Of all NorCal road-racing specialists, the one who scored the single biggest coup in the history of the Sears Point National was the original AFM ringer, Paul Ritter.
Ritter didn’t just humble the big boys at his home track; he shocked the AMA Superbike regulars with his victory on his Dale Newton Ducati 900SS (which wore the undeniably non-national No. 276) at Sears Point in 1977.
Ritter became buddies with fellow Ducati aficionado and racer Dale Newton. Newton, who owned an air water tanker company, was a big, tall guy who wasn’t well suited for racing, but he loved to work on the bikes. Ritter and Newton teamed and the pair made a winning combo in AFM club races. By 1977 Newton had pumped up a new 900 Sport to Superbike specs and Ritter went on a tear, winning six consecutive times in AFM events leading up to the national at Sears Point.
“We thought we’d enter the Superbike national to see how we stood against the pros,” Ritter recalls. “I had no great expectations. It was my pro debut. They were looking to fill the grid so instead of earning the normal qualifications the AMA allowed me to race on the strength of my AFM experience.”
Ritter was a little in awe of what he faced when he took to the grid. At Sears Point Superbike in 1977, he would be up against the talents of riders like defending champ Reg Pridmore, having moved from the factory BMWs to the Racecrafters Kawasaki KZ1000, Cycle editor Cook Neilson on his Phil Schilling-prepared, Daytona-winning Ducati, Ron Pierce on a Beemer and Steve McLaughlin on a Yoshimura Kawasaki.
Ritter’s first national was nearly over before it started. A little over-hyped in the qualifying heat race, he overcooked Turn 2 and nearly high-sided in the process. Ritter’s body flew out of the saddle and he crashed back down on the bike, shattering the bubble on his fairing upon landing.
“When I came back down it took a second for me to regain my bearings,” Ritter remembers. “The adrenaline did something to me and I suddenly got very fast.”
So fast in fact, that he shaved a second off his personal best lap time, got into the 1:51-bracket, chased down the leaders and passed Neilson on the final turn to win the heat. “Afterwards I had no idea how I won that race,” he said. “All I could do was just sit there and think how lucky I was to not crash.”
Ritter thought his nerves were bad before Saturday’s heat race. He was even more anxious, even scared he said, before the start of the final. Perhaps the realization that he actually had a shot at winning the race hit him.
Another bad start forced Ritter to have to work his way through the field. He eventually made it to and past the Pridmore/Pierce battle and had only Neilson in front of him. As the laps wound down it didn’t look like Ritter would catch the Daytona winner on the California Hot Rod, but then he got a break. Neilson’s bike developed a clutch problem that slowed him. Ritter closed the gap and with two laps to go made the pass and suddenly broke through to a clear track in front of him. He pulled away from the ailing bike of Neilson’s and took the checkered as winner. (Note: Years later Neilson said that Paul was chasing him down even before his bike had problems and he wouldn’t have been able to hold him off regardless.)
It marked one of the rarest moments in AMA Superbike history – a rider being victorious in his debut.
“I was quite happy,” Ritter deadpans. “All the AFM folks were jumping up and down. The win actually took on more importance over the years. I guess as Superbike racing gained in popularity everything was magnified.”
Inspired by their victory, Ritter and Newton tackled the entire series the next season. No longer an unknown, Ritter defended his Sears Point victory in 1978, and finished third in the final standings that year.
By the end of 1978 the Japanese fours had finally found handling to match their awesome power and the Ducatis fell from competitiveness for a dozen seasons or so years. Newton got out of it and Ritter, without a sponsor and mechanic, never seriously pursued the series again.
Today is Paul’s birthday. You can find out more about him here.