2011 Motorcycle of the Year | Kawasaki Ninja 1000

The Brightest Idea

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Jorge Nunez

2011 Motorcyclist of the Year
Erik Buell
The American Innovator, Unleashed
Words: Aaron Frank
Photo: Brian J. Nelson

When last we met with Erik Buell on the day of the Buell Motorcycles factory liquidation in January 2010, he was visibly distraught: The Barracuda prototype he considered his finest creation would never see production. This past June, we rode the breathtaking new Erik Buell Racing 1190RS—an evolution of the Barracuda concept—during one of its first public appearances at Road America (see First Ride, page 40). After what must have been the 10th person approached Erik to sputter something to the effect of, “Holy sh*t, that bike is fast—and it looks fantastic, too,” he was again moved almost to tears—this time tears of joy. Buell has been working toward this moment for almost 40 years. That the 1190RS was ever built at all, never mind so quickly, makes this the most incredible, improbable comeback of the 21st Century—and perhaps of motorcycling’s modern era.

That the 1190RS was ever built makes this the most improbable comeback of the 21st Century—and perhaps of motorcycling’s modern ...

Just don’t call this Buell’s second act. During his remarkable career in the motorcycle industry, he has become accustomed to disappointment. Whether breaking bikes (and bones) as a professional roadracer, facing financial ruin after changing racing rules made his first motorcycle, the two-stroke RW750, instantly obsolete, or addressing the countless challenges of designing and building the 136,923 Buell motorcycles sold between 1983 and 2009, Erik has mastered the art of overcoming hardship.

Still, this latest blow seemed fatal. When parent company Harley-Davidson closed Buell Motorcycles in October 2009, it looked like Erik had reached the end of his very long, very resilient rope. Everything he worked for over the past 26 years—the intellectual property, patents for innovative technology he pioneered, even the right to use his name—remained in the hands of The Motor Company.

It would have been easy—honorable, even—for the 60-year-old designer/engineer to slip quietly into retirement, to spend more time with his six children and playing guitar with his band, The Thunderbolts. But Buell still feels he has plenty left to prove. Motivated by an almost pathological loyalty to his fans, customers and former employees, he barely rested a day before launching Erik Buell Racing in a small warehouse across the parking lot from the old assembly line on Buell Drive in East Troy, Wisconsin. The fledgling company initially made ends meet supporting existing Buell XB and 1125R racers, but most of Erik’s energy went into developing the 1190RS.

This most recent revival is shaping up to be Buell’s best act. Liberated from the boardrooms and business meetings that dominated his time at Harley-Davidson, he is now free to concentrate on his real passion: building world-class American superbikes. His company is leaner and more focused than ever before, and his bikes are the best they’ve ever been. Say what you want about the man—and we’ve said it all—this is the latest and most inspiring chapter in what is an undeniably inspiring life story. What more could we ask for from our Motorcyclist of the Year?

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