Notes From the Blue Groove: Revenge of the Harleys, Conclusion

NEWS May 26, 2011

Notes From the Blue Groove: Revenge of the Harleys, Conclusion

Revenge of the Harleys, Part 4: Bryan Smith Returns Home

There was a lot of buzz last year when Ducati and Kawasaki-powered bikes carried Joe Kopp and Bryan Smith to wins on Mile tracks, in the process becoming the first non-Harleys to score Grand National Championship wins on big tracks in decades…. But.

At the end of the year, the top four riders in the GNC twins class were all guys who'd spent the season on XR-750s—a motorcycle that entered production long before any of them were born. If the venerable XR could talk, it would probably quote Mark Twain and dryly note, "Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated."

Over the last few Blue Groove installments, I've sought an explanation for the XR's long dominance over the GNC, covered some of the motor's history, and tried to look into its future. The best place to conclude this education is in Michigan, in Bryan Smith's shop. After years of being a top GNC contender on Harley-Davidsons, Bryan switched to Kawasaki in 2010. He was the most consistent non-Harley threat last year, winning two races while riding Bill Werner's “Ninja.”

Actually, maybe instead of just saying "riding," I should say "riding the wheels off.” Watching him from trackside, it was clear Bryan was taking the Kawasaki right to the ragged edge. It rewarded him with those two Mile wins, but remained intractable on the half-miles. Joe Kopp, who used the Lloyd Bros.' Ducati on the Miles, didn't even attempt to ride the Duc on half-miles tracks; he rode his Latus Harley-Davidson on those. So despite all the attention rightfully paid to other brands in the sport last year, the XR was still dominant on most of the Miles, and utterly dominant on the half-miles.

Despite his promising season on the Kawasaki last year, Smith's back on Harley-Davidson XR-750s this year, aboard bikes supplied by Moroney's /1-800-FASTHOG with additional support from American Harley-Davidson of North Tonawanda, New York. When I called him up to chat the other day, he wasn't exactly praying to the gods of fast hogs, but he was on his knees in his shop, bolting up XR750 motor mounts. While he worked, he talked about the strengths and weaknesses of both the XR and newer, production-based bikes like the Kawasaki.

Bryan knows that the “imports” are going to make life difficult on the fastest tracks. "It's not going to be easy [to win on the Miles], because the Kawasaki is really fast, and Brad Baker's taken over Joe Kopp's Ducati ride at Lloyd Brothers and he's a hell of rider, too. So between him and Schnabel, [the imports] will be in the hunt."

But, he explained, without a lot of development, the imports will still be a real handful on the half-mile tracks. "The tracks I see all them bikes struggling on are the slicker tracks," he said, "where it comes more to handling than horsepower. That's what the Harley does—it gets every last drop of horsepower to the ground and going forward."

I kept a close eye on Smith, and the Kawasaki, last year. Everyone in a GNC main event is riding fast, but I told Bryan that from my perspective, standing at trackside, he seemed to be pushing harder than anyone else. "You should have seen the view from over the handlebar," he laughed.

"On the Kawasaki," he continued, "everything happens twice as fast. If it pushes the front, it pushes it quick; if it snaps sideways, it snaps sideways quick. There were a couple of times last year that I crashed the Kawasaki; I'd be lap after lap, right on that fine line pushing the limit. Then I messed up, pushed the front and 'Bam!' I was down. I'm not good enough to ride that fine line for 25 laps, I guess!"

By comparison, the Harley gives its riders a little more feedback as it reaches its limits. "It’s a darn good engine for what we do with it," Brian told me. "You can ask Bill Werner, or Kenny Tolbert; there's a million reasons why it shouldn't work. Compared to seeing the parts of a Kawasaki, and seeing the dyno runs on those bikes, you'd think it would be no problem to beat these old Harleys, but then the thing gets on the track and it just goes forward."

In Smith's case, "these old Harleys" isn’t just a figure of speech: they’re built on C&J frames. The advantage of that is they're one of the most proven and best-understood chassis in the sport, but Mike Hacker, Jake Johnson, and Smith have all won on those very frames in past years, and even good steel can only take so much pounding before metal fatigue sets in.

Keeping the bikes together and running is sort of a family affair. Bryan's helped out at the track by his dad, Barry. "This year, with the XRs being more restricted, on the faster tracks you're going to have to tweak them with everything you've got to beat the Kawasakis and the Ducati," said Smith. "But I'm not doing a whole lot different than I've done before. I had one of the fastest Harleys in the last couple of years before I rode the Kawasaki. Basically, you have to do your homework. It's hard to explain, but the Harley world's so tight; there's only a handful of guys that can build a competitive Harley. [A lot of Bryan's motor work is done by Dave Schopieray; Ron Hamp ports his heads.] I was fortunate enough to have one of the fastest Harleys out there over the last few seasons. I'm confident that I'll have a good one again this year."

After a season spent trying to develop the Kawasaki at race days—when riders have a couple of minutes to form an impression of how their bikes are handling, and then mechanics have only have a few minutes to work on bikes between sessions—Bryan's looking forward to a season in which reliability is his only concern. "Riding a proven bike, you've already got one piece of the puzzle in place," he said. "I'm pretty confident that I could take one of these bikes to Springfield and, without even practicing, be in the lead draft in the race just because I'm so comfortable with the bike and I've ridden it so much."

That sentiment pretty much sets up the story, as we enter the Twins phase of the AMA Pro Harley-Davidson Insurance Flat Track Championship. Join us May 28-29 at the Illinois State Fairgrounds for the Springfield TT and legendary Springfield Mile; call 888-468-1622 for tickets and information.

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