In Michigan, 'Buy American' is part patriotism and part a recognition that U.S. manufacturing is still vitally important to the state's economic survival. Admittedly, Harley-Davidson is a Wisconsin - not a Michigan - company, but the core group of AMA Pro flat trackers that hail from the wolverine state all grew up dreaming of racing all-American motorcycles on America's iconic dirt tracks.
One of those guys is Jared Mees. The 2009 GNC champion started racing XR-750s in the twins championship in the days of the 'twingles' and has stuck with them right through the current 32mm-restrictor-plate period. So he's been one of the fastest flat trackers through a period in which the venerable XR has adapted to tighter and tighter rules, all the while facing stiffer and stiffer competition from the likes of Ducati and Kawasaki. Last season was the first time in decades that Harley-Davidson's dominance at GNC twins races was even challenged, but Mees' faith in the Harley is not shaken. Of the XR riders I've chatted with over the last few weeks, he's been the most unabashed defender of Harley-Davidson's bike motor and the company's larger role in the sport of flat track.
As far as the bike's concerned, "The motor configuration for dirt rack is the key," he told me. "The torque and big, heavy flywheel that allow it to hook up 90 horsepower. There are motorcycles out there that make a boatload of horsepower but getting them hooked up is another story."
Traction is what it's all about. For a few years, the search for traction caused teams to 'twingle' their XRs. A twingled XR-750 fired both cylinders at almost the same time, so that it rode like a massive single. The widely-spaced power pulses allowed the rear tire maximum time to find traction. (Twingling was, from a traction point of view, exactly the same thing Grand Prix roadracing teams did when they adopted 'big bang' motors.)
"They sounded terrible," Mees told me. "But they were a lot easier to ride on the slipperier half-miles. They were banned because people said the twingles were wearing parts out too fast, but it depends on who you talk to." When they were banned, Mees' tuner, Johnny Goad, quickly came up with a permutation of crank weight, compression, cam timing, exhaust tuning - the usual mix of XR science, art, and alchemy - that gave Mees a pretty good edge. It helped that Mees had good throttle control even as an up-and-comer; he chased Kenny Coolbeth to second place in the GNC in the first post-Twingle season (which, if memory serves, was '07) and between the two of them they won almost all the half-mile events.
"The engine's been around for so long that you'd think everyone would know all the tricks," he told me. A small handful of guys - Mike Stauffer, Phil Darcy, Ron Hamp - do almost all the headwork, for example. "But," Mees added, "There are always a few tricks people keep on the down low."
Although he doesn't sugar-coat the issue of parts costs, or the life-expectancy of a built XR-750, Jared sees another side to those high costs, and that's Harley-Davidson't consistent investment in pro flat track. "Sure, you could build a Kawasaki like Bill Werner's for a lot less than a Harley," he told me, and I could hear the frustration in his voice as he added, "But Kawasaki won't give you any help. I'm not knocking Kawasaki, it's a great company and they make great bikes, but they post contingency for WERA and CCS road races that are just club races, and they still won't put up money in our Singles championship - a national championship that Kawasaki riders have won for the last two years. I mean, what do we have to do?"
"So on paper, the 650 Kawasaki is cheaper to run. But you can't walk into a Kawasaki or Ducati dealership and get any support. Meanwhile, the top ten [GNC] guys all seem to be supported by a Harley-Davidson dealership. So the parts are expensive, but if you're getting some for free or at a discount through a sponsor - I get great support from Blue Springs Harley-Davidson - and if I finish in the top 10, I get contingency money from Harley," he told me. "For me, it's a no-brainer."