Racing the Harley-Davidson XR1200 Series
Budget racing is anything but boring
“This is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever ridden around a racetrack.”
Those exact words made it out of my mouth after just half a lap around Miller Motorsports Park’s perimeter course during my first practice session — and my first time aboard the Harley Owners Group Harley-Davidson XR1200 — for the AMA Pro Vance & Hines XR1200 race later on that weekend. The front end was anything but confidence inspiring, and the rear never seemed to be in line with the front.
Of course, no sooner after I said that did I run off the track. I had hit a bump in the road entering a fast right-hand sweeper, appropriately named “Witchcraft,” that had initiated a violent tank-slapper. I thought I could save it if I just eased off the throttle, but the shaking got worse and worse.
Once I decided to abort the save and go off track, I headed straight towards a manned corner-worker station. While the look of sheer terror on the marshals’ faces as a 500-pound motorcycle was darting straight for them was rather comical (in hindsight, at least), I’m sure it paled in comparison to the look on my face as I attempted to avoid them. I did, and I didn’t fall down either, but now I was a good 100 yards away from the racetrack, in the grass, wondering, “What the hell am I doing here?”
Thrown Into the Deep End
The answer to that question is actually rather simple. Just a few weeks earlier I had received a phone call from Paul James, Director of Product Communications at Harley-Davidson, asking if I’d be interested in being his teammate in the Vance & Hines XR1200 race at the next round of the AMA championship at Miller Motorsports Park, a similar arrangement to when I teamed with MO E-i-C Kevin Duke on a Buell XB12R in 2009.
You see, James isn’t just a talking-head piece, he’s a genuine rider and racer himself, with numerous club racing championships and a few AMA podium finishes to his credit. He also knew that I had been competing in the local club races at Miller and thought I’d like a go at pro-level racing against some of the best riders in the country on equal machinery. To top it off, this was also the same weekend AMA racing would be the undercard for the World Superbike Championship, which would be making its only stop in America. Meaning I’d be performing on a world stage. With a bit of trepidation and excitement, I said yes.
However, this opportunity would be about more than just racing motorcycles, it would also be about showcasing just how inexpensive and competitive budget-minded racing could be. With that in mind, I was on my way to Utah. After arriving at the track I received my AMA license and credentials and made my way to the pits where James was waiting for me with my steed for the weekend. Also waiting for me was James’ trusty crewchief, Mike Kirkpatrick, and his trusty engineer Alex Oppermann, who would be pulling double duty as my crew chief.
Under class rules, all the XR1200s are virtually the same. Every machine starts life as a Harley-Davidson XR1200X ($11,799) straight from the showroom floor. Then, a simple click to the Vance & Hines website and $3500 later a giant box will arrive at your door containing everything that’s required to turn your XR street bike into a XR race bike. That kit includes a 17-inch front wheel (to fit the spec Dunlop tires) that replaces the stock 18-incher, front fender kit, steering damper, steering stop assembly, a Widow exhaust system (which is upswept for better ground clearance), V&H Racing Fuelpak to reprogram the ECU, racing seat assembly, belly pan, number plate, oil cooler relocation kit and a host of decals to make everything pretty.
We started things off by getting me comfortable with the seating, handlebar and lever positions on the bike. Since I come from a roadracing background, I had the bars set low. Next, I got into a tuck and noticed that there was a lot of space between the end of the seat and my bum. So, Opperman and I MacGyver’d our own “butt padd” from some cardboard and duct tape to fill the gap. Most of the other racers didn’t bother adding a butt pad to their bikes, but I find that when I’m in a tuck I like it when the tailsection meets with my backside so that I don’t slide any further back. It’s a personal preference thing.
Throughout the season, Vance & Hines has developed certain parts based on rider feedback and made it available to all racers. Solid engine mounts and swingarm bushings (to replace the stock rubber versions) being two examples introduced in 2011, both of which lessen the XR’s tendency to flex at high speed. Really, the only items free to interpretation are handlebars, foot controls and suspension. All machines must run the same Sunoco fuel and the same Dunlop tires, so there’s no advantage to be gained.
Speaking of suspension, that was the one area I was having the biggest point of contention. Vance & Hines had teamed with K-Tech for suspension components, and since my motorcycle came straight from Vance & Hines, it, too, was equipped with K-Tech components.
This wasn’t necessarily a problem, since numerous front runners — and race winners — use the K-Tech products, but it posed a problem for me since James, my teammate, had been using Ohlins components all season long and had good baseline settings already. With no K-Tech information to reference, and only one practice session to get acquainted with the XR before the first qualifying session later in the day, I decided to employ similar baseline settings Scott Russell used when he rode the bike at Daytona. James, Kirkpatrick and Oppermann understood the decision, but all showed consternation in their faces. Here’s why.
The XR1200 I would be riding this weekend was specially prepared by Vance & Hines for media and special guests to ride in the series. As such, names like 1993 World Superbike champion Scott Russell and 2009 Flattrack Grand National champion Sammy Halbert have both spun laps in anger aboard this very bike. In the case of Halbert, it was his first time riding a roadbike, let alone racing one. Unfortunately, he would ultimately crash during the XR1200 race at Infineon Raceway, a notoriously difficult track to learn, especially for someone as green as Halbert.
In Russell’s case, Mr. Daytona himself rode the bike at the track where he earned his namesake, and in case you missed the race, he had a rough weekend and struggled to find a setup with the K-Tech suspension that worked for him.
“Why the weird looks, guys?” I asked. Solemnly, the crew looked at me and said, “Well, Scott had a hard time on the bike and never got it working right.”
“Great,” I thought. “If a former world champion couldn’t figure it out, what am I supposed to do?!”
Nonetheless, I put that aside and went out for my maiden voyage on the XR. “I ride all kinds of bikes for work every day. How much different could this be?” Half a lap later and I was running wide, straight towards a flag station.
Gambles Rarely Pay Off
Now that you’re all caught up, what I remember before that point of no return was that the XR1200 is unlike anything I’ve ever ridden on track before. Obviously, but I mean it handles so nonchalantly, with no sense of urgency. It’s a heavy machine, weighing in at around 520 pounds — 100 pounds more than your typical 600cc Japanese sportbike — with (pardon the pun) cruiser-like geometry compared to sportbikes. For reference, a Yamaha YZF-R6 has a 24-degree rake, 3.8 inches of trail and a 54.1-inch wheelbase. The XR1200 on the other hand “sports” a 29-degree rake, 5.2 inches of trail and a 60-inch wheelbase. Quick steering it most definitely is not. That said, it is rather stable once on its side, though exaggerated body English, or “hanging off” while leaning is vital to avoid scraping hard parts.
I can admit that I came in from my first session terrified and needing a change of shorts. I told the guys what happened and that the front end was wobbling pretty badly, and without missing a beat all three said to me, “Yeah, these bikes do that.” Nervous and without a clear idea of what to do next, James pulled out a box containing the exact same Ohlins bits he uses on his own XR. “You can try and mess around with that [K-Tech] stuff, or you can swap them out for these Ohlins bits and work with me on setup,” he says.
While swapping an entire suspension would normally seem like a huge gamble, with no more practice time before first qualifying, we would have to take big risks in hopes of reaching the ideal setting. To make matters worse, the weather forecast called for rain the next day, relegating second qualifying to a wet practice session. The weather forecast for Monday’s race called for a 50% chance for rain, so while the second qualifying wouldn’t produce fast times, it would still prove useful should the race be wet. Meanwhile, this first qualifying session (the only dry one we’d get) became increasingly important for setting a quick time.
“Go for it,” I told Oppermann when asked about changing suspension.
Within the hour, Alex had replaced the K-Tech fork tubes and rear shocks with Ohlins bits, with just enough time to set the sag before first qualifying. We set the rest of the clickers similar to the settings James’ uses, but because he’s heavier than me, we set our clickers slightly softer than his. During the first qualifying session, I knew straight away the gamble had worked. Both ends were finally giving feedback, though the front would still tend to shake if I forced it through turns; the XR prefers to be piloted with finesse, not manhandled.
After the session was over I knew we were headed in the right direction. There was still work to do, but at least the bike was rideable. Looking at the time sheets, I was consistently two seconds faster than my times from the morning. I also met one of my goals for the weekend — not qualifying last. Granted, I qualified second from last, but goal met nonetheless. Michael Barnes, the 41 year-old veteran, qualified on pole.
As the forecasts predicted, the heavens came down and wet the track on Sunday, the day before the race. With second qualifying at the end of the day being the only track time we’d get, we mounted wet tires and guessed at possible suspension set ups should the race run in the rain, generally softening both compression and rebound damping. With only 85 horsepower and a heavy flywheel effect, spinning the rear under acceleration wasn’t a huge concern and would be easy to manage should it happen.
For second qualifying, the track was completely wet but the rain had stopped. Having never ridden these specific version of Dunlop rain tires before, I gradually increased my speed to get a feel for the traction. I had attempted to follow my teammate James for a lap, but the front end was still shaking entering Witchcraft and I could never build the confidence to push through there like he was. The remainder of the session was spent trying different settings to cure this issue. It never happened, so the last chance to try anything was the morning warm-up the next day before the race.
As we headed to the track Monday morning the ground was still wet, but the clouds were breaking up. Many of the teams decided at the last minute to switch back to dry tires for morning warm-up, while I took yet another gamble and was one of the few who stayed on the wet tires from the day before. This time the gamble didn’t pay off; the track had dried considerably by the time our session started, and there were only small patches of water still standing. By now it was too late to switch to dry tires, so I carried on.
If you don’t know, wet tires generally have softer carcasses than dry tires and feature big tread blocks that do a great job of displacing water. When the track is dry, however, the tires overheat and the carcass and the tread blocks start flexing considerably. This flexing translates into shaking at the bars at high speed. Coming down the nearly mile-long front straight at Miller, this exact thing happened to me. My XR started to shake nervously three-quarters of the way down. So much so that I had to ease off the throttle to calm the bars. Cautious, I pulled in to the pits, and before I could say anything both Kirkpatrick and Oppermann already knew what I was in for.
“We could see your bike wobbling out there,” Kirkpatrick said while making an oscillating movement with his hands. “Everyone on wets was doing it. Yours was actually one of the better looking bikes out there.” Oppermann simply cranked a few more clicks into the steering damper and sent me on my way. The trick didn’t work, and now I was praying for a dry race.
For the race we switched back to the dry tires, as did the rest of the grid. As a last-ditched attempt at quelling the front end shake I was experiencing, Oppermann added two more clicks to stiffen the rear compression damping. The thinking was that if the rear would squat less under acceleration, there would be more weight on the front tire, making it less prone to shake. Sounded plausible to me, so we went for it.
The track was mainly dry now except for a small stream of water at the exit of turn five, the Black Rock Hairpin. As I was sitting on the grid waiting for the race to start, it dawned on me that I was on the same grid as guys that I normally follow on TV, guys that I look up to. Not only that, but a large chunk of the fans who came to watch the World Superbike races stayed to watch this race, too. Pretty cool.
Then, just before the race is about to start, spots of rain hit my faceshield. “Oh no, not now!” That was the only thought I could muster before the lights went out and the race was on. I made a less than stellar launch and as I was accelerating with the peloton I accepted that there was nothing I could do about the conditions at this point and was comforted by the fact that everyone was on the same tires as me. At the end of the straight I pulled out from the draft and dove straight for the inside line into the first turn, as the rest of the pack around me navigated the traditional racing line. I made up about four places by the end of the first turn, but was immediately passed back into Turn Two by my teammate, James.
The first half of the 3.08-mile track was completely dry and I felt comfortable pushing a little harder than before. Coming into Witchcraft — the turn that was giving me fits all weekend — the XR still had a tendency to shake its head. It was better than before, but it was costing me time. Up until then I was able to hang with the pack, but I could see them pulling a gap after that point.
From Witchcraft onwards the rain got heavier. Not knowing how hard I could push under those conditions, I eased my way through the left-right-left series of turns better known as “The Attitudes.” Unfortunately, one of the riders I had passed at the start crept past me during my timid moment. This wasn’t all bad, as I gauged his entry speed into the next set of turns and upped my pace to match.
For the next five laps of the eight-lap race I ran mainly by myself. I had a comfortable gap on the two guys behind me, and the fast guys at the front were out of sight. The weather had stayed the same, and while the second half of the track was damp, the spots of rain had subsided.
Halfway through the sixth lap I could hear someone on my tail. “I’m not getting lapped...am I?!” No, I wasn’t. Instead, Gerry Signorelli, the reigning champion of the Utah Sportbike Association’s club series at Miller, was hot on my tail. Awakened, I upped my pace to see if I could hang with the champ. For the rest of the lap, whenever he would show me a wheel, I would close the door. I was having a great time fighting for position with “Siggs” and I couldn’t help but think how cool it was to be in a solid battle for position at an AMA race in front of a huge crowd. And to think, for a little more than $15,000 you’d have a machine capable of running at the front. Just not with me on it.
I missed a shift exiting the high-speed Tooele Turn, allowing the local champion to slip past and the next two laps I tried in vain to catch him. After crossing the finish line a sense of relief came over me, as I had met my last two goals: not crashing and not finishing last. Just as in qualifying, I finished second to last. But I’m not complaining. The changes Oppermann made to the bike before the race worked and it was the best it had been all weekend. I even shaved another second off my previous best lap time from first qualifying.
Racing On The Cheap?
The whole point of the XR1200 series is to act as a relatively affordable entryway into professional roadracing. With all machines being equal, rider talent decides who wins and who doesn’t. Despite struggling to come to grips with my XR the entire weekend, by the time the race came around we had managed to turn the bike from a wild animal to something a lot more manageable. Dare I say, I even had fun. Further, I got to race bar-to-bar with some of the best riders in the country and be a part of a pro racing paddock. Heck, I even signed a few autographs.
So is it worth it? Let’s face it, even if you’re a gifted rider, getting a full-factory ride is next to impossible for the vast majority of us. In the meantime you’ll spend thousands upon thousands of dollars trying to get to the pro level. For just a fraction of that cost, the Vance & Hines XR1200 series will put you on a pro grid. For many that’s enough to sign up, but for those looking to get a ride on an American Superbike or Daytona Sportbike seat, this series will put you in front of the eyes who make that decision. Worth it? I’d say so.
MO Goes AMA Roadracing: Part 1
MO Goes AMA Roadracing: Part 2
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2011 Harley-Davidson XR1200X Review
2009 Harley-Davidson XR1200 Review
2008 Harley-Davidson XR1200 Review