Common Tread

Ride it, break it, fix it: Lemmy takes a Harley Street Rod flat-track racing

Aug 26, 2017

America had a hell of a lot of unpaved roads right up until the mid 1950s.

Because of that, all bikes were dirt bikes. (Harley part 24490-36, a “crankcase guard” is a steel bash plate to protect the cases. The suffix indicates the year it debuted.) Every bike made was expected to go off-road. That pavement stuff is great, but this country had motorcycles, motorcycle racers, and motorcycle races long before tarmac was commonplace. Americans race on dirt. Hold that thought for a moment while I introduce another idea.

Harley sent RevZilla a Street Rod to play with. The mill is a derivative of the one used in their flat-track bike, the XG750R. Those race bikes are “framers,” meaning they use a handbuilt chassis. I understand the street version is significantly different from those machines, but look, if they’re gonna tout the flat-track relationship, I feel it is my duty as a motorcyclist, a writer, and an idiot to see how true those claims are.

That was how the idea of taking this bike to the track was born. Harley gave me their blessing to potentially wad their bike into a wall, and away I went.

Let’s go back to those old bikes for a sec. The popularity of unsanctioned racing was through the roof around World War II. Riders often rode their bikes to events, pulled off all the stuff they wanted (fenders and headlights) and rolled onto the grid. (Look up the history of the WLDR, Harley’s equivalent of a modern-day dual-sport.) 

Street Rod on the grid
Street Rod, sans decorative covers, fairing, and wearing a set of slightly-more-aggressive-than-planned tires. Photo by Dustin Carpio.

How different was that from today's Super Hooligan series, which is all about running pretty stock bikes inappropriately by a bunch of has-beens, never-weres, and also-rans, is gathering steam. Perhaps Hunter Klee, a Harley hooligan racer, put it best. “This class isn't popular for the pure speed or skill of it; it's popular because it's filled with a bunch of almost middle-aged dudes that don't train and have full-time jobs that mostly involve motorcycles.”

So I decided I’d run in the Appalachian Moto Jam, an amorphous-yet-awesome brand roof under which many events fall. This year, Kenny Buongiorno and Matt Rush, the guys who run the Moto Jam, have put on a coupla snow climbs I raced in earlier this year, and now a bunch of flat-track stuff. All the events are outlaw — not sanctioned by the AMA. Outlaw racing is perfect for a goober like me. I’m not trying to win trophies and money here; I am trying to slide my bike around, race my buddies for bragging rights, and have a few beers after the adrenaline stops flowing.

Prep: Not much of it

The whole idea here is to emphasize that Average Joe can go race the bike he rides to work during the week. I am obviously not a racer; look at my beer gut. The only specialty pieces that came into play were shoes. For me? The Iron Cobbler worked me up a steel shoe for my MX boot. The steel shoe is a necessity on the flat track. The smooth, hardfaced steel surface glides over the dirt, allowing the left leg to act as a third “wheel,” permitting the bike to be leaned over much farther than it could be without the additional support.

And for the Street Rod? That got shoes, too. A set of Continental TKC80s went on. (True flat-trackin’ tires are not available in weirdo 17-inch wheel sizes. These would do the job out there on the dirt.) Kenny, the event organizer (and a friend!), pushed hard for these. (I was originally going to run the TKC70.) He won out. (Even months after, I still feel that the 70 would have made my transition from sliding into hooking much less violent than the 80.) Beyond that, I bled the rear brake... and that was it.

If given my druthers, I would have changed many things about this bike, but the whole point is to race it just like Harley sent it. As such, I figured pulling items off the bike was fair, but adding, customizing, and modifying were not. My rule was that anything I modified had to be done next to the truck with no special equipment other than whatever was kicking around in my truck toolbox.

For starts, I brought the tire pressure down to 17 psi. That was it. This is supposed to be close to a street bike, right?

Kenny and Lem
That's Ken, the guy behind the App Moto Jam and Strange Days franchise. We like to party. RevZilla photo.

(Surprise) race day

Kenny got the date wrong. I went to Oakland Valley Speedway thinking it was an open practice, but instead it was their first points race of the season. I took a few practice laps. Time to race. That was the totality of my practice with the Street Rod. What are you gonna do? C'est la vie.

Now, it should be noted that at this speedway — like many other dirt ovals across the land — the people are close-knit and there’s a camaraderie that exists. Even though the turnout was small (a few dozen folks, including spectators and track staff), the feeling of geniality was all around. Bruce Behringer, a racer from New Joisey, kept telling me to tuck under his tent for shade, and I lent a few people tools. Willie Giangeruso, another Jersey guy, let me use his tire pressure gauge. “Be careful, that’s OEM equipment from my Gold Wing!”

I signed up for a few classes. (100 Percent Harley, Hooligan, Sportster, and Modern Heavy) Modern Heavy (like Hooligan) had no competitors, so the Vintage Heavy guys agreed to let me run with them instead. This again is the beauty of outlaw racing: we all wanted to go fast and push ourselves and our bikes. It wasn’t like I was cheating to get ahead. We all figured it would be a pretty fair race, and that was that.

During my first heats, I was really just getting comfy on the bike. I began learning what the Street Rod could and could not do, and what I was capable of, too. My training on this consisted of racing minibikes and choppers, and reading Spurg’s article on American Supercamp. I knew I had to slouch and keep my elbows up, and I knew I had to “drive” the bike down into the ground. With each heat, I picked up speed.

During the 15-lap mains, I had varying success. My first was in Vintage Heavy (ha!), where I placed fourth of four. After this, I had a little drink of water, and then was told to stay on the start line after my second race, because my third backed up to it. Rats. The teenager running the grid came back to me again, grinning, and told me to stay on the grid for the race after that one, too. He was laughing because he knew I’d be exhausted. Oh well. Que será, será.

Next up was Sportster. I came in last. Seventh out of seven. Yick. After that was Hooligan class, and I was the only racer out there. A first-place finish, but who feels good about beating no one? Still, this was good practice, which is what I actually showed up for. Panting, I lined up for my final feature. I got jammin’ pretty good, even though I was dog-tired, I eked out a third-place finish (outta five). Even after the previous 30 laps, I still ran my fastest main yet on my last event, so I was improving.

I had a beer and talked with the other racers, loaded the bike, and called it quits for the day. I was beat, but happy with how the Street Rod performed, and happy with how I did. All I needed to do was rework a few things on the bike, and practice some more to be ready for the next race day.

Bike prep, take two

I wasn’t done with the bike. My first problem was that crap kept falling off. I left a side cover and a coil cover on the dirt track. To the Street Rod’s credit, even after being kicked around the race track, these items were just fine. However, I started taking them off, along with the cowl, so I didn’t break Harley’s new bike.

Next up was clearance. The first issue I began having was the left footpeg flipping up in the turns. For those of you who don’t ride H-D, the footpegs are not spring-loaded as they are on, say, a dirt bike. Rather, Harley uses part number 50912-72 on the Street Rod’s footpegs. (1972 is the first year that part was in use, and it’s basically the same design as 33215-30, used in the kicker pedals. How’s that for history?) This piece of spring steel puts tension on the footpeg axially, so the peg stays (in theory) in the position in which it is left.

This was problematic for me because hard lefts (which I was making a hell of a lot of on a flat track!) caused the peg to flip up and stay put. I was on the peg and off again as I came in and out of the turns. I tried yanking the spring washer out in between heats, and that let the peg flip back down if I could get purchase on it. Since it could flip past straight up and down, though, gravity didn’t always do the trick. My hot shoe’s smooth steel bottom just slid against the metal of the footpeg when this happened. Solution? I added dirtbike springs to keep downward tension on the pedal, and wrapped the peg in old tire tubes to give my hot shoe something grippy to catch if the peg did happen to flip up.

Ride height = lean angle. #fattrackin. RevZilla photo.

The final problem that was glaring (beyond the fact I was asking a 515-pound bike to do a duty it was never designed for) was ground clearance. Another racer pointed out to me during a practice sesh that I was high-centering the bike when I drove it down into a corner. Careful examination of the jiffy-stand mount revealed he was correct. I was lifting the rear wheel when I started “backing it in” (initiating the rear-wheel slide), which explained why my sliding didn’t feel progressive at all. Solution? Jack up the rear preload and hope for the best. These are the limitations one runs into when racing machines that are very close to the ones selling on the dealership floor.

The only thing left to do was practice and work on riding technique and race strategy. Holeshots and jockeying for position are both critical parts of flat-trackin’, and one of the most difficult things for me to master was (and is) coming out of the slide and regaining traction for the straight. Suddenly re-acquiring traction while the bike is still in a turn is a dangerous balance — that’s the textbook beginning to a high-side crash.

But if racing was easy to master and safe to do, perhaps I wouldn’t be interested in doing it.

38z, 382. Whatever. Same thing. (I think the "Z" suffix was originally applied to NorCal area racers way back when. Since I'm a Keystoner, I believe my proper suffix would be an A.) Photo by Dustin Carpio.

Second race day: Ride, crash, fix, ride

The short version is I had a rip-roarin' good time. For the details, see the video above.

Ultimately, I practiced for two months on a bike, neglected the shit out of it, and proceeded to wreck it fairly destructively. In spite of that, with a small assortment of hand tools, I got it running well enough to race, and placed in the top three in every one of my heats and races. (Final results for those of you who are curious: third place in Modern Heavy, first place in Dirtbag Dyna, and third place in Hotdoggin' Hooligan.) I competed with my friends, and then hung out sharing stories and beers with them once the battle was over. I'm not sure what heaven looks like, and I'm even less sure I'll be heading there ever, but if I do, my corner probably looks at least in part like the App Moto Jam.

Harley’s still building tough bikes, and America’s still building tough cookies to ride ‘em. I’m proud of how I finished, proud of my fellow racers, and proud of my Street Rod. That bike has its flaws (and I added a few of my own), but it has the heart of a champion, and that heart still beats after a good batterin’.

...and then the field narrowed for the features. Photo by Dustin Carpio.

Harley will take that bike back from me, fix the things I broke and auction it off as a demo unit or a salvage bike, I am sure. No matter what the new title says or what undignified process it goes through when it leaves my hands, that Harley is my Harley, and it always will be.

I’ll be back in a few weeks as soon as my shoulder heals up.