Photographs courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives
Copyright Harley-Davidson – click on images for full size
The Wrecking Crew, 1914 It-s not widely known in Europe but Harley-Davidson was a dominant force in oval flat track racing for most of the last century, and it still is! Harley has made the national series its own since the pioneer years of motorcycling: William S. Harley first entered a Harley-Davidson official team in a racing championship as early as 1914, and the team was quick to establish its authority by winning races and championships within a few years. The team became known as the Wrecking Crew and was so dominant on race weekends for so many years that the name has stuck ever since, right through to the current team led by Kenny Coolbeth and Bryan Smith.
Bart Markel won the title on the KR750 in ’65 and ’66. Note lace-up boots and no eye or hand protection. Incredibly, half of this long history has been the story of just two legendary motorcycles. The company-s remarkable side-valve KR750 flat tracker was introduced in 1953 and didn-t really start to show its age and lose out to the new wave of British twins from BSA and Triumph until the late 1960s, at which point the situation became desperate, and in 1970 the overhead valve XR750 was introduced, based on the Sportster road bike.
It wasn-t a great success at first but this was something of a stopgap, and in 1972 a new version was produced, still called the XR750 but now with aluminium instead of iron barrels. This produced an astonishing 90bhp – remember it was only 750cc – thanks to its twin carburettors, high-rise megaphone exhaust and cylinder heads which positioned both carburettors at the rear of their cylinders with the exhausts at the front. On conventional Harley engines the rear cylinder-s exhaust exits at the back of the cylinder.
Scott Parker demonstrates one-handed rear wheel steering Flat track racing is an all-American series where bikes compete on a one mile, hard-packed dirt oval circuit. As in European speedway, the bikes slide on opposite lock around the corners, spinning their back wheels for balance and steering, although cornering speeds are much higher than in speedway, the quickest machines exceeding 120mph (190kph). And they have no front brakes.
The series runs throughout the summer months with the first race usually scheduled in March and the season finale in late September or early October. The spiritual home of Flat Track racing is in Springfield, Illinois, at the Fairgrounds Mile where the first AMA championship was held in 1937.
Barrels were aluminium from ’72 The series has been a launch pad for many careers in grand prix and MotoGP, with international stars such as Nicky Hayden and Kenny Roberts both starting their racing on the flat track circuit. And they-ve all ridden XR750s. Indeed, far from finding the KR750 a hard act to follow, the aluminium-barrel XR750 shone even more brightly, dominating the ovals almost totally ever since, and the titles started to gather.
In the early seventies Yamaha with Kenny Roberts took two titles on XS650-based machines, while a dozen years later Honda picked up four titles with its V-twin RS750, very loosely based on the CX500 road bike. But these aberrations aside, the XR750 has been in complete control, taking famous names such as Jay Springsteen and Scott Parker to a succession of championships.
Look, no front brake. The XR750-s success was underlined again in 2007 with Kenny Coolbeth-s second successive victory in the US flat track racing series. Coolbeth, from Connecticut led a one-two-three for the Harley Davidson -Wrecking Crew- team in 07 along with team mates Jared Mees and Bryan Smith. Then in 2008 he did it again, with Smith coming in second, while Harley and the XR accumulated 299 points against second placed Suzuki-s 156.
In fact the bike has won 29 of the past 37 AMA championships.
Scott Parker is flat track’s most successful rider with nine championships The most successful member of the Wrecking Crew is Scott Parker, who has claimed a record-breaking nine championships in the series. The most successful bike has been far more dominant than that.
This then is the legacy on which Harley-Davidson’s XR1200 (click for test) road bike is based, a machine designed to invoke images of speed, competition and race success which in Europe at least haven’t previously sat comfortably with the Milwaukee marque. And the link does go beyond just the 1200’s looks, as both it and the 750 are based on the Sportster, and both make around 90bhp. But the XR750 weighs around half of the new 1200.
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