Is Road Racing Part of Harley Davidson’s Core?

Harley Davidson Number 1 in the Nation

Harley Davidson Number 1 in the Nation
click to enlarge

Harley, as we all know, returned to focusing on the core of the HD brand when they discontinued Buell and sold MV Agusta. The debate, especially about Buell, has been long and loud ever since. But while dumping Buell, everyone said it's now crusiers, all day, everyday, but it would be easy for the Motor Company to do a lot more racing while still focusing on the core brand. After all, they touted their racing feats and accomplishments for many years, people just don't remember because it hardly ever gets mentioned today.

Going through some old ads I saw this one from Harley, "Again, No. 1 in the Nation." At Bonneville and on race courses, Harley Davidson had,

great wins ... sensational wins ... big wins ... from coast to coast. Ten national titles in all, to once again put Harley Davidson in the number 1 spot.

We mentioned this performance oriented image before, but it is interesting to look back on it now and then. With the current XR1200 race series, it seems at least a few folks at the company remember the performance heritage and like to think there's more to riding than a long cruise on a Softail. Maybe BTR Moto is on to something.


  1. stacius says

    A few folks at the company may remember, but it’s pretty obvious that they’ve left racing at the highest levels to the the Japanese and Europeans.

    However, Erik Buell is free to do his thing, he’s currently campaigning a couple of bikes in AMA and may move up to WSBK in a year or so. If BTR manages to make some moves on the track, then good for them!

    The Great American Race Bike is coming. It just won’t be from Harley-Davidson.

    • Paul Crowe - "The Kneeslider" says

      I really don’t expect Harley to get any deeper into racing than they already are or into building sport bikes, Buell has that handled, but it’s interesting that they seemed to believe their own current advertising when they decided what was “core” and what wasn’t. There’s more racing in their heritage than most realize.

      The economy, being what it is at the moment, pretty much closes the door on anything of that sort, but once things turn around, they could, but they probably won’t then, either.

  2. akaaccount says

    I would love to see a large scale American manufacturer make an impact in racing, but I fail to see what a past most who are still riding can’t even remember has to do with anything. Harley has made their cruiser-centric strategy clear, let them live with it.

    And as far as the reference to BTR goes – why does American have to have to be synonymous with big, low revving, torquey engines? The BTR is a SWEET bike don’t get me wrong, but Harley’s racing heritage is built on the the short stroke XR750, not the big twins we have today.

    • says

      why does a race bike have to have a small, high revving, peaky engine? it’s understandable in certain circumstances that a peaky high revving engine will be required in instances like MotoGP and Formula 1, but low revving torquey engines can certainly be competitive in production environments, such as pro superbike and Grand-Am/ALMS GT classes. variety is what makes non-spec racing great!

      • akaaccount says

        I didn’t say a racebike has to be a high RPM thing, I said an American bike DOESN’T have to be a low RPM thing

  3. B50 Jim says

    When the Japanese arrived with high-revving multi-cylinder 4-strokes and wicked 2-strokes, Harley wisely avoided a costly horsepower/technology war. Multis weren’t what H-D was about, and by the mid-60s the Motor Company already was laying the foundation for its lifestyle-based marketing strategy. I have been a critic of H-D, but nobody can deny that it made a smart, or lucky, choice to stay out of the Japanese manufacturers’ playground and concentrate on doing what it does best.

    Looking at the advertisement from 1965, I imagine that most of us would love to find the time warp back to those days and stand trackside as the Harleys battled it out with the Triumphs and BSAs on road courses where the inside of the corners were marked by half-buried tires (how safe was that?), while riders wore black leathers and Bell open helmets with goggles. That level of top-tier racing still was attainable by a determined privateer who only needed a bike, a good shop, skill, a reasonable amount of cash and the desire to race. Sure, he couldn’t match the resources the factories had available, but he could get out there, run with them and expect to make a good showing.

  4. Fred M. says

    Harley Davidson doesn’t have the engineering expertise to build a competitive road race bike. They lost that when they shut down Buell and sold MV. You might as well suggest that Rokon try to go into road racing.

    There’s almost nothing in it for Harley. Their customer base, collectively, has as much interest in road racing as they have in synchronized swimming. The dealers don’t want to sell sport bikes — as evidenced by the open disdain many of them showed for the Buell line. Harley can’t sell their “lifestyle” accessories to sport bike riders.

  5. Bigshankhank says

    I think the biggest detriment to HD revisiting its racing heritage is the fact that they tend to play in their own backyard. Other than an occasional win by another manufacturer in grand national twins racing, most of the finals are all XR750s. And then again to develop a single model racing series like the XR1200 is fun, but its all Harley all the time (of course, that is kind of the point). What they need to do is compete with other manufacturers in a racing series. I guess you can’t expect Suzuki to develop a bike for the express purpose of competing with HD in a race series like they would a 600cc supersport to fight Kaw/Honda/Yamaha, but if HD won’t branch out then someone needs to challenge them on their own turf.

    • says

      Except that people can get a big honkin’ cruiser from just about any other motorcycle company they choose and go looking for them enough to justify those companies offering more cruiser options in the US than they do standards (on my last count anyway).

      It’s an issue of lack of domestic choice. People emotionally want there to be a domestic presence, but most of the domestic dollar goes where it has gone.

      That said, you can’t buy what isn’t being sold. If there was a $6-7000 American sportbike/true standard, do you think Americans would be it?

  6. Tin Man says

    Did anyone else notice that Harley dropped the XR1200R from their 2013 U.S. lineup?? The XR did not sell in the USA, the Sportster 883R does not sell in the USA, Its pretty clear that Harley gets slapped down every time they bring out any bike that does not fit their nitch. Much like the Japenese brands cant sell a big cruiser without giving it away, HD cant sell a Sporty bike. Just the way it is. When folks say Harley a big fat cruiser is what comes to mind, Say Kawasaki and folks think Ninja.

    • Richard Gozinya says

      I think that part of the problem they had with the XR1200 is that at least on paper, it wasn’t competitive with anything sport oriented. I say on paper, because in reality the things are pretty competitive, one even outpaced a Ducati Streetfighter at Pikes Peak. But the spec sheet doesn’t suggest that, and most people looking for performance pay a lot of heed to the specs.

      It’s not really a priority for them at this point either, as sportbike sales are plummeting. I’d just like to see them try a nice light, middleweight naked, on par with a Street Triple, perhaps based on the V-Rod design (Obviously with a smaller engine). More than likely won’t happen, but that’s what I’d like to see.

    • says

      i don’t believe that H-D ever intended for the XR1200 did they? i thought it was planned from the start to only be a short term production ‘special’.

      • Richard Gozinya says

        Yes, but unfortunately, that’s the way it always goes with them and anything performance. It’s just not what people buy Harleys for. Though I think nowadays they might be more inclined, given the increased competition from the Diavel with regards to the V-Rods.

  7. Cab says

    “The Great American Race Bike is coming. It just won’t be from Harley-Davidson.”

    I saw Geoff May riding the new Buell 1190rs at Homestead Miami Speedway, he set a new track record and was a full front stretch ahead of the closest bike. The thing is without question a f’ng beast!

  8. rohorn says

    Harley can’t sell a sporty bike? They’ve never done one – they were always unfinished projects one had to pay extra for then pay even more to get right. In other words, they have failed at half-assed attempts at selling them.

    That isn’t a H-D problem, but rather an industry problem – half-assed attempts to sell performance bikes always fails.

    I’ve been told too many stories by too many people I know and trust with Factory connections to know that there are factions in higher places in Milwaukee who have sabotaged every attempt so far – everything from silly stuff like the paint color on the XR1000 to enough stupid stuff to fill a good book regarding the VR1000. Why? They like things braindead, slow, and stylish, i.e. they are dull and lazy – anything that makes that obvious is seen as a threat and must be labeled as ADD or some other disorder.

    Suddenly, I understand H-D’s marketing a whole lot better…

    Bob, one time buyer/owner/rider of an XR1000, FXRS-sp, 883 (It is here on the ‘Slider).

    PS: FUHD!!!!!!!

  9. Roy says

    I personally have dreamed of the day H-D would make a 100hp 400lbs 45ci middle weight techno-fighter in a similar vein of the Monster series from Ducati or say Suzuki’s venerable SV based bikes. C’ mon H-D. You have DROVES waiting for these bikes!

    • Rob says

      NZ and Australia have just opted for a max 660cc rule for beginners license 150kw/tonne max power to weight ratio. Ducati are bringing out a 659 monster to fit that spec. Cost to register (road tax) for bikes bigger than this is an extra NZ$200 on top of having to sit another license exam will mean most riders will never progress to anything larger downunder. I think a restricted turbo 650cc would do the trick, tuned for low rpm boost and torque, easily tweakable once confidence increased.

      • Jes says

        In most Australian states there is no difference in cost of registering bikes that exceed 120/130 cc, you could have a 400 cc or a 2400 cc, no difference. Also the LAMS (660 cc & 150 kw/t) laws have been in place in most states for several years. Once you pass your provisional test, usually sitting on LAMS for three years after and no test is required when you finish LAMS.

        Also, I would love to own an XR750.

        • Rob says

          A yes NZ is always a bit slower at doing stuff. Still it’s made a good market for small/medium bikes.

  10. todd says

    sticking to your “core” means you’re afraid to branch out. Regardless of how successful they are in one segment they are still giving away sales in every other.

    At least they should hop onto the “Adventure” band wagon, it’s not too far off from where they are now; oversized touring bikes. Add some sophistication and some DOT knobbies to a 800ish vertical twin (or BIG single) and set it all around a full-scale marketing effort portraying a lone adventure seeker crossing the great expanses of Nevada. Heck, maybe even sponsor a Baja effort or Dakar type trial. Do something to make the brand seem more serious about motorcycles and motorcycling than just “tough” image and beer. Americans are getting more sophisticated than that now.

    BMW has been really successful focusing on their innovative, racing past, why can’t H-D?


  11. says

    That is a sweet photo.

    @B50 Jim: “imagine that most of us would love to find the time warp back to those days and stand trackside as the Harleys battled it out with the Triumphs”… and, I would add Ducati Sport Classics and BMW boxers today, …

    The beauty of this post (and the BTR Moto bike) is that we can re-live those days. Racing doesn’t have to be all about the AMA superbikes. It can amount to a glorified track day. There are a lot of tracks around today. Have fun at them, they’ll be glad to see you.

  12. Mark L says

    Let’s not even get started on HD racing.

    As a former superbike team owner, having raced such bikes as Gobert’s race winning world superbike that we bought from Muzzy ZX7RR (SN# RMRF9504), HD VR1000 SN# 01, several Ferraci Ducati’s, etc. I can tell you that the VR1000 was dead on the vine before it ever saw the light of day.

    It has been a long time, but I think it was Tuttle at HD that was the biggest opponent of it, but it went far deeper than that. I will tell you that in 1997, the best motor that we ever got from Gemini made 128 hp and 77 ft lbs of torque. On the same dyno 10 minutes later, the Muzzy bike made 147 hp.

    Most of the HD people did not want to race and they had the ear of the board of directors, and that is what mattered. The race enthusiasts were able to push the budget, but they could not control who/how the team was selected. (Another story there as well)

    HD will never race again in our lifetime, and I think that is probably best. Buell and perhaps someday Victory will carry that torch.

    It will take a pretty significant investment to compete, and I don’t think the business projections are right for someone like Polaris/Victory right now. Buell? Maybe.

    Someday I will right a book about all the crap that happened back then. I will tell you that I am fairly convinced that the riders were never the problem. I also don’t think the riders are the problem on the current Jordan team either. (read between the lines)

    Me? I quit racing in 1998 after consistently spending about $ 500,000 a year out of my pocket to support 2 riders, 4 bikes and a race shop for too many years.

    Now I do engineering work on the side for some friends like Walter Roehrich on the 1250SC. Great bike, bad economy………

    No regrets.

    Mark L.

    • Jack says

      That makes the few podium finishes of the VR1000 (Pascal Picotte) that much more impressive.

      Victory is stuck following HDs catalog of cruisers, albeit with their own style, but this pattern of only cruisers makes Victory worse than HD in some ways because Polaris does have performance-minded people making performance snow sleds.

      Triumph is selling a lot of performance bikes without factory-backed racing or the hp wars every year that the Big4 get into.

      If only the performance of this bike picture below matched its cool look…imagine if that bar & shield had people behind it that had a holistic approach to motorcycling. Imagine if GM & Ford had the same type of management as HD… bOring!! No Vette, No Camaro, No Mustang, Boss, GT40

      That’s a shame because there are people within Victory & HD that want to build something else than cruisers.

    • Jar says


      Feel your pain, and my experience mirrors yours – at the time, I remember the mantra out of HD was “racing doesn’t sell motorcycles”.

      If by “dead on the vine” regarding VR, you’re speaking to launching a vehicle with no plan, no support, no reasearch, no development, no improvement beyond launch date, I agree with your assessment. Personally, my opinion was that at its initial launch it was competitive with the field – durability issues aside – performance, chassis construction, power were all in the ballpark. A year or two in sportbike world without forward progress on the platform however, and a guy is midpack at best. 6 years on, and you’ve got an underpowered, slow handling, overweight dog of a vehicle – compared to the field. Pretty much the path of the VR…..As for riders, HD always managed to seat some serious talent, so we can agree there as well.

      I still hold out hope for HD to bring out a production platform/architecture that lends itself to racing….if not a full factory track effort. Opposing comments further above, the talent and tools are most certainly available at HD to mount such an effort. Will they? Depends on a lot of things, not the least of which is the political wind at the company…..Problem with being big, fat, and successful selling big, fat, and successful, is it provides little motivation to move in another direction, in fact quite the opposite. The unfortunate flipside to the “core mentality”, is that a guy can’t see the forest for the trees. The best time to experiment a bit is when you have the resources to do so – in the midst of big, fat stupidity – which is also the same time your success seems to dictate you avoid change like the plague and continue with your “core”.

      HD would race before Polaris. Polaris’s big fat and successful are the side by sides. Victory is hangin in, barely. A good product, I think, if such is your sort.

      Buell’s battle is entirely uphill, and will likely follow the path taken by VR.
      They got a big bump in funding, but they have some terribly expensive development to do (trac control, multi fuel mapping, abs), before they are even on par with the field. Leaves precious little time and resource to focus on other vehicle attributes while sorting the bits necessary to simply get in the game. All the while, your $40k bikes sit and you’re lucky to pimp 1 a month, because the value proposition of your streetbike fails to compete with other “halo” vehicles in the market that have proven track success and cost 2/3 of your product or less.

      Nope, BMC or EBR, whatever you would like to call it, doesn’t have the legs to get there…..maybe to get out of the blocks respectably, but like VR, fade quickly….

      blowers on bikes = cheating :)

      • Fred M. says

        The EBR 1190RS just finished in second and fourth in the AMA Pro Superbike race at Homestead. Its handling simply embarrassed the big factory efforts, with Danny Eslick repeatedly tucking his EBR 1190RS inside of the GSX-R1000 ridden by Blake Young. May’s fourth place finish meant that his EBR 1190RS finished ahead of every BMW, Ducati, Yamaha, KTM, and Kawasaki in the field, as well as being in front of eight of the ten Suzukis entered.

        And all of that was without ABS, traction control, or other “rider aids,” showing the inherent superiority of the EBR platform to the competition.

        Let’s not forget that the $40K price is primarily due to low production volumes, not some inherent high cost to the technology EBR employed. What do you think a GSX-R1000 or BMW-S1000RR would cost if they built 100 per year?

        I expect that you will be eating your words regarding EBR fading quickly.

  13. T-bone says

    I think BMW is a good comparison to a degree. For most of my life, I considered BMW’s an expensive but extremely competent touring bike manufacturer with a strong focus on a small and dedicated line of adventure bikes. Sure, their bikes were good performers, but they really weren’t known for that and certainly not for road racing although they competed successfully in the rallies. Yet, when they set their mind to it, they were able to produce the baddest production sport bike in the world, which now holds 3 of the top 10 positions in World Superbike including the number one position. As a matter of fact. The Japanese big four only have two representative in the top 10, Kawasaki at number 3 and Honda at number 5. All of the other spots are held by BMW, Ducati and Aprillia.

    It’s also worth noting that BMW made one of the most radical all out dirt bikes with their 450 MXer, another catagory nobody thought they would attempt to compete in. Now that is a sport definitely dominated by the big Japanese four with KTM and Husky thrown in the enduro side of things.

    I’m not saying Harley NEEDS TO do any of this, but I am saying that Harley, like BMW, COULD expand into other areas if the company had the passion and dedication to do so. Their partnership with Porsche did wonders for their engine design and manufacturing. Eric Buell turned to Rotax for help to be competitive. Harley could partner up to steady it’s own engineering shortcomings and bring something to market that would turn the industry upside down. They could. But I don’t think they will.

  14. Tim says

    Off road Sportsters!! Some have been shown here a few years ago. Harley should make that. All it takes is some long suspenders and high pipes. The ADV market is huge right now, and growing. Just gotta make some Harley branded Aerostich suits to go with it…

  15. Yeti2bikes says

    Harley does still race. Just in a straight line… And they dominate. Undefeated this season in the NHRA.

  16. Wiregrass Steve says

    Harley is a victim of their own superb marketing. The Harley faithful like things just the way they are, flashy chrome laden cruisers and competent old school touring bikes, psuedo hot rods and “choppers” and all, V Rod excluded, with a traditional air cooled V twin. Nothing wrong with this. Harley does not feel the need to mess with success or “fix” what is not broken. For all of the above reasons however, I will probably never own one.

    • Bigshankhank says

      If they like things “the way they are”, why did they screw up the closest thing to a rough and ready bike when they softened the Sportster line and added 50+ pounds of lard? The Iron and Nightster are a nice try, but my ’93 883 with solid engine mounts was more raw than those blacked out li’l Dynas.

      • Gearpeddler says

        Well according to a middle aged noob with all of about 100 miles of riding experience and a rashed up road glide, “the sporty is basically designed just for women to learn to ride on then get rid of, it’s not a man bike”, so I’m guessing they had to make them smoother to shut the women up.

        Coincidentally the sporty is about the only harley I’ve ever ridden and enjoyed, barring it had lots of work into it and had a storz performance flat track kit bolted up, I did a demo day and got to ride the XR12 and it did’nt come close to the modded sporty, got to ride a dyna and road king and hated every second of it.

        I would love to own one of the storz performance sporty’s but in reality it will never happen because I just don’t care for the attitude behind the company, they claim to be the “real”, “original”, “all american” motorcycle, but in reality nothing they have ever done had’nt been done before, and just like everything else it’s just a collection of parts from sources abroad assembled here.

  17. Matt says

    As long as HD is still building air cooled motors, they have no place in any performance oriented genre. Remember, this is the company that intentionally engineers their motors to fire incorrectly due to “marketing strategy”. They are the most ass-backwards thinking motor vehicle company out there and they will surely die with their baby boomer constituents. The rest of us Americans who value proper engineering and power will ride products that give more bang for the buck. My Daytona 675 delivers 124 horsepower with only 675cc, and I don’t have to worry about my bike rattling itself apart. I also do not have to change spark plug heat ranges based on the seasonal weather.

    • says

      Just because a motor is air-cooled does not mean it cannot perform, otherwise, Ducati, Bimota, NCR, BMW, and even Guzzi would not have used air cooled motors in performance applications.

      The above sketch in Paul’s post depicts an older era of HD road racing, but there was some good HD road racing as recent as the late 80’s in BOTT.

      @ about 4:20 in the video below, the commentator even talks about this same topic. Interesting race….

      • rohorn says

        I’m no MoCo fan (as noted above), but everything Matt posted is a woeful display of technical illiteracy. I’ve always found it funny that “owners” of the most technologically advanced bikes have the least knowledge of the subject.

        • Fred M. says

          Actually, Matt’s comments are spot-on. Air-cooled motors simply cannot approach the horsepower of similar displacement liquid-cooled models. I suggest that you read this (or any of the other countless similar explanations for non-engineers):

          “Racetrack Style” refers to Ducati, BMW, Moto Guzzi, etc. using air-cooled motors in performance applications — and those engines are woefully lacking in power compared to the later liquid-cooled motors of similar displacement. There’s a reason why Ducati abandoned air-cooling years ago for its sport bikes, reserving air-cooled engines for street bikes. The 1199 Panigale sports a liquid cooled engine producing 195hp. The highest performance air-cooled bike they make is the Monster 1100 EVO, which makes only 100hp. You’ll note that BMW is not fielding any air-cooled engines in its Superbike class racing. There are no air-cooled MotoGP bikes and there have not been for decades.

          There’s nothing wrong with air-cooled engines in sport bikes for street use; Ducati, Buell, Moto Guzzi, BMW, and others have produced some fun air-cooled bikes.