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Motorhead Memo: Racing back through time

By Kip Woodring


Based on the “fact” that 2003 was designated as the 100th year of the marque, 2013 marks the 110th model year for The Motor Company. (Never mind that the real anniversary should be 2014, as it was when H-D celebrated their 50th… in 1954!) Point is there’s bound to be plenty to look forward to in the form of new street bikes.


All the same, I’ve chosen this opportunity to look back… at old race bikes. Although by no means a comprehensive dissertation on the subject, I think it’s important (as well as interesting) to acknowledge Harley’s racing history, since they have more of it than any other motorcycle manufacturer, and because there’s been less light shed on the racers than the street bikes—a lot less! Yet, to sort of kick this off, it helps to bear in mind that Harley was building 61″ competition machines nearly 100 years ago that would outrun a new 110″ street bike! Not that you’d be inclined to travel that fast on a machine with bicycle pedals to start it, no brakes and no throttle (just a “kill button”) to control things at speed. Ah yes, my friends, we have grown quite soft and, ironically, we have the guts and brains of our hardened ancestors to thank for it.


No apologies either for the small selection of race bikes I have chosen. First, because there have been so many in the last century I can’t begin cover ’em all. Next, because some that might logically be chosen by others have already been talked about ad nauseum elsewhere by those same folks, whereas my list inclines more towards the obscure. Lastly, because these bikes fascinate me technically and I just flat out like ’em! Speaking of flat out—here goes!


1916–1927 8-Valve V-Twins

Motorhead Memo - Racing back through time

This is the machine that took Harley-Davidson from zero to hero in the racing world. Rare as hens’ teeth both then and now, it was also state-of-the-art when it hit the track and actually holds up pretty well even today. The powerplant featured twin cams down below (after the first couple years), four valves per cylinder above, hemi-heads, drilled and lightened steel cranks and a whole lot more… in detail. During its long career the 8V also got many an iteration of chassis and suspension, notably the switch from rigid forks to springer (castle) type and late in life some even got front brakes!

Harley-Davidson only really started racing in 1914, after a decade of saying that sort of sordid business was beneath them. Once they reversed themselves and got into it, they did it with both feet and so-called 8-valve (four per cylinder) V-Twin engines. Even the original IOE race bikes were only (very) loosely based on bikes in dealers’ showrooms, because it was thought that fans would really root for stuff they saw on track that looked like “their” bike. Once class “A” (professional) racing hit its stride, however, that sham had to be shed—hence 8-valve race bikes with no resemblance.

Starting in 1916, these 8-valve things were purpose-built and never designed to get into anyone’s hands that the factory didn’t approve of, as evidenced by the retail price of $1,500 (enough to buy a house in today’s money) compared to Indian’s price of $350 for their own 8-valve racing machine (which was still about what you’d pay for a Model T Ford).

Anyway, besides being very rare, technically advanced and Spartan (as all great race bikes seem to be) they were fast… extremely fast! Mostly, this was because Harley got to the multi-valve technological scene a little late (usually bad in racing) but was therefore able to incorporate a hell of a lot of what had been learned about cylinder head flow by aviation engineers during the Great War (really, really good in racing)… so the company had a winner that soon forced the competition (Indian mostly) to look for other classes and displacements for racing parity… let alone victory!


1925–1934 “Peashooter” Singles

Seems this fabulous little single-cylinder bike (and let’s recall that H-D started with singles) came about almost by accident (literally) because of

Motorhead Memo - Racing back through time

Small, but perfectly formed and ferocious as a competitor, the so-called “Peashooter” came in a couple of sizes and quite a few configurations, all of which made this little OHV rocketship a sort of Yamaha 350-type giant killer in its day. Light, agile and quick enough to take overall wins against bigger, more powerful machines, it simply had no peer in its day.

the insane speeds and inherent dangers of board tracks in the Roaring ’20s. With popularity on par with the Super Bowl in their day, the spectacle of big V-Twin motorcycles going twice as fast as family cars, and even up with airplane velocities, on 60-degree banked “bowls” of wood, where a few hundred thousand spectators had a good view and quite a few got killed, led to the PC notion that they’d better slow it down. So a new class of 350cc (21″) machines was mandated. Funny enough, by the time Harley got one built for the task, the task was gone ‘cause the tracks were gone. So, instead, the factory decided to dirt track the little devil and it proceeded to mop the floor in just about every race it could run in. But not right away. Introduced in 1925, for the ’26 season and really coming into their own in the ’30s, these OHV 350cc (and later 500cc) racers weighed in at less than 225 pounds and once the ’28 models offered twin port exhausts, they made more power than street machines twice their size! Like their big 8-valve siblings, these wee beasts were never made in numbers amounting to more than a handful every year, and only given to “talent” even then. In the hands of that talent, namely a guy named Joe Petrali (who was the entire H-D race team in 1935), the Peashooter was invincible. So much so that it (and Joe) retain the only “perfect season” in American racing to this day.


1952–1969 The KR

Motorhead Memo - Racing back through time

Probably the only one of the bikes on my list you might actually have seen. Certainly, it was the only one actually for sale to racers at the time. That and its long career are why there are enough old KRs in vintage racing (rather than museums) to label it a semi-precious stone. Stone-axe simple in appearance anyway, yet inwardly incredibly sophisticated. How else but dedicated development and a superb basic package can account for the fact that, unlike today’s “competitive for a season and toss it” machines, this cock ruled the roost for a decade and half—and went out going faster than it began!

What with all this talk about OHV racers, it may come as a surprise that the next bike on my list is (for those who don’t really know) that seemingly lowest of the low-tech engine configurations… the side valve. You see the thing is, race bikes and racers alike don’t really care how the power gets made as long as there’s enough to get the job done. For 16 years of top-level racing, the KR did just that. For that reason, in my view, the KR is quite simply the flathead—perfected! Sure it came from great parentage, what with the redoubtable (showroom stock) class “C” racer—the original model D. Then there was the warhorse WR, coming shortly after, as both the rules and the spirit of class “C” were bent then broken and finally tossed. By the time the KR appeared, nobody was naive enough to believe this stuff was street machine-based in any way that mattered… it was not! Class “C” by 1952 was pro racing, and it has remained so ever since. But here’s the thing: in the face of ever-increasing and ever-improving competition (which the XR750, for all its virtues and fame, has not endured)—the KR was consistently able to run up front. More to the point, for me, was that it ran up front in road races. In fact, towards the twilight of its illustrious career, the underdog KRTT (road racer) literally did the impossible, by trouncing all the “obviously” superior (and much more technologically advanced) competition at Daytona—going out as a true champ.



1972–1975 RR250

Motorhead Memo

OK, we have here no valves, two cylinders, five speeds and 14 moving parts in a machine that beat the best in the world! No fluke, either, since it happened several times, over several years. There really was no magic in the RR250 specifications, but like the KR it was profoundly well-developed, precision tuned and expertly ridden. Couldn’t have been much more than a couple of dozen made either, thus giving it an impact on the rest of the world, sadly lacking in the somewhat parochial U.S.

Now we move on to an even simpler and more dominating racer—the RR250. Ever heard of it? Any idea what its claim to fame is? Need good bar bet trivia for next Saturday? Give ya a hint, OK? The only World Championship H-D ever won was by this machine—three times—three years in row. Better yet, it clobbered the bike most of you think of when you try to remember fast 250s from the ’70s. Need another tip? It was very much a Harley, but was not built by Harley, nor even built in this country.


Ha! You guessed, right? It was the Aermacchi-built (when Harley owned it) two-stoke twin that powered rider Walter Villa to back-to-back titles in the 250cc class, then the third time out, double 250 and 350 crowns in the toughest class in racing. Yet today, nobody remembers! Almost nobody cares! It isn’t right. It isn’t fair. It isn’t even rational that the biggest, best achievement in H-D’s long competition history is so mistreated here, yet revered everywhere else on the planet.





1994–2001 VR1000

Motorhead Memo - Racing back through time

The VR1000 had it goin’ on—on paper. Water-cooled (like the RR250), 60-degree “V,” SOTA fuel injection, four valves per cylinder, whoopee gearbox, massive brakes, low center of gravity and arguably one of the best chassis ever attached to a road racer. But race tracks are never kind to paper tigers, only real lions. So the VR never made it as a top-flight race bike—pity.
Thing is, when it came time to turn the basic unit into a sellable street bike (not the handful of rule-benders that were only street legal in Poland or somewhere), Buell had taken on the mantle of the factory’s “sportbike division.” So WTF does Harley do? They turn an ex-racer that woulda/coulda/shoulda made one hell of a sportbike into a muscle cruiser… the V-Rod. (Maybe I should try to find one of those Polish VRs with lights and license plates and try to get it registered after all!)

Then there’s the opposite; a machine most remember well and few remember ever winning, because basically, it never did. The date right above this, should have read 1988–2001. If the VR had debuted then, rather than five years later… it likely would have been the world-beater Harley hoped for. Hell, its 150hp would have been competitive even as late as 1991—but 1994, just when everybody who had been out of racing dived back in with more and better everything? Sorry, Harley! Mind you, a little (okay, lots) more development money would have also helped. Not to mention having the sense (at the time) to have hired experienced race gurus who knew how to compete and win… instead of learning as you went and not winning. Put another way, Harley was rusty at road racing after not doing it for decades, yet I cannot think of a better “might have been” story than that of the VR1000. It was clear from day one at the track that the VR had PR, but not enough R&D budget. Several star riders, but no gifted tuners. Worse, as the competition got faster the VR slowed, both in boardroom battles and racetrack brawls. One of the more bizarre instances pitted the VR against several Japanese street bikes during a mass test at Road America. That’s when they finally acknowledged what most already knew: A supersport-prepped Suzuki GSX-R750 was damn near as fast as the VR 1000 Superbike. The factory pulled the plug on the VR1000 in order to introduce the V-Rod in 2002, thus turning lemons into lemonade. What’s nasty about that is this: VR1000s were better than their race results, yet The Motor Company won’t go near a road race track… maybe even for the next 110 years!


(P.S.—Anyone who wants to see or share detailed information on any of my choices in particular or your personal favorite competition Harley? You have but to ask… it would be my pleasure!)


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