FLAT TRACK racing is one of those pure American sports that could only come from America. From the land of excess, motorsport has always been one of the most pure forms of function must meet the needs of the sport. A great example of this is flat track racing. Simple, build a 750 cc bike that is as light as possible with an engine that has 130 hp, kick the horses off their mile-long horse tracks and race at 130 mph on the dirt! Easy!
It sounds simple but to be one of the very brave to race this discipline, and to watch these riders doing 130 mph on the straight and then pitching their bikes sideways through the corners at 110 mph at full lock, is unbelievable to watch.
So where did it all start?
Way back in the earliest days of motorcycles in America there was the need to prove which brand was the fastest. Two of the biggest contenders for the fastest bike were Harley-Davidson and Indian. Both had fast machines and both wanted the title of fastest motorcycle badly.
Competitions were set up around the country, first on half-mile and board tracks with banked corners just like at a push-bike velodrome; but these were big tracks, and on the mile tracks where the bike could reach over a 100 mph the cost was great with many riders being killed each year. A slightly safer option was dirt track racing, no banked corners, no wooden tracks and plenty of run-off areas. So in time this became the track and racing of choice for the major teams and riders.
There were classes of racing based on the capacity of the machines. The big bikes, 1000 cc to 1300 cc, were very fast and there was some serious accidents due to both speed and rider skill.
Eventually the big bikes were pushed aside and the Class C-750 cc class was established. This all started in the late 30’s and the rules allowed 500 cc overhead valve singles to race against 750 cc side valves. Harley and Indian had the 750 cc side valves and the British bikes were all 500 cc overhead valve. It made for competitive racing.
By the late 50’s the rules re capacity weren’t viable anymore and the class was re-adjusted to be just 750 cc capacity for any make of bike. The side-valves were getting out classed; Indian had gone bankrupt and no longer was in the racing game or selling motorcycles. Harley needed to do something to be able to compete with the others.
Harley developed and released the first XR750 based on the then popular Iron Head Sportster. It had a chrome-molly frame with all the right dimensions and geometry to be competitive but the engine was letting it down. The cast iron cylinders and heads were holding too much heat and the engine was struggling to make good power, at this time 80 hp was considered massive!
Harley persevered with the engine for a few years and made some big changes to porting and position of carbs and exhaust, it while it really wasn’t working that well, it did allow time to develop the chassis properly and have a bike that was handling very well.
In 1972 Harley released the all new, all alloy engine XR750. This was a game changer for the company and for flat track racing. Harley now had a factory prepped race bike that customers could buy to compete with. The bike was a winner from the very start. It made far more power, ran cooler and had very good reliability.
The XR750 became the dominant bike in flat track racing for the next 35 years.
The bike was such an iconic model that Harley-Davidson has done two tribute models for the road over the years. The first was the XR1000, based on the Sportster of the time but with the all alloy cylinder heads, twin carbs and high exhaust straight from the XR750 race bike. It was only made for two years, 1983 and 1984, and has become a serious collector’s bike.
The next was the XR1200 which was based around the then current Sportster but heavily modified into a road racer style of bike, again only made for two years, 2009 and 2010.
To be able to get your hands on either the XR750 or the XR1000 is a very hard thing to do, both are rare and both are expensive. Two very lucky people here in Oz have one each of these bikes. The owner of the XR750 is Eddy; he’s a real passionate owner of bikes and is a real lover of the American brand. Les is also a lover of all motorcycles and was lucky enough to obtain the XR1000. Here is Eddy’s story of how he got the bike and its past.
“AT THE Bendigo Swap Meet, many years ago, a buddy said to me, ‘Did you see that old XR over there for sale?’
“I thought he was having me on (an XR750 at a swap meet?) but thought I better take a look. Amongst a pile of rusty car parts was Phil Baker, a local, and a large chain attached to the real deal!
“It evolved that Phil had imported a new C&J rolling chassis with Performance Machine wheels and rear brake, along with a Jim Kelly Racing, freshly-built, XR750 engine.
“The tank/seat unit is from Bartels H-D dealership in Los Angeles, a long-term Springsteen sponsor, and delivered to Jay Springsteen. Phil’s idea was for Jay Springsteen (Springer) to come to Australia and race it at various events, which he duly did! Jay raced at Tamworth Showground, Redcliffe Raceway in Brisbane, and Bankstown in Sydney in 2001. These events were all part of the Jack Daniels sponsored Australian Long Track Grand Prix.
“Before he left, he signed the tank Springer #9 “MAN”. Soon after, unfortunately, Springer had a serious back injury while flat-tracking back in the USA and never raced full-time again.
“I met Jay Springsteen again at the Springfield Mile in Illinois a few years ago with my buddy Dennis and he said, “You’ve got my bike!”
“He was helping Bill Werner with another front-running team, and is full of laughs—a great character!
“Thereafter, Phil rode the XR750 himself on occasion but decided to let the bike go, hence the swap meet.
“I have ridden the bike at the Broadford Bike Bonanza sometimes, but the bike is not suited to a kidney-shape short track. After racing Sportsters and Buells for decades, the XR750 is still the best adrenalin weapon, and the ultimate Harley-Davidson, especially when I am used to having front brakes! Serious offers for the bike come often, but no way, Jose—it’s a keeper.”
Here is Les’s story on his XR1000.
“I FIRST became interested in the XR Harley-Davidson after watching the movie On Any Sunday. The XR1000 appealed to me because it looked much tougher than any other Harley and had the performance to match. I’d been watching them for a while and occasionally one turns up on eBay. I spotted this one in Oregon, Wisconsin, so I got a mate to bid on it for me as I hadn’t worked out how to tell my wife I was buying another bike; thanks Howdy! At the time I had three CBX1000 Hondas and a Triumph Sprint.
“On one of its first outings I went for a ride around Somerset Dam, on the outskirts of Brisbane, with three of my mates on late model Jap bikes and flogged them all through the twisty stuff.
“We stopped at a coffee shop at Mt Glorious and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself until it was time to go. I fired it up and it seemed to be running on 1½ cylinders; turned out I had bent a valve. I limped home and pulled the motor out, heads off and sent them away to be fixed.
“While the engine was out I noticed a couple of cracks in the frame near the top mounts for the rear shocks. I have spoken to a couple of other Harley owners and they have seen this before so it may be a common fault. Luckily, my brother Jim is very skilled in this area and cut the back off the frame, inserted some steel sleeves and welded it all back together leaving it looking like brand new and stronger than before.
“Weren’t a big deal, motor reassembled and back in the frame a couple of weeks later and no dramas since?
“I take the bike to a few local shows and some dirt track meetings to show it off. Last year I took it down to Broadford and gave it a blast around the track. I had a ball and the bike got a lot of interest down there.
“I chose the Phil Little Body Kit as it gives the bike a bit more of the XR750 flat tracker look. The bike is basically stock with some anodised red hose clamps for a little more competition look.
“My bike has full rego and I can ride it when and where I like. I believe these bikes should be ridden and shown off…not hidden away.
“I have a few other Concourse restored bikes but I am under pressure from a few mates not to spoil this bike by over-restoring it and making it look too new.”
So there you have it, two great examples of Harley-Davidson models of the road and race fields being together making that itself the first time being photographed and raced at the same time. Both are excellent examples of racing and tribute models from the Harley-Davidson stable. Models that will never lose value and always be on the wish list of those that know what is unique, rare and fun in the motorcycle world.
words & photos by Knackers