Several years ago, some pals and I were at the Talladega Speedway Grand Prix Track , ripping around the track on sport bikes with the relative proficiency of 40ish wannabe racers. Our bikes hailed from all over the world. A collection of Ducatis (from Italy), a few speed triple Triumphs (from England), a gaggle of Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Hondas (from Asia). Not surprisingly, there was not a Harley in the bunch. Most of the guys in the road racing club have a Harley or even two, but this was not the time or the place. This was a day for in-line fours, double overhead cams, radiators, and the high rev stuff. Despite a grand dirt track history, as well as a great schedule of events at the All Harley Drags, modern super bike racing has never been the forte of the big twin. So there we are living out our mid life crisis when the track manager comes out to the pits and says “Fellas, I’ve got to shut you down for an hour, don’t complain, read your contract.” Well, the small type at the bottom allows the manager to sideline us in the event an ‘unnamed’ company, who runs a research and development facility nearby, needs to use the track. So we parked our bikes, peeled off our leathers and watched a big black truck (no markings or advertising) pull into the paddock. I thought a spaceship or a rocket car may emerge! Is it a C.I.A. thing? I saw “Men in Black.” The scene was all very weird.
Much to our collective surprise, down the ramp of the mystery truck backs a 2006 Harley Davidson (FXDI 35) “35th Anniversary Super-Glide,” with of all things, a big computer mounted to the passenger seat. This was the bike Willie G. designed and had produced in 1971, resurrected by the Company in true red white and blue. Protruding from the back of the computer were thin little wires of various colors strung all over the bike leading to little vibration sensors, glued to every conceivable surface. Hundreds of them. As it turns out, Harley Davidson has a R&D facility over the Alabama line near the track and has a lease agreement that allows them to use the track at a moment’s notice. They obviously pay the track manager more than we do. “This should be fun” we thought. To see the big American beast lumber through the “S” turns and rip down the straights. The roar of a Harley is not something you see much at this particular track. Not to mention that the obvious clandestine nature of the tests made us all think that maybe it would take off and fly, or disappear or something even more strange.
I believe the track record on a motorcycle at Little Talladega was set by pro, Robert Jenson. He can make one circuit in the very low 57 second range. That’s very, very fast. Some of the amateur guys in our group, who are very aggressive and very talented with extremely expensive machines, can do it in the one minute and 8 second range. That too is very fast. You have to understand that shaving 1/10th of a second off your lap time is big news. After professional racing school, a whole bunch of practices, private lessons from a super bike champ, my lap times are still way up in the 1 minute and high teens, like 19. So anyway, we all snickered as this pretty big (250-260 lb.) guy fires up the very big Harley with a full race suit and full face helmet and heads off down the track. We all kept snickering to ourselves until, unbelievably, he starts to really tear the track up! He scraped pegs in every turn, brakes hard enough to bottom suspension every time, accelerated full throttle out of every corner, and generally made mince meat out of the bike and the track. None of us could have done what he was doing on such a big machine. We were shocked. I am embarrassed to say what his actual lap times were, as they were low enough to snap me back into the reality of realizing what an amateur I am. Suffice it to say, the 696 pound Harley kicked butt. Now, I must clarify. This test rider was obviously a professional, and I couldn’t, nor could any of my ‘racer’ buddies, do what he did on that bike.
We quickly approached the rider in the pits after his several very impressive laps. I think he knew that would happen and I could detect a slight smirk on his mug when crowded by the initially pessimistic sport bike guys. He was a bit tight lipped at first but spoke with us a while and indicated he was doing “weld tolerance vibration testing.” This bike had been at the track a few times, had a few hundred miles on it and unbelievably was slated for termination. What does that mean you ask? Well, after the test, the bike is literally dumped into a huge shredder!!! Comes out like bark mulch! Not one part makes it out the door. Blame the Lawyers. We obviously all thought he probably had the best job of any of us. He agreed. I was pleased to hear that he was very loyal to the company and said that Harley was a great company to work for. He paid close attention to our comments and said the company does a great job of listening to its customer base. They take constant surveys, hold countless dealer meetings and are giving the consumer exactly what they are asking for. He claimed great benefits, nice retirement, ample vacation and good pay. It was really good to hear. I had never spoken much to an actual employee of the company, beyond the tour of the Wisconsin plant. We offered to let him take a spin in any of our rides. He politely declined in a “what would Steve McQueen do” (WWSMD) kind of way. Why would he want to do that? Real cool.
We all went home with a greater respect for the Harley Davidson “Company.” Not that we didn’t all respect the bikes they build already. Hell, between the 15 of us, we own about 25 of them. We see the bikes every day. We ride them all the time. Who can argue that they are not the best looking bikes on the planet? Who can argue with their century old history, or their custom potential, or their sound? But to finally get a bird’s eye view of how they develop their product, and what solid corporate R and D structure they have was very satisfying to us Harley enthusiasts. It was a real treat. Kudos to you Harley. In an ever globalizing market, with the emergence of Euro cruisers and Harley clones from Asia, the company is not only adapting and surviving, but they are thriving. Now we know why. I think I’ll leave the `Busa’ home tomorrow and head out on the Harley. The track is a great place for high speed fun, but there is no doubt that Harley provides a relaxed cruising element to the sport that can’t be duplicated. And now I know it can burn up the asphalt at the track, though I’ll keep my Harley on cruiser duty and leave the racing to my in line fours.
Well, signing off for now. Remember, ride strong, ride safe, and in the end, make sure you ride home.
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