MotoAmerica Rider Spotlight: GEICO Suzuki's Chris Ulrich

Chris Ulrich has been around motorcycle racing his entire life. The 35-year-old MotoAmerica Superbike rider and journalist for family-owned Roadracing World and Motorcycle Technology recalls making parts runs to American Suzuki in Brea, California, with his mother and sister.

“My family goes way back—32 years—with Suzuki,” Ulrich said. “As kids, we used to play in the fountain at the entrance. We ran engines and got some parts support and then became an official team in 1986. That relationship carried on until 2012, and now we’re back with Suzuki for 2015.”

Many of those early years were spent competing with unprecedented success in WERA’s national endurance and sprint series. That powerhouse Team Hammer effort, spearheaded by Ulrich’s father, John, became a leading source of riders for AMA teams seeking potential future series champions.

“We had a really good grass-roots program, which guys like Scott Russell came through,” Chris Ulrich said. “If you ask Scott, he’ll say, ‘If I didn’t get those bikes from John Ulrich and Team Hammer, it wouldn’t have led to the opportunities with Yoshimura and Muzzy and everything else.’”

Chris Ulrich Loudon 1981

John Ulrich (right) and his mechanic, Ken Hoogland, celebrate after winning a six-hour endurance race in 1981 at Loudon, New Hampshire. Trudy Ulrich (far right) is holding Chris.

Other big names, such as Kevin Schwantz, John Hopkins, Josh Hayes, and Ben Spies, either rode for or were associated with the family-owned effort. “We met Ben when he was a fuzzy-headed 12-year-old and way more concerned about your lap time than his,” Ulrich said. “To watch him dominate World Superbike or win the MotoGP race at Assen and know you had something to do with it, that’s something we’re really proud of.”

For every international star, many others reached the highest level stateside. “We were always looking,” Ulrich said. “Through that program, we picked up Dave Sadowski, Britt Turkington, Jamie James, Mike Smith, Paul Bray, Greg Tysor, Kurt Hall, Thomas Stevens—so many really good guys. That program built the riders and then AMA teams went shopping.”

That success didn’t translate into great wealth. “Back then, we were living in Ontario, California,” Ulrich said. “My parents had a foldout couch. Instead of pulling out the bed, Thomas Stevens just slept on the couch. By the time he left, the couch was ruined. We had it for a couple more years. Times were lean.”

Mike Smith, a top AMA Supersport and Superbike rider in the 1990s for Yoshimura, Honda, Kawasaki, Ducati, and, later, Harley-Davidson, also hung around the Ulrich homestead. “Mike broke his mountain bike in half on my launch ramp,” Ulrich said. “I was riding my skateboard, and he tried to jump the thing. Those stories are burned in my memory.”

Former racer Chuck Graves, whose name is irrevocably linked to the factory Yamaha effort, likewise has deep connections to Team Hammer. “My father helped Chuck start his team,” Ulrich said, “which led to where he is now in the paddock.”

Chris Ulrich Honda RS125

Big kid, small bike: Chris Ulrich at the 1996 Daytona Race of Champions aboard the Honda RS125 that he says, “changed my racing fortunes.”

When he wanted to start racing at age 13, Ulrich didn’t have much support from his parents. “My dad was dragging his feet,” he said. “My mom didn’t want me to race, either. She had seen a lot guys get hurt—Bruce Hammer, for one, the founding partner of our racing team. A concerned mother wouldn’t want her son going down that path.”

But Ulrich was hooked. “There was no deterring me,” he said. “It was something I wanted to do. I got in trouble at school, and I wasn’t getting good grades. I was acting like an idiot. My dad used racing as a carrot to get me back in line. After a few months, I was on the honor roll. I kept my grades up so I could go racing.”

When Ulrich wanted to spend time with friends, his father had other ideas. “When school was out and my buddies wanted me to go ride skateboards,” Ulrich said, “my dad would call me and say, ‘Hey, I need the side of the house painted.’ I did a lot of things to go racing. Having to earn stuff makes you appreciate it that much more.”

Those responsibilities included generating sponsorship dollars. “From the first days when I was on 50s,” Ulrich said, “my father made sure that I understood that racing costs money.” Each winter, Ulrich laid the foundation for the coming season, penning proposals and presenting them to potential backers, some of which were industry heavies.

“I actually scored a meeting with Gary Christopher and one of the Japanese at American Honda,” Ulrich said. “I was trying to get 250s. I already had Yamahas, but I was determined to go to Honda and have a meeting with those guys. I sat across the table from them—18 years old—and I didn’t do well. In fact, I bombed the meeting.”

According to Ulrich, the payoff came much farther down the line. “When I got hurt in 2003 and lost my ride,” he said, “I figured out, ‘Okay, if I’m going to go racing, I’d better go find some money.’ So I went out and found some money.”

Over the years, Ulrich has found different ways to fund his racing. “In 2006,” he said, “some opportunities came around with pay-to-play riders, and I found the money to go racing again. I funded my program doing that until I got a good opportunity with a major sponsor to go big time.”

Money has also come from unlikely sources. “When the economy tanked,” Ulrich said, “I leased my truck to a team that won the 2009 AMA Pro Daytona SportBike championship. That was kind of cool.” To this day, Ulrich credits his father for his success. “I had a good mentor,” he said, “and some good education early on that has allowed me to stay in the business.”

Chris Ulrich Barber Honda

Chris Ulrich spent the 2013 and ’14 AMA Superbike seasons racing a Honda CBR1000RR. His best finish at Barber Motorsports Park, where this photo was taken, was seventh last year in race two.

Ulrich spent the 2013 and ’14 AMA Superbike seasons on a Honda CBR1000RR, which was very different than the Suzuki GSX-R1000 he knew so well. “At the end of 2012,” he said, “I was winning what I called the ‘Kit ECU Cup,’ which was Taylor Knapp, Robertino Pietri, David Anthony, and me—dudes racing Suzukis with kit ECUs. Sixth overall was probably the best you could do consistently.”

Working as a journalist, Ulrich has bagged loads of street and track miles on stock examples of both machines. “The Honda and Suzuki are both really good streetbikes,” he said. “But with the Honda, once you start changing things, it reacts differently. The rear linkage is sensitive and affects the bike a lot.

“More or less progressive links changed the behavior of the bike on the brakes, which set in motion a series of events that would potentially ruin the bike all the way to the exit of the corner. It took us a full season to figure that out. We had some information from Ten Kate and a few others, but we had to obtain and install those parts.”

A slipper clutch and ride by wire (replacing the standard throttle cable) improved corner entries. “It took a lot to get power out of the bike and make the chassis work,” Ulrich said, “but once we got into that window, it was like, ‘Okay, don’t change anything.’ I enjoyed the technical challenge, but some days riding that bike was like, ‘Oh, man. How did we get here?’”

Returning to Suzuki this season with MotoAmerica was a fresh start for Ulrich. “The first time I rode my race bike,” he said, “I described it as coming home to my wife after being on the road for a month, although I’d been away for two years. It was so nice to be able to ride the bike hard, push on it, and make changes that actually worked.”

Current MotoAmerica rules allow Superbikes to employ last year’s electronics. “It was really good of those guys to allow us to amortize the cost for a third season,” Ulrich said. “We’re using Magneti Marelli SRT with ride by wire. We took the system off my Hondas, changed some connectors and mapping, and put it on my Suzukis.”

Melissa Paris MMP action

Team Hammer 101: “My father, John Ulrich, and Bruce Hammer founded Team Hammer in 1980,” Chris Ulrich said. “My parents incorporated it in 1989. I have sponsorship from GEICO and a few other companies that comes to Chris Ulrich Racing. I contract Team Hammer to build and supply motorcycles and provide me with technical support.” Team Hammer also runs M4 Sportbike Trackgear Suzuki, which fields David Anthony and Melissa Paris (above) in Supersport.

Proper engine braking is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Ulrich says. “The old Suzuki kit ECU had Soft, Medium, and Hard from the entry to the apex. With a more advanced system, the advantage is to change that function through the braking zone to the turn-in transition and down to the apex. You just run the thing in there, the system keeps it in line and allows you to turn the bike and close the apex. That’s a big thing.”

Unfortunately, results this season have been up and down. Sixth in race one at Circuit of The Americas, Ulrich was stymied by ride-by-wire troubles in race two. He came back a week later in the rain at Road Atlanta to earn a fifth and a fourth followed by two sixths in dry conditions at Virginia International Raceway.

At Road America (two DNFs) and Barber Motorsports Park (sixth and seventh), Ulrich struggled with buggy Marelli ECUs. Most recently at Miller Motorsports Park, Ulrich finished eighth in race one and crashed in race two.

“As a rider,” Ulrich said, “I still enjoy the challenge. As long as I’m having fun and putting in decent results week in and week out—I categorize that as consistently top 10 and knocking on the door for the top five—we can justify me racing from a business standpoint.”

Racing puts food on the table for Ulrich and his family. “We’re enthusiasts but we sell sponsorships to make money and employ ourselves,” he said. “On top of that, we have a personal responsibility to the people we employ. Our program is a little smaller than it’s been in the past, but 35 years later, we’re still here.”

Chris Ulrich has been around motorcycle racing his entire life. The 35-year-old MotoAmerica Superbike rider and journalist for family-owned Roadracing World and Motorcycle Technology recalls making parts runs to American Suzuki in Brea, California, with his mother and sister.

“My family goes way back—32 years—with Suzuki,” Ulrich said. “As kids, we used to play in the fountain at the entrance. We ran engines and got some parts support and then became an official team in 1986. That relationship carried on until 2012, and now we’re back with Suzuki for 2015.”

Many of those early years were spent competing with unprecedented success in WERA’s national endurance and sprint series. That powerhouse Team Hammer effort, spearheaded by Ulrich’s father, John, became a leading source of riders for AMA teams seeking potential future series champions.

“We had a really good grass-roots program, which guys like Scott Russell came through,” Chris Ulrich said. “If you ask Scott, he’ll say, ‘If I didn’t get those bikes from John Ulrich and Team Hammer, it wouldn’t have led to the opportunities with Yoshimura and Muzzy and everything else.’”

Chris Ulrich Loudon 1981

John Ulrich (right) and his mechanic, Ken Hoogland, celebrate after winning a six-hour endurance race in 1981 at Loudon, New Hampshire. Trudy Ulrich (far right) is holding Chris.

Other big names, such as Kevin Schwantz, John Hopkins, Josh Hayes, and Ben Spies, either rode for or were associated with the family-owned effort. “We met Ben when he was a fuzzy-headed 12-year-old and way more concerned about your lap time than his,” Ulrich said. “To watch him dominate World Superbike or win the MotoGP race at Assen and know you had something to do with it, that’s something we’re really proud of.”

For every international star, many others reached the highest level stateside. “We were always looking,” Ulrich said. “Through that program, we picked up Dave Sadowski, Britt Turkington, Jamie James, Mike Smith, Paul Bray, Greg Tysor, Kurt Hall, Thomas Stevens—so many really good guys. That program built the riders and then AMA teams went shopping.”

That success didn’t translate into great wealth. “Back then, we were living in Ontario, California,” Ulrich said. “My parents had a foldout couch. Instead of pulling out the bed, Thomas Stevens just slept on the couch. By the time he left, the couch was ruined. We had it for a couple more years. Times were lean.”

Mike Smith, a top AMA Supersport and Superbike rider in the 1990s for Yoshimura, Honda, Kawasaki, Ducati, and, later, Harley-Davidson, also hung around the Ulrich homestead. “Mike broke his mountain bike in half on my launch ramp,” Ulrich said. “I was riding my skateboard, and he tried to jump the thing. Those stories are burned in my memory.”

Former racer Chuck Graves, whose name is irrevocably linked to the factory Yamaha effort, likewise has deep connections to Team Hammer. “My father helped Chuck start his team,” Ulrich said, “which led to where he is now in the paddock.”

Chris Ulrich Honda RS125

Big kid, small bike: Chris Ulrich at the 1996 Daytona Race of Champions aboard the Honda RS125 that he says, “changed my racing fortunes.”

When he wanted to start racing at age 13, Ulrich didn’t have much support from his parents. “My dad was dragging his feet,” he said. “My mom didn’t want me to race, either. She had seen a lot guys get hurt—Bruce Hammer, for one, the founding partner of our racing team. A concerned mother wouldn’t want her son going down that path.”

But Ulrich was hooked. “There was no deterring me,” he said. “It was something I wanted to do. I got in trouble at school, and I wasn’t getting good grades. I was acting like an idiot. My dad used racing as a carrot to get me back in line. After a few months, I was on the honor roll. I kept my grades up so I could go racing.”

When Ulrich wanted to spend time with friends, his father had other ideas. “When school was out and my buddies wanted me to go ride skateboards,” Ulrich said, “my dad would call me and say, ‘Hey, I need the side of the house painted.’ I did a lot of things to go racing. Having to earn stuff makes you appreciate it that much more.”

Those responsibilities included generating sponsorship dollars. “From the first days when I was on 50s,” Ulrich said, “my father made sure that I understood that racing costs money.” Each winter, Ulrich laid the foundation for the coming season, penning proposals and presenting them to potential backers, some of which were industry heavies.

“I actually scored a meeting with Gary Christopher and one of the Japanese at American Honda,” Ulrich said. “I was trying to get 250s. I already had Yamahas, but I was determined to go to Honda and have a meeting with those guys. I sat across the table from them—18 years old—and I didn’t do well. In fact, I bombed the meeting.”

According to Ulrich, the payoff came much farther down the line. “When I got hurt in 2003 and lost my ride,” he said, “I figured out, ‘Okay, if I’m going to go racing, I’d better go find some money.’ So I went out and found some money.”

Over the years, Ulrich has found different ways to fund his racing. “In 2006,” he said, “some opportunities came around with pay-to-play riders, and I found the money to go racing again. I funded my program doing that until I got a good opportunity with a major sponsor to go big time.”

Money has also come from unlikely sources. “When the economy tanked,” Ulrich said, “I leased my truck to a team that won the 2009 AMA Pro Daytona SportBike championship. That was kind of cool.” To this day, Ulrich credits his father for his success. “I had a good mentor,” he said, “and some good education early on that has allowed me to stay in the business.”

Chris Ulrich Barber Honda

Chris Ulrich spent the 2013 and ’14 AMA Superbike seasons racing a Honda CBR1000RR. His best finish at Barber Motorsports Park, where this photo was taken, was seventh last year in race two.

Ulrich spent the 2013 and ’14 AMA Superbike seasons on a Honda CBR1000RR, which was very different than the Suzuki GSX-R1000 he knew so well. “At the end of 2012,” he said, “I was winning what I called the ‘Kit ECU Cup,’ which was Taylor Knapp, Robertino Pietri, David Anthony, and me—dudes racing Suzukis with kit ECUs. Sixth overall was probably the best you could do consistently.”

Working as a journalist, Ulrich has bagged loads of street and track miles on stock examples of both machines. “The Honda and Suzuki are both really good streetbikes,” he said. “But with the Honda, once you start changing things, it reacts differently. The rear linkage is sensitive and affects the bike a lot.

“More or less progressive links changed the behavior of the bike on the brakes, which set in motion a series of events that would potentially ruin the bike all the way to the exit of the corner. It took us a full season to figure that out. We had some information from Ten Kate and a few others, but we had to obtain and install those parts.”

A slipper clutch and ride by wire (replacing the standard throttle cable) improved corner entries. “It took a lot to get power out of the bike and make the chassis work,” Ulrich said, “but once we got into that window, it was like, ‘Okay, don’t change anything.’ I enjoyed the technical challenge, but some days riding that bike was like, ‘Oh, man. How did we get here?’”

Returning to Suzuki this season with MotoAmerica was a fresh start for Ulrich. “The first time I rode my race bike,” he said, “I described it as coming home to my wife after being on the road for a month, although I’d been away for two years. It was so nice to be able to ride the bike hard, push on it, and make changes that actually worked.”

Current MotoAmerica rules allow Superbikes to employ last year’s electronics. “It was really good of those guys to allow us to amortize the cost for a third season,” Ulrich said. “We’re using Magneti Marelli SRT with ride by wire. We took the system off my Hondas, changed some connectors and mapping, and put it on my Suzukis.”

Melissa Paris MMP action

Team Hammer 101: “My father, John Ulrich, and Bruce Hammer founded Team Hammer in 1980,” Chris Ulrich said. “My parents incorporated it in 1989. I have sponsorship from GEICO and a few other companies that comes to Chris Ulrich Racing. I contract Team Hammer to build and supply motorcycles and provide me with technical support.” Team Hammer also runs M4 Sportbike Trackgear Suzuki, which fields David Anthony and Melissa Paris (above) in Supersport.

Proper engine braking is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Ulrich says. “The old Suzuki kit ECU had Soft, Medium, and Hard from the entry to the apex. With a more advanced system, the advantage is to change that function through the braking zone to the turn-in transition and down to the apex. You just run the thing in there, the system keeps it in line and allows you to turn the bike and close the apex. That’s a big thing.”

Unfortunately, results this season have been up and down. Sixth in race one at Circuit of The Americas, Ulrich was stymied by ride-by-wire troubles in race two. He came back a week later in the rain at Road Atlanta to earn a fifth and a fourth followed by two sixths in dry conditions at Virginia International Raceway.

At Road America (two DNFs) and Barber Motorsports Park (sixth and seventh), Ulrich struggled with buggy Marelli ECUs. Most recently at Miller Motorsports Park, Ulrich finished eighth in race one and crashed in race two.

“As a rider,” Ulrich said, “I still enjoy the challenge. As long as I’m having fun and putting in decent results week in and week out—I categorize that as consistently top 10 and knocking on the door for the top five—we can justify me racing from a business standpoint.”

Racing puts food on the table for Ulrich and his family. “We’re enthusiasts but we sell sponsorships to make money and employ ourselves,” he said. “On top of that, we have a personal responsibility to the people we employ. Our program is a little smaller than it’s been in the past, but 35 years later, we’re still here.”

Chris Ulrich action COTA 2015

Most of the Ulrich family works for Team Hammer. “I’ve taken more responsibility for the business side over the past few seasons,” Chris Ulrich said, “and sometimes it drives me nuts. But I’m always able to compartmentalize that and show up at the racetrack and perform at a high level. I’m proud I can do that. It’s not so easy.”

Chris Ulrich Loudon 1981

John Ulrich (right) and his mechanic, Ken Hoogland, celebrate after winning a six-hour endurance race in 1981 at Loudon, New Hampshire. Trudy Ulrich (far right) is holding Chris.

Chris Ulrich Adams Kart Track

Chris Ulrich began road racing in 1993 on a Yamaha YSR50. This photo was snapped at Adams Kart Track in Riverside, California.

Chris Ulrich Honda RS125

Big kid, small bike: Chris Ulrich at the 1996 Daytona Race of Champions aboard the Honda RS125 that he says, “changed my racing fortunes.”

Chris Ulrich LVMS 250GP

AMA rookie: Chris Ulrich en route to a seventh-place finish in the 1998 AMA 250cc Grand Prix race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “It was the last race of the season,” he said, “and I’d come back from injury to put in a solid finish to end my season.”

Chris Ulrich Road Atlanta Suzuki Cup

Chris Ulrich poses with his father, John, after winning the 2001 Suzuki GSX-R1000 Cup event held during the WERA Grand National Finals at Road Atlanta. Ulrich finished fourth in the 750cc race.

Chris Ulrich Barber Honda

Chris Ulrich spent the 2013 and ’14 AMA Superbike seasons racing a Honda CBR1000RR. His best finish at Barber Motorsports Park, where this photo was taken, was seventh last year in race two.

Melissa Paris MMP action

Team Hammer 101: “My father, John Ulrich, and Bruce Hammer founded Team Hammer in 1980,” Chris Ulrich said. “My parents incorporated it in 1989. I have sponsorship from GEICO and a few other companies that comes to Chris Ulrich Racing. I contract Team Hammer to build and supply motorcycles and provide me with technical support.” Team Hammer also runs M4 Sportbike Trackgear Suzuki, which fields David Anthony and Melissa Paris (above) in Supersport.