Come and Gone

 

Harley-Davidson’s XR750, beneath the lights at a small-town half-mile, is the greatest sight in motorcycle racing   

 

On a hot summer Saturday night in 1978 I bicycled across town to the flat track race at the fairgrounds, where a Michigan teenager, not much older than me, galloped away from the competition. This kid was something else—in the corners his engine cases skimmed the track and arcs of dirt flew from both wheels. He rode up against the fence, alongside the hay bales, farther out than anyone else would risk, where the pea-gravel cushion was as deep as a powerboat’s wake. I was dumbfounded at the spectacle and deafened by his bike’s nail-gun exhaust note hammering off the poultry shed’s tin siding. I learned from a man alongside the fence line that the rider’s name was Scott Parker, and that his bike was a Harley-Davidson XR750. I pedalled home with the knowledge that this was not an ordinary motorcycle. 

 

There’s nothing about its specification that suggests an XR750 is special. Although purpose-built for racing, they struggle to make 90 horsepower and its two valves per-cylinder are pushrod operated. (One can’t accuse Harley-Davidson of the willy-nilly pursuit of fads—like overhead camshafts.) Unlike the technical wizardry of a MotoGP bike—which is astounding on its own, with or without a MotoGP rider to straddle it—an XR, in the absence of the talent to make it sing, is as diminished as Pablo Casals’s cello propped against a pawn shop counter. More than any other motorcycle, an XR750 is inseparable from the men for whom it was built. 

 

Steve Beattie has been an XR750 rider for 30 years. Beattie, who won the 1995 AMA Grand National half-mile, at Michigan’s I-96 Speedway, on the same XR that he won the Canadian title in 2016, first rode one as a 14-year-old—straight into a parked van. “The brake and shifter both on the right side messed me up,” he says. Beattie credits tuner Johnny Goad with teaching him how to ride an XR. “You don’t ever coast it,” says Beattie, “and you steer with the throttle, not the handlebar.” The best tuners, like Goad, have a by-any-means-necessary methodology that makes them as unscrupulous as boxing promoters. Goad, who tuned Ricky Graham to the AMA title in 1993, told Beattie he was using too much brake, and then, to make his point, Goad—without a word to Beattie—unhooked the brake.  

 

At a deep cushion half-mile Beattie’s body language entering the corner is that of a man wrestling a calf to the ground. He is up on top of his XR, coaxing it down into the corner, and then, a beat later, back on the throttle—gently, progressively—stepping the tail out and turning the bike. “If you can’t pull the trigger [open the throttle] it’s a piece of shit to ride,” says Beattie, who explains that the front wheel’s inclination is to tuck into a low-side, while the momentum from the engine’s heavy flywheels seek to shoot you through the fence. 

XR750 is delicate, simple, effective. The hard, metallic, tuned exhaust note is unlike that of any other Harley.

Canadian Dave Sehl was one of the most successful early XR riders. He won six AMA nationals. 

Brad Baker, here at Lima, Ohio, was the XR's last factory rider. Often, he rode spectacularly. Often, the XR imploded. Baker jumped to Indian to avoid the indignity of riding the XG750R.  

How a technically rudimentary motorcycle like the XR has come to dominate flat track for decades comes down to a trio of handicaps inherent to flat track racing: dirt, tires, and brakes. The only way to effectively stop a motorcycle is by using a front brake, but flat track is without them. (Until the late ’60s, there wasn’t even a rear brake.) Add to that tires with a shallow lug (they’re derided as the “70 horsepower” tire, meaning that’s the most horsepower they can handle) and track surfaces that vary from polished clay to shin-deep gravel, and it’s obvious that traction in flat track is as elusive as a firm grip on a greased pig. 

 

The word “technology” as applied to flat track is the inverse of most other racing disciplines. To improve handling and suspension compliance on a road racing motorcycle, magnesium or carbon fibre wheels minimize rotating (and unsprung) mass. But in flat track, a rule mandates that rear wheels not have a minimum weight, as you might expect, but a maximum weight. (And air must be used to inflate tires—not water. This is not a joke. Former AMA champ Joe Kopp caught the ire of officials when an incontinent valve on his rear tube caused a starting-line flood.) The 2016 AMA flat track series was marred by infighting and protests surrounding eventual champion Bryan Smith, when it was discovered his rear wheel was overweight. (Smith was caught red-handed but had an email from series technical director Al Ludington claiming his overweight wheel was, illogically, legal. Lucky for Smith, but an unfortunate gaffe by Ludington, who was sacked.)

 

When it debuted, in 1970, the XR750 was a flop. Because of limited budget, designers were forced to use production-based components, which meant Sportster-derived cast-iron cylinders and heads. But a racing engine is supposed to shed heat, and not retain it like the cast-iron Findlay Oval wood stove in grandma’s Wisconsin kitchen. Back to the drafting table.

 

The 1972 XR750 was an entirely different beast. Cylinders and heads were aluminum and the iron XR’s single carburetor was ditched for dual Mikunis. The revised bike was such a gem that it never received a radical redesign. Rival manufacturers threw everything at it. In the ’70s parallel-twins from England and Japan were the XR’s competition. In the ’80s it was Honda’s RS750. In the decades since, V-twins from KTM and Suzuki and Ducati were its challengers. The XR didn’t always win—Honda’s RS bettered it until Honda lost interest—but the XR held off rivals from a young Kenny Roberts all the way to KTM Super Dukes. That’s a sizeable chunk of motorcycling’s history. But every empire comes to an end.

 

Of all the motorcycles tasked with toppling the XR, the engine that finally hobbled it was one of the humblest—Kawasaki’s parallel-twin Ninja 650. In order to keep in the draft of Bryan Smith’s specialist-framed Kawasaki, XRs were pushed beyond the limit. In 2016, Harley factory rider Brad Baker was just as often watching from the infield as dicing on the track, as his XR habitually exploded. For most independent teams, the XR is too fragile (read too expensive) to run, and the bulk of the grid has migrated to Kawasaki and, for 2018, Indian.

 

In 2017—for the first time since 1970—the Harley factory team did not race the XR750. Instead, it was the XR’s replacement, the XG750R—a modified Street 750 engine in a dirt-track chassis. “Unlike our competitors,” read a Harley press release, “we are going racing behind an American-made production engine.” Harley’s shot at Indian (the new-for-’17 Scout FTR750 was developed in conjunction with Swiss company and Polaris subsidiary SwissAuto) was suffused with hypocrisy. Indian’s purpose-built bike is precisely what Harley did with the XR750, and, furthermore, Indian’s gobbling-up of the three best riders in the sport revealed Harley’s racing program to be embarrassingly flat-footed. To add to Harley’s humiliation, the XG750R was an unmitigated dud. Indian rider Jared Mees won the title in a walk, while Harley factory riders were often scrabbling at the lower end of the top 10. 

 

A few years ago I returned to my hometown for the half-mile, won that night by Don Taylor, on an XR750. (Scott Parker—the teenager I’d watched when I was a kid—retired with nine titles and 94 wins.) After the race, when the track announcer asked Taylor for a comment, he looked down at his XR. Typically, riders leap to thank tuners or sponsors, but Taylor looked wistful, and said that to ride the XR to victory at a great old half-mile, under the lights, was something special. As those of us in the grandstand emptied onto the track, I approached the spindly framed, densely packed amalgam of carburetors and oil lines and breather tubes and exhaust pipes that is an XR750. I stood alongside the greatest motorcycle yet conceived, not quite ready to move away into the night and home.