Larry Lawrence | February 20, 2022
Cycle News Archives
This Cycle News Archives Column is reprinted from the August 26, 2000 issue. CN has hundreds of past Archives columns in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. So, to prevent that from happening, in the future, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
The early years of Superbike racing in America were known for racers with colorful personalities and builders with innovative minds. Originally called “Superbike Production” racing, it didn’t take long for the builders of these powerful 1000cc Superbikes to forget about the “production” part of the name. And one of the primary innovators of the early Superbike era was Udo Gietl: He helped transform a gentleman’s touring motorcycle, the BMW R Series, into a championship-winning Superbike.
Preferring to be a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, Gietl somewhat reluctantly became a celebrity of sorts in Superbike racing. His name was one reason: Udo—it had a certain ring to it and was easy to remember. But more than that was the coverage he got on the pages of Cycle magazine for turning a mild-mannered touring machine into a Superbike. Rider Cook Neilson and tuner Phil Schilling and their Ducati 750SS were competitors against Gietl’s BMW crew, but it was a friendly rivalry, and Gietl’s very trick Beemers got a lot of ink in the pages of the very influential Cycle and other motorcycle magazines of the day.
Gietl was born in Germany, but his family immigrated to the United States when he was just 10 years old. In the 1950s, Udo went to high school in Daytona Beach and was a spectator at the Daytona 200 on the beach.
“Watching Dick Klamfoth win the Daytona 200 was the very first motorcycle race I ever saw,” Gietl remembers.
Interestingly, Gietl’s grandparents owned parcels of land where Daytona International Speedway was eventually built.
Gietl started riding a Zundapp scooter for basic transportation when he was 17. Eventually he took up the rising sport of motocross in the 1960s, and Gietl held his own against well-known motocross area racers such as Jimmy Ellis, Joe Bolger and Jimmy Weinert. In fact, Gietl was good enough that he was a factory-supported rider for Bultaco and might have gone on to become a National motocross racer had it not been for an unfortunate accident on the streets of downtown Manhattan.
“I had just finished restoring an R/25 3 and it was absolutely cherry,” Gietl says. “It was a total restoration from the crankshaft up, and I’d only ridden it about four or five times. I stopped at a stop sign and the bus didn’t stop. It was horrible. It put me in the hospital for four months, and I had another four months of rehabilitation. And, of course, the motorcycle was trashed. That ended my motocross career.”
In college, Gietl studied electrical engineering, and he worked in the parts department at BMW importer Butler & Smith during his college days. After school, Gietl worked for Automation Dynamics and helped develop electronic systems for NASA and the Polaris submarine project. When the company decided to consolidate operations in Houston, Gietl, who was married and had two children by then, decided he didn’t want to move, and he went back to work for Butler & Smith.
The timing of his return to BMW couldn’t have been better. American executives were looking to shake BMW’s stodgy image as an old man’s touring machine and, working part-time on the project, Gietl helped build a pair of endurance-racing BMW/5 Series Boxers that finished one-two in an endurance event in Danville, Virginia, at what is now Virginia International Raceway, in 1969. Development continued and BMW had excellent success in the low-key world of American and Canadian endurance racing. That spurred BMW on to develop a short-lived AMA Formula 750 (later called Formula One) machine to compete against the powerful Japanese two-stroke GP bikes. The racing Beemer had engines originally designed to spin at 6000 rpm, yet Gietl made them reliable at 10,000 rpm. The bikes had some success in qualifying heat races but never finished very well in the Nationals.
The introduction of BMWs R90S in the mid-1970s coincided with the explosion in popularity of Superbike racing. It was during the AMA Superbike Championship’s inaugural season of 1976 that the racing team, under Gietl’s direction, reached its zenith.
Butler & Smith BMW showed up at Daytona in 1976 with a strong team comprised of Reg Pridmore and Gary Fisher, and Gietl had another bike on hand to use as a backup. West Coast sales manager Matt Carpi convinced Butler & Smith owner Peter Adams to field the backup bike with Steve McLaughlin.
“I was overridden on that decision,” Gietl said of adding McLaughlin at the last minute. “I just wasn’t ready to get that third bike ready to race. It was basically a spare-parts bike. It had a weak ignition system. It literally had points from a 305 Honda, while the other two bikes had electronic ignitions.”
Weak ignition or not, McLaughlin was a rider who was talented enough to draft Pridmore on the last lap to win by three inches in a photo finish. Pridmore and the Butler & Smith BMW R90S went on to turn in a championship-winning performance in 1976 on the “Teutonic Tourer.”
“I look back on what we achieved by our success on that bike,” reflects Pridmore. “I beat a lot of the bad boys and the Japanese and Italian factories. It made a lot of people sit up and say, ‘On a BMW?’”
Not only did Pridmore win the first AMA Superbike title, but Gietl’s BMWs took second and third in the championship as well, with McLaughlin and Fisher. The team won all but one AMA Superbike race that season. It was a runaway success for BMW and its image. The R90S, even though it was relatively expensive, sold in great numbers, and Gietl’s involvement was key in making BMW’s racing program a success.
In spite of the astonishing Superbike results, Butler & Smith decided to pull out of Superbike racing after winning the championship.
“It was because of the cost,” Gietl says. “We’d made such a big splash—I mean, every magazine during that time featured the bike. You couldn’t pick up a motorcycle magazine in 1976 without seeing a photo or a feature on our motorcycle.”
It seemed Butler & Smith was satisfied that the racing program accomplished the goal of giving BMW back its sporting heritage.
After a season of very little racing activity, Gietl got antsy and convinced Butler & Smith to let him revive the Superbike racing program in 1978. The company agreed to let Gietl get back in the game, but with very little support. Udo and Todd Schuster, a longtime friend and colleague in racing projects, started their own little BMW “works” team dubbed “GS Performance BMW,” with Miami veteran John Long handling the riding chores.
By 1978, the Japanese multis were beginning to handle better and had the power advantage. Yet, despite this, Long tied in points with Pridmore, who by then was riding for Vetter Kawasaki. Pridmore won the title on a tie breaker, but Long would have won the championship, Gietl says, had a mistake at Loudon by an AMA official not happened. The official waved a late-arriving Long around for the warm-up lap when he came up to the grid, but later he was told he went out after the red flag was displayed and was docked a lap.
Tying for the championship and coming that close to winning the title was quite an accomplishment for the low-dollar GS Performance squad. Perhaps that season, even more than the dominating 1976 campaign, solidified Gietl’s reputation as a builder.
Gietl went on to head up Honda’s Superbike racing efforts, but that’s another story for another day. After retiring from Honda, Gietl spent three years building a 56-foot racing sailboat that was much lighter than other boats of its day. The boat was so successful that it became one of the winningest yachts of its time and was eventually purchased by the Hamburg Yacht Club in Germany.
Gietl briefly came back to motorcycle racing, helping with the BMW Boxer Cup racing program and with San Jose BMW’s Moto-ST squad.
Gietl stands alongside Superbike builders/owners such as Rob Muzzy and Eraldo Ferracci as larger-than-life personalities who became as well known as the racers who rode the machines they built. CN
Click here to read the Archives Column in the Cycle News Digital Edition Magazine.
Subscribe to nearly 50 years of Cycle News Archive issues