Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Sometimes you wanna' go racing. Sometimes ya' gotta'

Back in 1969, the Honda CB750 was a sensational new model. Bob Hansen was one of the few Americans who was a real insider at Honda at that time; he'd run a 'backdoor' factory team, preparing Honda CB450 race bikes for several years.

Bob Hansen (standing) was the guy who convinced Honda to enter a factory team in the 1970 Daytona 200. Dick Mann won, although three of the four factory Hondas failed to finish -- so Hansen and Honda were both right.
Hansen told Honda that they needed to enter a 750 in the 1970 Daytona 200. Honda refused; they did not feel that the CB750 had a proper racing pedigree. For example, they felt its chain-driven cam was fine for road use, but unsuited for racing.

"What if we race, and don't win?" someone asked. The question didn't bear answering, for Honda.

Hansen told the Board, I've sold [however many] thousand of these in my region alone. I guarantee you that someone's going to race it, and that person won't win.

Honda realized Hansen was right. They had to race the 750. In the end, they hand-built four 'CB750 Racing Type' bikes for Daytona '70, and three of them did fail -- at least one as a result of cam-chain tensioner failures, so Honda was right, too. But what history remembers is that the one bike that didn't fail won the race.

I was reminded of that conversation with Hansen a few weeks ago, when I chatted with Matt Hines about developing the XG750R flat track race motor, out of Harley-Davidson's Street 750 twin.

Harley-Davidson has reasons to develop a new flat track motor. Because while the XR750 is still evidently capable of winning races...

  • It's less and less capable of winning on the big Mile tracks
  • It's too expensive to buy, prepare, and maintain
  • Let's face it, it's obvious H-D doesn't really want to be in the XR750 business any more

Harley-Davidson's in a similar position now, with the high cost of XR750 motors and parts forcing private teams to consider other motors. If Harley doesn't build a racing version of the XR750 motor, someone else will -- and they probably won't do it as well as Vance & Hines.
The Street 750 isn't exactly flying off dealer floors in the U.S. but there's still a bunch of those motors in circulation. At least a few private teams are messing with them. And that leaves Harley-Davidson in the same position Honda was in, in 1969.

H-D basically has to build a racing version of the motor, because if they don't, someone else will. And when that privateer effort fails, it'll still be seen as a Harley-Davidson failure.

Luckily, Vance & Hines actually has a better motor to work with than I thought.

It turns out that while the Street 750 is pretty mild in stock trim, the motor's basic architecture was conceived with a future race version in mind. It's not a motor that Soichiro Honda would ever have dreamed of racing, but it's not bad as a starting point.

It will be interesting to watch the battle next year between the new Harley motor and the new Indian motor. I hear that Indian has until 2020 to switch over to a production-based motor -- although three competition seasons is enough time for AMA Pro Racing to change its mind (to say nothing of the rules) several times...

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