Harley-Davidson, Back in Road Racing
Taking on Indian at ‘King of the Baggers’
“It’s been an incredible journey with Harley to bring bagger racing to the forefront of motorcycle racing in the U.S.,” says Kyle Wyman.
The upstate New York native whose grandfather opened a Harley-Davidson (H-D) dealership in 1962 was crowned ‘King of the Baggers’ after winning the inaugural racing series in 2021.
Going into their 4th season, Baggers feature professional riders competing on big American V-twin engines and they are now the fastest growing edition of motorcycle racing.
H-D and Indian are currently the only competing brands allowed in the series.
Starting in March with the pre-season kickoff at the Daytona 200, the 2024 Baggers program will showcase 16 races over 8 double-header weekends across the country.
They are all part of the calendar at MotoAmerica, the AMA-sanctioned organization that oversees 7 classes of road racing: Superbike, Supersport, Junior Cup, Stock1000, Twins Cup, Mini Cup, and King of the Baggers.
33-year old Wyman worked his way up through the amateur ranks in both the flat track (dirt) and road racing world before turning pro in 2006.
A veteran champion of Superbike and Supersport, he switched to the Baggers when the opportunity arose and is now full time under contract with H-D’s factory team.
“The offer to work with Harley-Davidson and develop a new race program was a dream scenario for me,” Wyman tells Sports History Weekly.
The Screamin’ Eagle Factory Team is H-D’s first factory-sponsored road racing team since 2001 when the company exited the AMA Superbike following 7 lackluster years with the VR1000s.
Adds Jason Kehl, H-D’s Director of Racing, “Competing in the MotoAmerica King of the Baggers series initially gave Harley-Davidson an opportunity to showcase our Screamin’ Eagle performance products in the heat of competition.”
A common sight on America’s wide-open roads, the heavyweight touring bikes with their winged fairings and saddlebags were modified and re-tuned for speedway performance.
Specifically, the Road Glide, H-D’s selected model for the Baggers, is powered by a modified Screamin’ Eagle Milwaukee-Eight 131 Performance Crate Engine.
Explaining the dynamics of piloting a Bagger compared to a Superbike, which has greater horse-power but weighs significantly less, Wyman notes:
“The greatest challenge of course is the weight…We are always trying to optimize lean angle, acceleration, and braking to slow and turn so much mass.”
One noticeable alteration is the bike’s higher ground clearance, which allows room for the side bags when making low level turns at high speeds.
Baggers are to Superbikes what stock cars are to formula one machines- thunderous 620-lb beasts that can reach speeds of 180 mph, just 20 mph shy of the typical Superbike.
“I like that we are developing these machines to do things that they were not originally designed to do. There’s an art to the engineering…Now, with all the work we’ve done, the race bike behaves like a modern Superbike and has the speed and lap times to prove it.”
H-D’s modified Road Glide houses a 2,147cc engine that puts out roughly 160 hp with 131 ft-pound of torque.
Those are big numbers and their behemoth presence on the track has racing purists scratching their heads.
Still, MotoAmerica is garnering a new following among the legions of big-bike riders who traditionally weren’t racing fans.
What’s more, nothing could be more exciting than watching 2 iconic irons- H-D and Indian- reignite their historic rivalry in a sanctioned race and with professionals on the saddle.
Asked how fans are reacting to the novelty of this racing category, Kehl says:
“Harley-Davidson riders have supported the MotoAmerica King of the Baggers series in a big way, from riding to the track to spectate on race weekends, to watching the King of the Baggers races on TV and Youtube.”
As part of a promotional campaign, H-D released ‘Push The Limit’, an engaging documentary of Kyle and his brother Travis (also a racer), along with H-D’s factory team, preparing to defend their title at the 2022 season.
H-D and Indian’s wheel-to-wheel battles at King of the Baggers harks back to the early 1900s when the two companies vied for supremacy on wooden boards and dirt tracks.
Both began making V-twin bikes before 1910 and were the only major American manufacturers to survive 2 World Wars, the Great Depression, and corporate restructurings.
Indian got a head start with the first V-twin factory racing bike in 1905 and until WWI, was recognized as America’s fastest motorcycle, setting numerous speed records in various events.
H-D Initially shied away from racing but then jumped into the foray when it realized it needed to prove itself in the field in order to compete on the sales floor.
In 1914, H-D introduced its first factory racing team at the Dodge City 300, which at the time hosted the world’s greatest bike chase with leading teams from Indian, Excelsior, Pope, Thor, and Flying Merkel.
Though Indian won the contest on Dodge City’s 2-mile oval dirt track, H-D returned to claim it in 1915 and 1916.
That period marked the beginning of the storied competition between H-D and Indian, which for over a century went past the race tracks and into the showrooms.
So far at the Baggers, H-D is ahead 2-1 after the Milwaukee-based company captured the 2021 and 2023 titles (Indian won in 2022 with their Challenger model).
Motorbike racing is a form of entertainment but it’s also a business that needs close association with original equipment manufacturers who are always seeking to improve their products and gage changing consumer tastes.
Kehl points out, “As the series and our involvement in it as an OEM has continued to grow, so has our learnings in every area of the motorcycle. It is exciting to see how engineers across the company are now taking these learnings and applying them in all areas of their daily work.”
Looking to the future, Wyman says:
“I’m excited to see where bagger racing goes in the coming years. We have seen record crowds at MotoAmerica events since the inception of the series and I think we are still on a steep upward trajectory of growth.”
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