2012 Erik Buell Racing 1190RS | First Ride

No excuses

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Brian J. Nelson

Erik Buell is right: Everything would have been different if Buell Motorcycles had built this bike first, as he intended, instead of the quirky 1125R that parent company Harley-Davidson demanded in 2007. Motor Company management feared competing with Japanese and European manufacturers head-on, so rather than green-light a pure superbike they commissioned the offbeat 1125R. That bike's failure to connect beyond a small group of outlier enthusiasts was the beginning of the end for the Buell brand.

Erik always believed he had the engineering and technological prowess to take on foreign competition. Now liberated from Harley and operating independently as Erik Buell Racing (EBR), he's ready to prove this once and for all. EBR's first production motorcycle, the 1190RS, is a brilliant machine-no caveats or qualifications required. Gorgeous, fine-handling and remarkably fast, it is everything we ever wanted an American superbike to be.

The 1190RS is much more than a reskinned 1125R. Essentially every component has been improved based on data gathered from the Buell 1125RR that Geoff May races in AMA Superbike competition. The aluminum frame still holds 4.5 gallons of fuel, but it has been redesigned to accommodate a larger ram-airbox and geometry has been "normalized" with a longer wheelbase, less rake and more trail. The bulbous, side-mounted radiators are gone, replaced with a conventional cooling unit wrapped in slimmer, more aerodynamic bodywork. The 72-degree V-twin has been enlarged to 1190cc and hot-rodded to the hilt, every remaining component optimized to save weight, improve performance and, ultimately, win races.

Starting with brand-new, 1125cc Helicon engines purchased directly from Rotax in Austria, EBR builds competition-ready powerplants using the same aftermarket components as May's racebike. Cylinders are bored 3mm and filled with high-compression forged pistons worked by forged rods and a lightened crank to reduce reciprocating weight. Heads are reflowed and fitted with bigger valves and racing cams. The airbox, now twice as big as before, incorporates showerhead-type secondary injectors to improve sustained high-rpm fueling. The end result is a claimed 160 rear-wheel horsepower in EPA-legal street tune-approximately a 35-bhp increase over a stock 1125R.

Motorcyclist was invited to test the 1190RS during a Sportbike Track Time event the day after the AMA Superbike weekend at Road America, joined by Buell, May, crew chief Michael Tjon and the rest of the EBR team. The lithe and lean 1190RS is nothing like its big-barred, broad-shouldered predecessor. With low, narrow clip-ons and a thin saddle mounted high on a spidery, cast-magnesium subframe, the 1190RS looks and feels remarkably like a Triumph Daytona 675 from the rider's perspective. Liberal use of carbon-fiber-even in the fairing bracket-actually puts the streetbike under the 390-lb. AMA Superbike minimum weight limit. Buell claims curb weight is 384 lbs. with the street-legal, dual-chamber exhaust. With the optional track-day exhaust shown here, it's said to weigh just 369 lbs.

All-new "hubless" cast-magnesium wheels-the latest example of Buell's typically radical innovation-contribute to that remarkable weight loss. "During FEA [finite element analysis] the hub is always dead; it never lights up," Buell explains. "The only reason the hub is there is for manufacturing ease. Our wheels are extremely hard to cast, but they are the lightest in the world. The front weighs just 5.5 lbs." The latest-and much improved-version of Buell's rim-mounted Zero Torsional Load (ZTL) front brake further reduces unsprung weight, saving almost 10 lbs. compared to the lightest dual-disc setup, Buell says.

Suspension is from Ohlins, custom-built to EBR's specifications at the Ohlins USA race shop in Hendersonville, North Carolina. The fork uses the same fully adjustable 30mm cartridges as May's racebike, and the TTX shock is valved and sprung specifically for the 1190RS. The constant-tension drive belt is gone, replaced by a race-ready chain final drive that eases gearing changes. A compensated front sprocket eliminates the need for a cush drive on the rear wheel, further reducing unsprung weight. Buell also junks the stock Rotax vacuum-activated slipper clutch, replacing it with Suter Racing Technology's fantastic, Moto2-spec mechanical slipper.

The individual parts are the best money can buy, but the holistically designed 1190RS is even better than the sum of its parts. Exceptional mass centralization, revised chassis geometry and radically reduced unsprung weight let the bike handle unlike any motorcycle we've ridden before. Agile at any speed, it's remarkably responsive and dead-nuts neutral even under very aggressive trail-braking-the exact opposite of the heavy-steering, slow-turning 1125R. Blade-sharp reflexes mean you can always tighten your line, even in the fastest corners, allowing the bike to carve through Road America's Carousel and Kettle Bottoms on unimaginable trajectories.

May claims the 1190RS streetbike is quicker out of the box than his 1125RR racebike, and this is completely plausible. The superlight machine feels preternaturally fast, accelerating with an urgency that surpasses even BMW's overdog S1000RR. Broadly powerful-it passes 70 lb.-ft. of torque at 6000 rpm and never looks back-and with the lively, eager engine character that only comes from a hand-built, perfectly balanced racing engine, the 1190RS builds speed with a ferocity that's completely out of character for a big twin. Even the extended, 55.4-inch wheelbase can't keep it from wheelying everywhere-all the way up the hill on Road America's front straight, of course, but also downhill toward Turn 3 at well over 100 mph!

Criticisms were difficult to muster, as one might expect from a top-of-the-line motorcycle meticulously prepared by a professional racing team. Throttle response was instant to the point of telepathic; the Suter slipper clutch was the smoothest and most transparent we've ever used; and the carbon-fiber bodywork, covered with 15 layers of hand-rubbed clearcoat, reflected with surgical clarity. Our sole critique concerned the ZTL front brake: Though it's adequate for such a lightweight bike-even after eight sessions at this notoriously hard-braking track we didn't experience any of the fading or pulsing that plagued previous versions-the single brake still can't match the outright stopping power of a conventional, dual-disc setup. But after riding the bike, we agree that the handling benefits of the superlight front wheel are worth the trade-off in outright braking force.

Erik Buell Racing will sell the exotic 1190RS for $39,999 with fiberglass bodywork, or $43,999 with the optional "Carbon Edition" body kit shown here, saving 5 lbs. This is expensive by any measure, but considering the sheer cubic hours of hand labor involved in building what is essentially a racing superbike with lights, it might be the best bargain on the motorcycle market today. EBR plans to build and sell a limited run of 100 bikes "as a design statement," and will then introduce a second model similar in concept but "decontented" for higher production volume and lower cost.

Until then, Erik Buell is happy just to be building this bike. "I've taken a lot of blame over the years for Buell motorcycles, often for decisions that had nothing to do with me," he says. "Not this time. This is exactly what I wanted to build!"

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Way to expensive! Kool bike but not 44k
Comparing the bike to how you imagine not-yet-released bikes may perform?  Come on.

Price reductions come through volume.  Amortizing the costs of all of the tooling (molds for bodywork and cast metal parts, jigs and fixtures, etc.) drives up prices of these first bikes.

Other ways to cut costs include substitution of less expensive Showa suspension components for the Ohlins, aluminum wheels instead of magnesium, and cast parts rather than the CNC-machined parts used in the limited production bike.

Rotax could deliver ready-to-install 1190 engines that don't require that Buell disassemble each engine, swap out clutches, valves, pistons, rods, and cranks, bore cylinders, etc.  It costs a fortune in labor and results in a lot of money being spent for stock engine parts that are then not used.
From everything I've read Erik was targeting the Ducati 1098/1198, he seems to have come close enough there, yet Ducati is ready to roll out their Superquadrata, not to mention the Kaws and Honda. It's a tough segment, I think you really need to aim two years ahead not at present targets.

I don't know how he's going to chop enough expense off that bike to make it competitive with foreign companies.
Now is the time for the Buell haters to STFU and learn something from this master class in motorcycle engineering. We are all tired of reading post after post from Harley apologists and insecure owners of lesser sport bikes.
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