Courtesy of American Iron
It’s not easy following in the footsteps of a legend. And in the annals of American flat track racing, Harley-Davidson’s XR750 is a legend. The storied motorcycle has racked up 37 AMA Grand National championships in 44 seasons and is by far the most successful flat track bike of all time.
But even the greatest of champions eventually has to pass the torch to its successor. The reign of the XR750 ended this year when the Harley Factory flat track team switched to the XG750R, a liquid-cooled, fuel-injected motorcycle based on a production motorcycle, the Street 750. A new trio of factory riders was signed on, two former AMA Grand National title-holders and one up-and-comer. And a new team manager came onboard, Terry Vance taking over the helm of The Motor Company’s Factory flat track team.
All these changes can’t come without growing pains, something the Harley Factory Team has had their fair share of this year. Long-time adversary Indian Motorcycle Co. has come back with a vengeance. They’ve yet to score a podium finish with the XG, the team’s best results a fourth-place finish by Jake Johnson in the season-opening Daytona TT. There’s always speculation about whether the XR would match up better against Indian’s FTR750 as the bike has won every race so far. But many of these growing pains were anticipated by The Motor Company and moving forward Harley is still confident in its decision to switch to the XG750R and team manager Vance believes in the long-run the move will pay dividends. We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Vance to get up to speed on what’s been going on in the Harley Factory Flat Track Team’s paddock.
We were curious how you landed the position as team manager for Harley’s Factory Flat Track Team?
First of all, since I retired from racing in 1988 (as a 14-time motorcycle drag racing champion) I’ve managed race teams. I ran the Yamaha racing program for seven to eight years, won the Daytona 200 a couple times, then I ran the Ducati racing program for eight years and we won both legs of the World Superbike round here at Laguna and had some great success. Then when the Ducati program was coming to an end I approached Harley about running the VR program because I thought they could use some help. Come to find out they were getting ready to stop the program but they were interested in doing something in the drag racing world and that was obviously right in our wheelhouse.
So we met with the guys, I guess that was 1998-99, and we put the deal together. Then we started racing the V-Rod in like 2001 and unfortunately for us it wasn’t a big success right away. We were having some mechanical and durability issues that we weren’t positive why we were having. Once we got that resolved and got by that we started doing well and I guess in the last 14-15 years we’ve won eight championships.
That being said, I have a relationship with Harley and it’s been really, really good. And a couple years ago their flat track program was looking sad and I asked if I could have my guys build a couple engines for Brad Baker’s race bike. They actually approved the budget to do it and the first race we went to Brad won. That gave me a little bit better platform to talk to them about flat track moving forward.
So we won a couple races last year, we won the Santa Rosa race where they debuted the Indian so I think Harley realized they’ve got to pay a lot more attention to what’s happening here because of Indian. Polaris is making a big move there so we started talking about what it might take, what could happen, why it was a better idea to move to the XG platform instead of continuing to run the XR.
So they ended up putting that all together back in November and December and we started our program, started hiring people, started putting our platform together and putting our bikes together. It’s been a lot of work, a lot of work, but we’re starting to see a little daylight now.
Kenny won the semi at Springfield and we’re looking a little bit better than we have. We’ve been looking like we just have a lot of problems. But we’re looking like things are going in a better direction now for us. We’re trying to test and also race at the same time and that’s really hard.
Harley-Davidson’s main thing that they wanted to accomplish in this whole thing was they wanted a street production-based motorcycle to be at the core of the platform moving forward instead of a spec-only motorcycle or a spec-only engine. So in that regard it makes perfect sense because they want to be able to promote it the right way and not just be racing some Formula 1 car and then not selling it. So that’s the strategy and that’s why it’s a little bit harder to get there because we’ve got so many obstacles to overcome for the bike to have the durability and performance that we need. It wasn’t designed for that.
But I’m real happy with our progress. I don’t like running around in fourth or fifth place, but I think we’re starting to turn the corner and I think things are going a lot better.
How do you feel about the switch from the XR750 to the XG750R?
If we used XR’s we could probably be competitive in a couple of areas but we want to build a platform that we can be competitive everywhere and the G platform made more sense than continuing the XR. The XR would have had to take a lot of reworking to actually make the performance that you need and also keep the durability up because when you start making a lot of power with an XR it’s not designed for that. It’s designed for 70 hp not 120. So that’s an issue.
So that really wasn’t a hard decision. I think it was the right decision to move over to the XG platform. Dyno-wise and all that, we don’t really have too many issues, we’re on track. Going from different event venues, you’ve got to learn a lot of stuff so we’re working on that and trying to get the bikes to be consistent and put our riders in a position where they can come out and be confident in the bikes. The bikes have the performance they need to run in the front so that’s what we’re working on right now and that’s going to take some time.
What’s it going to take to put the XG750R on the podium?
Well, we gotta keep plugging, we gotta keep testing, we gotta keep getting better and better. At Springfield, I think Sammy Halbert had the quickest lap time and we were .001 behind so that’s a really good place for us. That puts us in a place where we can run in the front with just about anybody. We actually won the second semi. So we’re pretty happy with the progress to be honest with you but to get on the box right now those Polaris bikes are really good. They’ve got really good riders, a really good team. They did their homework and if you look at their bike, they took like an XR bottom end and put on current technology top end with double-overhead cams, one valve motors and that’s a pretty hard combination to beat. With the Kawasakis or the G if the track has good grip they can run with them but when traction gets a little marginal it makes it so that the Polaris bike actually does a little better because they’ve got a lot better low end torque.
What’s the atmosphere in the pits?
I think when we sat down initially with the three riders we have everybody understood it’s a development year. Everybody understood we were going to break some parts and have some struggles and the schedule itself is grueling because we’ve got four mile races in a row. It’s really hard to stay prepared for that while you’re in the position we’re in as far as testing and durability goes. But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve got the three best riders in the paddock as far as personalities and working with them. Their egos are set aside, they’re just trying to be team players and do everything they can to get us where we want to get. We’re all looking at a longer term program instead of just the next race so I think the attitude is right. When we get to the point where we go to the track and just give them bikes that we’re not changing something on or trying to find out something about I think they’re going to be really, really happy with the way these bikes perform. Springfield was a little glimpse of that.
Speaking of, what happened in Springfield (where all three Harley factory riders got taken out in one lap)?
What happened, Kenny was in the fifth spot with Sammy Halbert and they were actually catching the lead group, they were about a half-second back of the lead pack, the three Polaris bikes and Davis Fisher, and then Kenny had a radiator line burst and when he did it put fluid on the track and took both of my guys out. So the Harley gods are going to make really sure that we pay our dues before we get really good at it. (laughs)
We’re not going to just walk out there and pick these guys off, these guys are really good, so we’re just going to have to keep working and keep our heads down much like we did with drag racing. The first year was really tough for us. There was a lot of development, a lot of disappointment, but after that we started winning and we haven’t stopped. So that’s what we hope to do, the same thing on the flat track side.
And more importantly for us and Harley-Davidson, the plan is to make sure we have a platform where all the dealers can participate and be involved and buy the pieces that they need to go and do that same thing themselves. And that’s where I think Harley’s strategy is a little bit better because for the dealer that’s selling product, I think that makes a lot more sense than selling a non-production based motorcycle.
What do you think about this year’s schedule and the move to Twins on all tracks including TTs?
I don’t think anybody really likes having these bikes in the air because they’re big and heavy which makes it a little hard for the riders and also the teams. But the schedule is what it is and we’ve got to deal with it. I think that the AFT guys might have to assess where they’re at with that at the end of the season and decide what they want to do going forward and find out from their advisory committee what the best plan of attack might be. I think a lot of guys have an opinion about it. Most importantly, what are the fans thinking? If you’re a Daytona fan would you rather come and see them run around a half-mile oval or would you rather see them on a TT. It’s really in my opinion predicated by what the fans think is the best.
How do you feel about Indian’s return to racing?
I think for the sport it’s fabulous. Any time you have a rivalry it’s always a lot better for a fan to see one brand racing against another. It’s an opportunity for the AFT guys to be very, very smart and not just let it turn into a single manufacturer deal. They’ve got to get all the manufacturers involved and I think that Michael Lock is trying to do that. I’m really impressed with what they’ve done over the last three or four years and I think Michael has done a masterful job of putting all the dots together as far as manufacturers, from tracks to motors and race teams. That’s a really hard environment to live in to make everybody happy but he’s done an admirable job and the future for AFT is really bright.
Why do you think flat track racing has seen this resurgence lately?
I believe that’s got a lot to do with Jim France (Principal of AMA Pro Racing) to be honest with you because he had the foresight to bring Michael Lock in. And there was an opportunity, he knew Indian was coming and he knew if Indian came Harley would have to probably be more attentive to what’s going on at the flat track level and I think Jim saw that. I think he did the right thing and made the right moves. He’s got the right people in place with Gene and Michael and David McGrath and Chris Carr to do some really wonderful things. He just has to stay focused on what the ultimate goal is and that’s keeping the flat track fan happy. If we do that flat track racing has the potential to continue to grow for the next 15 to 20 years.
The thing that’s most important to me is that every place we’ve gone this year, with the exception of Charlotte, has been capacity crowds that I haven’t seen in flat track racing in years. So the AFT guys are doing the right thing, I think the resurgence of the rivalry between H-D and the Polaris guys has brought a lot of fans in. I think it’s a good time for flat track right now. Our flat track crowds are blowing away anything else out there, I mean any other kind of motorsports doesn’t have anywhere near the capacity crowds we do. They sold out in Sacramento, Phoenix was packed. We just came away from Springfield and it was packed. I hadn’t seen a crowd that big there in years.
It’s a privilege for us to represent the Bar & Shield. We’ve dealt with a lot of manufacturers over the years and Harley-Davidson is by far the best partner we’ve ever had or dealt with. They’re really sound business guys, they’re really loyal, they’re really smart, and we couldn’t be more humbled by the fact that they’ve allowed us to help move this G platform forward for them. So that’s what’s so near and dear to us. We want to succeed because we don’t want to disappoint those guys.