Sunday Salon: Harley XR750 – 40 Years Old And Still A Youngster

(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:

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.