Rolling Thunder - We Survive the Inaugural Round of the Ama Vance & Hines XR1200 Series

It's not every day I'm offered the opportunity to race a factory bike at an AMA national. Probably because I'm a word-slinging moto-journalist, not a professional-caliber roadracer. But that didn't stop Paul James, Harley-Davidson's director of product communications, from offering me a chance to race The Motor Company's own XR1200 demo racer in the inaugural round of the AMA Vance & Hines XR1200 series.

Never mind that I'd never entered a professional roadrace before. No problem, Editor Catterson reminded me; it was, after all, just a Sportster. "It's not some fire-breathing, 200-horsepower Superbike," he said. Good point. Moreover, the venue, Road America, is my home track, and at 5'7" and 145 pounds, I have the right "aerodynamic profile" for spec racing.

Besides, whether soft-pedaling George Bryce's NHRA Pro Stockers or tip-toeing around the Indy Mile on Kenny Roberts' TZ750 flat-tracker, humiliating myself on racing motorcycles has lately become my stock-in-trade. Gridding up next to current AMA Daytona Sportbike Champion Danny Eslick in front of a few thousand rabid race fans seemed a logical next step.

AMA Pro Racing created the XR1200 series with an eye on the past. Fifteen years ago, the AMA TwinSports/SuperTwins series fielded racers on Supersport-spec 883 Sportsters, and proved to be a hotbed of racing action and a fertile breeding ground for future champions like Ben and Eric Bostrom, Jake Zemke and Aaron Yates. The AMA hopes the XR1200 series will provide the same great racing while creating a grassroots entry point for the next generation of champions. The entry list at Road America-a mix of established racers, up-and-coming rookies and a handful of treacherous old Pros-hinted at the series' diverse appeal.

The new class is a joint venture between Harley-Davidson and Vance & Hines-two legendary names absent from American roadracing for far too long. The Motor Company flag hasn't waved over a roadracing paddock since the VR1000 was unceremoniously retired in 2001, one year after V&H; discontinued its Ducati Superbike program to go drag racing with Harley-Davidson V-Rods. Terry Vance was the prime mover. He purchased one of the very first XR1200s and, inspired by the similar "BBQ" series in Spain and Italy, put the wheels in motion to get an American equivalent off the ground.

"We were looking for a way to return to roadracing, and this was the perfect opportunity," Vance says. "It's good for Vance & Hines, good for Harley-Davidson and, most importantly, it's good for the riders, giving them an affordable, fun and competitive way to get national exposure and make some money, too." Indeed, V&H; is providing a $5000 purse for each event, and Harley's contingency program doubles that amount.

Vance & Hines also supplies the mandatory race kit that converts a stock XR1200 into a spec racer. Dirt-cheap at just $3500, this consists of a V&H; Widow 2-1-2 exhaust and Fuelpak fuel-management system, racing bodywork, a 17-inch front wheel with matching fender, steering damper and an oil cooler relocator. "We're basically selling the parts at cost to get people into the class," Vance says. Some 15 kits had been sold at the time of this inaugural event, and 10 bikes showed up to race.

All bikes run spec Dunlop Sportmax D211 GP-A tires and slurp Sunoco 260GTX fuel. Suspension, hand and foot controls, brakes and instruments can be modified, but otherwise the bikes must remain stock. Immediately after our race-day practice session, the entire field was impounded and subjected to a dyno test. The bike I was riding-prepared by noted V&H; tuner Jim Leonard and set up by Motorcyclist test rider Barry Burke-made 86 bhp at the rear wheel. The other bikes ranged from 83 to 87 bhp, so there was definite parity.

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.

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.

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?

Once we'd gotten the chassis set up, I started hacking away at my lap times, taking off 10 seconds in as many laps. I ended the first qualifying session in seventh, just behind former AMA Pro Thunder Champion and 883 SuperTwins front-runner Shawn Conrad. Interestingly, my 2:45 lap times were just 1 second slower than those I turned in a 2007 MotoST race aboard a lighter, more powerful, better-handling Buell XB12R. Still, they were nowhere near those of Eslick, who hustled his Hog around the track a full 6 seconds quicker!

The perennial Road America rainstorms washed out our second qualifying session, so the first-session results determined the starting grid. Race day arrived hot and sunny, and the XR1200 final was the first race of the day. The newly rejuvenated AMA Pro Racing had done an excellent job promoting the event, so the stands and the pit wall were packed. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to see what this new race series would bring. They wanted a show, and they were about to get it.

The start was as wild as a supercross, only everyone was on 530-lb. twins barreling into Turn 1 at 120 mph. The AMA regulars weren't rolling off for anyone. More accustomed to jockeying a desk than playing high-speed bumper pool, I escaped to the outside and learned the first and most important rule of spec racing: Don't give up an inch, because you won't get it back.

I got a reprieve when the race was red-flagged on lap three, after Kyle Wyman's XR1200 oiled down Turn 5, taking out himself and another rider. The problem wasn't a mechanical issue-Wyman's mechanic forgot to safety-wire his oil filter. Still rattled, I was cautious on the restart. Good thing, as three bikes tangled in front of me entering Turn 1 and Paul James hit the ground hard, knocking himself out and drawing a second red flag.

AMA officials wisely decided to postpone the restart until the end of the day. When we regridded after the final Superbike race, the image of James skidding along the track facedown was still fresh in my mind. I started the third time even more cautiously, and then settled into a rhythm, concentrating on riding smoothly, hitting my marks and staying upright. I was chasing a story, after all, not championship points. I still had some good battles, hunting down and passing 1989 Daytona 200 winner John Ashmead before being passed myself by Joe Rozynski.

The race up front was decidedly more exciting, with GEICO Powersports/Lucas Oil teammates Eslick and Jake Holden swapping the lead at practically every corner, and Stump and the Wyman brothers doing the same just a few seconds back. In the end, Eslick drafted past Holden at the finish line to win by just .055 of a second, and Stump edged out Kyle Wyman by an even closer .025-second margin for the third step on the box. I finished eighth, a satisfactory result, behind seven credible Pros and ahead of another. I even earned a $250 check from the AMA-my first professional race winnings!

The inaugural round of the XR1200 series delivered close, exciting and entertaining racing, just as the organizers had hoped for. The bikes have some handling issues to resolve, but these dirt-track-inspired Sportsters aren't out of place at a roadrace track. Certainly the fans in Wisconsin enjoyed seeing these archetypal sportbikes on-track, and more than one commented on how awesome it was to hear the pack of 10 V-twins thundering down the tree-lined straightaways. Just imagine if there had been 20 or 30!

The XR1200 series debut displayed potential and promise everywhere, except concerning my budding Pro roadracing career. I'll definitely be keeping my day job.

The author (72) qualified seventh of 10 riders, behind a diverse group studded with AMA Pro Racing rookies and veterans alike-including current Daytona Sportbike Champion Danny Eslick.
Road America's XR1200 entrants, from left to right: John Ashmead, Eric Stump, Travis Wyman, Paul James, Shawn Conrad, Aaron Frank, Joe Rozynski, Jake Holden, Kyle Wyman and Danny Eslick.
Professional-caliber support from the James Gang Racing crew, led by Mike Kirkpatrick (left), made the author's race weekend a complete success. He didn't even have to wipe his own face shield!
Check out that shower of sparks! Even on jacked-up rear suspension, cornering clearance is still an issue. Jake Holden (leading) and eventual race-winner Danny Eslick (following) swapped the lead countless times.
The XR1200 racers were mobbed during the pre-race fan walk on pit lane. Everyone wanted to see the new bikes up close, and ask what they were like to ride.