 19, 1944, it was his future wife's father, Ellis Clement, who initially got Skip into motorcycles. A former off-road racer, Eaken started building flat track bikes in the early 1970s and in his early years gained a solid reputation among Ohio-area riders for fast and reliable machines. A turning point for Eaken came in the late 1970s when Gene Romero raced one of his bikes. It was his association with Romero that led him to eventually work in the factory Honda Grand National effort in 1984. Romero was the team's first manager and brought Eaken on board to work with Shobert.
With Eaken turning the wrenches Shobert earned three straight AMA Grand National Championships (1984-1986). Eaken then coordinated Honda's racing shop in Indianapolis, and along with primary mechanic Mike Velasco, built and maintained the factory Honda VFR750 Shobert rode to the 1988 AMA Superbike Championship.
After Honda closed its racing shop in Indianapolis Eaken continued building Honda RS750 flat track racers with factory support for riders that included Steve Morehead, Ricky Graham, Dan Ingram and a 17-year-old Larry Pegram. Eaken's machines earned a reputation for rock-solid reliability.
"I was most proud that our bikes finished every lap at every race," Eaken said of his post-factory Hondas.
Eaken worked with Pegram for much of the 1990s and early 2000s, including his stint with Competition Accessories Ducati in AMA Superbike. He also built dirt track machines during that era for Davey Camlin and Will Davis among others.
Even to his final days Eaken was building winning motorcycles. Eaken developed and built the engine that carried Bryan Smith to his recent Sacramento and Springfield Mile Grand National victories. The Crosley Radio/Howerton Motorsports Kawasaki is considered by many to be among the fastest, if not the fastest AMA Grand National bike ever built.
"I'm sad to hear that Skip passed away," Smith said. "It's never good when someone dies, but I'm happy to know at least he went out on top. He was the tuner in the 1980s and he'd had some success since that time, but for him to come back building bikes as well as he did this year - it was great to be a part of that. He told me he wasn't going to be doing this much longer and I know the whole team wanted to work as hard as we could to help give Skip the success he deserved. It gave me a lot of confidence to ride engines built by Skip. He'd done them all from Hondas to Harleys to Kawasakis. "
Howerton Motorsports' Ricky Howerton had a long relationship with Eaken and said he will be greatly missed.
"I've known him since I was a kid riding my bicycle over to the Honda shop (in Indianapolis)," Howerton said. "He was the big, mean guy in the shop who scared me back then. He was quiet and a lot of people didn't know how to take him, but over the years I've gotten to know him and he had a heart of gold. He wasn't someone trying to make a lot of money off the sport. He just loved motorcycle racing and being a part of it. I think he'd gotten a little burned out working on the Harley's all these years and working on this Kawasaki project really got him excited again. And he loved working with Bryan (Smith). He told me Bryan reminded him a lot of Bubba (Shobert). The way he approached racing and was able to give great feedback. That was another thing that Skip was really enthused about."
Howerton added that after the wins at Sacramento and Springfield he thought that was the 53rd national win for Eaken. "I think he would be second only to Bill Werner in terms of national wins," Howerton added.
Shobert said he and Eaken grew together on the factory Honda team.
"I was a factory rider for the first time and he was a factory mechanic for the first time, so neither one of us had a clue," Shobert laughed. "The funny thing he was sort of quiet and I was too, so we hardly ever talked at first, but eventually we got to know each other and became really good friends. I would come in and tell him what the bike was doing and he was really good at taking that and making adjustments to make the bike better. I can only remember one time our bike broke the whole time we worked together."
Shobert said he has only one regret in regards to Eaken.
"I feel bad that he didn't get the recognition he deserved," Shobert said. "I mean I made the Hall of Fame, got all the praise and glory for what I did as a rider, but without Skip working on the bikes I would have never been as successful. I guess I sort of look at it like we were a team and I hope he gets in the Hall of Fame someday."
Skip was survived by his wife Linda and their three children. His services will be at Green Family Funeral Home in Mantua, Ohio. Calling hours will be Thursday, Sept. 27 from 5:00 P.M.-8:00 P.M. and funeral services will be held Friday Sept. 28, 2012 at 11:00 A.M. Eaken will be laid to rest at Hillside Cemetery in Mantua Village.