Half a Mile Apart
Indian lost their way while attempting a flat track replica. But they’re not alone. Why hasn’t anyone built a convincing road-legal flat tracker?
Buy any modern superbike, then peel-and-stick the gaudy graphics of a World Superbike racer to its flanks, and you’re nine-tenths of the way to a machine indistinguishable from a full-tilt racer. Perfectionists can go further. Hack off the great gob of plastic that suspends the licence plate and taillight, bin the bulky muffler for a riotously noisy replacement, and your streetbike is tantalizing close to a racer. If a manufacturer can do that—tame a superbike for everyday use while retaining its racetrack brio—why is it no manufacturer has produced a convincing flat tracker for the road?
They’ve tried. Honda made single-cylinder and V-twin Ascots. Harley had the XR1000 and, decades later, the XR1200. Honda and Harley both had race bikes in the shed with impeccable pedigree for inspiration—Honda the RS750 and Harley the XR750. Yet Ascots were ho-hum commuter bikes, and Harley’s XR1000, despite an engine closely related to the XR750, was saddled by a Sportster’s chassis. And the XR1200 was just too big and too heavy.
The flat tracker would seem, at the outset, the racing motorcycle most capable of transitioning to the street. It’s without sophisticated electronics, has a slim V-twin or parallel twin of moderate horsepower, and in profile has the ageless appeal of a 1970s standard. And it’s easy to understand the desire to make a street-going flat tracker. It’s the motorcycle pared to the essentials. Nineteen-inch wheels bookend a compact engine suspended in a tubular-steel frame that wouldn’t look out of place on a Manx Norton. Flat track racers are unconsciously retro, without the affectation of machines trying to look retro. (Offenders are many, including any bike with scrambler on its nameplate.)
FTR1200 (above) intended to capture the panache of the all-conquering FTR750 (below). No one fell for it. The reason why no-one has made a believable flat tracker for the street is surprisingly straightforward.
Indian, for the 2017 season, made a purpose-built racer for the ages with the Scout FTR750. The Scout is so dominant that Bryan Smith, who won the AFT title just a few years ago, was so uncompetitive this season on his Kawasaki that he withdrew from races rather than suffer the humiliation of sinking further outside the top 10. The Scout is a worthy successor to the RS750 and XR750, and it’s beautiful in a way no other machine from Indian is. The frame shrink-wraps a V-twin that nestles below an exquisite carbon-fibre faux-tank and tail-section. Freed from the heritage brand compulsion of making motorcycles look like they’re from the immediate postwar era (the Chief) or stretched and slammed to the point of diminished function (the standard Scout), Indian soared with the Scout FTR750, mechanically and aesthetically. And yet Indian’s FTR1200 street bike looks nothing like the racing machine it’s supposed to replicate.
The FTR1200, despite sharing the racer’s colour scheme, misses the mark as a road-going flat tracker by the breadth of Indian’s home state of Minnesota. To make a convincing flat tracker it’s necessary to adhere to the parameters that distinguish the breed. Like a motocross rider, the flat track pilot needs a flat seat to move up for corner entry and back for corner exit. The flat line that extends from the fuel tank to the tail section isn’t to make the bike look old—it’s because it aids rider control. And the FTR750 is small. Weight is somewhere near 340 pounds and horsepower around 100.
At a claimed 488 pounds dry, the Scout FTR1200, with fluids topped up, is nearly 200 pounds heavier than the racer. And to make power similar to the racer, the engine has gained significant displacement. But more than the numbers, the FTR1200 has dispensed with everything that makes the race bike desirable. The trellis frame doesn’t look like the racer’s, the exhaust system doesn’t look like the racer’s, and the stepped seat has no precedent as a flat tracker’s perch. Indian set about making a road-going homage to the FTR750 but instead made a motorcycle eerily reminiscent of a Ducati Monster 1200. What happened?
That a consumer superbike is similar to a machine fit for race duty—and that a flat track replica is nothing at all like a racer—comes down to the word homologation (which is a sanctioning body’s stipulation that in order to certify a bike to race, the manufacturer must produce a version for the public). Ducati’s Panigale V4R, despite drawing mechanical inspiration from the Desmosedici MotoGP racer, was designed from the get-go as a street bike. To race in the World Superbike championship a manufacturer must homologate 500 machines in the first two years of a model’s production. But this protocol doesn’t exist in flat track racing. Honda’s RS750, Harley’s XR750, and Indian’s FTR750 are pure racing motorcycles, like a MotoGP bike.
It’s understandable that people are attracted to the flat track aesthetic. But don’t be fooled by the retro looks of the FTR750—it’s a beast. On pavement it would be nervous, wheelie-prone, and hardly carry enough fuel to have useful range. Oh, and there’s no electric starter. In other words, it’s wildly desirable. But a true flat track bike that’s both a proper racer and a passable street bike (like Ducati’s Panigale V4R) will never happen. Because American Flat Track would need to instigate homologation, and manufacturers would need to view flat track racing as important enough to make a race bike to suit the duality of street and race usage.
But that question again—why does the Scout FTR1200 look nothing like the FTR750? Product planners at Indian would have pointed out the necessity of making a machine for as broad a demographic as possible. They would have claimed, justifiably, that a boost to 1,200 cc would put the FTR1200 in line with competing machines in the marketplace. And they’d have insisted, with a hint of irritation, that the high seat of the race bike be slammed down into the frame, so short-legged riders obsessed with flat-footing it at streetlights wouldn’t be alienated. And they’d have had no patience for an exhaust system that’d burn everyone’s ass. And then there’s the noise it makes. But what if they’d said fuck it and went ahead and made it? And shipped it with a “closed course” exhaust stuffed in a box. What if they’d done it and made a championship flat tracker you could really buy?
A flat track replica? Ah, no. But a Ducati Monster 1200 replica? Absolutely! During the design process management should have yanked the FTR1200 project back on track. Or canned it.
Yes, concessions would be necessary. And it would be ungodly expensive. And the bike would be rude. And quasi-legal, at best. But a young Lamborghini made the Countach. And Ducati and Honda have made MotoGP racers for the street in limited numbers. Polaris makes much ado over Indian’s 1901 founding, but Indian is no longer the company of Hendee and Hedstrom. Polaris, who’ve owned Indian for less than a decade, is the company that bungled Victory into oblivion. The Scout FTR750 is the first feat accomplished by the new Indian that’s worthy of our admiration. But a real racer for the road would be just the wonderful insanity that enthusiasts need to convince them that a vibrant pulse beats within the boardrooms of Polaris.