Pioneers, Trackers, Roadracers and Heros — Part Two

Perhaps the single, most emblematic form of American Motorcycle Racing is Flat Track racing. Although the earliest races are literally lost in the mists of time, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to visualize your great grandpa and my great grandpa — yours had his new Harley Davidson and mine his new Indian. — out at their local county fairgrounds on sunny Saturday afternoon. Riders being riders, they were checking out each others rides, maybe talking a little trash, and then looking at the horse racing track out behind them, looking at each other, and then getting a real funny look on their faces.

“So let’s go, eh?”

What may have started out as a spontaneous run-whut-ya-brung night at the fairgrounds quickly turned into national competitions that consumed the engineering energies of the Harley and Indian factories and riveted the attention of the nation. And like all proper arms races, it quickly went nuclear when competition moved from horse racing ovals to the banked wooden bicycle racing velodromes. The banked wooden surfaces made slowing down for corners completely unnecessary. And since big is good, huge must be better, so the quarter-mile velodomes were quickly replaced by purpose-built half mile, full mile and even two-mile highly banked motordromes.

Board-track racing was crazy fast, with average speeds over 100 mph becoming commonplace. Board track racing was exciting — racing was close, with bar to bar action in the corners the order of the day.

Unfortunately, falling on a board-track was also deadly. Splintered surfaces and hard fences at the outside of the tracks meant a get off had a fatality level that added up to a sustained and unacceptable level of outright carnage.

So, facing an onslaught of negative press that grew to overwhelming public outrage, motorcycle racing moved back to the dirt. Racing in the dirt was slower, perhaps better racing, and when people fell off, and they are wont to do, way less of them died doing it. And so flat track became Americas foundational motorcycle sport — with trackers barnstorming across the country — to places like Springfield, Peoria, Laconia, San Jose, Ascot and Lodi and a million other fairgrounds and small towns across this great country.

Heck, even Frederick Maryland, near my home of Jefferson, has the Barbara Fritchie Classic , the longest continually running Half Mile, having first been run on the Oval at The Great Frederick Fairgrounds in 1922.

AMA’s involvement with Flat Track Racing was foundational, deep and total. AMA did promotion, sanctioning and management of the racing series until 2008, when they sold their interests in this series — and others, such as Superbike, Motocross and ATV Racing — to the investment group that runs Daytona Speedway and NASCAR. The notion was to turn the business of Professional Racing over to the Pros, and return the AMA to its advocacy and amateur sponsorship roots.

But as a result of this intimate relationship between the AMA and Flat Track Racing, means that AMA has more keystone Flat Track racing motorcycles than anyone, not to mention racing leathers, boots, helmets, trophies and other ephemera that really give you a full 360 view of the sport and its finest practitioners.

 

***

 

There’s really no better place to start that view than with Joe Leonard and his Harley Davidson KR750. Joe is a red-blooded American’s answer to Big John Surtees — our only homegrown Champion at the highest levels of both two and four-wheeled motorsport. Strangely and somewhat irritatingly to two-wheeled enthusiasts, so successful was Joe as an Indy Car driver, that many fans weren’t aware of just how talented and successful a motorcycle racer Joe Leonard was. Successful to the tune of Three Time Winner of AMA’s Grand National Championship — in 1954, 1956 and 1957. Successful, despite having vision so poor (and so uncorrected) that Joe resoundingly flunked the vision test when he submitted to USAC’s physical to obtain his Indy car racing license.

His rival and eventual teammate Mario Andretti was reported to have ridden Joe afterwards – “Jose, can you see?”

Joe, ever the light-hearted soul, had come back with something to the effect that “As long as everybody was behind me, it didn’t matter.”

Successful, despite having raced on a machine that was the technological equivalent of a Stone Axe — the Harley Davidson KR750. The KR 750 was perhaps Harley’s first, furtive steps in the direction of internal combustion modernity — and they were baby steps, at that. First conceived in 1950 as a response to the first waves of British and European twins being imported into the US, the KR was designed to be lighter, more modern motorcycle that could be purchased at any dealership and raced by anyone who had purchased one. To this end, the Street model KR had hydraulic forks, a rear swingarm and twin shocks, Harley’s first unit construction engine, and a four speed transmission mated to a hand-operated clutch. That was a far as modernity went, though. In the engine bay the story was still more Briggs and Stratton meets the Age of Steam.

The KR’s motor was still a cast iron cylindered, side-valved flathead. It made up for lack of breathing and rpm potential with extra displacement and tremendous torque at lower engine speeds. The KR was easy to work on, and robustly built — things tended not to break. The race versions of the KR – in the interest of weight – dispensed with the rear suspensions, and had rigid frames. With a fairing, the KR was a surprisingly good roadracer. On the dirt track, they were simply dominant.

With a little help from their friends at the Sanctioning Department of the AMA, who set the racing class rules so that 750cc sidevalves competed against Overhead Valve engines of not more than 500ccs, Harley’s humble Everyman Racer began a 15 year rip of being the most successful racebike in America. Joe used to relate how his mechanics would gripe — because Joe was not a small guy — how “they were giving up 8 horsepower” because of his size. Joe, accordingly, became somewhat maniacal in trying to get as much of it back as possible by drilling as many holes in his motorcycles as physics would allow — take a good look at the engine cases of his KR.

 

Iron Barrels, Flatheads and An Awful Lot of Holes

 

Under the wrist of Joe Leonard – who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998 – if you were racing in the Grand National Series between 1954 and 1961 — it was a bike that was winning everywhere.

More amazingly, the KR didn’t stop winning when Joe Leonard made the jump to Indy Eagles. For an engine that shared its architecture with your lawnmower, the KR just kept hooking up on corner exits and winning for nearly a generation.

 

Might Have an Engine Like Your Lawnmower, But It’s Still In Front of You, Pal

 

Mert Lawill was no slouch of a rider, either. He too, could win a Grand National Championship — on this bike in 1969 — given a lawnmower to ride. Of course, since Mert was no slouch as a designer, or fabricator, either, his KR was developed to its absolute limits. Mert was enough of an engineering minded development rider that his racing KR had been modified to include a dual shock swingarm rear. His personal touches abound – the shape of the fuel tank and tail section are unique to Mert’s racer, the engine mounting plates and swingarm fabrication are all art in metal.

When Mert – who was also inducted to the Hall in 1998 – stopped racing motorcycles, he kept right on outdoing himself, first designing and building the archetype of the full suspension mountainbike. After revolutionizing mountainbike design, Mert adapted its parallelogram rear suspension to a custom short production run motorcycle called the Lawill Street Tracker. The machine work on the Tracker — from the swingarm, to the drive pulley, to an oil tank that masquerades as a racing number plate — is pure jewelry. If one was going to buy any of the Harley based XR replicas that the market provides — the Lawill is clearly the one to have. More recently, Mert has been designing and fabricating prosthetic limbs for motorsports enthusiasts and for the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Every bit of it is immediately obvious as artwork in metal.

 

***

 

Even something as simple as your lawnmower will eventually fail, and by 1969 — a motorcycle that some characterized as obsolete when it was introduced in 1954 — the KR was well and truly finished as a competitive racing motorcycle.

It’s not like it was a smooth transition.

AMA decided to level the field by eliminating the equivalency formula that had allowed the flatheads to survive. With all racing motorcycles now allowed 750 ccs, regardless of valve configuration or operation, Harley had to make more power, and now, or racing was going to become known by its new name of losing a lot. They needed overhead valves, and they needed more revs to make power competitive to that of the Trumphs and the BSAs.

Harley, being Harley, did what they had always done — they looked around to see what they already had that could be adapted to task. The problem with the KR wasn’t really the frame, or even the running gear — the setup on Mert’s KR, with Ceriani forks and his swingarm transplant — wasn’t bad, so they kept it, and went looking for a motor.

HD had a motor — the 1000cc plant from the XR series Sportsters. So the racing department fabbed some shorter connecting rods, sleeved the cylinders down to get the motor down to the required 750cc, and used the Sportster’s cast iron cylinders and heads.

When Racers nickname your new racebike “The Waffle Iron”, it probably isn’t intended to be complimentary, and it wasn’t. The first few years of iron headed XR racebikes — making RPM and making power — which was new for them — overheated, seized and blew up with startling regularity.

The XR was initially so unreliable, that Mert — HD’s Factory Top Gun — who was defending his 1969 Grand National Championship, was forced to fire his Iron Head XR and put his supposedly retired KR back into the game.

You May Have Trouble Catching These

XR Version Two Point Oh — which went to a still shorter stroke and, more importantly, all aluminum cylinders and heads, figured out how to use thermal energy to make forward motion, instead of the prior explosions. It took a couple of years to get the bugs out, but once the ‘Motor Raid’ had done its little extermination thing, the XR750 went on to all but own – with one brief exception – Flat Track Competition though 2015.

Just Fuggedddaboutit

Another XR, another Number 1 Plate

Not all XRs spent their time sliding sideways in the dirt — some of them took up flying. Evil Knievel’s XR was basically a stock tracker save a front brake and footpegs that had been widened slightly to provide a little more leverage for body english while the bike was airborne.

Evel Jumpbike Replica

Why do you think Evel needed these?

 

***

 

Owning the dirt for decades didn’t mean a few folks didn’t take a run at Harley-Davidson. Honda, in particular proved that willingness to invest and do a little R&D meant that you could beat them, too, even if rules changes meant you might not be able to make it stick for very long.

Honda was confident that if they had their own V-twin flattracker, they could win with it. Like Harley, they looked around to see if they had one available, and their available choice was, well, a little weird. The only V-twin Honda had to work with was the CX500, which, it must be observed, was designed to be installed in a transverse orientation, and whose appearance has been compared favorably with that of an industrial water pump. On the positive side, though, the engine was water-cooled, had 4-valve heads, and did have an entirely deserved reputation for indestructibility — even bored out to 650 cc and turbocharged the CX just laughed it off.

Your CX 500 Don’t Look Like This

Honda had to slice up a lot of metal to make their tracker — the transverse motor was rotated 90 degrees to bring it in-line, and cases and transmission were reworked to replace the street bike’s shaft with a chain. Intake runners needed to be changed so that carburetors didn’t end up in spaces unfortunately required for important parts of the rider.

The engine had one more surprise — designed as a low to midrange rpm powerplant, its cooling system was intolerant of extended high rpm operation — the waterpump would cavitate, and the resulting air bubbles in the water jackets would spot boil, and power from the engine would plummet, usually at the times one needed it most.

Honda was absolutely right that if they had their own V-twin flattracker, they could win with it. The NS750 just wasn’t that motorcycle.

The Honda men internalized one of the essential wisdoms of racing — “Don’t get mad, get even.” — and went back to the well to design the RS750.

The RS turned out to be everything the NS was not. But most importantly, with a guy named Bubba Shobert at the bars, it was a winner – blowing 3 straight Grand National Championships in 1985, 86 and 87. The RS was so dominant that it attracted the unwanted attentions of rule makers, who mandated restrictor plates and ballast to keep the Grand National Championship from turning into a boring Honda RS parade.

To see flat track dominance like that, you’d need to fast forward to 2016, to when Indian Motorcycle decided that the route to their future led through the past — the days of the 1920s Indian Wrecking Crew at the intersection of the Motordromes and the return to the dirt. Indian decided to build a bike to go back to the oval, and to win.

Take a Good Look, Because You’ll Only Be Seeing The Back of this Bike From Now On

The way back started with this prototype unit for Indian’s FTR 750 — 3d printed parts and all. The eventual product has been dominant — basically running all the podium positions in every race of the 2017 season, and winning team rider Jared Mees the Grand National Championship. 2018, so far, doesn’t look to be any different.

Indian is hoping — 98 years after Shrimp Burns helped Indian dealers sell bikes to peformance-minded riders — that at least some things never do change.

 

 

Part Three can be found here.

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Loud

Maryland doesn’t have winters.

Its a major reason why motorcycling me chose to settle here.

Oh, sure, it snows every once in while. And while every once in a great while you might even have to take a shovel in hand and do something about it, most Maryland snows can be waited out — ignore them for a few days and they go away.

If I, as a Marylander, were to attempt to convince someone from the Southern Tier of New York, or Wisconsin, or Vermont, or Montana, that I experienced actual Winters, I would not hear the end of their riotous laughter until we both were experiencing flowers blooming all up verifiable spring.

Which is why its a tad odd that we Marylanders just punched out of a 23 day period where we never saw any temperature above the freezing mark, with a full 10 day run of nights in the low single digits. We didn’t get any snow – we just froze our collective butts off. So instead of riding, we spent our time feeding the woodstove, nursing some Union Snow Pants Oatmeal Imperial Stouts and cursing under our breaths while we plotted our rider’s revenge against the cold.

All of these motorcycling hostile conditions meant that many things we would normally do remained frustratingly undone.

Then, in classic Maryland fashion, it went from a daytime high of 18 to a daytime high of 67 in a single day.

Unsurprisingly, I more or less sprinted straight to the garage, hopped on the LT, and turned the key. Older K bikes have a few signals they send using the ABS lights. Normal operation consists of both ABS lights blinking on and off together on power up. If the battery fails to meet the minimum ABS arming voltage, they will blink alternately — first one, then the other. This time, the ABS lights lit, then went out altogether, the system spontaneously reset, and then assumed the normal start sequence. I let the bike sit for about 20 seconds with the key on just to get some current flowing, then pressed the starter button.

If the LT has ever cranked slower than it did that day, I don’t remember it. On the first spin, it didn’t fire. On the second try, as I found myself considering the possibility it might not fire, it finally did, assuming its customary slightly diesely sounding cold idle. As the instruments all assumed normal operation, the bike’s thermometer displayed 13 degrees f, indicating just how cold things had gotten inside my closed garage. I rolled the bike down the driveway, toed it into gear, and said quiet thanks as the ABS trashcanned to life, indicating my battery was at least a little more healthy than I’d given it credit for.

15 miles or so of sunny Valley roads later, my motorcycling life had itself thawed out, and my attention returned to rides long delayed.

 

***

 

First on the list was to reclaim Finn’s Buell Blast, which had been sitting idle in his apartment’s parking garage in Greenbelt since before the holiday break and the subsequent deep freeze. The Blast needed to contribute it’s Battery Tender and harness, a modified version of the toolkit I’d assembled for it and its soft saddlebags to the new CB500F that would replace it for the soon coming semester. It also needed some minor service – most notably the installation of a new quiet core baffle for its Jardine exhaust.

A quick look at the weather report showed a Saturday with a daytime high in the high 50s or low 60s, and so the plan was outlined — load up a car with school supplies, computer gear and some groceries for pre-positioning for the start of classes, and head down to reclaim the little single. To those necessities I added my tire inflator and a battery charger/jumper — given the drama associated with waking up the LT post freeze, I wanted to be prepared for possible drama.

 

***

 

The drive down to Greenbelt was sunny, smooth and uneventful — which, given that we’re talking about Metro DC, is by itself noteworthy. Upon arrival at Finn’s place, we offloaded our cargo into his apartment, grabbed some hydration, made a comfort stop, and visited the property’s management office to register the CB in their parking records and take care of some other administrativia.

We headed back upstairs, and went back into the parking structure where I pulled on my gear. I grabbed my inflator and topped up the tires, which were just a bit below spec. I pulled on my helmet, strapped on my elkskin gauntlets, and swung a leg over the Blast’s low saddle. I opened up the fuel petcock, and turned on the ignition.

I’d been concerned about drama about starting a flash frozen bike.

I’d needn’t have been concerned. The Blast, like my Slash 5, has a Deka AGM battery, and these batteries hold a charge better when stored and deliver more cold cranking power than any other motorcycle batteries I’ve ever used.

The Blast spun up hard, and fired on the third compression stroke.

There was no question whatsoever that the 500 single was running.

Finn’s eyes narrowed to slits before he ducked and rolled away from the bike. Without the quiet core inside the Jardine muffler, and inside the concrete cave of the parking structure, the din was absolutely staggering. Out of reflex more than intention, I blipped the throttle.

That was a mistake.

With the butterflies open, what had been merely stupid loud changed to mind-erasing cacophony.

I leaned over toward Finn.

“I’m going to head up I-95 towards 32. Give me about a 10-15 minute head start, so If I run into any mechanical issues, at least you’ll be somewhere out behind me.”

Finn just looked confused and pointed both index fingers towards his ears and shrugged.

I grabbed his head with both gloved hands and pulled him into the eyeport of my Shoei. I rebroadcast the message — only louder this time.

This time I could see comprehension on Finn’s face. He responded with a simple thumbs up.

I gassed the Blast and headed toward the ramp out of the garage.

Given the Blast’s relatively narrow powerband, low power output and short throw throttle, my normal riding approach involves pretty aggressive application of throttle. As I rolled the throttle open to get the bike headed towards the first of the three ramps that would get me out of the garage and out to the street, it was clear the normal method would require some situational modification. Every time I even cracked the throttle inside the parking structure, the increase in sound volume was well nigh unbearable.

I basically coasted the Blast down the three ramps, though the automated security gate, and out into the street.

Once I was outside the parking structure, I figured it might be OK to finally open the throttle.

I was again wrong.

The street that leads away from the apartment runs between two apartment blocks — cracking the throttle in that masonry canyon had the net impact of delaying the echo of the noise coming back from the Blast’s motor for a few extra milliseconds, but was still nearly unbearably loud.

Finally, the street took me away from spaces defined by concrete and brick, and out into the open. The standard Buell design, with the exhaust exit located under the bike just in front of the rear tire, meant that the rider was mostly isolated from the sound, but anyone located in a roughly 160 degree section to the sides and rear of the motorcycle, was being exposed to sound that was more suitable to a racetrack or a combat theater than a public road.

At the end of Greenbelt Road I briefly turned on to Kenilworth Road and then opened the butterflies wide and accelerated up the ramp and onto the DC Beltway, surfing the pressure waves of this overwhelming sound. I had to admit, with the exhaust core removed, the Blast was making more power over a wider spread or RPMs. On the flip side, though, as I passed a car topping out 4th gear, I looked briefly to the side, and was greeted with the sight of all 4 of the car’s occupants gaping slackjawed and googly-eyed straight at me.

That told me pretty much what I needed to know.

It was going to be a long 50 miles back to Jefferson.

I don’t want you to think for a minute I’m some sort of internal combustion sound prude. I enjoy the sound of a well-tuned and appropriately muffled motorcycle as much as the next guy. But the sound coming out of the Blast was in no way anything like that.

I’ve spend my fair share of time enjoying the Barabara Fritchie Motorcycle Classic — America’s longest continually running Half Mile Flat Track Event. I have also been known to hang out at Airshows and Commemorative Air Force fly-ins, where old warbirds like the famous B-17 Memphis Belle are shown and flown.

Net/net is that with a open drag pipe and straight through resonator, the Harley Davidson based 500cc single was less MotoGuzzi LeMans (Bella!) and more flat-out XR750 or Wright Cyclone on take-off roll (plus or minus 8 to 35 cylinders). The sound is an all-out sonic assault — it hits you in the diaphragm — right in the solar plexus — it scrambles one’s brains and takes one’s breath clean away. The sound is a combination of intake growl and basso profundo roar — it makes no sense whatsoever that this tsunami of sound is coming from this diminutive motorcycle.

Fortunately, I’d planned my route so much of it was at less than Interstate warp speed — MD 32 is a secondary road where 50 to 60 miles an hour is the prevailing speed — so I could loaf down these roads in either the top of 4th gear or the bottom of 5th with minimal throttle openings.

After running across much of the state on MD32 I came back to Interstate 70. Once clear of Baltimore — especially headed west — drivers fly out here. There would be no loafing on the next stretch. I roared up the ramp and settled in at about 76 mph to be able to blend in to prevailing traffic.

After all of the grief it has caused me, and all of the shade Finn and I have thrown its way, I’ll admit I got a little thrill from having the loud little monster run this well — probably as well as it ever has. Sound pressure not withstanding, the bike was making better top gear power than it ever had — it was pulling 5th gear with authority from under 70 miles an hour, and 70 to 80 mph pulls felt pretty strong. Of course power on a single most times equates to vibration, and I was taking quite the beating at speed.

Just about New Market, with about 70 miles showing on the tripmeter, the Blast stumbled as it hit reserve. Unlike my customary practice, for some reason I didn’t mind the notion of a fuel stop.

I rolled into a High’s where the Buell took a whopping 1.1 gallons of fuel. I’d noticed some visual telltales that my blood sugar was headed dangerously low — in our excitement Finn and I had skipped lunch — so I grabbed some fruit juice for my own tank which instantly set things right.

I rode the roar back up through the gears – accelerating as hard as a Blast ever does – then cruised past Frederick, over the ridge into the Valley, and was shortly up the driveway and killswitching into blessed and welcome echoing silence.

Due to the gas stop, Finn had just beaten me home.

“Man, Pop, I heard you all the way down the ramps in the garage, all the way up Greenbelt Road, and accelerating up the ramp onto the Beltway. That bike is some kind of obnoxious.”

“Yup, it sure is. Let me take off my ‘Stich and as soon as The Blast cools off we’ll put in the new quiet core that’s sitting on the workbench. No way I’m running that bike again without the cork installed.”