Shipping delays meant I didn't see the bike until a few hours before Friday's first practice session. Most of the other XR racers had participated in an NESBA track day earlier in the week, but I wasn't too concerned about my lack of saddle time-I'd spent the previous day riding a 2011 XR1200X around the back half of the track during a press launch. Any lessons I learned riding the streetbike, however, proved irrelevant on the racer. Though the allowed modifications seem straightforward, they radically transform the bike's handling-and not necessarily for the better.
Road America's XR1200 entrants, from left to right: John Ashmead, Eric Stump, Travis Wyman
The racebike I rode was equipped with a Race Tech suspension package consisting of a fully adjustable cartridge fork kit in the 43mm Showa fork and a pair of G3-S piggyback-reservoir shocks. The shocks were a substantial 75mm longer than stock to increase cornering clearance-a serious shortcoming on the stock bike-and in conjunction with the smaller-diameter front wheel increased forward weight bias and decreased rake and trail for quicker steering. The race-bike dove into corners like a steel-framed Supersport racer and held lines I couldn't even have imagined on the stocker.
Unfortunately, any gains in agility came at the expense of high-speed stability. During the aforementioned track day, one very experienced racer had even been thrown from his bike at triple-digit speeds! And with nearly half of Road America's 4.1-mile length made up of flat-out straightaways, stability was a major concern.
Despite any initial alarm, my first lap was reassuring. The riding position recalled an old-school Superbike, requiring you to hang off like Eddie Lawson on his '82 Kawasaki KZ1000 to bend the long, tall Sportster into Turn 1. Banging through the gears up the middle straight, the bike tracked straight and true all the way to its 125-mph top speed. And the brakes-Harley-branded Nissin four-piston calipers upgraded with hard lines and Ferodo pads-were strong enough to slow even this porky pig down the hill into Turn 5.
Professional-caliber support from the James Gang Racing crew, led by Mike Kirkpatrick (lef
Clipping the tight Turn 6 apex required some mental recalibration. I caught myself checking up the first time, because my body was so far over the curb that I suspected I was riding up on the paint. I wasn't-the racebike is just very tall, and when you're leaned over it's a long way to the contact patch. It wasn't until I pitched it knee-down into the long, downhill Carousel corner that I began to think all was not well in Sportsterville. The chassis seemed unusually animated over small bumps, with a slight dribbling sensation coming from the middle of the bike. Unlike the old 883s, new-generation Sportster engines are rubber-mounted. This reduces vibration, but also lets the motor move laterally and vertically. And because the XR1200's extra-stiff cast-aluminum swingarm pivots in the engine cases, it's also effectively rubber-mounted, inspiring more unpredictability.
A few turns later, charging flat-out in fifth gear through Kettle Bottoms, I tasted the danger. Turn 11A is a gentle, left-hand kink with a slight depression at the apex that sent a wave through the chassis and instantly turned the gentle giant into a head-shaking, tail-snapping beast. Loosening my grip, speeding up, even slowing to 75 mph did little to reduce the wobble, which continued until I turned into Canada Corner almost a quarter-mile later. Who signed me up for this?!
Race Tech trackside support specialist Lenny Albin tried everything to weed out the wobble, raising the front end by pulling the fork legs down and increasing compression, then rebound damping, with limited success. What worked better was adjusting my riding position. Sitting back as far as possible to unweight the front end and restore some trail, then gripping the bars gently and clamping my elbows around the tank to stabilize my upper body, the weave diminished. Who would have guessed such a big, burly bike would demand such a delicate touch?