50 Years of the Harley XR750: Part III of IV
By Chris Martin
A crucial difference motorcycle sport has long lorded over its four-wheeled counterpart — and continues to even in today’s electronics age — is the simple fact that on a bike the human behind the controls remains the ultimate factor determining wins and losses.
For all the decades of developmental work and mechanical black magic behind it, there’s no denying that the historic success of Harley-Davidson’s XR750 is also intrinsically tied to the heroics of a select group of otherworldly riders.
As covered in the previous installment, when presented with some novel rulebook hurdles in the late ‘60s, H-D responded with the creation of the original Iron XR750 in 1970 and then further iterated on that design with the superior Aluminum XR750, released just two years later.
The result of that engineering exercise was a well-balanced, rider-friendly package that provided a wide range of flat track artists an outstanding brush with which to paint their masterpieces on oval canvases of dirt and clay.
The ‘72 machine was so good, in fact, it won the Grand National Championship in its first go and positioned itself as an unbeatable machine going forward.
However, as formidable as the XR and its rider line-up may have been, Harley-Davidson was beaten to the throne in ‘73 and ‘74, despite the fact that a full ten different riders claimed at least one victory on the XR750 through the end of that season — each one an eventual AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer, save Dave Sehl, who himself was inducted into the Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
But even with all of those future HoFers in its corner, H-D and the XR750 were ultimately outdone and outclassed by a truly transcendent talent in Kenny Roberts, despite the Californian being significantly outgunned on his Yamaha XS750.
To overcome Roberts, Harley needed its own ‘King.’ It might have already had one in Gary Scott, who actually beat Roberts for Rookie of the Year honors in ‘72 and then finished as runner-up to him in ‘73.
H-D signed Scott to the factory team in ‘74. And after notching up a second straight second-place season, he finally delivered Harley another Grand National Championship in 1975… before promptly leaving the squad in a contract dispute following the season.
Desperate to replace him with the most spectacular rider they could unearth — one who could go head-to-head with Roberts and Scott and somehow come out on top — Harley-Davidson turned to a flashy 18-year-old named Jay Springsteen who had just earned Rookie of the Year honors.
Bill Werner, who was fresh of earning his first GNC title as a mechanic, knew that things were going to be quite different within minutes of the first official meeting with ‘Springer’ ahead of the ‘76 season.
“(Team manager Dick) O’Brien said, ‘Hey we’re going to have Springsteen come over to set up the bike for the Houston TT.’ Springer came into the shop and said, ‘Where’s the bike?’ I asked him if he wanted the rear brake on the right or the left.
And he said, ‘If you put it on the left, I’ll step on it over there, and if you put it on the right, I’ll step on it over there.’
“‘What about the handlebars?’
“‘Wherever they are is where I’ll put my hands.’
“And within two minutes he got on it and said, ‘Yeah, that’ll be okay.’
“Gary Scott was very, very finicky. I was used to working with a guy who had me taking a quarter inch of foam out of the seat because he didn’t feel comfortable on it. I went into O’Brien’s office and told him we were done setting up the bike, and he said, ‘What do you mean you’re done?’
“‘He said he’ll ride it just the way it is, and that’s fine.’”
It was ‘fine’ by even the most outlandish boundaries of the definition.
Springsteen defeated Roberts and Scott to claim the title in ‘76 and then again in ‘77. And for good measure, he added a third straight Grand National Championship to his résumé in 1978.
Springsteen established himself as the winningest rider in series’ history relatively early in his career and continued to build on that tally all the way into the new millennium. To this day, his 43 victories have only been eclipsed by three riders.
Werner said, “Jay was just a huge natural talent. He didn’t jog or lift weights. He didn’t do any of that stuff. He rode motorcycles in the woods and did normal stuff, but he didn’t have a specific diet or a trainer. And he was always amazed that other people couldn’t do what he did.
“He said, ‘Come on, this isn’t that hard.’ And I was like, ‘You’re only an inch away from the fence all the time, doesn’t that scare you?’ ‘Nah. As long as you don’t hit the fence, you’re okay.’
“I remember at Toledo, Kenny Roberts had set the fast time in time trials, and then Jay went out and went faster. When Jay was coming into the pits, Kenny sat there watching and said, ‘Springer — I’m kind of curious. What’s your shut-off point going into Three? What’s your mark?’
“Jay said, “Shut-off point? I just hold it wide open and try not to crash.’
“Roberts walked away and said, ‘This guy is nuts…’
“He just ran it in there until the front end pushed and then the rear-end came around and he saved it and stayed on the gas. There was no plan, just stay on the gas.
“Jay did refine his skills over time, and he got a little more artful and realized that not every track was just a wide-open thing. He got better on grooves and whatnot, but in his early years his mentality was that the fastest way around was holding it wide open and trying not to crash.”
Guts clearly weren’t an issue for Springsteen, which makes it a sad irony that his stomach actually was his Achilles heel. Over the next few seasons, Springer missed numerous Main Events due to a mysterious ailment that doctors attributed to excessive acid flow brought about by nerves.
That opened the door for others to rush in, and the next five Grand National Championships went to four other riders armed with XR750s (again, each one of them a future Hall of Famer and with no overlap to the ten already referenced).
Despite the XR750’s continued success, Harley-Davidson again found itself searching for a handpicked successor who could rack up victories and string together multiple GNCs the way Springsteen had in the late ‘70s.
And again, it turned to a young rider bursting with talent in ‘79 Rookie of the Year Scott Parker, drafting him up to the works H-D squad midway through the ‘81 season.
However, the early- and mid-’80s were a tumultuous time for Harley-Davidson in general, putting the factory race effort in dire jeopardy. It was extremely bad timing, as Honda was preparing to introduce a game changer.
Honda followed Yamaha’s playbook to beat Harley-Davidson by hiring a pair of ascending superstars in ‘82 GNC Ricky Graham and the ultra-talented Bubba Shobert, and then took it a full-step further by following Harley’s own playbook on the machinery side of the equation.
After enjoying only limited success with its CX500-based NS750 flat track machine in 1981 and 1982, Honda closely studied the basic design of the XR750 and then added some modern HRC touches to it.
Like the XR750, Honda’s new RS750 featured a four-speed 45-degree V-Twin (right down to identical 79.5mm x 75.5mm bore and stroke numbers) but also four-valves per cylinder and overhead cams as opposed to two valves and a pushrod design.
“Honda was smart,” Werner said. “They bought a couple XRs, and they took them apart because the XRs worked so well. They duplicated the flywheel mass and the V-Twin configuration, but they were pretty sure they didn’t want pushrods or two-valves. So essentially, it had a lot of the plus characteristics of the XR with none of the minuses.
“It didn’t really make any more power than an XR, it just made more RPM. So what’s the advantage? If an XR comes off the corner at six grand and the Honda comes off at seven grand and the terminal velocity is the same, they start up a thousand RPM on the band and just have more power on tap due to the RPM difference.”
The RS750 was tested in action during the ‘83 season (and even won the Du Quoin Mile courtesy of Hank Scott) before being fully unleashed on the series in 1984 with Graham and Shobert at the controls.
It proceeded to rip off four successive Grand National Championships.
Meanwhile, Harley’s full factory effort had been effectively mothballed with the race department reduced to just a single employee — Werner — whose job at that point primarily consisted of shipping out parts to privateer teams.
However, even if the factory H-D team no longer existed, Parker insisted on having factory-level talent building and wrenching his XR750.
Werner said, “In ’85, the factory disbanded its racing team and gave all their riders their equipment and told them to hire their own tuners and stuff like that. About one or two races into the season, Scott Parker called and said, ‘I’m not happy with the guy I hired. I want to hire you.’ And I told him I was working full time and couldn’t do that. And he said, ‘Well, I’d rather have you working on my bike four hours a day than the other guy 20.’
“I agreed to go to work for him, but Harley-Davidson management didn’t want it to happen. They told Scott, ‘Nope, your contract says we get to authorize anybody you hire to make sure they’re competent.’
“Scott took it to his attorney, and his attorney said to Harley, ‘You’re right. You have the authority to judge whether the guy is competent. And this guy has won four national championships. How can you say he’s not competent?’
“Harley tried to argue that I wouldn’t have the time to do the job correctly, but Scott’s attorney said, ‘That’s not what the contract says. The contract only says competent.’
“So reluctantly, they let me go to work for Scott, and I did it all at home.”
Parker enjoyed his finest campaign as a professional yet that season, including a massive win at the Indy Mile which finally halted Honda’s dominant streak of Mile victories that had stretched into the double digits.
He ended the season ranked third in points and followed that up with a runner-up showing the following year as he and Werner continued to seek out new ways to derail the Honda freight train.
Werner said, “The RS was just a better engine than what the XR was. But it had it quirks too. It hit so hard it burned up tires more than what the XR did.”
Restrictor plates were added to the equation in 1987. Most will tell you the move was done solely to undercut the inherent advantages of the RS750, but Werner argued the Honda’s one weakness, in part, brought the penalty upon itself.
“(Burning up tires) was one of the reasons the AMA instituted the restrictors. They wanted to slow everybody down. There were a couple races in particular where the top riders went right through their tires. Goodyear wasn’t about to make new tires for that small a market. They transitioned to Carlisle tires for a while that were harder, but they’d go through those tires too. They had to keep shortening races from 25 laps to 20 laps to 15 laps and pretty soon the competition committee said, ‘This is nuts. Why don’t we just slow everybody up? You don’t have to go 130 on the straights. Why not just 120?’ It hurt all engines about the same. Having them all close was the key.”
Parker came within seven points of dethroning Shobert in 1987.
If anything, the XR750 platform had been made stronger due to the lessons learned during the race program’s hiatus and Honda’s run of dominance. And just as Harley-Davidson amped its factory program back up to full bore, Honda was gearing down and looking to exit, frustrated with the new regulations that had been put into place.
Werner explained, “Before I brought the program back into Harley-Davidson, I worked with different vendors and developed different cam profiles and other things that made Scott’s bike, I think, better than everybody else’s.
“We had an advantage, and it wasn’t due to the factory giving me s— because they only reluctantly allowed me to do it at all. But rather, I had the freedom to go to any vendor I wanted because I was on my own working out of my own garage. And a lot of those things got transitioned to the official product when I ultimately got to work in the department fulltime and they hired back more staff and a manager and all that other stuff.”
Parker did finally overcome Shobert to end the Honda dynasty in 1988 while starting one of his own; he would go on to claim four consecutive Grand National Championships from ‘88-’91.
Ultimately, the challenge to Parker’s crown would come from within the throne room.
Harley-Davidson had learned to have a worthy heir in place. Just one year after Parker’s reign began, it found one in the gifted 1995 Rookie of the Year, Chris Carr.
Carr’s skillset was a bit different than Parker’s, which worked well in terms of making the factory XRs heavy favorites virtually every weekend, no matter the discipline, year after year.
Parker was the unquestioned maestro of the Mile; he raced the XR750 to an astonishing 55 Mile victories during the course of his career (more than twice as many as the current master of the form, Bryan Smith). Carr, meanwhile, was an unstoppable force at the TTs and the STs. And both riders were among the greatest Half-Milers the sport has ever seen.
Both styles worked equally well at racking up championship points. The next decade saw Parker and Carr engage in several of the greatest title fights in American Flat Track history.
Parker’s ‘91 title win over Carr came down to the tiebreaker, and then Carr struck back with his first Grand National Championship the following season, ending Parker’s run of four straight GNCs by just two points.
Ricky Graham broke up the epic annual intra-team title fights with an amazing ‘93 season to give the RS750 one final run to glory, before Parker reclaimed the #1 plate in ‘94, this time by four points over Carr.
Carr was drafted into the factory Harley-Davidson AMA Superbike team in ‘95 and would focus the bulk of his efforts hustling the VR1000 around on pavement for the following three years. During that time, Parker continued to stack up titles, the last (his ninth) coming by a scant two-point margin over Carr in ‘98 upon his rival’s full-time return to dirt track racing.
By ‘99, Carr was running his own team, had Kenny Tolbert wrenching his XRs, and had rounded into an all-around dirt track master, Miles very much included. He scored a blowout title triumph in Parker’s farewell season, setting the stage for a run of six dominant GNCs from ‘99-’05. That string was broken up only by Joe Kopp’s 2000 Grand National Championship, earned while Carr was splitting his time winning the short-lived Formula USA National Dirt Track Championship.
Reflecting on the Parker-Carr years, Kopp said, “It was pretty wild. They had some really heated years right before I stepped in. I got in late in their battle, and then Chris and I got to have a lot of battles ourselves over the years. It was really neat to be a part of that. Any time that I got to race Scottie or Ricky or Chris… Gosh, it was a helluva race.
“I remember Scottie’s last Springfield in 2000. Even though I was credited as the winner at the Dallas Mile in ‘99, that race was red flagged and ended on lap nine. So in my mind, I didn’t have an official Mile win at that point and was still looking for my first. Will (Davis) got his first Mile win that Saturday there at Springfield, and I finished second. The next day, sure as s—, Scottie Parker is here — ‘Mr Springfield ’ — and he comes out of retirement and goes and wins the thing and I got second again. I was like, ‘Damn!’ Even though he had been retired for a year or whatever, it was just an honor to race with him in a situation like that.
“I wish I could have been in the middle of more Scottie and Chris battles, but I had my fair share. I got frustrated enough in the few that I was in.”
Carr continued to race into the 2010s, setting the bar extremely high during what was the formative era for a number of the today’s crop of AFT SuperTwins aces.
Ultimately, the three titans of the XR750 — Jay Springsteen, Scott Parker, and Chris Carr — combined to score a nearly unthinkable 183 GNC Main Event victories and 19 Grand National Championships on the iconic machine.