Much has been made recently of Harley-Davidson’s lack of youth-market penetration. Some millennials claim that the boomer-centric vibe of the company’s heavily accessorized and rather expensive motorcycles does not suit their lightweight, cash-strapped lifestyles. Pundits—as pundits are wont to do—are claiming that the Motor Company is in crisis. Some opine that perhaps it shouldn’t have killed off the Buell sport-bike marque. Others assert that maybe it shouldn’t have merged the Softail and Dyna lines, dispensing with the latter name in the process, just as a group of younger hipsters was beginning to embrace the Dyna.
Evel doing Evel on his XR750 in 1975, leaping vans in the Wembley Stadium parking lot.
Others might point out that its newish entry-level machines—the four-valve, overhead-cam, water-cooled 60-degree V-twin Street series motorcycles—are too much of a divergence from the brand’s core competency: large-displacement air-cooled pushrod 45-degree twins with that immediately identifiable potato-potato sound. What better way to build some cred into the relatively new motor than by taking it racing? And what better form of racing is there to showcase it than flat track, a wholly American sport that’s having a bit of a renaissance at the moment? Even better, it’s a sport that the bar and shield has basically owned for the past four decades, thanks to its venerable XR750, undoubtedly one of the great motorcycles of the 20th century.
There are two components of motorcycling that appeal to most riders. Foremost is the experience of actually being on the machine, moving through space and time. Words have been spilled on this subject, and so far nobody I’ve run across—including riders more thoughtful, introspective, and articulate than myself—has nailed it exactly. No matter how it’s described, there’s always a “Yeah, it’s that, but there’s something else, too.” The bit that’s easier to explain is the connection to myth. For guys like Mark Wahlberg, the impetus is some Hopper/Fonda thing. For a legion of bikers who threw legs over Dynas in the past decade, it’s Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy, although they probably wouldn’t admit it.
The KR was the XG750R’s great-granddaddy. Here, a pair of them rip down the straight at the 1966 Sacramento Mile.
For me, it’s the lingering cultural whispers of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Kenny Roberts was ruling Europe, Terry Vance was burning up the quarter-mile, and the AMA’s Grand National series, which consisted largely of flat-track events, was still the biggest thing in American motorcycle racing. The blurry echoes of childhood; half-remembered ghosts of photos in Popular Hot Rodding in airport waiting areas; radio spots for the Sacramento Mile. Flipping through my friend Kevin’s dad’s issues of Cycle World on summer afternoons when we’d come in from skateboarding or bombing around on our BMX bikes. It was the end of the benighted AMF era of Harley-Davidson, when the only guys who rode those things were gnarly die-hards. Everybody with any sense had a Honda CB750. The work required to run a Harley in those days made them rare, and their rarity made them unfathomably cool.
With the American dominance of road racing in the 1980s, paired with the ascendence of motocross and supercross, flat track fell off a cliff. As Michael Lock, CEO of American Flat Track—a successor to the old AMA Grand National Series—says, “The people who were coming to the races were the same people who’d been coming to the races 30 years ago. They were just 30 years older.” And yet, in the past decade, a new generation of MotoGP and superbike riders have rediscovered the sport. GP phenom Marc Marquez’s Superprestigio, sort of an IROC for motorcycle racers, has become one of the must-see events on the two-wheel calendar. Valentino Rossi preaches the sideways gospel. American Flat Track just signed a TV deal with NBC Sports. And, perhaps most telling, Polaris went all in on the Indian Scout FTR750 program, building a flat-tracker from the ground up—including an all-new engine—to challenge Harley’s 40-odd-year dominance of the top class of the sport.
While Indian was developing the FTR from scratch, Milwaukee decided on the race-what-we-sell approach to competition. The Motor Company finally retired the XR750, a motorcycle introduced for the 1970 racing season and seared into American consciousness as Evel Knievel’s aircraft of choice. Its replacement, which bowed in prototype form during the 2016 season, is the XG750R, carrying a version of the XG750A Street Rod’s Revolution X engine developed by Vance & Hines, the Southern California aftermarket manufacturer and race shop best known for extracting maximum potato from Harley’s large pushrod twins.
The XG750A Street Rod lends a worked version of its engine to the XG750R.
In contrast to the roadgoing XG750A, which weighs in at 507 pounds dry, the R model weighs only about 300. Which, for the non-moto-savvy reader, is about 50 pounds heavier than a large-displacement single-cylinder enduro like the stalwart Honda XR650L, and it’s about 100 pounds lighter than a race-replica liter bike. MotoGP bikes, which make about 250 percent more power than trackers, weigh around 350, but GP machines aren’t going sideways on dirt. GP bikes also cost about 2 million bucks apiece. Indian sells its FTR750 to privateers for just $ 49,900. Trackers are elemental, sturdy, classically American things, a simple hammer and chisel in contrast to the multi-axis CNC machines that populate the MotoGP grid.
Fire it up, and the XG750R offers up the same heavy-equipment rattle from the top end as its roadgoing relative, a sound not far removed from that of a modern four-valve Moto Guzzi V-twin. In fact, the entire character of the engine is more big-block Goose than it is Harley big twin. But unlike a full-size Guzzi or a Street Rod, the R’s engine revs to 11 grand. I nursed it out onto the hard-packed clay of the little Lodi, California, bullring, unsure of what to expect. The bike was still geared tall for the previous day’s Sacramento Mile, which made throttle inputs a bit more forgiving, a welcome trait since my only previous flat-track experience was on a small Yamaha making around a tenth of the Harley’s power.
Your author aboard the XG750R in Lodi, California. CCR-related jokes related to his lack of speed are welcome.
A perfect corner in flat-track racing works something like this: Cane the bike hard down the straightaway, get on the brake as you back out of the throttle, push the motorcycle down into the corner, aiming for a late apex while keeping yourself upright over the contact patch, get the bike turned, pick up throttle as you ease off the brake, lather, rinse, repeat. Cut speed too early, and you’re left having to add gas midcorner, which throws you offline. Trim the velocity too late, and, well, there’s a wall there to catch you.
In preparation for my ride on the Harley, I’d taken a second stab at American Supercamp early this year. I’d fared better in my return to the flat-track school, finishing the weekend as a solid midpacker. I felt good about my progress, but there was plenty of room left to improve. In my head, I was thinking, “Man, if I don’t have things entirely wired on a one-lung Yammie 125, how damn hairball are things going to be on the big Harley?”
Turns out, the things you do wrong on a 125 are largely the same things you do wrong on a 750. My worst fear was bombing into a corner, forgetting I was on dirt, and hanging off the inside of the bike, road-race style. I’m a major proponent of using your body weight to corner a motorcycle whenever possible; in fast bends, I’ve invariably got one cheek off the inside of the seat on my 900-pound Harley tourer and my head out in the wind past the screen. Not because I want to look showy, but because the FL’s flexi-flyer frame takes a far more positive set in corners and is less prone to spooky oscillation at speed. In short, my hard-wired instinct is to get off the inside of the motorcycle in corners. Do that on dirt, and it’s a very short trip to the ground. Thankfully, I did not do that. I did, however, continue my yellow-bellied habit of not driving the motorcycle deep enough into the corner.
This would be a better story if I told you that I got on the thing and dug a rut in the concrete-like surface of Lodi’s short track, hanging the back end of the Harley out all the way around, engine screaming near redline, while singing “Born in the U.S.A.” in the voice of Jay Springsteen. It’d be a more entertaining yarn if I screwed up and launched myself headlong into neighboring Calaveras County. It’d even be an improvement if I got on, immediately scared the living hell out of myself, putzed around the track at 5 mph while feathering the clutch, and handed it off to the nearest person in a black-and-orange T-shirt, echoing Kenny Roberts’s famous statement after winning the Indy Mile on the flat-track version of Yamaha’s all-conquering TZ750 two-stroke four-cylinder: “They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing!”
The reality of it is that, despite its status as a full-race machine, the XG750R is shockingly friendly. Discretion being the better part of not destroying Harley-Davidson’s factory race bike, I did not push the XG at all. I didn’t, however, ride around terrified that the thing would spit me off at its earliest convenience. In fact, aside from the lack of a front brake and the offset pegs—the right positioned to most easily wedge one’s knee into the tank for leverage, and the left set so the foot makes an easy transition from the ground back to the controls—it felt shockingly like a motorcycle, the kind of thing you’d bomb down to the store on, commute to work on, or ride around a lake at sunset. I fell into the oddball tracker slouch, I got my outside elbow up, I wedged my right knee into the tank, I pushed the bike down, and it simply went around the track. Taken on its own, the XG750R is a wonderful machine, and I want one.
As a competition motorbike, however, the XG has not fared well against the Indian. At the FTR’s debut race last year in Santa Rosa, California, the Polaris unit announced that they’d just happened to hire that race’s top three finishers: Bryan Smith, Jared Mees, and Brad Baker. As the Indian Wrecking Crew, the trio has been largely unstoppable in 2017. As of this writing, Mees is leading the championship with nine victories, second-place Smith has four, and the winless Baker is hanging in in third, thanks to a season packed with consistent finishes. The only non-Indian wins have come courtesy of Kawasaki riders. Briar Bauman has managed two victories, while fellow Kawi pilot Henry Wiles pulled off a win at Peoria last month. Harley has not won so far this year, and there are only two races left in the season. Think about that for a second. Harley-Davidson, the company that largely carried the sport from the 1970s into the 2010s, has not yet taken a top-rank flat-track race in 2017.
Since Indian announced the Scout FTR750, moto geeks have been clamoring for a factory street tracker, and the disappointment in some circles was audible when, rather than an FTR-style bike, the brand announced the Scout Bobber, nothing more than a restyled version of its entry-level Scout cruiser. Regardless of the XG’s performance on the track during its inaugural full season, a street version of the XG750R seems like a fantastic way to bring younger folks into the Harley-Davidson fold.
The hard work has already been done. Just use a production-optimized version of the one-off narrowed engine case covers that Vance & Hines ginned up for the racer, and add lights and a front brake. In the name of cost cutting, a roadgoing XG750R could gain an extra 100 pounds in the process, but it’d still be a 400-pound, 75-hp motorcycle, which can be a plenty entertaining thing. Ask anyone who owns a Yamaha FZ-07. And if you’d like more power, surely Harley’s Screamin’ Eagle performance-parts division would be happy to sell you some.
The Motor Company is banking on the XG750R to sell Street Rods, which is a little like Chevy using NASCAR to move Camaro ZL1s. There is, to put it bluntly, not a lot of commonality. The engines are somewhat related, they’re both rear-wheel drive, they both wear bow ties, and that’s about it. The Street Rod is not a bad bike, but the FZ-07 is a better one that costs hundreds less. To make another automotive comparison, if the Street Rod is a Mercedes-Benz CLA250, then the Yamaha is a Volkswagen GTI—a more competent all-around machine without the luxury-brand cachet. A toned-down XG750R, on the other hand, could be a bike worth saving the extra coin for, offering the same sort of lifestyle-accessory prestige as Ducati’s Scramblers. It’d be a bike to cast a showroom halo over the other Street models and bring some additional cachet to the Revolution X motor, a good powerplant that’s getting short shrift due to its low position in the line and its break with Milwaukee tradition.
Perhaps I’m naïve about all this. Undoubtedly, both Polaris and Harley have run the numbers and feel that, while the race programs are worth sinking dollars into, the real money is in cruisers and tourers from the Scout/Sportster class on up. But it seems to me that an affordable, American-built street tracker with real racing heritage is not only a very usable everyday motorcycle, but the sort of thing younger motorcyclists could get very invested in.
After all, if you ask a Harley hater if they’ve got any exceptions to their generalized distaste for the brand, they’ll invariably allow one: the XR750. Why not make its heir a cornerstone of a Harley-Davidson retooled for the next generation?