Get your tickets in advance, folks! The 2017 season of AMA Pro flat track racing promises to be the most entertaining, innovative and intense in decades.
For the 12 or so readers out there who aren’t already aware, this is because Indian has jumped into the fray and onto the tracks with its very own, honest to cinders, first in our lifetime new… flat track racer. And, yes… gentle reader, it means war! Well, don’t want to overhype it, so let’s just walk it back enough to say Indian is serious about doing battle, bringing to bear the latest weapon in the oldest form of extreme sport in America. I doubt it’s any accident this has happened on the heels of Harley-Davidson’s release of their own successor to the all-time king of dirt racers, the XR750. Harley’s new racer is based on the Street 750 engine. Indian’s sports a “race only” power plant, but with a street bike engineering philosophy.
As this is written, the most competitive rival to these two is… wait for it… the street bike-based Kawasaki 650 Ninja parallel twin motor. Obviously, punched out and souped-up to meet the rigors and rules of this hallowed racing class, but a street engine nonetheless. Yamaha’s FZ7 motor has been called to duty as well, but it’s a bit early to tell how that’ll play in Peoria. The point is, there are all these and many more eligible to compete in the finest form of racing we have. Not to mention the oldest. There’s a point or two to be made about all this, so here goes.
The dirt abides
To deal with it effectively is the key—well, keys actually—‘cause the stuff is tricky. No matter how much technology improves and advances, we haven’t been able to do much with dirt. It absolutely “is what it is!” But it can be many things, loamy and loose, damp and greasy, packed hard or combined with tire dandruff attenuated on occasion with droplets of lubricant yet tractive as hell… usually referred to at that point as the “blue groove.” Just these few examples and the infinite variables of the basic themes means not any old machine can (or will) do well when racing upon it. Without space to beat it to death in detail, suffice it to say, in the premier leagues (GNC-1, to be precise) the V-twin and/or the 270-degree crank (emulating the V-twin) have had better than a century to prove the point. All of the current combatants are of that ilk but with some interesting twists and traits. All three have benign but abundant torque curves, because sheer horsepower isn’t the way to get around rapidly. This tractive power is fed through only four gear ratios, but most of the time it’s the top two that matter. Weight, its distribution and the center of gravity are critical to handling. Dirt ain’t asphalt and a certain degree of “push” is often more useful than traction. It goes on and on and it’s all very subtle… and track dependent. This knowledge has not come from computers. It has come from decade upon decade of experience. Hard earned and invaluable.
The king is dead—long live the king
It is very difficult to separate the success of Harley’s immortal XR750 and its requisite skilled tuner, the most skilled of which is a gentleman named Bill Werner. But Bill’s career hasn’t lasted quite as long as the XR’s, so I’d like to start with the mechanical “king,” since it’s the one that’s dead. Well, not dead… obsolete. It is still very, very competitive after 44 years, which in itself is epic! Thing is… there’s nowhere to go with it anymore, since the trickiest race bike ever has no more tricks. The fact that the XR is at the bitter end of its long development is what makes it obsolete. Well, that, and compared to the new rivals it will face during its fade out, it’s damned expensive to race. Remember, the XR750 is based on the same bottom end that served the WR, KR and even the K-models and Sportsters. In other words, technology designed by men—via trial and error—in the 1930s at the height of (and because of) the Great Depression! Ironically, that is one of the reasons it’s expensive. When the XR and its ancestors were 6000 rpm engines that was one thing. A 10,000 rpm XR is another! It eats bottom ends and a bunch of other bits regularly at those levels of stress. From a bottom end that would last all season to one that needs rebuilding after every race adds up! In more ways than one. The XR750 will not go quietly into the dark night, but it won’t be around long after the new dawn either.
Bill Werner, on the other hand, is the guy that began the revival of dirt track as we are about to know it — proving he’s still the king of tuners and anything but obsolete. Yeah, sure, he retired a few years back because he had done it all and had nothing to prove. But, you can’t keep a good man down. So it turns out the evergreen Mr. Werner came back to professional dirt track a few years back, with the idea for his crowning achievement. That’s when his unerring eye for potential landed on the Ninja 650 and the “Ah-ha!” moment occurred. Modern motors like the Kawasaki’s could be tuned to a competitive level and last all season. Water cooling, four valves per cylinder, short strokes, lots of valve area so low-lift torque cams would work, plain bearing bottom ends with efficient oiling systems… hell, it’s a smorgasbord of superlatives. To say nothing of the sophisticated fuel delivery and electronics. The bonus of lightweight and cheap replacement parts made the whole notion irresistible and a winner. Mr. Werner, we owe you one… royally!
Dirty deeds—done dirt cheap
Well, relatively. No form of racing is anything resembling a bargain. All the same, the rebirth of the so-called “Harley and Indian Wars” after a hiatus of 60-some years is big news. Mostly, because the introduction of all these new and affordable race bikes means a lot of would-be racers can and will enter the sport that otherwise might not have. New hardware and new blood cannot hurt. Now all that’s needed is proper coverage on network television. I’m of the opinion that flat track racing should be at least on par with NASCAR as a spectator sport, but that requires a level of promotion and dosh that haven’t been seen in dirt track ever. Since, for the first time in decades, AMA flat track will be massively diverse, maybe now’s the time?
A quick visit to the AMA website will tell you that the two American makers are not alone. Aside from the Kwacker, there are several brands that have engines to play dirty with, if they so choose. The fact is, as H-D has proven, time and time again, that it takes commitment to go with the hardware. As often as not, commitment has made Harley the big winner over time… not superior hardware. Parity is the other thing that makes for great racing. The proverbial “level playing field” is what I believe we are about to see in 2017. It will not be a season of the over-dog coming out of nowhere to (literally) rule the “roost.” All the new hardware will need shakedown time. Failures and fixes will be the hallmark, but, damn, it will be fun to watch. The Green Meanies could triumph as a result of working with warmed-up street motors for a couple of seasons, as a head start. Harley might have a true and proper replacement for the XR, if they can sort and soar with its replacement, the XG750R. Then there’s the Indian FTR750… the only one of the bunch that’s designed from scratch to be a race-only engine.
Which of these turns out to be the right philosophy, execution and focus is all that remains to be seen. But look closely! Because see it we will—next year. A sight for sore eyes. (Streaming on Fanschoice.tv by the way!)