Smart, passionate as hell, and driven to match, Dick O’Brien ran Harley’s racing program for 26 years, as seen in this factory race team photo from 1981. His input was key in making the XR happen, and the pilots he chose for it were some of the most talented motorcycle racers in history. L to R: Bill Werner, Jay Springsteen, Dick O’Brien, Randy Goss, and Brent Thompson.
Smart, passionate as hell, and driven to match, Dick O’Brien ran Harley’s racing program f
With Harley putting so much effort into its new XR-styled Sportsters, we thought it might be a good plan to take a brief journey into the dirt racing history of the XR-750. In all the world of pro sports, how many competitors can claim a dynasty lasting nearly four decades like Harley can with its XR-750?
The alloy XR-750 that we know first took to the track in 1972 but its story starts more than 30 years earlier and continues to this day. Our story starts in the ’30s when the AMA created the 750cc Class C racing class. With the Great Depression going strong, the motorcycle industry needed to promote sales of standard motorcycles. The AMA created the Class C to do just that—program rules only permitted bikes built in serial production for normal highway use. As a result, thousands of private racers stepped out of the woodwork for a shot at a title. Harley 750cc V-twins raced in it from the get-go and the XR was eventually created to keep H-D competitive in the class.
Later, Harley’s race team dominated the AMA Grand National Series between 1954 and 1966 thanks mainly to H-D racing directors Hank Syversten, Dick O’Brien, and the succession of great riders that made up Harley’s second Wrecking Crew. If anyone can be called the “Father of the XR” it would be O’Brien. Born in New York in 1921, he grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida. He had a lifelong fascination with all things mechanical, doing odd jobs to buy junker cars and motorcycles as he grew up. That turned him into a highly skilled, self-trained mechanic. Later he landed a job at Puckett Motors, a Harley-Davidson dealership in Orlando, where his duties included building racing engines.
Hank Syversten, Harley mechanic and racing chief since the ’20s, hired O’Brien as his own replacement in 1957. O’Brien learned the ropes very quickly, watching and listening to everything that went on at the track. Which, as it turned out, was a damn good thing for Harley.
When Dick O’Brien took over in the ’50s, foreign brands were already stepping up to challenge H-D’s dominance at the track. With the ’60s, the AMA yielded to pressure from foreign bike owners, dealers, and fans to relax the Class C rules, permitting more parts made specifically for racing. When Triumph’s Gary Nixon won back-to-back AMA Grand National Championships in 1967 and 1968, the writing was on the wall: Harley’s Class-C KRTT needed to be put to pasture in favor of new blood.
Fortunately, O’Brien was equal parts drive, resourcefulness, and strategist. He’d seen the storm coming and started making adjustments as events unfolded. Cal Rayborn and Mert Lawwill, two of the biggest legends in Harley history, rode iron for H-D at that time. There was still something lacking, though. Good talent can keep a race team competitive but even the best talent won’t make you dominant on obsolete motorcycles. What Harley really needed was a new race bike.
The new machine was loosely based on the company’s street Sportster but had dual carbs, special heads with the exhaust ports up front and the intake ports at their rear, and a megaphone exhaust mounted up high.
It also had a bit of a weight problem. It wasn’t obese, but it definitely needed less iron in its diet. Introduced in 1970, the ironhead XR 750 was just a bandage to stop the bleeding; the real solution to Harley’s racing woes came two years later. Dutch racer Peter Zylstra had been added to Harley’s design team in 1969 after emigrating from Holland. He’d road raced a Manx Norton in Europe and was recruited by Foster Uskalio, who ran Harley-Davidson’s engineering design and draft department. Zylstra’s input as a designer was key to the XR’s development. Among the improvements were alloy barrels replacing the iron ones. With other alloy components swapped in, the revamped XR-750 was a completely different animal. It was a leaner, angrier animal that would carry its jockeys to victory time and again, beyond the dreams of its creators.