There was a lot of buzz, last year, as Ducati and Kawasaki-powered bikes carried Joe Kopp and Bryan Smith to wins on Mile tracks - the first non-Harleys to score Grand National Championship wins, on big tracks, in decades.
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 drily note, "Rumors of my demise have been exaggerated."
Over the next few Blue Groove installments, I'll seek an explanation for the XR's long dominance over the GNC, cover some of the motor's history, and try to look into its future.
The best place to begin this education is in Michigan, in Bryan Smith's shop. After years of being a top GNC contender on Harley-Davidsons (Smith came within one out-of-spec fuel sample of winning the championship in 2009) Bryan switched to Kawasaki, riding for Bill Werner, in 2010. He was the most consistent 'non-Harley' threat last year. He won two races while riding Werner's 'Ninja'.
Actually, maybe instead of just saying "riding" I should say "riding the wheels off" the Kawasaki twin.
Watching him from trackside, it was clear that 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 ones. So despite all the attention paid to 'new 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, on bikes supplied by Moroney's /1-800-FASTHOG with additional support from American Harley-Davidson of North Tonawanda NY.
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. It looked pretty hairy.
"You should have seen the view from over the handlebar," he laughed. "Yeah, there were more 'moments' and more big moments on the Kawasaki. There were a lot of times last year when if I was a little smarter, I probably would have let off a little, but thank God and knock on wood, I never crashed it real big."
"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. "For as old as it is, 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" is not just a figure of speech, his bikes are literally old. 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 restricted more than ever, 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; 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 - that are frantic at the best of times - where 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 Grand National Championship. The storyline on the Mile tracks is, how much more ground will the 'imports' make up on the XR-750s? Will the production-based machines actually find a consistent advantage, or will wins by non-Harleys go back to being the exceptions that prove the rule? The storyline on the half-miles is, will any of the imports find traction?
The handling of the XRs is predictable. And for years it's been predictable that they'd win all the races, too. At this point, I think most people would bet that over the course of the 2011 season, Harley-Davidson XR-750s will prevail again. But for how much longer? That's hard to predict...