(first posted 5/20/2012) We recently did an article that covered the WR and KR Harley 750 motorcycles and some of the basics of flat track. One commenter, Sean, actually described flat track better than I did. He said “If anyone can’t understand Flat Trackers, its a bit like synchronized swimming while trying to break a Horse, fight a Bull and run a Cup Car all at the same time.” I think that just about describes it.
In all honesty, I am not a Harley fan. I always considered their bikes to be bloated, vibrate too much, and undependable. However, after reading of their dominance from 1975 on I cannot think of them the same way. If you can, check yourself for a pulse.
From 1954 to 1969, the deck was stacked for Harley. You could make an argument to the contrary (and I did), but that did not change the facts. They had a 50% displacement advantage compared to the competition. You could argue that this advantage was available to everyone, however, Harley had bet their fortunes on flatheads and the rule favored them until 1969. Curiously, the imbalance continued on the road racing circuits for two years after it ended on the flat track.
From 1969 until 2001, on paper everything was equal. Since 2001, however, they have actually had the deck stacked against them and they still win. Scott Parker, the man on the bike in the lead photo has won nine times. Chris Carr, whose picture appears above, won the championship seven times. How did this happen? Is it R&D, better riders, overwhelming numbers, or just pure determination? It’s an interesting question but I sure don’t have the answer. You probably could make a case for any of these theories. Chris Carr took some time off from winning championships to establish two motorcycle land speed records. I think it’s likely that Parker and Carr could have won some events on a Lambretta. I invite you to come to your own conclusion.
In 1969, under Mert Lawwill, the Harley Flathead won the Championship for the last time. Since 1954 Harley had only failed to win the championship three times. The first was in 1963 with Dick Mann riding a 500cc BSA.
Gary Nixon won in 1967 and 1968 on a 500cc Triumph.
Lawwill’s win in 1969 should probably have an asterisk, as Gary Nixon started out the year with a broken femur. Possibly Lawwill would have won anyway, but it seems that the Triumph people had gotten very good at squeezing wins out of 500cc engines.
Harley came out with an OHV engine in 1970. It was a Sportster based engine with deep hemispheric iron heads and aluminum rocker boxes. It was reduced to 750cc from 883. It had the knife and fork arrangement with both rods on the same crankshaft throw with a large counterbalance.
The engine vibrated badly, overheated, and did little else on the track. Harley watched Gene Romero win on a Triumph in 1970 and Dick Mann on a BSA, again, in 1971. These two bikes were based on the 650cc model.
In 1972 Harley came out with an aluminum alloy-based 750. It looked pretty much like the iron engine and was loosely based on a Sportster as the iron engine had been. It had upswept pipes, dual carburetors, and the heads were manufactured to have both intakes at the rear and exhausts at the front. At a glance, you can differentiate it from other Harley efforts.
Mark Brelsford won the Championship the first year out. The bike hasn’t missed the Grand National championship often since its introduction. They did have to wait two years for the King (Kenny Roberts) to abdicate the throne, however.
Kenny Roberts was special. He won in ’73 and ’74. He campaigned a TX650 (XS650) Yamaha based 750 vertical twin. In 1975 he became an even larger than life legend when he campaigned on the two stroke TZ750. Shortly afterwards, he went to Europe and became the first American to win the European championship racing for Yamaha on two strokes.
Then Harley took over the flat track. Curiously, although 1970 was the last year for the displacement advantage for flat track, it continued for two more years in road racing.
Yeah, you know this guy. Everyone does. Evel Knievel, Bubba Blackwell and Robbie Knievel have all used the XR750 for their jumps.
In 2001 the AMA altered rules to allow twins with displacement up to 1000cc in the Expert Twins class. Today it is from 550cc to 1250cc. This allows virtually anyone with a big twin to play. They did play but I can’t find much evidence that they won. Bubba Shobert (below) won on Honda in ’85, ’86,and ’87. Ricky Graham won again in ’93 on a Honda.
There are the shorter tracks where one will be more competitive on a smaller lighter bike. Some riders used Harley on the longer tracks and KTM/Yamaha, etc. on the smaller tracks. Otherwise, Harley has owned the sport.
I have heard that other brands do not choose to compete and, therefore, Harley had the best machinery for the sport. Honda lent some credence to this. By putting money into the sport some years they produced championships.
Was it the riders? Well, Roberts, Mann, and Nixon showed that a rider with another brand could outdo the Harley. Mann and Nixon did it with 500cc bikes.
Personally, I think it has been a perfect storm. There have been a lot guys who knew what they were doing on machines that were specifically built for this particular sport. For the past 40 years they have faced a displacement disadvantage and they still win. For a complete list of winners check out this website: http://www.motorsportsetc.com/champs/ama_gn.htm
I would like to do some thumbnails on people who have won in this sport. It would be similar to the one done for the old timers on the KR750’s. There were some people who by sheer skill and determination knocked the big boys off their perch. After that I think I would like to look at road racing and perhaps some races in particular like the Isle of Man. If anyone has any suggestions, I’m open. I’m just a fan and hope you have enjoyed riding along with me.
Correction for the next to last paragraph. They have only faced a displacement disadvantage since 2001. All was equal from the 1970 season till 2001.
Kenny Roberts was special I would have said brilliant his boy aint bad neither. That 1963 win for BSA was probably a DB34 engine hemi head 11/2 inch valves Quite something when it comes to making power. A mate ran one on a 55 500 goldstar engine for classic pre62 racing it was a Norstar, Beezer motor slimline Norton Dominator frame very agile and fast, We copied the Manx rear peg foot controls and he still kept bending brake pedals on hard cornering. Good series.
The Cojones of the rider is what defines the brand. How crazy is the rider?
I haven’t followed 2 wheeled sports in a long time. If I’m lucky I get to watch Moto GP with Pops on occasion.
This series has re-lit a bit of a fire for me.
You are both welcome. Bryce, we have some coming up that should be interesting for you. One of them is Norton based and about the featherbed frame. Hope you enjoy. Appreciate the comments.
That profile photo of the XR750 is pure motorcycle beauty. My XLCR had a tank and seat design based on this classic racing machine. I know that HD brought out a street model based on this configuration with the upswept pipes.
Here’s a photo of the XR1000. I know there was an even later model, but can’t think of the year or model designation.
always wanted one of these. Love the high pipes. just too pricey.
This year’s championship was won by Kawasaki, using bikes based on the 650cc parallel twin fitted to Ninjas and the Versys. However, Indian, now owned by Polaris, is back in a BIG way with a team of top riders and a bike with an engine designed in Switzerland, though a V twin. Based on early showings, it will be very competitive vs the XR750. Harley is also competing with a more modern liquid-cooled V Twin based on their Indian (in this case the country, not the brand) “low end” bikes.
AMA Flat track is making a comeback, not sure why it ever faded in the first place. Maybe the Harley dominance put people off. Now there is more competition and even Yamaha and Ducati are in the mix, but not as big an effort as Kawi and Indian and of course Harley. Also, there is interest in flat track racing in Europe although they use 450 MX machines and 17 inch wheels. There is (again) acknowledgement that dirt track skills translate to road racing. The euro snobs years ago looked down their collective noses at this American form of racing, but then Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson and others came over and kicked ass. But when AMA dirt track faded and MX took over there were no Americans coming over to road racing and the snobbery came back.
Always liked the style of these bikes.Alan Girdler former R&T colmumist converted one for street use.
I remember the super short track at state line Idaho in the 70’s. Man that was fun to watch.
Yamamoto, James and Brad Walth from Vancouver, tribers tigers. Those were the days.