New race bike, new ball game

NEWS June 12, 2014

New race bike, new ball game

Photo by Cycle World

Courtesy of Cycle World:

Will Harley-Davidson’s Street 750 help write a new chapter for dirt-track racing?

June 11, 2014 - Eighty years ago, Harley-Davidson began racing and selling modified production racebikes and revived—make that rescued—professional motorcycle racing. Brace yourself, racing fans, The Motor Company looks to do it again.

But first, two front stories: Quoting Cycle News’ headline from last month’s Springfield Mile, “Kawasaki outguns a pair of unrestricted Harley-Davidsons.” Say what? Didn’t we joke last year, when Kawasaki won the twins title, that its 21st-century engine ran wide open while the 40-years-plus Harley XR-750, all air-cooled and pushrod-powered, was restricted? Yup, so for 2014, the Harleys aren’t restricted and the Kawasaki pips them at the post.

Breaking news number two, as detailed elsewhere on this website, Harley-Davidson has built flat-track prototypes of the brand-new up-to-date, as in overhead camshafts and liquid-cooling, Street 750.

To appreciate the size of the block just busted, we return to the back story. In 1934, encouraged by the AMA, Harley-Davidson (and Indian, of course) introduced Class C racing, a class for sporting motorcycles sold to the public equipped for public roads and stripped for the track. They did it because the Great Depression had nearly killed pro racing, as done until this on intricate and expensive short-track singles and alcohol-burning big twins for hillclimbs.

The new rules admitted 750cc side-valve twins, as built by Harley and Indian, plus 500cc ohv machines, included because America’s only importer of English motorcycles was a popular and respected guy and, anyway, the reasoning and purpose behind the new class was to enable and attract new riders, tuners, and fans.

As history shows, it worked. We had 30 years of Harley, Indian, BSA, Triumph, Norton, Matchless, and even the occasional BMW. It was good, fair racing (plus frequent tricks and subterfuges, which made it all the more fun). It was truly Grand National Racing.

But the world changed faster than the rules. By the mid- to late-1960s, the side-valve 750s and ohv 500s were someplace between quaint and out of date. The factories kept supplying racebikes, but the sporting crowed preferred the 900cc Sportster or the 650 BSA and Triumph twins.

Muddling through this time, the AMA re-did Class C, allowing 750cc engines of any type provided the factory 1) built at least 200 examples; and 2) offered them for public sale. This scheme worked, sort of. No one was surprised when H-D built 200 examples of modified XLR racers, which blew up early and often. They were surprised when Yamaha built 200 examples of the infamous TZ750, putting roadracing into a class of its own.

They were more surprised when Harley made a new and vastly better XR-750, alloy not iron, a 1972 design that won races and titles beyond counting and is, in fact, competitive right this weekend. Problem was and is, the XR-750 sort of drove every other make out of the sport. For a time, GNC racing took notes from Indycar, with all machines Harley XRs wearing different paint.

Then they copied NASCAR, with rules and regulations supposed to attract stock-blocks, big and small, leading to first, Harleys winning anyway with an occasional exception testing the rule, and next, criticism accusing Harley-Davidson of besting roadbikes with racebikes.

So, all that said, what will it mean when we have fans riding Suzuki, Kawasaki, Triumph, KTM, Ducati, BMW, and Harley twins to watch Suzuki, Kawasaki, Triumph, KTM, Ducati, BMW, and Harley Street 750 twins on the track?

The critics are history. All the brands with any interest in GNC racing produce and sell engines that, first, are equally up to date and, in theory, up to the task. They are all on the same page. We many not have seven brands in the main event, but we will—okay, we have had—three brands on the box.

In terms of the sport, what we had 80 years ago, when they rode to the track, stripped lights and brakes, and raced, was great fun. It lured scores of new and talented people, but that was then. This is now, now meaning that in the GNC rulebook, the engine is the motorcycle for the twins class. (The singles class requires modified motocross bikes, but that’s another story.)

Guys in the know but not on the payroll, meaning they can talk about the project, say that the racing version of the Street 750 was one of the talking points, that the design team took flat-track specs into consideration from the drawing board.

This means the factory team, any sporting H-D dealer, any pro team with the money, can buy or acquisition a Street 750 engine and drivetrain, and install it in a racing frame, with almost everything else free choice. The new engine will need less maintenance than the old XR did, reducing cost and work load. (As a quirky benefit, because there are so many collectors aching to own an XR-750, a team will be close to paying for the new machine by selling the old one.)

Okay, fair play here: Wasn’t H-D’s most recent foray into racing, the Superbike team, a debacle? Yes, mostly because the men in charge didn’t know racing, plus the men who did were pushed out. Sad, but true. In this case, though, there are at least 10 Harley teams out there with the expertise and energy to make this work.

Oh, my goodness, we fans have been hoping for this for so long and so hard, it’s difficult to believe it’s really gonna happen.

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