It doesn’t happen often, but when a small bike beats the big-bore machines it’s big news. The reason you don’t hear about smaller bikes beating bigger machines often is pretty simple – they usually don’t race against one another. But in the old WERA Formula USA Series the rules were wide open and it was run what you brung. In 1990 Marlboro Team Roberts rider Rich Oliver, on his Yamaha TZ250, was the David racing against the rest of the big-bore Goliaths. On one special day in Grattan, Michigan, Oliver struck a blow for little-bike lovers everywhere when he slayed the big boys. All Oliver needed was a twisty, technical circuit like Grattan Raceway and a little rain didn’t hurt either.
The very fact that Oliver and his teammate Robbie Petersen were racing Formula USA was a head scratcher. After Daytona team owner Kenny Roberts announced that he was pulling his team from the AMA series because of a disagreement over running required AMA stickers on their bikes. Roberts said companies paid good money to have stickers on his motorcycles and that the AMA’s stickers were taking up valuable space on his bikes. When pressed Roberts admitted that running stickers wasn’t the only reason he was leaving the AMA. It was a chaotic time for Roberts and his team. His rider Gary Cowan had been paralyzed in a crash during the AMA 250GP race at Daytona. At the same time there was behind-the-scenes planning going on with Roberts involved in starting a new racing series, tentatively called Moto de Monde. Regardless of the reason after winning the Daytona 250 Grand Prix race and being the favorite to win the 1990 AMA 250 Grand Prix Championship. Oliver suddenly found himself racing the Marlboro Roberts Yamaha TZ250 against monster-motored Formula USA bikes with four-times (or more) displacement advantage.
Oliver was dangled the carrot of the 500GP bike to come to the rescue, but that would have to wait until the end of the season, after the Grand Prix season was over. In the meantime Oliver would have to deal with gathering up the big bikes in the turns only to watch them motor away on the straightaways all season. The team tried everything from boring out the TZ to 350cc and even experimented with nitrous oxide for additional short speed bursts.
But in the middle of the season Oliver got a little relief in the form of the F-USA stop at the technical Grattan Raceway - a circuit custom-made for smaller bikes. In fact at one point the track record was held by Lance David, racing a modified Yamaha TT500.
Even though Oliver had never raced at the west Michigan track, he had heard about the place for years and was anxious to test his skills on the course. During that Friday Oliver took to Grattan. He ran near Andy Fenwick's track record (1:25.05). The Marlboro Roberts team elected not to use nitrous oxide injection at Grattan. The team tested a new system that injected a higher volume of nitrous but the result was two seized motors. "This track places a premium on handling so I think we'll be O.K. here without the extra horsepower," Oliver said.
Oliver won the first qualifying heat race on a wet track over Grattan specialist Fritz Kling, who was racing a Carry Andrew, Yoshimura-built, American Eagle Racing Suzuki GSXR1100 Superbike. Valvoline Suzuki rider Mike Smith, who would ultimately go on to be the series champion, won the other heat.
To read more of “Oliver Beats Goliath” in this week’s issue of Cycle News, click here