Racing the Harley-Davidson XR1200

September 21, 2010
Steve Atlas
Steve Atlas
Contributing Editor |Articles |Articles RSS

Professional-grade speed and an attitude to match, Steve Atlas is the new blood at MotoUSA. Atlas has AMA racing creds that are even more extensive than his driving record.

The sheer size of the Harley took Atlas some time to get used to  though despite limited track time our Executive Editor was on pace right away  running up front all weekend.
MotoUSA was invited out to New Jersey Motorsports Park to race in the all-new Vance & Hines XR1200 spec class as a guest of Harley.

The track that lies in front of me is completely wide open; a massive sea of pavement waits as I strap my helmet and a microphone is shoved into my face. A quick interview with the trackside announcer and then another for Speed TV and it’s time to close the visor and focus. Easier said than done, as I sit and try to wrap my head around what is about to come. I’ve qualified on the front row for the first time in my AMA career. And it’s aboard a 520-lb Harley-Davidson, nonetheless.

I’m racing the Vance & Hines XR1200 spec class at New Jersey Motorsports Park and what was initially supposed to be a relaxing and fun weekend of riding and racing just got pretty serious all of a sudden. With a definite shot at the podium, one of the few things I have yet to accomplish in professional racing, it was time to lay it all on the line!

Backing up a bit, it all started at the 2011 Harley-Davidson XR1200X press introduction earlier this year. While the XR looks far from a “racing” or even really “sporting” machine at first glance, the Milwaukee crew who produce 1200cc V-Twin decided to launch the bike at Road America. Choosing one of the county’s premiere racetracks to introduce such a street-based machine had many of us journalists somewhat perplexed. Turns out they knew something we all had yet to figure out. The XR was far better on the track than meets the eye. And because of this, Terry Vance, the founder and head of Vance & Hines (exhaust manufacturer and proprietor many times over of several professional racing teams), had an idea. Why not get back to AMA’s racing roots? Back to the days when the Bostrom brothers and many of today’s top professionals got their start in the Harley 883 class, but do it with the XR1200 in a basic spec series aimed to provide tight racing and a stepping stone for today’s youth as well as a place for those V-Twin-loving riders to shine.

The 2010 Harley-Davison XR1200 in full race trim as built by Vance   Hines.As per the rules you are allowed the Vance   Hines hop-up kit as well as internal fork modifications and aftermarket shocks  plus rear-sets and a few other basic mods. Otherwise everything else must remain stock.
As per the rules, riders are allowed to add the Vance & Hines hop-up kit as well as internal fork modifications and aftermarket shocks, plus rear-sets and a few other basic mods. Otherwise, everything else must remain stock.

To promote this class the boys at Vance & Hines teamed up with Harley and the HOG (Harley Owners Group) and prepped an XR racebike to the series’ specifications and then invited different journalists or magazine representative to each of the five rounds in this inaugural running of the series. MotoUSA was presented the opportunity for the New Jersey round of the AMA championship and as the only staffer here to have ridden the XR in stock trim, not to mention the tiny bit of racing experience I have, yours truly was drafted in as the pilot.

But don’t mistake the term ‘drafted’ for unwilling or forced, as after the surprising amount of fun I had riding the bikes in OE trim, the thought of racing the all-new class was more than enough to get my adrenal glands pumping out excessive amount of endorphins. Variety is the spice of life, they say, and this would surely not be akin to anything I had ever experienced.

In an effort to keep costs down, the XR class only runs on track Saturday and Sunday, no Friday practice like the rest of the AMA classes. This was done to try and entice more competitors by making the class as affordable as possible; it allows riders to take less time off work, one less night in a hotel, reduced tire bills and so on. And in a class where the bikes are all virtually identical with the amount of suspension tuning and set-up changes being very limited, an extra day of practice become far less critical. The only people it really hurts are those new to the track at which the event is being held. Thankfully we previously had some seat time around NJMP, though limited, having ridden a pair of Jordan Motorsports Superbikes in a one-day test this time last year.

First Practice: Saturday (11 a.m.)

First practice rolled around and it was time to see what these beasts were all about. At over 520 lbs and less than 90 hp twisting the rear wheel, the XR has the power-to-weight ratio of a clapped out Honda Civic; combined with the series’ spec sticky DOT Dunlop tires, we knew tire sliding of any kind would not be coming from the rear end. If either end was going to break traction it was going to be the front. Not an area you want to have losing grip, though considering the tire’s prowess we figured this wouldn’t be an issue either. Wrong! (More on that later…)

Hard on the gas exiting the final corner at New Jersey Motorsports Park  Executive Editor Atlas puts his head down in an effort to try and get that elusive first career AMA podium.
Hard on the gas exiting the final corner at New Jersey Motorsports Park, Atlas puts his head down in an effort to see what the XR behaved like when pushed to its limits. The results were borderline scary.

After a couple laps reacquainting myself with the track and attempting to wrap my head around some of the bikes nuances and quirks (this would turn out to be a never-ending endeavor) it was time to put my head down and see what the XR behaved like at speed. Whoa, damn!

I’m sure many of you have read stories where we moto-journalists refer to a bike as feeling “hinged,” which is common when a motorcycle’s chassis flexes excessively in the lateral direction, relaying to the rider a twisting feeling, especially as the machine is pushed closer to its limits. While this is usually a very minute amount of flex, something which an inexperienced rider may not feel at all, on the Harley it’s so apparent one can literally see the entire bike twist when the engine is revved – at a standstill. Due to the air-cooled V-Twin powerplant being rubber mounted in the frame and the transmission cases directly attached to the swingarm (again with rubber mounts), the end result is, well … let’s just say, unorthodox.

It’s for this reason that when first pushing the XR to its limits the bike starts bucking, wiggling, twisting, (insert any other word for of a violent snake-like motion here), which then pumps up your arms almost instantly – mine did at least. I never get arm pump on a road racer. Never. Motocross is a totally different story, but on the pavement not even 220-hp Superbikes can prevent the blood from flowing in and out of my arms properly. Three laps in on the Harley and I felt like my arms were the size of watermelons; I was in serious trouble.

The Vance   Hines gauge cluster shown here is allowed per class rules and features a digital tach and gear-position indicator  though most competitors choose to run the stock use as the analog tach is easier to read for some. The front number plate  also in the Vance   Hines kit  is vented to allow air flow to the oil cooler which is relocated directly behind it. A shotgun-style side-exit exhaust is part of the Vance   Hines hop-up kit which one must purchase to participate in the XR spec class.
Some of the modifications allowed include an aftermarket gauge cluster (top); vented front number plate and oil cooler relocation behind it (middle); and shotgun-style exhaust (bottom). All are available from Vance & Hines.

After a quick stop in the pits and conferring with my crew chief, Matt King, he said all the previous riders had the exact same issue initially and it wasn’t until they learned so loosen their grip on the bars and just let the bike do its thing that any kind of relief was to be had. I needed to try something, and fast, or this was going to be one seriously long weekend. Time to get loose, baby.

Easier said than executed, as the Harley squirmed between my legs like a lap dance from an epileptic stripper, releasing my kung-fu-death-grip not only got rid of my arm-pump, it actually aided in slightly reducing the amount the bike moved around; the more I fought it the more she fought back. (Hmm, strangely reminiscent of my home life…)

Next up on the whoa-crap-that’s-strange list was the amount of weight (or lack thereof) on the front end. With the seating position of a standard, though modified to be as high and far forward as Vance & Hines could get without chopping the frame apart, the rider still sits very far back with almost no weight on the bars. The kicker is that to go fast on these freight trains one has to carry as much corner speed as possible and really work the front end, as getting a good corner-exit drive consists of simply dumping the throttle wide-open as you pass the apex, something which requires very little riding ability, as highsiding with throttle alone feels nearly impossible.

While trying to get my brain wrapped around the following, um, quirks, we were able to get in a few flying laps, the best of which being a low 1:34. This was enough to put us in the top-five, though not far out of fourth. That said, sixth through eighth weren’t far behind us, so being complacent was out of the question. We knew more was needed.

Qualifying: Saturday (4:15 p.m.)

With only 40 minutes of practice under our belts it was time to qualify already. Short and (hopefully) sweet was the theme of the weekend in Jersey. The qualifying session would be 45 minutes and with a new set of tires mounted and the bike filled with just the right amount of fuel, it was time to see if we could go after that coveted front-row starting spot.

My teammate for the weekend was Harley’s own media relations manager Paul James (talk about one cool PR guy) who has been running the entire series on his own dime, so we devised a plan which would hopefully help us both. Since the bikes don’t run a fairing and weigh so much, the draft can provide a huge advantage, sometimes worth several tenths of a second. Because James was a couple seconds back of where I was in first practice, he was looking for someone to tow him around the track. And as Paul isn’t the smallest guy in the class, the hole he punched in the wind made for a perfecting drafting partner.

One of the key attractions of the Harley class is when riders are close enough in skill level it never ceases to provide a dull moment  as overtaking come be done relatively easy. Atlas was teamed up with Harley-Davidson PR guy Paul James for the weekend in New Jersey  the pair helping each other greatly in qualifying.
Atlas (72) and teammate-for-the-weekend Paul James (70) paired up in qualifying to take advantage of the draft. The result was a serious drop in lap times for both and a front-row grid position for Atlas, the first of his AMA career.

The plan was for James to lead with me right on his rear wheel as we exited the pits and began the out-lap. He would stay in front as we got our bikes and brains up to speed and tires at optimum temperature. Then coming through the final series of esses that lead onto the straight to complete the warm-up lap, James would drop the hammer and ride as hard as he could while I simultaneously dropped back ever so slightly. This would allow a slight buffer and give me the ability to get a run though the final corner and onto the front straight, drafting past Paul to start my flying lap. He would then tuck in behind me and I would become his carrot as I pushed as hard as I could for the remainder of the lap. This would give me a draft and him a tow.

The plan sounded perfect. But you know what happens to perfect plans, right? Yep, they never go as planned. Except this time that is! For what must have been one of the first times in my racing career, an elaborate plan actually went off without the slightest hitch. We actually ran this team-drafting tactic several times, the second of which turned out to be the best. After dropping back just enough and catching his draft just was we clicked into top gear, I bolted past with a head of steam unlike any other pass down the straight all weekend. Not surprisingly I had the highest trap speed of anyone in qualifying. This was followed up by the hardest I had pushed all weekend, the XR bucking and snaking underneath me to the point it actually started to scare me in spots.

But the result was a drop of over two seconds, getting into the low 1:32.2s and qualifying fourth, which meant the outside of the front row. Another bucket-list box was checked: Qualify on the front row for a professional race. James was equally as happy, dropping over two seconds off his practice times and qualifying eighth; this put him directly behind me on the grid, opening things up for yet another teammate plan.

Race: Sunday (12:15 p.m.)

After a quick morning practice to shake things out we were ready to race. Everything felt great and after a quick parade lap and a couple grid interviews for TV, there I sat, a long stretch of open track sitting in front of me. It’s been since my club racing days that a front row grid greeted me prior to battle, the sea of asphalt waiting is almost eerie in a way. No one but I could mess this up. I had a clear shot into Turn 1 and due to the way AMA laid out the grid, qualifying on the outside of the first row actually meant I was on the inside of the track. GEICO Racing teammates Jake Holden and Kyle Wyman joined me on the front row in the first and third spots, respectively, split by young flat track protege P.J. Jacobson in second.

I’m not sure if it was my position on the front row or just a complete brain fade, but as the red lights went out and the green flag dropped I just sat there. Though only for a split-second, it felt like I dropped an anchor and completely parked it as everyone else flew past me. Thankfully my brain quickly kicked back into gear, however, and I dumped the clutch and got the beast rolling. A lack of power and its weight kept the XR from wheelieing hardly at all and off we went.

Atlas gets interviewed on the grid prior to the start of the AMA Vance   Hines XR1200 race in New Jersey.
Atlas gets interviewed on the grid prior to the start of the AMA Vance & Hines XR1200 race in New Jersey.

By this time my nap on the line had allowed the entire second row to pull alongside me, a couple pulling well ahead as we accelerated down into Turn 1. Holden had decided to try and wheelie halfway down the front straight – I still have no idea how he did it – meanwhile I was floundering around in an attempt to make back up the positions I lost. At one point in the drag race to the first corner I was as far back as seventh or eighth, Holden right in front of me. Luckily, though, with the exception of Jacobson and Wyman up front, everyone else decided to brake excessively early into Turn 1, allowing Holden and I to dive back up the inside and just barley slot into third and fourth, respectively – a few elbows may have been rubbed to accomplish this, but these are Harleys we’re racing, so rubbing is just part of the game!

Holden made quick work of the leaders, passing Jacobson in the third corner and Wyman by the end of the first lap. Initially I had hoped to follow him through, but both P.J. and Kyle were over a second quicker than I was in qualifying and Holden even further in front, so judging by that I had to come to grips with the fact that a podium finish was probably a pipedream. But come race time, the two youngsters in front giving me a tow, the lap times dropped in an adrenaline-fueled, V-Twin-powered haste. From doing 1:32s in qualifying we were all running in the low 1:31s from the first flying lap on; over a second dropped once again and things felt surprisingly quite comfortable at that pace. In fact, without a lap timer on the bike I had assumed we were actually running slower than in qualifying. I didn’t know of our pace until after the race and my crew gave me the low-down. I was surprised.

Atlas decided to take a nap on the line  just to be sure and give everyone else a fighting chance.
Atlas decided to take a nap on the line, just to be sure to give everyone else a fighting chance.

As Holden slowly pulled away at the front, though to the tune of less than half-a-second a lap is all, Wyman, Jacobson and I were glued nose to tail. None of us had made any passes for position but just being able to run their pace was promising. But come Lap 3 and we nearly threw it all away. At our heightened pace I was riding the front with quite a bit more aggression than in practice or qualifying and when the tire was brand new this wasn’t an issue. Though as it started to go off a few front-end slides ensued, one fairly big one entering Turn 3. This had allowed the pair in front to get a four or five bike-length gap.

Having just lost their draft I was unsure if I had the pace to make the gap back up. I knew I could stay with them, but could I pick it up and reel them back in? Had you asked me before the race I would have told you definitely not, but that’s why we race, and I was quickly glued back to Wyman’s rear wheel; Jacobson had made his way past for second spot on the fifth lap.

This changed everything. Having just made up nearly a second deficit to a pair that I had assumed would walk away from me, and not feeling like I was totally on the ragged edge yet (I was definitely pretty close to the edge, though), something clicked and my goal quickly changed. All I need was to get by one of them and a podium was mine; yet another huge check for the bucket list. For the next three laps I stalked Wyman, sizing up where he was quicker and where I would make up time. Where could I make the pass? I could make up quite a bit of ground on the brakes into Turn 1, so with a ripping drive through the mega-quick final corner and a solid draft I knew I could out-brake him into the first corner.

Atlas had his hands full off the start in the XR race at New Jersey  leading a multi-rider pack in the early going  one which he would eventually pull away from.