now we know why Yamaha TZ250 belonged to Rich Oliver 1994.
This article was originally published in the April 1995 issue of Sport Rider.
The only thing subtle about Rich Oliver’s Yamaha TZ250 is, well, nothing. It’s on the edge, pumping out the kind of horsepower that pins your ears to your head and makes your eyeballs sweat. The ride is jarring, harsh, demanding; the Brembo brakes instant-on. Even the seating position says “Race me or get off.” This thing’s nasty.
Rich Oliver likes it nasty. He’s paid his 250 dues, worked in the shadow of other riders, toiled over recalcitrant machinery, dealt with losing, searched endlessly for horsepower. Everything racer Rich Oliver has done in 17 years of roadracing was bundled up and put into this bike, this run for the championship, this domination. He came out of the gates at Daytona 1994 and gave Jimmy Filice fits before settling for second, then began winning races at tracks from Phoenix to New Hampshire International. He didn’t just win; he grabbed the pole and often as not set a new 250 lap record on his blue-and-white Performance South missile. When the competition stepped it up a notch, Oliver moved higher. By year’s end, he pocketed the AMA 250 GP championship and the WERA Formula II plate in a style politely described as “hell-bent for election.”
My journalistic perspective of Rich Oliver and his Performance South Yamaha is unique because I spent more than a few weekends chasing him around the nation’s best racetracks. On the track, there was Oliver and then there was everyone else scrambling to catch up. And we never did. His bike was consistently the fastest through the speed traps, and even at the USGP wild card Oliver’s TZ was on par with the factory Yamahas up the front straight. But beyond mere speed and horsepower was the fact that Oliver was riding harder and better than anyone in America, and he was pushing on a motorcycle that simply functioned correctly race in and race out; Oliver set it up right and used it hard. When he agreed to this test, I came chin to chin with the machine that had kicked my butt every time I’d seen it.
Photography by Scott Rathburn
The only bodywork piece from Yamaha is the aluminum six-gallon fuel tank, everything else is Sharkskinz or Zero Gravity. Oliver ports the back of his seat section and doesn’t run an inner fender. The radar gun told us this system works.
Oliver’s bike arrived at Los Angeles County Raceway in fine trim, but lacking the Bratton crankshaft it had run most of the season. Rich promised us the bike was representative of the way he had run it all year, minus the lightened crankshaft, and the timing slip told us he wasn’t lying: 10.90 seconds at 128.5 mph on the third run. Even though Chris D’Aluisio’s John Lassak–tuned Aprilia RSV250R tested in our October ’94 issue at 130.4 mph, the fact that Oliver’s TZ runs in this rarified performance atmosphere is a tribute to what the Performance South team has achieved. An hour later, the Yamaha shrieked past the radar gun at an astounding 158 mph, and would have gone even faster if the team had brought more gearing. “With the right gear, I can guarantee 160,” Oliver stated confidently, and we believe it because it didn’t take long for the TZ to gobble up the tallest gearing Oliver had in the truck.
Once on the Streets of Willow racetrack, every adrenal gland in our bodies started pumping because this bike challenges you to keep up. Forget anything below 9000 rpm. Oliver doesn’t need a gradual increase in power at the corner exits; he did that years ago and his traction sensors can handle more. More throttle, more power, more lean angle. By 10,000 on the tach the bike’s starting to dance, and for the next 3000 rpm it shreds pavement, emitting a tight, precise rip of sound from the Carbon Tech silencers that says perfect jetting better than anything we’ve heard. This motor hits hard, hits now and is tuned for a rider that values top-end steam over midrange drivability. Rich confessed, “My work goes toward top-end power. I spin my engines hard and that means I replace parts more often than most, but it’s worth it to me. I’ve worked with some good tuners over the years and Bud Aksland has answered a lot of questions for me, helping me arrive at this particular combination.” Oliver’s right; most of the bikes in the AMA 250 field don’t see 13,000 rpm all season and peak out between 12,300 and 12,700 rpm. Rich added, “If this was a national, I’d work on the jetting until it spun even higher.”
Photography by Scott Rathburn
We weren’t allowed to shoot the other side, but we did get a glimpse of this Roland Cushway—lightened clutch hub. Manson Technologies provided the titanium swingarm bolt and the clutch fasteners—minute details that add up to pounds and eventually a horsepower or two. In 250 Grand Prix racing, every gram counts.
Photography by Scott Rathburn
The stock discs and fork legs were retained, but Oliver switched to Brembo GP calipers and a Marchesini wheel and had Lindemann Engineering tinker with fork internals. Oliver like immediate, powerful brakes, and this setup is just that.
There is no single reason for this engine’s startling performance; it’s the careful combination of dozens of details learned over as many years. Almost every part in the Performance South engines are Superteched (a high-tech coating that reduces friction and wear) including pistons, gears and even chassis parts such as axles. Oliver sweats the details, with some grinding here, pipe changes there and titanium and carbon fiber sprinkled in for good measure. All told, the changes might only equal four more horsepower and 10 fewer pounds, but when you’re beginning with 82 horsepower and 220 pounds, the above changes really add up. As we became familiar with Oliver’s hard-hitting setup we began to understand that this particular machine isn’t for beginners or those short on right wrist; the engine needed to be revved. When it was, the next corner appeared in short order. At 8500 rpm the twin is barely awake, but by 10,000 the front tire is off the ground in the lower two gears and the rider is being hurtled forward at a rate almost inconceivable to anyone who hasn’t experienced an angry two-stroke. Oliver took advantage of the higher-placed powerband by juggling internal gearing to keep the bike on the pipe off the corners, and this high-rpm engine and demanding power delivery explains why Oliver rides the bike “loose,” spinning the rear tire or wheelying off corners. No other 250 in the nation did this consistently because no other rider could handle it consistently. Together with tuner Steve Rounds, Oliver has built an engine to suit his style. Our too-few laps gave us a unique insight into what Oliver builds into his bike. It isn’t ridability, at least not in the common sense of the word. The bike is tailor-fit to the demands of the country’s best 250 pilot.
Comfort isn’t a word in Oliver’s vocabulary because his bike is a tool, or perhaps a weapon, used in 30-minute battles at the outer limits. His clip-ons are surprisingly low because he runs the front end lower than standard and the rear higher. The heavily weighted hands are an indication that the chassis is biased toward hard corner entrances with its severe ride-height modifications. His setup makes the TZ feel even smaller than it is, especially trailing the brakes into a corner as your knee touches down. The feedback from the front Dunlop slick was loud, clear and uncluttered through the Lindemann Engineering–modified stock fork, a trait Oliver values because he pushes so hard entering the corner.
For a normal rider, decreasing front ride height and increasing rear ride height can lead to rear traction problems at corner exits, but such basic thinking is years behind Oliver. He’s as far beyond basic traction problems as he is beyond basic engine setup; in other words, he values being able to spin the rear tire at the exit as much as he values a big hit of power above 10,000 rpm. In fact, they go hand in hand when you’re setting track records and winning national championships.
Photography by John Flory
Rich Oliver and teammate Chuck Sorensen (90) stand behind their TZ250 Yamahas surrounded by the Performance South crew. Oliver owns and operates Performance South, and has led the team to the top two rankings in both WERA and AMA 250 racing.