Paul Ritter leads Ed Unini and Jim Haberlin at Ontario in 1976.
Fans of Superbike racing well remember the names that made the new-for-1976 class the most dynamic of the race season calendar. Cook Neilson and Phil Schilling put Ducati on the U.S. map with the California Hot Rod, while Reg Pridmore and Steve McLaughlin did the same for BMW. Wes Cooley and Erik Buell contested the series, too, as did Mike Baldwin and Keith Code. But there’s another rider whose name often seems left out in the memories, Paul Ritter.
That might be due to Ritter’s relatively short track career. He rode Ducatis from the beginning, starting with a single-cylinder Diana 250 in his first races in 1973. The 250 single gave way to a 350 Mark 3D desmo single and then, in 1975, Ritter started racing his Ducati 750 Sport street bike. Along the way, he discovered he had a natural talent for racing, honed by watching better riders and learning from their successes. Riding his 750 Sport, Ritter won the 1976 750 Production class championship.
His big break came later that year, when he teamed up with Dale Newton under the Aero-Union banner. In 1977, he raced Newton’s 750SS in 750 Production and Newton’s Ducati 900SS in Superbike. Ritter dominated the 750 Production class, ending the year with 12 overall wins and one crash. Not bad for someone only four years into the sport.
That year, Ritter won his first Superbike race, coming in first at Sears Point in front of Daytona Superbike winner Cook Neilson, plus Ron Pierce, Steve McLaughlin and Reg Pridmore. “I only vaguely remember the winner’s circle ceremony,” Ritter writes. “I was over the moon with joy.”
Still riding for Newton, Ritter repeated his Sears Point Superbike win in 1978, but the landscape was changing as the 4-cylinder Japanese competition learned how to make their bikes handle as well as go fast. In 1977, four of the seven Superbike wins went to European machines. One year later, European machines — Ducati and BMW — would win only two of six races.
By the early 1980s Ritter had moved away from racing, settling into his engineering profession and a new family. Years later, his love for bikes resurfaced, and he decided to try vintage racing, a decision that would change his life forever. Racing at Steam Boat Springs in 1997, Ritter crashed and was run over by another rider. The resulting injuries permanently paralyzed him from the chest down, and Ritter describes in frank detail the difficult process of reclaiming his life — and his independence.
His accident and the subsequent challenges he faced have given him rare perspective, putting his experiences racing with the greats of the Seventies into sharper focus. Inspiring and historically important, if you love Superbike history, you need to read this book. Octane Press: 256 pages, $29.95. Order a copy: Racing the Gods. MC
Photos courtesy Octane Press