That vast and irrepressible personality, Todd Schuster, fabricator to a generation of distinguished AMA Superbike race teams, died January 24 after a trying illness. He was 76.
Think of moving a Butler & Smith BMW engine forward in its chassis to allow higher acceleration, while adding weave-suppressing stiffness with struts direct from steering head to swingarm pivot, and making it look factory fresh? It’s easy to imagine a serious, even nerdy craftsman of few words. No such thing. As Todd grandly led me to a bare frame during the show-and-tell of a 1983 Honda VF750F Interceptor Superbike, he stepped into it and began to pull it up with his massive arms as if it were a pair of pants, pronouncing that, “In the history of racing, there is only one chassis heavier than this one: the 1953 Hudson.” Quips like that flowed steadily from his imagination.
Why did Schuster fit a Chrysler Hemi engine into his Dodge van? Because only a Hemi could supply Todd’s transportation requirements. And if the top hat he liked to wear would not fit between his head and the van’s roof? The necessary clearance was provided by adding a “conning tower” just for the hat. Why? Because he could, and because he wanted it that way. Skills are a powerful form of freedom.
Whenever I was around Todd I thought of the “Kustom Culture of The Mad Torquer,” the screaming brain, louver presses, pinstriping. I thought of Big Daddy Roth and Von Dutch. No, those were just T-shirt salons. What Todd built for Superbike had to work and solve specific problems by first practice tomorrow morning.
When Butler & Smith, which had been the East Coast BMW importers, ceased racing, other racing projects appeared, but the “Big One” was American Honda’s decision to go big into AMA roadracing, beginning in 1980. Butler & Smith crew chief Udo Gietl brought Schuster with him to Honda. That was an era of 1,000cc engines too powerful for 1960s chassis and suspension, so Todd was thrown into the battle to restore something like balance. How do you make a mile-long chassis with 65-pound wheels nimble? Raise this tank. Reinforce this swingarm. Bracket these brake calipers. The work of creation.
It couldn’t last. The next generation of bike chassis was engineered for the races whose excitement would in turn sell the product. No more broom-handle frames. Where’s Todd? Oh, he’s somewhere, building something. Something interesting. That’s how I’m thinking of him now.