Marc Salvisberg

This starts with my path to Marc.

In 1995, I left the Boston area. I was 25 years old and needed a change in my surroundings. I had grown up in central and eastern Massachusetts. Just two semesters at a college in Rhode Island. Otherwise, I had spent the previous 6 years in the Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville area.

I had it pretty good at the time. Keys to the coolest skatepark in the Northeast, a ton of connections around town and good job experience as an apprentice and, later, CNC Machinist. A few years working at Fat City Cycles in there gave me a little cache with bike folk and artist types.

I was nervous about leaving but a good friend told me, “Pete, you can always come back.” It was pretty obvious but that specific concept freed me to go on an adventure and see what would happen without much stress.

Zito (Kenny Deutsch), the mentor of Maximus, our pirate ship/skatepark gave me some good advice about travelling and the road. Kenny was a top WKA kart racer and had driven to racetracks all over the United States. Countess hours were spent watching Kenny work on carts and spouting off about some eastern philosophy shit clued a few of us in on the world. This made sitting in front of a race rig feel like home.

According to Zito: When on the road; don’t get sloppy, keep your dope stashed in the back, and starting about 50 miles out of Chicago coming from the east – don’t get off the highway – no matter what. I saw later why that last point was so important…

I leave. No plan. No route. I just go. There were a lot of great things that happened along the way but those are other stories. I ride bikes in Durango. Then Moab. The town of Moab and the heat gets old quick and the Memorial day holiday weekend was coming up so I decide to go back to Durango for some cool mountain trails. On the last pass, just above town, my flywheel sheers clean off the motor of my G20 van. Full freewheel. I literally coast right up to the edge of town and into an empty industrial lot. Fuck. It was Friday evening before a 3 day weekend and everything was shut. I was chill and figured I’d just ride and dirtbag until Tuesday morning.

Fate is funny. At some point on the trail, at some jumps or something, I get talking to a guy. He was a motorcycle mechanic down at Handlebar Cycles, the big motorcycle dealer at the edge of town. Their bottom guy had just quit. I may have an in. Well, I got the job and spent the next year working on motorcycles, snowmobiles, and personal watercraft there. A real dealership; Honda, Yamaha, Bombardier, and Arctic Cat. Not bad. I got the basics down but I needed to leave town. There was no future for me there. I like manufacturing and this was a tourist and ranch town.

Gary Mathis, a friend of mine was couch surfing and skating in San Francisco. Staying with Kevin and Dave, other friends from the skatepark. I figured I’d stop by and hang out before making my next move. One thing led to another as they do in life and I found myself making calls a few weeks later looking for work.

I was all into motorcycles and mountain biking at the time. I looked up the motorcycle shops in the area. One stuck out and I called. Factory Pro / Wheelsmith Racing. A guy answers the phone. Marc Salvisberg. He’s the owner. Sure. Come down for an interview. I did. He gave me a job.

Marc with Mick Doohan

I wasn’t that great of a mechanic at the time. I could do much of the work in a shop but there’s more to being a good motorcycle mechanic than just spinning wrenches and changing parts. Still, Marc had Joe Cioni working on bikes and he was pretty fucking good. What they really needed was someone that could run machine tools, do some welding, and fill in the gaps that many mechanics lack. That may have been me. More than anything, I rode mountain bikes and Marc was all about mountain biking at the time. Maybe it was just the right mix but I did feel inadequate at the time.

Factory Pro Shift Kit

Most of what we did at Factory was develop fuel, ignition, and shift kits (and other stuff) for high performance sport bikes and race bikes so that they could be sold around the world. Back then, you needed a jet kit to get a carburetor mixing well and Factory had one of the best ones out there. That was Marc. Marc was THE guy to talk to about fuel and ignition. He’d go to the big races and hang with all the teams and cool kids, they’d come by the shop with crazy race bikes. We’d sell product. Plenty of beer was drank (off the clock) and shit talked.

To round things out, we worked on bikes off the street and for folks with specific models that Marc wanted to develop around. Joe and I swapped jets and needles all day long on blazing hot motorcycles that had just come from the dyno room. In that room was Marc. He’d run those things ragged to find every little hiccup or problem they were having. Changes would be made and the bikes would be run again. Over and over.

As I got more comfortable at the job, I would watch Marc. He was a fanatic. These puzzles were going to be solved even if it killed all of us. Sometimes, we’d change a carb tune 30 or 40 times. Over and over. Back and forth. Somewhere in there was the solution. Tempers would start to boil over but at the end of the day, it was Marc’s way or the highway…for all the right reasons.

One day, I was especially bitter. I was sick of making changes on some fancy Ducati or GSX-R or something. Marc saw me scowling through the window of the dyno room. He slid the widow open and called out to me;

“Pete, what are you doing here?”

“I’m changing these fucking jets again, Marc.”

It was a few years later that I understood and I instantly felt stupid when I did. Marc was playing a game of chess against a master. Marc doing something. I was clocking into a job to pull a check. I was just going to a job. 

I left a few months later. On good terms. I went to run a toolroom at a big company in Rohnert Park. More pay, fancier tools. No toys. No magic.

25 years later. Now, I’m in a different place. Hopefully, that angry young man has become a middle age man with a little wisdom and something to share. If I do, I can proudly say that my time with Marc had a big hand in that. Our mentors are interesting people and what we learn and when is often out of both our control. I learned a lot from Marc and a few others. From Marc, it was the passion for the puzzle. That the game is getting to pull back the curtain and gaze at what others haven’t seen. That comes at a cost. That is very hard work. There is pain involved. That’s part of the game. I made a list of mentors a while back, Marc was in it, obviously.

Marc is an old man now. He’s been flying airplanes for a long time. He’s got Parkinson’s. Motor control is shot. The world we were in so long ago is gone.

I contacted Marc the other day and set up to do an audio interview. He lives in the town next to me. I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years but this one would be different. Marc was a former employer. He knew me most as a much younger man. I knew him most as a much younger man. Part of me is a product of knowing and learning from him. That’s a different thing than many of the other discussions I’ve had and shared.

Here is our discussion. It make be a little difficult to hear due to the effects of Marc’s health. Bear with us.

Marc has six patents to his name. That’s real status. He got in the book.

Here’s something that was done for Mark after I worked with him as an employee but was helping with a few drawings and CAD work. It was supposed to be a lightweight clutch plate for a GSX-R. It turned out that all of the mating parts that I was given to model from were from a GS, not the same bike. We found that the parts didn’t fit after making a small prototype run. That’s where this project ended. I learned from this.

Something that occurred to me a few days after talking with Marc I thought to be very interesting. When I worked and rode bicycles with Marc in the late nineties, I was still smoking pot. The next job I had after being at Factory I was forced to clean up for a drug test to get in the door. That actually got me to quit smoking pot permanently. It was a destructive force in my life. It dragged me down. Years later, in 2013, I stopped drinking alcohol also. This for other reasons but the productivity boom since has been amazing. Kinda cool.

Marc and I make reference to Richard Feynman in our discussion. I’ve talked about Feynman in past posts as I really value what Feynman represents in the thinky crowd. Well beyond his scientific contributions and where he was and when, Feynman insists that he was an average guy that did the hard work. That gives us all hope.