Larry Lawrence | August 20, 2019
Archives: Harley-Davidson’s Last Real Peoria TT Victory
Yes, the AMA Pro Racing record book shows Chris Carr rode a Harley-Davidson to victory in the Peoria TT Grand National throughout the late 1980s and ‘90s, but there should be an asterisk beside those wins. The bikes Carr raced during those years were actually Austrian-made Rotax-powered 600cc singles that were simply branded as Harley-Davidsons. To find the last time a real American-made Harley-Davidson won the prestigious Peoria TT, who have to go back to 1983. That was the year Jay Springsteen raced his factory Harley XR750 to victory on the famous Peoria Motorcycle Club race track in north central Illinois.
Archives: Harley-Davidson’s Last Real Peoria TT Victory
The history of Harley-Davidson at Peoria goes all the way to the beginning.
Peoria first ran in 1942. It was just a regional race then, but from the start attracted big crowds. According to audio interviews left by the late racer JB Jones, the TT track in the early days was much more like a rough scrambles, or mild motocross track. “The dip you’d go through was actually a creek crossing,” Jones said. “with steep banks on either side. It would get to be a big muddy mess by the end of the race and you’d have to crawl through there in first gear.”
Jones once got his big Harley-Davidson racing machine stuck in the dip and it took a half dozen or so strong men to drag it out.
Jones was involved in the first AMA National held at Peoria in 1947. Until the mid-1960s Peoria held two nationals, a Lightweight (45 cubic inch/750cc) and heavyweight (80 cubic inch/1300cc), on the same day. The big bike race in 1947 set the tone for what fans love about Peoria – close racing. In the closing laps of the ’47 80 cu in National, Jones was shadowing leader Herman Dahlke. On the final lap Jones made his move.
“I got down on the right side of him going into the dip, knowing I’d have the inside line on the turn,” Jones said. “I got ahead of him, but it wasn’t enough. We got on the front straight and he had more cycle than I did. He got by me right at the checkered flag and I guess they say that was the most exciting Peoria TT they ever had.”
Hoosier Lowell Rettinger won the Lightweight class that day, also on a 45 cu in Harley and Peoria quickly became one of the most prestigious nationals on the AMA calendar.
In 1951 Californian Jimmy Phillips broke Harley’s stranglehold on Peoria when he won both the Heavyweight and Lightweight races aboard Triumph Thunderbirds. It marked the first AMA National wins for the British maker.
With a few incursions by BSA, Triumph and even Matchless, Harley mostly dominated Peoria through the early 1960s. But by the late 1960s the lighter British machines ridden by riders like Eddie Mulder and Dick Mann began turning the tide in favor of the foreign machines. Kenny Roberts became the first rider to win Peoria on a Japanese-made motorcycle, when he won the 1974 edition of the race on a factory Yamaha. Triumphs and Yamahas stood on equal footing with Harley at the TT throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.
Jay Springsteen wrested the Peoria crown back to the Motor Company in 1979 after a four-year drought, the longest ever shutout for Harley at Peoria. Then Randy Goss won it on a Harley XR750 in 1982 after two years of Yamaha wins with Scott Person.
Then came the 1983 national. Little did anyone know at the time, but it would mark the final Peoria win by an American-made Harley-Davidson.
It was the 35th annual Peoria TT and change was in the air – 11 of the 17 starters in the ’83 race were racing single-cylinder machines. According to riders, the track was extremely tacky that day. So much so that Jay Springsteen set a new track record in timed qualifying on his factory Harley XR750, but he wasn’t the only one – a total of 38 riders came in under the old record set by Brad Hurst the year before. Even though the track was perfect for record-setting times, the fact that that many riders broke the record, shows just how competitive the field was.
One of the keys to Springsteen’s speed was the fact that tuner Bill Werner actually took away peak horsepower from his rider’s XR that day in favor of more torque down low. “It made the bike come off the corners great,” Springsteen said, before adding as any racer would. “but I didn’t have enough power coming down the front straight.”
Springsteen nearly put himself into a major hole. He accidently started his Heat race in third gear, nearly burning up his XR’s clutch in the process. The odor of a burnt clutch plates still permeated the air at the start-finish line when “Springer” came home winner of the Heat ahead of Ronnie Jones on one of the new Wood-Rotax race bikes – the motorcycle that eventually would go on to dominate Peoria for years.
Springsteen’s Heat turned out to be the fastest and he sat on the pole. Knowing that the start was critical on the track that had by the main, had established a fairly narrow groove, Springsteen aligned his XR right on the groove for the start of the national, hoping get the holeshot. Springer said it was very important since the lighter weight singles surprisingly got off the corners better than his XR.
After the dust cleared through the first turn at the start of the main, Springsteen might have thought his shot of winning was gone. Ricky Graham got through to the front on his XR600-based Honda single. Springer was fourth behind Randy Goss and Mike Kidd. On the fourth lap Goss hit tire to tire with Graham and the two bobbled. Kidd dove to one side to avoid what looked like an almost certain crash and that allowed Springsteen to third. But a lap later Shobert, on a Can-Am single, pushed Springsteen back to forth again.
At the halfway flags it was Goss, on his XR750, leading Graham, Springsteen and Shobert in a four-way battle for the lead. Goss then bobbled and Graham and Springsteen swapped the lead back and forth over the next few laps.
Fans came to their feet and roared when Springsteen passed Graham with five laps to go. Graham, on his Honda single, was faster over the jump, but he over jumped trying to get back by Springer and got totally out of shape landing, bashing his helmet into his handlebars. “I hit so hard I thought I broke some teeth,” Graham said. “That pretty much cost me a shot at winning the race.”
Once clear in the lead, Springsteen set a pace neither Goss or Shobert could match. He had about a 50-yard advantage at the checkered flag.
“I was just stuck in the pack,” Springer said. I didn’t get the start I wanted, so I waited around for everyone else to make mistakes so I could take advantage of them.”
On that hot August day in 1983 Springer and Goss raced the XR750 to a one-two, but the handwriting was on the wall. The next year Graham won on a big-bore Honda single and 15 or the 17 starters in the national that year were on singles. Scott Parker managed a third on an XR, but a twin-cylinder bike would not win the race again until a rule change brought back the Twins in 2017.
A genuine Harley-Davidson at least has a chance to win Peoria again. It can’t come soon enough for the Milwaukee faithful. They’ve been waiting 36 years and counting.