Rich Thorwaldson: Thor Vs. The Cyclone
By Scott Rousseau
This Archives edition is reprinted from issue #9, March 10, 2004. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. To prevent that from happening, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
Legend has it that the Suzuki TM400 Cyclone remains the worst dirt bike ever pawned off on the public.
First produced in 1971, the Hamamatsu-based company’s initial consumer foray into the Open Class motocross category is remembered as being comprised of the most frighteningly powerful engine ever devised wrapped in a chassis too weak to hold up a hammock. Believe the hype, and you’d swear that the deserts and motocross tracks of America are still littered with the bones of those unfortunate enough to cross paths with a TM400 and attempt to tame it.
But at least one man remembers them a bit differently. As a factory Suzuki racer in the early 1970s, Rich Thorwaldson recalls that the TM400 was a pretty decent bike, once a few of its various handling and power issues were addressed properly.
“I actually had pretty good luck with them,” Thorwaldson recalls. “Given another half a year [of development], they actually were a pretty good motorcycle.”
Thorwaldson vividly remembers the first time that he ever rode a production TM400.
“It was at Saddleback Park, and it was myself and Russ Darnell,” Thorwaldson says. “We both tested them at the same time. It had virtually no flywheels, and it had that T-shaped crankcase, so it revved like a 125cc road racer—from idle to wide open immediately. Every time that the front end got airborne or the rear wheel got light, it would just light up. The thing had no tractability whatsoever, and with the handling it would pitch you sideways so quickly.”
Most people, including the enthusiast motorcycle press corps, swung legs over stock TM400s, only to come back shivering and confused from the experience—if they came back at all—but Thorwaldson has never been most people, and he saw an opportunity to develop the bikes into winners. In fact, he won the first race he ever rode aboard a stock TM400.
“Suzuki was ecstatic when I won, but even then, I knew that I had a lot of work cut out for me to make the thing work right,” Thorwaldson remembers. “A lot of people just shied away from it, but I was just so impressed with the absolute power of this thing that I thought, ‘Shit, I’ve got to ride this thing. I’ll deal with the handling later.’ They [Suzuki] gave me three of them to run with for that first year. Those were just the production versions. Then, when I went motocrossing, I got a lot more factory support and special parts.”
But Thorwaldson also did much of his own backyard R&D as well, and the case could easily be made that it was he—and not the factory—who made the biggest strides in the TM400’s development cycle. A rider undoubtedly cast in the mold of the legendary Dick Mann, Thorwaldson’s greatest talent may have been not in his riding prowess but more in his ability to apply practical solutions to the seemingly complex engineering problems of the TM. To him, the Japanese-made bike was no different from the British- and European-engineered dirt machines that he had grown up tinkering with. Unfortunately, this was largely lost on the buying public. Suzuki’s ad hacks claimed that the TM400 was a race-ready production machine, derived directly from the GP—winning mounts of Joel Robert, Roger DeCoster and Sylvain Geboers. Buyers swallowed the ad hype hook, line and sinker, then moaned loudly in emergency rooms and group therapy sessions across the country. Through all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, Thorwaldson worked to build the TM400 into the bike that it should have been in the first place.
“Suzuki was very nice to me in that they would let me make all kinds of changes and test and keep them apprised of what I was doing,” Thorwaldson says. “If I did something good, they would have someone else test it and see if they liked it. I liked doing that stuff, and it didn’t seem to bother them. I’d cut frames, change crankshafts and flywheels and cylinders. I’d scab reed cages from go-karts onto the cylinders. The TS400 had a heavier crankshaft, so I would use that. The TS250 had an external flywheel ignition, so we would use that. I used the trail model [TS] cylinder and did some porting so that the thing would rev a little more. I played with those things for an awful long time.”
In fact, Thorwaldson says, by the time Suzuki’s first true production-based motocross machines, the RM series of 1976, were sitting on the docks, the TM400 had turned into a pretty decent bike. Though it never earned the reputation as a winner, Thorwaldson got the TM400 closer than anyone else, finishing second in the District 37 cross country series as early as 1972.
“I would have won, but I was at a race in Red Rock Canyon that year, and I was about 10 miles from the finish when I came over a rise in the road and ran head-on into a truck,” Thorwaldson says. “I wadded the thing up, and it ended costing me the championship. But I won an awful lot of individual races on it. I used to win those Saturday Saddleback 45-minute [GP] deals every week that I was home.”
Thorwaldson finished his career with Suzuki in 1976, when the RMs were just a year into a lifespan that continues to this day. Naturally he acknowledges that the new machines were much better than the TM400, but he still has a soft spot for the Cyclone.
“The RMs were a quantum leap from the production TMs because they were actually based around the RH250 and the RN370. The first RH250 I had was just incredible. It was like a CR80 with 50 horsepower—so light.
“But the TM’s reputation was probably not that fair,” he continues. “I think that it actually opened the door of the new era of motocross bikes and closed the door on the old CZ and Maico era with the tractor-like power and relatively slow acceleration of those bikes. It was the forerunner to the CR Elsinores and YZs and bikes like that. There were some horror stories, but they could be dealt with just like anything else.”
Thorwaldson moved on to found Thor Racing in 1976, making chrome-moly handlebars, aluminum swingarms and other motorcycle components that were vast improvements over those offered by the OEMs of the day. His ideas eventually manifested themselves on production machinery. After moving from Cerritos, California, to Gardnerville, Nevada, in 1985, he opened Big Valley Honda, which subsequently moved to Reno and became known as Big Valley Motorsports. After a prosperous tenure in the motorcycle dealership business, Thorwaldson sold the company to investors in 1999 and retired.
In the past four years, Thorwaldson has taken up road racing. He is a fixture on the AFM circuit on the West Coast, and he enjoys making annual forays to Daytona for the motorcycle weeks held there. At 58 years old, he hasn’t slowed down one bit.
“I’ve had a lot of fun with road racing,” Thorwaldson says. “I actually started doing it because my hip got so worn out from kick-starting motocross bikes that I couldn’t swing my leg up over them anymore. I’ve gotten that hip fixed since then. Now it’s good for 500 years.”
And in the back room at Big Valley Motorsports, Rich Thorwaldson can often be found performing the same types of tricks on new machines as he did on those old “Throw Me” 400s back in the early ’70s. However unlikely, if another motorcycle should ever come down the pike deserving the same vile reputation as the TM400, he’d be the go-to guy.
“I’d be all over it,” he said.CN