Blue Groove: Is Ricky Howerton Harley-Davidson’s missing link?

The last AFT Championship won by the Harley-Davidson factory team was in 2008, with Kenny Coolbeth in the saddle of an XR750. The last AFT Twins race win by a factory H-D was at the 2016 season-ending Santa Rosa Mile. That victory by Brad Baker was on a Vance & Hines XR750.

Since Santa Rosa, the factory Harley-Davidson Vance & Hines team has campaigned the XG750R Revolution X platform in place of the legendary XR. Ridden by the likes of former AFT champs Coolbeth, Jake Johnson and Sammy Halbert, as well as Brandon Robinson, Jarod Vanderkooi and Davis Fisher, the XG has gone 0 for 54 over the last three seasons. No wins, no second places, and only a pair of thirds by Halbert and one by Johnson, bringing the team’s podium record to three-for-164.

These are dismal results for Harley. Unlike the very fruitful partnership in NHRA, you might expect the relationship between H-D and V&H in dirt track racing to be a little strained. Not even Honda dominated Harley to the extent that Indian has since its arrival at that same 2016 race in Santa Rosa.

But things are changing. A Dec. press release by V&H announced the addition of Ricky Howerton to the team as crew chief, along with 2016 Grand National champ Bryan Smith as a rider, along with ever-improving Vanderkooi and rookie (and 2019 AFT Singles champ) Dalton Gauthier. On paper, the addition of Howerton, Smith and Gauthier gives the Harley and V&H crew renewed hope for race wins and possibly a championship, though it’s true the bar is low compared to historical H-D standards.

Ricky Howerton has been involved in flat track racing since 2012.

The Howerton/Smith tandem has produced 25 AFT Twins wins and a championship (in ’16, on a hand-crafted Howerton Kawasaki Ninja 650) since 2012. This positioned them to be the lead on the in-house factory Indian FTR750 effort in 2017 alongside the factory Indian development team of Kenny Tolbert and Jared Mees.

For the next two years, Howerton and Smith notched seven wins but struggled to match the Tolbert/Mees combo’s 20-wins and two-titles. Howerton and Smith shined on the Mile tracks, yet they struggled elsewhere.

In 2019, Howerton and Smith returned to their Kawasaki, a move that was hyped by those desperate to scalp the Indians. But it became clear that even the most advanced version of the Kawasaki could not overcome the Indian in 2019. So the duo started looking elsewhere.

V&H is a racing juggernaut. The company was founded on the backs of Terry Vance’s and Byron Hines’ decades of drag racing success, and a championship win in AMA Superbike racing, as well. But their magic touch hasn’t been realized on dirt, their development curve on the XG750R Revolution X production-based platform having been pretty flat (pun intended) since 2016.

Through the 2017 breakout season for Indian, it was determined that the XG Harley lacked power. V&H then developed a 4-valve head for the XG and lobbied for its approval for 2018. This was granted by AFT under the stipulation that the XG would no longer be production based. Through 2018, it was determined that the XG lacked torque. Larger throttle bodies (40mm vs. 38mm) and an increase in displacement (up to 900cc from 750cc) were requested by V&H and other OEs who expressed intent to enter AFT Twins in the future; these requests were granted by AFT, along with the return of a production-based designation.

The 2019 season saw a huge improvement for the V&H XG-based machines, with solid and consistent results by Vanderkooi and Halbert. The torque was there and the horsepower was there, but the results still weren’t up to the standards of the factory Harley-Davidson team. 

Enter Ricky Howerton and Bryan Smith.

In a recent conversation with Howerton, I asked what his expectations were. “If we don’t win some races and podium often, I will be very disappointed. These bikes have enough power and torque as they are. I’ve learned a ton about power delivery and torque curves with the Indians and the Kawasaki, and I consider my time spent with both equally important in developing a power curve for the XG.”

This move by V&H – bringing in an experienced flat track engine developer – is one that probably should have been made long ago. If it doesn’t work, the only thing left to ensure a fighting chance for the orange and black is for AFT to handicap the Indian’s strength.

That, too, might already be in motion.

If you also suffer from a flat track addiction, reach out to Chris for tips on chasing the dragon at bluegroove@thunderpress.net

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