The Buell XBRR has seen a lot of controversy and tribulation in its short existence. We thought we might have a go with America's lone roadracing platform.
Looking toward the Tehachapi mountain range in the desert outside of Bakersfield, California, the heat waves rise off the ground to create the illusion of a mirage. A lone black and yellow spec circulates the track on the shimmering horizon at a high rate of speed. The sound of the motor is barely audible, but there's no doubt this is no ordinary motorcycle.
Temperatures are approaching 110 degrees so the tarmac of pit lane is damn near unbearable. I'm waiting along the paddock wall in my black leathers, sweating bullets in anticipation of what I am about to do. The bike is taxiing down pit lane toward me with its distinctive wide front cowling, stocky stature, distinctive V-Twin rumble growing louder and louder as it gets closer. The hair on my body stands at attention and a cold chill runs down my spine as my anticipation reaches a crescendo.
At last, it's my turn to pilot the most recent incarnation of Buell's purpose-built $30,995 racing machine, the XBRR. My heart is pounding in my chest as a group of technicians grope and prod at the bike while I nervously climb aboard. It's still running, the dry clutch is rattling and the sweat is streaming down my neck. I pull the clutch lever back, engage the GP-style shift lever, twist the throttle and stall it. Oh, the humiliation. A look of frustration is tossed my way from the pit crewman beside me, confirming they were growing weary of this string of journalistic ineptitude as they once again stuff the hand-held starter drive into the right side of the bike and bring the big V-Twin back to life. It was an inauspicious beginning to what would be a memorable experience.
It's not every day that you get the opportunity to test a factory-spec race bike on the track, but that's exactly what was taking place on this particularly hot and sunny afternoon at Buttonwillow International Raceway. During the introduction of the 2007 Buell lineup, attending journalists were treated to a short and much appreciated ride aboard the divisive XBRR. Chairman and Chief Technical Officer of the Buell Motorcycle Company, Erik Buell, has long been a fan of racing, and the XBRR is the culmination of his personal dream to endow proficient privateer racers with a bike capable of competing at the factory level, without actually having to conform to the factory way of life. This is that bike.
After an inauspicious start where he popped the clutch, Kenny got a chance to play AMA rider for a day on the Buell XBRR which contests the Formula Xtreme series.
Erik's passion for the privateer can be traced back to his own racing roots when in 1984 he was developing the hand-made RW750 for use in the AMA Formula 1 series. After all the hard work of creating a race bike from scratch was poised to pay off, he had the rug pulled out from underneath him when the decision was made to replace F1 with the Superbike class the following year. Not one to be deterred, Buell changed his focus, began a partnership with Harley-Davidson, and a decade later the rest, as they say, is history.
Once again Buell is building a bike for the privateer racer to rival the established race teams and their Japanese manufacturers. Only this time, it's on a much larger scale. This limited-edition machine has been purpose built and offered a place on the grid in the AMA Formula Xtreme class. This championship is a showcase for hot-rodded 600cc machines and a host of talented riders who know a thing or two about winning both races and championships. There would be no cherry-picking for the XBRR - it's straight into the fire for this hand-built beauty.
The objective was to get the initial run of XBRR bikes ready to compete in the 65th edition of the Daytona 200, which now features the FX series as the premier race. You could almost hear the gears turning in the mind of Erik Buell as the plan was unfolding before him. After two decades, his innovative bikes were set to perform on American racing's grandest stage: The Daytona 200.
Despite some grumbling from established FX teams, the addition of the XBRR to the FX grid received a load of positive feedback from both press and public alike. The hype surrounding this race and Buell's involvement nearly overshadowed the fact that this was only the second year that the Superbikes were not the machines featured in the premier race.
Getting into the AMA Formula Xtreme championship caused a bit of grumbling from the manufacturers already entrenched in the series, from what they viewed (with some justification) as a creative interpretation of the homologation rules. That said, there were a lot of enthusiastic fans rooting for the American-based effort.
Taking risks is the fire that keeps Buell charged up, so you have to appreciate that it was impossible for him to pass up on the opportunity to make his dream of seeing Buell race at Daytona a reality by pushing the XBRR through production. In retrospect, it was the decision that doomed them. Deadlines are deadlines, and in their haste to put the finishing touches in place, a subsequent lack of adequate R&D time brought about a regrettable reality check once the checkered flag waved for the last bike crossing the finish line. Unfortunately, the Daytona 200 was the first legitimate race shakedown of the XBRR and the results were not what anyone hoped to see: Four bikes started, four bikes experienced mechanical failures.
"Some people were expecting a miracle from Buell (at Daytona)," said Erik Buell. "But we know what racing is all about and this is a heck of a start. It was a thrill to have the bikes qualified so well (McWilliams, 8th, Penzkofer, Ciccotto, Crevier, 14th-16th respectively) and it would have been great to have all of our riders finish, but the Daytona 200 is the ultimate endurance test for a racing motorcycle, and we've learned a lot. We will get better."
Those machines were taken back to Buell HQ, dismantled and thoroughly scrutinized piece by piece. The failed components were identified, re-tooled, and replaced with improved units. The lessons learned at Daytona have been put into production in this latest version. So far the XBRRs return to competition has experienced more success than disappointment, including class victories in both CCS/ASRA and most recently a pair of eighth-place finishes in AMA Formula Xtreme by former GP rider Jeremy McWilliams at Laguna Seca followed by the same result at Mid-Ohio by Canadian Superbike superstar Steve Crevier.
"It's great to see the XBRR finish in the top-10 at two consecutive AMA Formula Xtreme events," said Buell. "The XBRR is in its first season, as are the teams. We're in a very early stage of development. I know the teams will keep moving up. I see it in the way they're dealing with the challenge, the way they're working, and in their excitement as they make progress and knock off the seconds."
The XBRR's fortunes in its inaugural AMA Formula Xtreme campaign got off to a rocky start at the famed Daytona 200, when not even former MotoGP rider Jeremy McWillians was able to bring the Buell across the finish line due to mechanical failure.
At the time of this test only two of the new and improved bikes were available, and we got to ride one under the watchful eye of Erik and the Buell intimidation squad: Crashing was not an option. Now that the history lesson is over.
The XBRR was fired up and the men in black muttered a few words of encouragement to me as I set out to begin my session. Shifting through the first few gears revealed a very tight and precise 5-speed transmission and a firm but not too difficult to engage clutch. Too bad all H-D transmissions can't feel this good. I made my way around the track on my warm-up lap focused on getting acquainted with the layout. The bars are very low and the pegs were equally high, resulting in an extremely compact riding position that forced me up on the front of the bike's faux fuel tank. The seat is quite hard and the open space between the carbon fiber upper cowling and the 43mm inverted Ohlins fork allowed for a view of the track when you look down at the top clamp and bars.
Everything about the XBRR is tight as a drum. It responds very quickly to even the slightest rider input, which came as a surprise even after a day of riding the responsive Buell streetbikes on the same course. The front suspension is taut and the rear Ohlins shock jarred on the imperfect track surface, but the combination is fully adjustable and certainly set up for a rider of Crevier's caliber rather than the plush set-up I prefer. The view of the road ahead is unobstructed by the large clear windscreen and the minimalist dash consisting of a tachometer and a trio of idiot lights helps to keep your eyes distracted from the task of navigating through the next turn as fast as possible.
The 1339cc Thunderstorm V-Twin is claimed to churn out 150 horsepower at its crankshaft (perhaps 135 ponies at the rear wheel), which combined with the purposeful track gearing made for easy power wheelies under acceleration in the lower gears. I quickly adapted to short-shifting second gear in order to keep Buell's beast on two wheels where it belongs. Then again, this is a Twin and short shifting is the preferred way to row through the gears versus running the thing to redline at the end of every straight. The throttle is a bit abrupt, possibly an attribute of the torque associated with the motor, but when used properly (read: WFO) it was great and the intake howl from the dual downdraft 62mm throttle bodies is simply awesome. Ripping down the short front straightaway was so exciting that I unwittingly reverted back to my bad habit of over-braking going into Turn 1 in all but the final two laps. The blame may lie in the fact that, A) It takes a few laps to get used to the mighty powerful 8-piston Nissin caliper biting down from the inside of the massive ZTL (Zero Torsion Load) front rotor, or, B) I'm a big chicken. Either way it was all good.
Canadian Superbike champ Steve Crevier exhibited the potential of the XBRR while Kenny prepared to test his mettle on the FX machine.
As much fun as that V-Twin is, it is not the highlight of the XBRR: It's the chassis. The bike is designed with Buell's patented fuel-in-the-frame and oil-in-the-swingarm theory of mass-centralization, and the resulting low center of gravity helps the bike be mindlessly easy to manhandle, as is the Buell way. In addition to the innovative fuel housing, the extreme geometry of the chassis plays a role in its unusually nimble nature. Rake is set at a steep 21 degrees and trail at a short 86mm. To put this into perspective, the winner of our 2006 Supersport Shootout, the Triumph 675, features 23.5 degrees of rake and 86mm trail and was rated as one of the two best handling bikes of the test. The impressive dimensions don't stop there for the XBRR either. The wheelbase is adjustable between 51.8 and 53.8 inches, which will either give a tuner fits or have him praising the ground Buell walks on,depending on how finicky the rider is about set-up.
There are three or four really fast sweepers at Buttonwillow and the XBRR consumed them all without complaint. I know I will never carry corner speeds on par with a guy like Crevier, but the bike is solid and felt planted in the triple-digit bends at the best speed I could run it up to. In the tight turns the bike is easy to toss from side-to-side, and the suspension was never even close to being taxed with me at the controls. In the esses it was mindlessly easy to carve a route through while dialing in some fuel-injection and heading for the final 90-degree left-hand turn. Getting a good drive down the straightaway requires carrying a lot of speed and nailing the gear selection for the drive out. I'm no racer, so I don't feel I ever got it perfect. Regardless, it felt great tucking in behind the big windscreen and pulling the trigger and feeling the scorching hot desert wind in my face as I rocketed into Turn 1 for yet another lap.
When looking for a complaint I had to go no further than my right hand. The combination of high track temperature and the heat that emanated from the head pipes of the Thunderstorm motor made my throttle hand feel like it was on a BBQ spit. The faster I went, the hotter it got. A missing heat shield was cited as the culprit here, and I was reassured that this was an issue that has already been addressed. This would be my only gripe about the XBRR riding experience. It accelerates harder than any H-D-powered motorcycle I have ever ridden, it handles like a Supersport with a 130-series rear tire, the brakes are powerful and offer plenty of feel at the lever to make it easy to get the hang of. So what more would a racer want? How about access to an elite network of riders enjoying factory support and a pre-packaged contingency plan courtesy of Buell's factory sponsors? The XBRR program provides all of this.
Thundering away at the heart of the XBRR is the 1339cc of sweetness generated by the Buell Thunderstorm V-Twin, which pumps out 150 ponies at the crankshaft.
So what is it that's currently holding the bike back in Formula Xtreme? That's easy; the stiff competition is the answer. Those of us who have ridden a Superpsort bike know how fast they really are, and those of you who've actually qualified for an AMA national know it is easier said than done. Add into the equation that the level of competition in the AMA is higher these days than any of us mortals can ever fully imagine.
If we could compare the XBRR to the 600s back-to-back, it would be straightforward to figure out where it stands comparatively in terms of cornering speed, acceleration, ergonomics and the all-important lap times. Since that's not the case, I'm forced to make the inference that this bike feels as competent, if not more so, than any stock Supersport bike through the turns. The motor feels faster than hell on the track too, albeit in a vacuum. I would be hard-pressed to say it can pull harder than a built 600cc racebike, but it seems quicker than any stock 600 I can remember. It is ridiculously faster than the stock Firebolt XB12R and Lightning XB12S machines we were testing that afternoon, and they are a boat-load of fun to ride on the track. However, I would really like to see this hopped-up version of the Firestorm motor on the street - that would be really, really fun.
I'm looking forward to the day when the XBRR takes the next leap up the results chart so we can all witness a Buell pilot battling for the podium instead of a top-10 finish. Until that time arrives - and make no mistake, it will - we can all sit back and watch as the only legitimate American-made sportbike challenges the Japanese factory juggernaut through hard work and determination.
Fueled by the desire to prove to the world that a dream can be made into a reality, the people at Buell and the Motor Company should have plenty of inspiration to keep the midnight oil burning as they face this monster head on. I know I have found a new level of respect for what this company is trying to do and I will be anxiously awaiting the news of that first AMA podium for one of the coolest cats in the industry, Erik Buell.
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