…and Sturgis totally wore me out, and I’m not sure I’ll recover anytime soon. [OK, that’s a joke. I’m really not. Honest.]
But for many, hearing news that a factory Harley-Davidson XG750 dirt tracker had run with the likes of Indian’s Jared Mees and Briar Bauman on their all-conquering FTR750s deep into a national-class Mile main event would have seemed as unreal and scandalous as yours truly covered in mayo and shredded cabbage.
But it happened, specifically at the Indy Mile II on August 22, in what might just be the last Mile race ever on that legendary oval – the exact place where Kenny Roberts beat the XR750s of Corky Keener and Jay Springsteen on the infamous and ill-fated TZ750 Miler back in ’75.
OK, the Harley rider in question – ‘Mile Master’ and 2016 Grand National Champ Bryan Smith – didn’t win. Smitty was two seconds adrift of Bauman at the flag and got third, grabbing Team H-D’s fourth podium since the formation of the V&H team in 2016. But he poked, prodded and pushed Bauman and Mees all race long, and ran just as fast as they did for most of the Main and even led a few laps, which has literally not happened before in a Main event. Fans went berserk.
It’s no secret the H-D/V&H team hasn’t lived up to expectations in dirt track, though that’s mostly due to the decision to run a production-based engine (the low-tech XG mill) and not develop a new-generation XR750 engine – which is exactly what Indian did when it worked with SwissAuto (which Polaris purchased in 2010) to develop the race-only FTR engine. So it’s apples vs. oranges.
Still, Terry and Byron’s guys have busted ass, and finally, after four years, it’s starting to pay off. Much of this is due to the addition of Smith and crew chief Ricky Howerton, who took the Crosley Kawasaki to a Grand National title in 2016 and who competed fiercely for titles as part of the Indian factory team in 2017-’18.
The conventional wisdom has been that the V&H engines were maybe too powerful for dirt track, and Byron Hines confirmed as much a few months ago when he told me the XG beat the FTR in on-asphalt drag races nine out of ten times during testing. “One of the first things Howerton told me,” Hines related, “is that they needed to ‘knock these things down a bit.’ And they have.”
“Our power production is 180 degrees different than before,” Howerton told me in the days after Indy. “We made wholesale changes to the curve, and we’re down to detail stuff there. It’s the little things now.”
One of those ‘little things’ involved a tweak to the XG’s steering geometry, which Smith and Howerton locked onto while riding mountain bikes a few weeks back. “Bryan and I are way into bicycles,” Howerton related, “and we see things pretty similarly…details, nuances, things others wouldn’t notice. But a lot of the time those are the things that really count. Add ’em up and it’s the difference between 10th and a podium. If fans were flies on the wall they’d listen to our conversations and think, ‘these guys are nuts!’”
“Anyway, I have a couple of mountain bikes that have different front-end geometry. I’d been noticing a specific handling difference between the two, and after looking into the geometry numbers, I had Bryan ride them to check it out. He felt the same things I did, and the back-and-forth resulted in a change to our race bikes before the Indy Mile that had Bryan feeling a lot more comfortable and had the bike hooking up more efficiently.
“Call it ‘redneck engineering’ if you like,” Howerton continued, “but those are the little things where he and I jive. I’m a touchy/feely type of person, and he feels a lot of the same stuff I do. That’s why we connect and communicate so well, and a main reason we work so well together.”
Redneck or not, what Smith and Howerton are up to seems to be working. We’ll see just how well once again at this week’s Springfield Miles, which you can watch live via NBC’s Track Pass on Sept 5 and 6 during Labor Day weekend.
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