Harley-Davidson’s Racing History

Harley-Davidson and racing go back more than a century

harley racing

Harley-Davidson’s roadracing history

XR750: One of the most successful racing designs in motorcycle history.

Courtesy of Harley-Davidson

vr 1000

Harley-Davidson’s roadracing history

Harley-Davidson's VR1000.

Courtesy of Harley-Davidson

harley racing

Harley-Davidson’s roadracing history

Road racing sells bikes, as seen in this old H-D ad.

Courtesy of Harley-Davidson

harley racing

Harley-Davidson’s roadracing history

Racing guru Dick O'brien.

Courtesy of Harley-Davidson

harley racing

Harley-Davidson’s roadracing history

The Wrecking Crew.

Courtesy of Harley-Davidson

“The Harley-Davidson Motor Company has often been asked why it did not take part in the racing game. Our answer is: ‘We do not believe in it.’ And we have reasons for that answer.” —Harley-Davidson cofounder Arthur Davidson

It’s questionable who Arthur Davidson meant when he said “we” when he wrote that editorial for Dealer Magazine way back when. If he meant the royal “we” (as in, “I”), he was absolutely correct. But if he was speaking for the whole company, he was way off base. Just ask his brother and co-founder, Walter.

While ol’ Art was condemning racing, Walter was hard at work embracing it. Harley-Davidson’s bipolar relationship with the racetrack goes almost all the way back to the company’s founding in 1903.

Race Bikes? We Don’t Need No Stinking Race Bikes

Arthur Davidson didn’t see the point of a Harley racing team. According to him, the factory’s stock offerings during his time were just as fast, if not faster, than anything running in competition. In his mind Harley-Davidson knew how to optimize its bikes for the track, but no consumer buying a daily rider wanted or needed any of those modifications for a scoot they were buying off the showroom floor. Or, as he put it directly in that same editorial in Dealer: “We can build these freak racing machines, eight valves, auxiliary forks, lightened moving parts, and everything ‘skinned’ down to racing. But of what benefit would it be to us? We don’t sell these freak racers.” Arthur didn’t see the point in building Harley racing motorcycles, and while he knew winning races meant good publicity for Harley-Davidson, he thought of it as “securing a few records, which might be of use in selling our stock machines.” This last opinion would become the epitome of understatement decades later when Harley’s XR racing program was the only bright spot during the AMF dark ages, but I digress.

Luckily for the factory, Walter Davidson didn’t share his brother’s viewpoint. Talk has about as much value as Monopoly money. You want people to know how well your bikes run? Bring one to the track. That’s exactly what Walter started doing in 1906 when he and two other Harley racing riders entered a Chicago Motorcycle Club event.

It was a disaster.

The race was a 300-mile endurance run round trip from Chicago to Milwaukee over rough terrain. Competitors back then ran into each other almost as often as they did stray and wild animals. Walter’s motorcycle didn’t survive the first day, let alone finish. A nasty hole in the trail broke the frame. It did not, however, break Walter’s spirit. If anything, the defeat hardened his resolve to make a stronger chassis.

Two years later, Walter and his friends Henry Roberts and FW Thomas got a chance at redemption in another endurance race in New York’s Catskill Mountains. It was also Harley-Davidson’s first real challenge against Indian’s dominance in the Northeast (the rival company’s factory was in nearby Massachusetts). Like the Chicago race, the Catskill run was a two-dayer. Unlike rural Illinois, a hill in the Catskills would be Mount f—king Everest anywhere near Chicago or Milwaukee. Walter Davidson had a stronger frame this go-around, but he was also sparring with a heavyweight instead of a middleweight as far as off-road racing went. It was anybody’s guess if his frame would hold up, let alone carry Harley-Davidson to victory over Indian.

This time, the trio really raced as a team. They hung close to one another, repaired each other’s damaged steeds as they went along, and did what they could to make sure they each hit the checkpoints on time. A rainstorm and flat tires conspired against them that first day, but the real test came near day’s end. That’s when Walter’s bike went airborne at speed after running into a huge bump on a downhill. Both man and machine slammed into the ground afterward. Bones were jarred; none were broken. The new frame took its lumps and soldiered on.

Day two was no easier. One rival racer ran 60 miles with a broken nose after hitting a milk wagon. In the end, though, Walter Davidson won the day with a perfect 1,000 +5 score (the plus was for hitting all the checkpoints on time). Indian and the rest of the motorcycle world were put on notice—Harley-Davidson was the real deal and could win with the best of them.

Enter the Wrecking Crew

Perhaps more importantly to the company, though, racing got the word out nationwide. Four years after H-D’s president and cofounder had his day in the Catskills, Harley-Davidson set a new speed record at the 1912 Bakersfield Road Race in California. More and more, Harley made a name for itself at a variety of racetracks ranging from endurance trails to roadraces and wooden board tracks. Independent owners ran Harleys all over the country at this point. It wasn’t until 1914 that the manufacturer opened an in-house race department.

That didn’t mean the love/hate relationship with racing was over. If you think the stigma against motorcycling is strong now, you should see how it was viewed in the early 1900s. Before clutches entered the motorcycle world, riders had to shut off the motor at a stop then bump-start to get going again. Imagine having to do that at every traffic stop in town. Riders ignored stops altogether just to avoid this pain in the ass. Accidents and pedestrian collisions skyrocketed.

Motorcycle ads worked hard to pull consumer attention away from the dangerous side of riding but running hell-bent for leather against other scoots at the track? Not so much. That’s probably part of why took Harley-Davidson six years to start an internal racing division. Sponsoring indie efforts let the company have a hand in racing without having to formally condone it. Over the course of its entire life, Harley-Davidson has gone back and forth over having a dedicated racing department or confining its involvement to sponsorships.

Bill Harley and engineer William Ottoway shaped and molded the new racing unit into well-oiled machine so dominant its racers earned the nickname “The Wrecking Crew.” For the next two seasons, Harley-Davidson annihilated its two biggest competitors, Indian and Excelsior, in races all over the US. It took an entire World War to put the brakes on Harley’s racing presence. Even that didn’t end it, however.

By 1920, the company was running full bore in competition again. Racers like Jim Davis and Ray Weishaar ran strong for Harley during this era. Weishaar even went so far as to have a pet pig named Hog who liked to drink Coca-Cola. H-D was running so well that in 1921 it became the first team in history to win races at an average speed of more than 100 mph.

All of that winning wasn’t easy or cheap. At the end of the 1921 season, factory-racing expenses exceeded marketing returns from them; the racing department closed house. On the upside, racing proved to be a research gold mine in terms of tuning, lubrication, metallurgy, and parts endurance. Eventually these lessons translated to better-performing streetbikes on the showroom floor.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Great Joe Petrali

It’s impossible to have a serious talk about Harley racing in the 1930s without talking about Joe Petrali. Born in San Francisco in 1904, he grew into a lifelong rider and racer from the first time he rode iron at age 12. By the time he was 14, he’d not only worked in a shop, but Petrali also won his first race.

Joe’s first breakout moments took place in 1920, however. That’s when he piloted a borrowed Indian against Harley’s notorious Wrecking Crew on the Fresno board track. Boxed in by Harley-Davidson’s factory team, he broke loose and took second place. The second took place one race later when he borrowed Ralph Hepburn’s factory racing Harley then proceeded to win the 100-mile race in a little more than 48 minutes, winning a spot on the factory team to boot. Joe Petrali stayed on the team until it closed up then switched over to Excelsior until it, too, stopped competing.

Petrali’s star shone much brighter come the 1930s. By ’31, he’d switched back to running Harleys and scored the highest number of points that year (as well as every year between ’32 and ’36 except ’34). Moreover, he reigned as national hill climb champ from 1929 to 1937. None of which were his highest-profile achievements at speed. Two others eclipsed them.

The first was his phenomenal 1935 season. That’s the year he did what no other racer had done before or since. Joe Petrali won every national championship race in the country—13 in total.

Achievement number deuce took place a year later at Daytona Beach, Florida. Harley, Excelsior, and Indian were the last big kids on the block. Indian held the land-speed record and Harley coveted it, even though it didn’t have an official racing department anymore. H-D deemed the beach flat and stable enough for the attempt and placed Petrali aboard a streamliner version of the new Model E motorcycle to make it. When he was done, Joe was the world record holder at 136.183 mph—minus the streamliner casing, though. It caused stability issues, so Petrali ran without it.

Two years later he retired in the face of the larger, rougher Class C bikes, which he never liked. Eventually he worked for Howard Hughes as a flight engineer when the Spruce Goose took wing and later officiated races at Bonneville.

Class C and the WR

Motorcycle sales slumped as much as everything else had during the Great Depression. EC Smith, director of the AMA at that time, introduced Class C racing to boost sales. The idea was to have a racing class wherein everyday riders could compete in a variety of national events more affordably.

The manufacturers knew opportunity when they saw it, and Class C racing added fuel to the rivalry between Harley and Indian at that time. Class C racing kicked off with dirt-track racing in 1939; by 1941 Harley-Davidson produced its first showroom racing model, the WR.

Powered by a 739cc Flathead motor, the W-series also had a newfangled recirculating oil system H-D introduced when the line came out in 1936. Because the WR was made for Class C, the factory kept it as close to streetbike form as they could while optimizing some aspects of it for the track. Its clutch is a perfect example. Early W series bikes had a clutch with a basket recessed into the hub. The design proved weak in the long run, so H-D relocated the basket to outside the sprocket. That was all well and good for improved endurance. It was a drawback for racing, however. Racers really lean into a curve; having your clutch basket scrape along the track in a deep curve at speed isn’t an asset. The old narrower clutch design lacked that flaw so the WR kept the old clutch unlike its WL brethren. WR models also had different chain options for various types of racing. Owners could also pick up a variety of camshafts and final-drive ratios too. So long as the parts were listed in the factory book, made by the factory, and sold by the bike’s manufacturer, Class C racers could use them.

It’s a Small World After All

One lesson the world learned from World War II is don’t make America set its beer down and come after you. Another learned in the aftermath of that conflict was just how small the world was becoming every year. Unprecedented economic growth allowed people and products to travel all over the planet faster and faster. In the world of American motorcycle racing, that meant increasing domestic competition from import manufacturers in Britain, Germany, and Japan.

The change wasn’t instant, though. Harley still ruled the track throughout the 1940s. In 1948, the company won 19 of the 23 National events, including a dominant performance at Daytona in which seven of the top 10 finishers rode H-D bikes. In 1949, Harley-Davidson won 19 out of 24 National races.

Light iron caught on big here in the States starting in the 1950s. Most of us are familiar with the story of WWII vets coming home and looking for ways to make heavy American bikes lighter in order to go faster like the lighter Brit bikes they encountered during the war. That’s what led to the birth of the chopper. It also showed the UK companies an untapped market for their products. The ensuing British Invasion changed American motorcycle racing as much if not more than any other aspect of the motorcycle industry at that time. Harley-Davidson was in a real bind. The aging WR was still a competitor, but each year it lost ground against better and better bikes from across the pond. Change needed to happen, and it needed to happen fast.

The O’Brien Era

By 1952 even the powerful WR and WRTT model racers were showing their age against newer and lighter-designed European competition. Harley-Davidson drew on the lessons learned from the WR to counter with the KR, a design that moved the side-valve motor into a smaller, lighter, stronger machine. A nearly clean-sheet design built on the experiences of the WR, but which placed the side-valve engine in a smaller, lighter, and stronger package. For the next 17 years, the KR and KRTT models held off the competition. Indeed, from 1953 through 1969, the KR and KRTT would bring Harley-Davidson 13 victories at Daytona alone.

KR’s kicked ass in the dirt too. Factory rider Carroll Resweber won the National Championship four years running, from 1958 to 1961. Resweber’s record string of championships held until Scott Parker broke it with five straight championships between 1994 and 1999.

As important as the KR was, it wasn’t as vital as program director Dick O’Brien. For 26 years, he coached, led, and steered Harley’s factory team against not just against foreign iron but also through ever-evolving technologies, changing racing rules, and the AMF’s dystopian regime.

Team director Hank Syvertsen hired O’Brien in 1957, just before he himself retired later that year. O’Brien had a long history with motorcycle racing, including building racing engines at Puckett Motors, a Harley-Davidson dealership in Florida.

By the time Dick O’Brien took the racing department reins, British challengers were starting to close the gap on Harley’s dominance. Brit bikes piloted by racers like Dick Mann and Al Gunter contested H-D supremacy more and more. Mann gave Harley a wake-up call in ’62 when he raced his smaller G50 Matchless to victory over Harley’s larger bikes both on pavement and in the dirt.

Even the rules turned against Harley in the 1960s. One of the reasons the KRs ran so well for so long was because AMA racing regulations limited what you could do with a 500cc overhead-valve machines versus the performance tech found in larger 750cc side-valve KRs. By the mid-1960s, the AMA had no choice but to bow to increasing pressure from the growing segment of British import dealers and riders demanding change. The old Class C rules went through an overhaul allowing more race-specific equipment.

The KR really came in under siege in ’66 and ’67. This is when Triumph’s Buddy Elmore and Gary Nixon won Daytona back to back. Dick O’Brien responded swiftly. The following year he brought seven factory race bikes to Daytona, each with a KR motor cradled in special frames and wrapped in wind tunnel tested bodywork.

Harley’s reinvented racing team was so organized, talented, and serious that the media brought “The Wrecking Crew” nickname out of retirement to describe it. A lot of that came from O’Brien’s leadership. He was the Vince Lombardi of motorcycle racing directors. O’Brien was stern, fair, and very results-oriented. Effort counted with him, and if a racer was having a bad go of it, O’Brien had a reputation for standing by him so long as his heart was in the game. Harley legend Cal Rayborn took top honors at Daytona in ’68, but in the fall Harley-Davidson got some bad news: new racing rules at the AMA.

Younger, more progressive leaders at the new Competition Congress brought change on the quick. Under the new regulations, overhead-valve motors were no longer limited to 500cc. That meant they could match their American side-valve brethren cube for cube. Everyone saw the change coming; they just didn’t think it would be so abrupt. That was the last nail in the KR’s coffin.

Still, the bike didn’t die instantly. Rayborn repeated his Daytona win again in 1969. Thanks to Mert Lawwill’s heroic efforts as racer and builder, H-D pulled one last Grand National Championship out of the KR before it was laid to rest.

O’Brien scrambled to get an overhead-valve bike online in 1970. He and the racing department Frankenstein’d an overhead-valve machine to buy time until they could put together a dedicated racing motor. The cobbled-together stopgap was based on a 750cc Ironhead.

It wasn’t the greatest motor Team Harley-Davidson ever put on the track. Ironhead race bikes suffered from excessive heat; that first iron XR750 carried on that dubious tradition. Hell, rumor has it O’Brien himself called it the “Waffle Iron” because the motor loved to make heat and fry itself.

Triumph’s Gene Romero won the championship in 1970. For Harley’s team, the new decade was off to as good a start as its new racing motor. O’Brien needed some sort of win he could take to the marketing department and keep the racing department alive. And he needed it now. What he gave the marketing folks was nothing short of an 11-day miracle. That’s how long it took Dick to put together an extremely talented team of speed experts and head to Bonneville Harley’s challenge to the motorcycle land-speed record, which listed the likes of streamliner builder Dennis Manning, big-bore Sportster motor guru Warner Riley, George Smith, Clyde Denzer, and, of course, racer Cal Rayborn to fly the bike across the salt. Putting together a land-speed runner in 11 days can be done. Putting together a contender with a legitimate shot at the record in that time is damn near impossible. Regardless, O’Brien’s team got it done. Part of that was due to O’Brien’s understanding of his competition. When Harley took the record away from Don Vesco at 255, some thought that’s all Harley needed to do. Dick O’Brien knew better. In his judgment, Vesco’s liner could top 255, so he made the team keep trying until it broke the 265. Sure enough, Vesco later said he’d have tried to beat 255 mph but that extra 10 mph was enough to send him packing and start building a new streamliner.

Cal’s record runs were a real shot in the arm for Harley-Davidson, but it didn’t stop BSA’s Dick Mann from winning the championship in 1971.

Harley wasn’t able to staunch the bleeding until ’72. That’s the year the iron XR750 was retired in favor of one of the most successful bike motor designs of all time: the alloy XR750. O’Brien enlisted Peter Zylstra and Clyde Denzer to take the new motor from blueprints to track in a mere two years. Not only that, the new mill was kicking ass straight out of the crate—Harley racer Mark Brelsford brought the Grand National Championship back to Harley-Davidson that same year. It even won a few roadraces, and its dominance in the dirt remains in play to this day.

Dutch racer Peter Zylstra had been added to Harley’s design team in ’69 after emigrating from Holland. He’d roadraced 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 XR750 was a completely different animal—a leaner, angrier animal that would carry its jockeys to victory time and again, beyond the dreams of its creators.

What’s more, the XR750 was possibly the brightest spot in the dark years Harley spent under AMF’s yoke. While the rest of the company fell sick around it, Harley’s factory team, and Mert Lawwill’s prominence in the film On Any Sunday, put a positive face on a bad situation. It was also during this time that Cal Rayborn, Mert’s fellow factory racer, won two nationals and brought Harley its last AMA Grand National roadrace win.

Unfortunately, Rayborn died in a club event in New Zealand in December of ’73, and an inner ear problem forced Mert into retirement as a racer in ’77. They passed the torch to a new generation of riders such as Jay Springsteen, Scott Parker, and, after Harley divorced itself from AMF, Chris Carr. They, as much as anyone else, kept the XR750 dynasty alive and well far beyond anyone’s expectations.

It wasn’t always easy, though. In the mid-1980s Harley-Davidson was struggling just to stay alive, and rumors floated that the racing team would get axed at any time. Indeed, the factory program was outsourced for a few years, forcing Scott Parker to hire Harley-Davidson mechanic Bill Werner as his tuner. That’s probably why Dick O’Brien retired from Harley-Davidson in 1983. He stayed in the racing game for another decade or so, lending his extensive experience to Travis Carter’s NASCAR team until he retired for real to Florida.

The VR1000: What the Hell Happened?

Although the XR750 handed Harley a stranglehold on the flat track, it couldn’t compete in World Superbike. If the Motor Company wanted to compete in that arena, it needed a whole new animal. Vice President of Engineering Mark Tuttle hunted that beast when he initiated the VR1000 in 1988. A liquid-cooled, fuel-injected V-twin with one of the finest Superbike chassis designs (if not the finest, as some have argued), the VR1000 was piloted by a great racer, 1992 Superbike Rookie of the Year Miguel Duhamel, when it took to the track in Daytona 1994.

It didn’t even finish the race. So what the hell happened?

Time, that’s what. When H-D designer Mark Miller and Roush Racing’s Steve Scheibe completed the V-twin motor and its fuel-injection system in 1989 and ’90, Harley had the launchpad for a real shot at making a name in World Superbike. Had the VR1000 debuted at that time, that is. Instead, Ducati beat Harley to the punch with its 851/888 series bikes with just such a design. By the time Harley finally got around to racing the VR, its design was five years behind what was already being run at the track. The VR1000 also wasn’t ready for a long race like the Daytona 200 when it premiered. Harley’s race ended with an audible boom when the motor gave out during the race.

None of which is to say there weren’t bright spots. Miguel Duhamel is a hell of a racer. The VR1000 performed much better at tracks that were better suited for it. Miguel left Harley after ’94, but riders such as Chris Carr and Pascal Picotte picked up the ball. The 1996 season was far more competitive. Tom Wilson won the Mid-Ohio race that year—or would have if a red flag hadn’t set the race back a lap after he’d crossed the finish line first. Wilson and Carr also ran second and third at Sears Point until it, too, was red flagged and their clutches ran like crap after the restart. During the VR1000’s 13-year life span, Picotte even lead the Daytona 200 on it for a few laps.

Sadly, Harley left World Superbike when it retired the VR1000 in 2001. If rumor is to be believed, the bike fell victim to company infighting over its budget. There were forces at Harley who’d wanted to kill the VR for years, and upper management wasn’t willing to give the VR the war chest it needed to match those of Honda or Yamaha.

Timeline 1908: Walter Davidson, president of Harley-Davidson, drives a stock single-cylinder machine to victory at the Federation of American motorcyclist endurance and reliability contest held on the dirt roads of the Catskill Mountains

1912: Harley-Davidson sets a speed record of 68 mph at the Bakersfield Road Race

1921: Harley-Davidson becomes the first to win a motorcycle race at an average speed of more than 100 mph

1935: Joe Petrali, Harley-Davidson’s top racer, wins every race on the Grand National schedule

1948: Harley-Davidson wins 19 of 23 races, including a dominant performance at Daytona, in which seven out of the top 10 finishers were aboard Harley-Davidson motorcycles

1953: Harley-Davidson begins a string of 13 victories at Daytona during a 17-year period, ending with a win in 1969

1974: Walter Villa wins the first of his three consecutive 250 GP World Championships aboard the RR250

1994: Harley-Davidson revives its roadracing program by forming the VR1000 Superbike Racing Team

1996: Chris Carr earns VR1000’s first AMA Superbike pole at Pomona and finishes the year with five top-10 performances

1996: Tom Wilson gives VR1000 its first podium finish, taking second at Mid-Ohio, and earns three top-five finishes for the year

1999: Pascal Picotte claims two podiums with a second at Pikes Peak, a third at Sears Point, and earns four top-five finishes on the season

2001: Harley-Davidson retires from AMA Superbike series. Harley-Davidson announces plans to enter National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Pro Stock dragracing series with a Screamin’ Eagle/Vance & Hines effort.