Paul Ritter on racing in the rain at Ontario Motor Speedway, 1978

This story requires a bit of background - some friends and I had been having a discussion on racing in the rain, and how some of us feel that it's much better to be on slicks on a wet track than on rains on a dry track.   Paul Ritter related this story about racing in the rain at Ontario Motor Speedway back in 1978.   Paul was a hotshot AMA racer back in the '70s and is a good friend now and a heck of a great guy.   I thought it was cool and asked if I could post it here, and he agreed.   Hopefully we'll get more stories out of Paul.


I don't know if racing slicks have changed a lot or what, but I can tell you that in the late '70s the major thing was the power characteristics of the motorcycle. Here's an old-timer story:

In Spring of 1978 the AFM held it's annual 6-hour endurance race at Ontario Motor Speedway. Winning the six-hour meant some national press, so there were a few outstanding teams there. Reg Pridmore teamed with Keith Code and Pierre DesRoches on a Vetter fairing-sponsored Kawasaki KZ1000; Yoshimura entered a Suzuki GS1000 piloted by the team of Wes Cooley Jr., Ron Pierce and Gary Fisher, to name the two most prominent entries. Dale Newton had entered a bike that myself and Vance Breese would ride -- Vance and I had ridden my own Ducati 750 Sport to 4th overall and 1st 750cc bike in 1977. We added a third rider to the team for '78, a former Suzuki factory rider named Jody Nicholas, to try to keep up.

Practice and heat races on Saturday went as usual for So. Cal., which is warm and dry. Sunday was supposed to be dry as well but the morning practice was unusually cloudy. Forecasters had predicted clearing skies, but it started drizzling right after the riders meeting only a few minutes before the scheduled start. Dale called the local Airport Weather Guy to get an up-to-the- minute forecast.

    Dale: What's the prediction for rain today?
    AWG: It's not going to rain today.
    Dale: It's raining NOW.
    AWG: Must be a local disturbance, it will clear out.
    Dale: So you think it will be dry today?
    AWG: For sure.

Based on this forecast many teams, and all of the major players, started the race wearing slick tires, a rather hard compound that should go the distance. Then it proceeded to rain on and off for five of the six hours that day. The track surface varied from damp to running wet during the race.

Dale had originally entered a Ducati 900, but the motor for that bike was not ready on time. Instead we rode the 750SS with which I had taken the 750 production class win in 1977. Originally we had been girded on the front row but after registering the 750cc bike we were moved back to the 3rd row, but still in the first wave. We had slick tires like most of the big bikes, and I was up first of our team. The race was flagged off with a slightly damp track, and I can still remember thinking as I slowed for the first turn after the dash down the straight, "This is going to be interesting."

Lots of people had a hard time with the rain. Teams with still running bikes were parking them rather than try to race. The big in-line fours usually had a 'kick' of acceleration when they got their revs up, and the kick usually sent their rear tire sliding sideways. Here's a quote from an article John Ulrich wrote at the time. "The slightest hint of throttle threatened to send open-class motorcycles full-lock sideways -- a situation many riders found themselves in during the long, wet race."

But not the Ducati :-). It had a more gentle power delivery partially because it was a twin and partly because it was a 750cc engine. I began picking off riders one-by-one, taking the lead on lap five. One of the last riders I passed was Reg Pridmore -- as we rounded one of Ontario's flat left-hand sweepers he momentarily lost the rear end and I was able to stay inside and go past.

"This is kinda fun." I thought. Here's another quote from John's article. "The fact that his bike wore slicks front and rear didn't bother Ritter, but Pridmore later said of his slick-equipped bike, 'It was like riding on snot out there'." During my 1st 1.5 hour session I remember being passed by only one other rider, Ron Pierce on the Yoshimura Suzuki. I tried to keep up with him but couldn't -- I learned later that the Yosh bike had pitted during the 1st hour and changed to wet racing tires.

We didn't win :-(. The water worked its way into the ignition pieces under the tank and when I pitted for the rider change the bike wouldn't restart. Fooey. Pridmore/Code/DesRoches were the eventual winners.

So it's not just the tire and the amount of water -- the power characteristics of the motorcycle also enter into it. Of course, that was true for slicks in 1978 and may not be the case these days. But I got to tell a cool story. ;-)