Monday, August 20, 2012

Is Rich Schlachter the fastest American you don't remember?

As I post this, the Manx Grand Prix -- the other race on the Mountain Course -- is just getting underway. There have been changes in the MGP organization (it was, frankly, almost discontinued earlier this year) and it seems that the Manx vintage classes will be rebranded as "Classic TT" races. Until now, Dave Roper remains the only American TT winner, and the only winner of a TT race held for vintage motorcycles (the 1984 Senior Classic Historic TT.) 

I guess the most promising American was Pat Hennen. In ’77, he set the outright lap record, but a crash at Bishopscourt finished his career before he finished his first race. To my mind, though, the American most capable of dominating at the TT never raced there; that was Rich Schlachter. 

Go ahead. Ask, ‘Rich who?’ Schlachter is probably destined to be the fastest American people don’t remember. But here’s the thing; you remember the names of everyone who ever finished in front of him in a motorcycle race.

Rich, on the grid at the Loudon Classic in 1980. Freddie Spencer leans in. Yeah, that was the league Rich was in. Photo by Gary Remal, c/o John Butler, proprietor of Butler's Rest Home
Most of the stars of that first American wave of GP riders came out of flat track -- a discipline that doesn’t translate to the Mountain Course, Rich was a Connecticut kid who honed his skills riding a drum-braked Kawasaki Mach III on the narrow, bumpy, tree-lined roads around Old Lyme. 

It was perfect training for the TT, and the event organizers brought Rich to the Isle of Man after he’d caught their eye at the ’79 Trans-Atlantic Match Races. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Rich’s dad always had motorbikes and scooters, and some of Rich’s earliest memories are of standing on the floorboards of his dad’s Vespa. When he was a kid, Rich had a paper route, delivering newspapers on a ‘mustang’ bicycle with a banana seat and raised handlebars. “I used to ride that bicycle on trails in the woods,” he told me. “I’d go as fast as I could; I loved speed.” 

In high school, he bought a 100cc Moto Beta dual-sport bike, which he used for trail riding, and rode into New York City to see rock concerts. (The distance from Old Lyme to NYC is same as the distance from Norwich to London. On a 100!)

Rich stepped up to the 500 Kawi next, racing it at Bridgehampton, Long Island, in ’72 or ’73. “I seized it two or three times in the first weekend,” he told me. “I didn’t know shit about reading plugs or anything like that.” When Dave Roper entered his Kawasaki 350 Bighorn trail bike in a four-hour endurance race, they grafted the front end of the Mach III onto it, so they’d have some brakes. They had no idea they were racing against John Long and Gary Fisher, two of the fastest road racers in the U.S.

Over the next few years, Rich worked his way up through Yamaha TD, TA and TZ 250s. Then in 1977, he hooked up with tuning legend Kevin Cameron, and got his hands on a  a TZ750. They didn’t have the four-cylinder bike ready in time for Daytona, but in the International Lightweight race, he finished third behind Steve Baker and Katayama. (See what I mean about everyone who finished in front of him?)

In ’78, Schlachter was part of the U.S. team that traveled to Imola for the AGV Nations Cup. The other Yanks were Skip Aksland, Mike Baldwin, Randy Mamola, Wes Cooley, Dale Singleton, and Kenny Roberts. He won the AMA F1 championship in ’79, but his head was already in Europe. He rode his TZ750 for the American team at the Anglo-American Match Races in ’79 and ’80.

At home, he's best remembered for his AMA F1 championship-winning exploits on a TZ-750, but his most impressive feats were probably his top-10 finishes, as a newcomer, in the swashbuckling 250 Grand Prix class in the world championship.
In 1980, he finished right behind Randy Mamola twice at Oulton Park (Mamola was riding for the Suzuki factory then, and they built him a special overbored RG500.) Back then, there was nothing happening in the U.S. in April and May, so Rich decided to stay in Europe for at least a few months and try his hand at 250GPs. 

He sent Kevin Cameron back home to get their 250, bought a Ford Transit van and a tent, and drove to Hockenheim. He finished sixth, after a dice with Nieto. He had some technical trouble at Monza, but the next race was at Paul Ricard, a track he’d seen before. “I qualified second behind Anton Mang,” he told me. “Some people thought I’d actually gone faster than Mang, but there were some politics in racing back then.”

He finished fourth at Jarama and Silverstone, with a fastest-lap. Things were going too well to return to the U.S. (although he did fly back often enough to win the ’80 AMA F1 title, too.) Undergunned in 250s with no official Yamaha support, on unfamiliar tracks, Rich finished tenth overall in the World Championship.

That was as good as it got. The next year, a sponsor lured him onto the wrong bike; a broken wrist early in the season meant that the best he could do was a ninth place, in Sweden. He returned to the U.S. and raced until the mid-‘80s, before going back to his original trade, carpentry. Ten years later, when I was racing at Loudon, the locals still spoke of him with awe.

Unlike a lot of racers, Schlachter always approached racing as a business. So when the organizers brought him over to see the course, he did the math. “I knew what I’d need for tires, a mechanic for two weeks, and an engine rebuild,” he recalled. “I told them what I’d need as start money, and we just never made a deal.”

He still lives in Old Lyme, where the carpentry business has been good. He owns a bunch of bikes including a ’72 Commando and 500cc Triumph Daytona, but puts most of his mileage on a modern sport tourer. “There’s more traffic, and more cops than there used to be,” he told me. “But there are still lots of roads around here where I can scrape my pegs.”

Although Rich doesn’t seem to have any real regrets about being the forgotten American in Grands Prix, he seems a little wistful about never having raced the Mountain Course. There’s a part of me that wishes he’d raced there, because I think he’d have been the perfect guy for it. But I also like him, and I'm glad he's lived to tell the tales, so there.


  1. Look closely in the first photo to see Mike Baldwin standing there with his hands in his pockets. Rich and Mike were pretty good friends as I recall.

  2. I had the great fortune to start racing in 1976 and back then the novices got to start behind the experts. I raced a TD1-C and then an ex-Burns Moore TZ250 with a C&J frame. Never would I have realized through those early years how lucky I was to have been on the track at the same time (especially practice to see them up close) as Mike Baldwin, Gina Bovaird, Richard Chambers, Bill Hiimelsbach, Freddie Spencer and Randy Renfrow. However (and I'm still racing today at 63), my singular claim to fame is when I came in after a 250 race at Summit Point in the summer of '78 and my mentor and lifelong friend Doug "Shack" Shackelford said "You did great, you stayed within the length of the straight to Rich Schlacter!"