The Harley-Davison XR750, known as the king of flat track, had power delivery that was quick but also smooth and manageable.
The dominator. This is it; the bike that has ruled the dirt track world for some 30 years, basically unchanged and unchallenged. It’s the bike all others aspire to be and to beat. And there’s a reason for that. With a 17-year win-streak to its credit, one that only ended May of this year, no manufacturer has owned professional racing, be it two or four wheels, like Harley has Flat Track.
After fielding a four- or five-rider factory team for the past umpteen years, the boys from Wisconsin cut back to one sole factory pilot this year due to dire economic conditions. That rider’s name is Kenny Coolbeth, a multi-time national champion who has been with the brand for several years. Coolbeth finished second to another factory H-D rider, Jared Mees, in the 2009 championship, but H-D decided to continue backing the national No. 2 rider. And while the majority of the grid is still filled with privateer-run Harleys, with only one factory bike in the field, guess which one we would be riding?
The Webster’s definition of intimidation is: “Intentional behavior which would cause a person of ordinary sensibilities fear of injury or harm.” Say hello to the words resonating through my head as I threw a leg over the one and only factory Harley-Davidson Flat Tracker currently in existence. The difference being I’m not a person of “ordinary sensibilities,” so as the thumping 750cc Twin cranked over to life, instead of getting off and running as far away as possible, as would have been the “sensible” option, I clicked the right-hand shifter into gear and away I went.
Throttle response is nearly instantaneous, the air-cooled V-Twin shouting to life with an urgency very few carbureted motorcycles are capable of. One can instantly tell that the American Iron has been tweaked and tuned for years – make that decades – as everything behaves exactly as it’s intended to. While it has loads of power and the speeds achieved at the end of each straight are eye-wateringly quick, it’s delivered in such a smooth and manageable manner that even the most novice of riders would have no trouble riding the XR. This made easing up to speed on the Harley one of the easiest of the bunch.
Unorthodox but also very fitting to the task at hand is the aforementioned dual right-hand shifter and rear brake set-up. Because all flat track racing is done around counter-clockwise dirt ovals, having both the shift lever and brake on the right side makes the most sense, as being on the outside it allows riders to operate both without having to lift the inside leg, which spends most time of its life skimming along the ground when leaned over, a steel shoe attached to the bottom, leaving very little time to shift. Though most tracks don’t require sifting once up to speed, off the start and entering Turn 1 typically entails two or three up-shifts, some while leaned over.
Equally as complaint and user friendly is the XR’s chassis. Once aboard and aclimated to the protruding nature of the dual carburetors coming out the left side and its skinny seat, no matter what the speed is the Harley is composed, consistent and extremely competent, doing exactly what is asked of it without the slightest complaint. Whereas some of the more highly-strung machines only worked when ridden
The unorthodox right-hand shifter and brake setup on the Harley allows riders to shift while keeping their inside leg down.
at or near the limit, some quite unruly when not up to speed, the H-D just plain works. Slow, fast or anywhere in between, the combination of handling, usability and tractable power produces huge amounts of confidence for the rider. This allowed me to explore speeds, lean angles and degrees of sliding not possible on some of the other machines.
Due to the dangerous nature of the sport and track on which we were testing, the focus was to ease into the corners, get the bikes turned and then explore some of the bikes’ limits on the throttle and down the wide-open straights. Until getting on the Harley this was without question the only feasible way to test, especially with my limited experience on a Mile or riding a Twin. But the usability of the XR’s chassis and precise nature of its power delivery, as well as the spot-on rear brake feel, I was able to start pushing things on corner entry, getting the back end hung out entering the high-speed corners. And this is when things really started to get fun. There’s little that rivals backing in a 300-pound framer at 80 mph, and that’s what made the Harley so impressive. There’s a reason all others have strived for 30 years to compete with the mighty XR – its all-around prowess is amazingly impressive.