Backmarker: Formula USA Racing

April 5, 2012
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

U-S-A!.. U-S-A!!

The World Moto Clash web site has more umbrella girls than hard info; should that make me skeptical
The World Moto Clash web site has more umbrella girls than hard info; should that make me skeptical?

It’s the curse of these times that even the most preposterous spoof is now hard to tell apart from the actual news. A few years ago, I found myself wondering whether something called World Moto Clash was for real.

The breathless concept of World Moto Clash was essentially a ‘no-rules’ motorcycle racing series pitting state-of-the-art MotoGP bikes against radical hot rods with no technical limitations. World Moto Clash still has a website, and the ‘founder’ of the business has a LinkedIn profile. The promotional materials that are still floating around on the Interweb claim a million-dollar purse and describe the riders as the ‘cast’ of a reality TV show that will be built around the series. Cue: eye rolls.

On April Fool’s Day, I Googled the phrase ‘World Moto Clash,’ to see if there’d been any further developments, and I noticed that the earliest posting the search engine turned up was one that appeared on on… April 1, 2009.

O-kaayyy, then. I should’a known.

The thing is, there’s already been a racing series that pit a colorful cast of characters on the world’s fastest GP bikes against a crazy collection of garage-built hot-rods. It was the creation of Willow Springs Raceway owner Bill Huth. It was Formula USA.

I’d always heard that when Huth first wrote the F-USA technical rules in the mid-‘80s, the full list of restrictions was simply, “Two wheels, one motor.” That had the ring of an apocryphal tale, so the other day I called up the 88 year-old Huth (rhymes with ‘youth’) to ask him about those early days.

This video, shot in 1986, features one of the Formula-USA races from the first season at
Willow Springs.

It turns out that Huth really did have an, um, interesting way of interpreting rules of any kind. He picked up the threads of his life story quite a bit before his Willow Springs days, cheerfully telling me, “I had a coupl’a jobs that I lasted a week or two in, but mostly I was in the rackets!”

Back in the ‘40s, Bill ran a road house up in Idaho. On a trip to California, he caught a jazz act by Scatman Crothers. He dug Scatman’s music, and booked him to perform at his road house, without giving any thought to the fact that there was hardly a hotel or motel anywhere near Pocatello that would rent a room to an African-American.

“I finally found a motel that would put the band up, way on the outskirts of town,” he recalled. Scatman was probably lucky to get out of Idaho with his skin, and Bill could have run afoul of some of the more virulent local racists, too, although the music drew big crowds and it’s possible that Bill was – how should I put this? – a ‘protected’ guy.

After leaving Idaho, he told me, “I was in Cuba with Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano,” until Castro’s revolution drove the mobsters and casino owners back to the U.S. It wasn’t too long after that, that Huth bought the Willow Springs track. At the time, he was involved with drag racing, and he thought that the track’s long straightaway would be a good place to hold drag races. As it turned out, it was not quite long enough to allow for a safe shutdown area for the fastest cars and bikes, so circuit racing it was.

Fritz Kling
Stuhler caught Fritz Kling, a winner in the F-USA class at IRP in ’92, on the Gold Hill ‘Yamamonster’.

The mid-‘80s was a fertile time for motorcycles. The first GSX-R750 was shifting the emphasis from sit-up-and-beg superbikes to crotch-rockets. But Huth couldn’t afford to put on an AMA National, because the sanctioning fees were prohibitive. So in 1986 he held the first Formula-USA races. He hoped that by making engine displacement free, he could put even faster bikes in front of the fans, and turn a profit promoting his own races.

“The guy that ran the ambulances and fire trucks at the track told me, ‘I’m going to have to get more equipment; the bikes will be way too fast’,” Huth chuckled at the recollection. “But I told him, they hurt themselves on the bikes they’re racing now, anyway!”

Huth ran six or eight F-USA races a year for several years. The class attracted lots of press; the L.A. Times’ Shav Glick covered them, and so did all the bike magazines based in SoCal. F-USA drew diverse grids and pretty good crowds and Huth was soon getting requests to bring his class to other tracks across the U.S. That didn’t appeal to him, so around 1990 he sold the name and idea to Doug Gonda for $15,000.

Gonda took the F-USA show around the country and for a while, F-USA really was almost everything that World Moto Clash promised to be, and a lot of things that AMA Pro Racing probably wishes it could be today.

Robbie Petersen
Robbie Petersen, late in the 1990 season, on one of the bikes Wayne Rainey had just ridden to the 500cc World Championship for Kenny Roberts. Petersen and Rich Oliver dominated the ’91 season on Roberts’ bikes; in hindsight, that was probably the beginning of the end for Formula USA

Grids were comprised of ‘ordinary’ superbikes; brawny hybrids like the Yamamonster – an FZR1000 motor mounted in an OWO1 frame; GSX-R7/11s – Gixxer 750s with 1100cc motors, and even hairier bikes. John Ulrich’s Valvoline-sponsored team fielded a Gixxer 1100 that Keith Perry converted to run on methanol. Cycle World’s Don Canet has noted that his career as a motorcycle journalist began the day after he crashed his F-USA bike – a Gixxer 7/11 carrying about five pounds of nitrous oxide – in Road Atlanta’s ‘Gravity Cavity.’ The bike careened into the bridge abutment that used to grace the track there, and blew itself to smithereens.

If that sounds colorful, it was. Gonda packaged F-USA for television at a time when there was no TV coverage of the AMA Superbike championship. In 1991, Kenny Roberts fielded a pair of full-on Yamaha 500 GP bikes for Rich Oliver and Robbie Peterson in Marlboro livery. Ulrich told me, “Maybe the highlight of the series came at Pocono, when the sponsors from Marlboro flew in by helicopter to watch the race.”

Marlboro’s money and Roberts’ GP bikes upped the ante in the class. Valvoline gave Ulrich a $750K budget to go out and buy a 500, too, but when he suggested that price to Suzuki, they laughed at him. (The deal, at the time, was a million dollars a year to lease a GP bike, and you returned it at the end of the season; Valvoline wanted to be able to keep it.)

“We found out after talking to those guys (Oliver and Peterson) that Roberts had told them not to take the lead until the second half of the race,” Ulrich recalled. Still, his team (with rider Kurt Hall) were almost the only ones who ever used a four-stroke to beat Roberts’ GP bikes in a straight fight.

Chuck Graves and Keith Perry
Mike ‘Stu’ Stuhler’s amazing photo archive yielded this shot, taken at Indianapolis Raceway Park in the early ’90s. Chuck Graves (24) is riding one of John Ulrich’s ‘Valvoline-sponsored, methanol-fueled GSX-R1100s. Keith Perry, who prepped these machines, punched them out to 1180cc. Running on alcohol didn’t boost power that much, but the bikes produced a ton of torque and ran cool. Chris D’Alusio, on bike #2, is competing with about 1/4 the displacement, on a TZ-250 two-stroke. For more great motorcycle racing pics, check out Stuhler’s blog here:

In the end, Roberts only ran the YZR500s for one full season, in 1991. Looking back on it, Roberts might have taken the wind out of the class’ sails by doing so. Maybe fans and rivals realized that no matter what crazy hot-rodding you did to any production-based four-stroke, it wouldn’t be as fast as a ‘regular’ factory GP bike. Maybe that tarnished the class.

Over the next few years, Gonda and Roger Edmonson gradually morphed Formula-USA from a wild, run-what-ya-brung premier class into a sanctioning body, and the class lost momentum. Ulrich’s take on his experience as a championship-winning F-USA team owner is that the class’ lasting legacy was that it caused AMA Pro Racing to make things a little better. “The only time the AMA ever did anything, was if it seemed that some rival series might supplant it,” he recently told me.

One other legacy of F-USA is that it was a place that a lot of builders, tuners and race engineers raised their game. Cary Andrews comes to mind; Chuck Graves, who now runs Yamaha’s factory effort in the U.S., and Tom Houseworth, Ben Spies’ crew chief in MotoGP, are others.

Dave Sadowski
Towards the end of Formula-USA’s glory days in 1994, Dave Sadowski campaigned this CBR900RR prepared by Mike Velasco.

I have one usually well-informed source who assures me that World Moto Clash wasn’t an April Fool’s joke. It may not have been a joke, as much as a spur to AMA Pro Racing, considering the story seems to have been planted in the spring of 2009, at a time when American motorcycle-racing stakeholders were unanimously disillusioned with the DMG regime that had taken over the Superbike series.

I suppose if there were any substance to World Moto Clash, it might encourage DMG to pump a little more effort and investment into the contemporary championship. But frankly, no matter what they do it’s hard for me to imagine a more compelling race concept than Bill Huth’s original, “Two wheels, one engine,” Formula USA class.

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