Race On Sunday, Sell On Monday?

Buzz Kanter EIC

SHIFTING GEARS by Buzz Kanter 

AMA Class C racers on tankshift 45 cubic-inch flatheads

SHIFTING GEARS, by Buzz Kanter, Publisher

Talk to any of the motorcycle old timers and eventually they all get around to discussing a deep-rooted rivalry. It was between the two American motorcycle powerhouses, Harley-Davidson and Indian, on the racetracks and in the showrooms. I have heard and read about the epic battles on the sand of Daytona Beach, the rough dirt tracks near Loudon, New Hampshire, and the unforgiving hard pack of Springfield, Ohio. And the subsequent battle to get riders into the dealerships.

The parking lots at 1940s and early ’50s motorcycle race events were tightly packed with Harley flatheads, Knuckleheads, and Panheads, side by side with Indian Chiefs, Scouts, and occasional Fours. The riders proudly wore shirts or caps proclaiming their ride of choice. In the pits and on the tracks were Indian Scouts and Harley WRs. These were the fierce competitors of AMA Class C racing on tankshift 45 cubic-inch flatheads. Yes, I am going back more than 60 years, but whatever embers from this fierce
competition that still glow are about to get fanned into a powerful blaze.

After decades of dominating the dirt tracks of America with the all-conquering XR-750, Harley-Davidson recently announced a new race platform based on the 750cc liquid-cooled Street motorcycle. The XG750R broke cover at the Sacramento Mile where factory rider Davis Fisher finished the Semi in third place. Unlike just about all other 45-degree, air-cooled V-twins in Harley’s history, the radical new G (which used to be Harley’s designation for the Servicar trike) is a liquid-cooled, four-valve, 60-degree design. Could this be something to watch for in the future?

Right on the heels of Harley’s announcement of a new generation dirt track racer, Indian pulled the covers off an all-new race powertrain rumored to have been designed and built in less than a year! Say hello to the Indian FTR750 racer, powered by a liquid-cooled, four-valve, DOHC V-twin engine. I know the last Indian factory racer was built before I was born. I believe it was Indian model 648 Big Base Scout, built in very limited numbers in 1948 specifically to beat the Harley team in the important Daytona Beach races that year. Indian won the race, but it was the end of head-on, on-track competition between the factory teams of Harley and Indian. Until now.

Most of us know how racing can benefit the brand. First and foremost, race bikes are cool. They should be designed with nothing that does not help them go faster, handle better, or stop properly. Second, competition breeds improvements. Lessons learned on the track often has great applications for the street. Third could be phrased “Race on it Sunday, sell it on Monday,” if motorcycle dealers were open on Mondays. Enthusiasts like to buy and ride the bikes they see race and win, even if they are buying a motor­cycle with little in common other than tank badges and a similar general look.

HD-Indian-wars-columnFor the first time in decades, Harley is showing serious commitment, gambling with a new powertrain to replace the XR750, and Indian has opened its corporate checkbook wide to re-enter dirt track racing after more than six decades. Could this lead to a rebirth of popularity in a sport that has, frankly, been in steady decline for too long? I sure hope so. Either way, I do know it will benefit all enthusiasts with stronger and better products for years to come. And I can’t wait to see the Harley and Indian teams out on the mile track, hanging it all out and fighting for the win.

If you are interested in learning more about the Harley/Indian rivalry I strongly recommend buying a copy of the long-out-of-print book Alan Girdler’s The Harley-Davidson and Indian Wars at Greaserag.com

Ride safe, ride smart, have fun.


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