Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Debating two very different views of the future in America. No, not Obama vs. Romney, Kawasaki vs. Harley

With two half-mile races to go, it’s a completely safe bet that the next AMA Pro Racing flat track champ will, again, be a Harley-Davidson rider. Nonetheless, XR750-mounted ‘Slammin’ Sammy Halbert complained a few weeks ago that Bryan Smith’s Kawasaki was too fast on the straights. Over the course of the season Halbert hasn’t been completely alone in complaining that the Kawasakis are slower in mid-corner; that they take different lines; that they may be increasing the risk of riders getting tangled up.

Rumors of the XR750's demise are, at this point, exaggerated. But Sammy Halbert has argued that AMA Pro rules-makers should give the Harley's a 1mm larger restrictor plate on the Miles. That might make it easier for the older bikes to keep up with the Kawasakis, but it will make the miles even harder on the Harley motors, and make the Harleys even more expensive to run. As it is, you could run a Kawasaki all season for the same amount of money you'd spend on bearings, rebuilding an XR750's bottom end. And over the course of the season, you'd have to rebuild the Harley's bottom end, while the Kawasaki would run and run.
In Halbert’s defense, I’ve rarely met a motorcycle racer who didn’t feel that his rivals had him outgunned. Smith won on Bill Werner’s Kawasaki a couple of years ago, but Werner’s bike looked cobbled-together. The Ricky Howerton-built Kawi Bryan’s using this year on the Mile tracks is built to IndyCar specs, fit, and finish. It looks like a threat before they even take it off the trackstand.

And anyway, I haven’t personally read or heard Halbert say anything beyond ordinary, Type A-personality racer bitching. Still, Paul Carruthers wrote a column in Cycle News declaiming Halbert’s gripes. Halbert submitted a rebuttal, and the politicking was on.

By the time I reached Sammy (I offered him a chance to expand on his thoughts about the effect of the arrival of a new contender, the Kawasaki, capable of upsetting Harley’s long status quo) he told me, “I don’t really want to talk about that any more.” I think he was surprised by the vitriolic response his comments earned, and realized that his defense was being interpreted a la Shakespeare’s, “he doth protest too much.”

The Howerton-built Kawasaki is, flat out, the sexiest bike I've seen in years. But is it too early to complain that it's too fast? (Photo: Dave Hoenig, AMA Pro Racing.)
I did have a chat with Bryan Smith about the whole Kawasakis-are-too-fast/too-slow/too-dangerous debate. He can see both sides of it. After spending his whole career on Harleys, he was the first winner on a Kawasaki back in 2010, rode Harleys again last season, and has ridden Howerton’s Kawasaki on the miles this year, while campaigning his own XR on the half-miles. (Although, news flash: Smith will race the Kawi at Pomona, which is another half-mile.)

We spoke right after the Santa Rosa Mile, which was fresh in his mind...

"I led about 18 or 20 laps, and had a good lead there -- five or six seconds, which is huge for flat track. It was the first time anyone’s raced there in 42 years or something. It was a real old-school track, the kind that was the heart and soul of flat tracking. 

"There’s different types of horse tracks. This wasn’t a thoroughbred track; there was wood chips or something mixed in with the dirt, which made it interesting. It was pretty gnarly; they couldn’t keep enough water in it. There were only a couple of us riding the cushion -- it was only about five feet of dirt, right up against the haybales. 

"I had a race with Halbert the first few laps, but then I checked out. I knew the top would go away, and I was hoping that when it did, I’d have enough of a lead that I could still hold on to win it.

"As fast as the top was going away, everyone was riding down low and getting the groove going. At the end, I tried to get down on the groove too, but I wasn’t that good on it, because I’d been up in the cushion all day. By the time I gathered up my marbles, it was too late. It’s a bummer leading a national that long, and not winning, but I was giving it everything around the top. I thought about it afterwards, and I was really taking a lot of risk.

"Looks-wise, Ricky Howerton’s bike looks like a MotoGP bike, and Werner’s looked like Werner’s. [The Howerton bike] was designed in this century. It’s got a lot of tech in it, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. The biggest thing is, it’s consistent lap after lap. Werner’s bike was different every time I rode it; I rode it blind every time, just on instinct, and it bit me a couple of times.

"The lines I use on the Kawasaki aren’t that different. The groove is the groove. The Kawasaki has a little more power, so I could make the track a little bigger, but it’s not as big a difference as you might think. There are videos on YouTube where people are saying, Smith’s Kawasaki blows past three Harleys... But that video is misleading. Those guys were three-wide in front of me; it was like drafting a U-Haul truck. Our bikes have no streamlining, so they’re extremely sensitive to the draft; if I was on a Harley I’d’ve gone past them just as fast.

"There are six or seven other Kawasakis out there, but I don’t think any of them have led a National this year. If they were that fast, other guys would be up front. I bleed orange and black, but the truth is the truth, the Harleys are just too expensive to run."

Smith told me, "I think it's a little ironic that Sammy -- he's been disciplined for dangerous riding -- is complaining about this. Anyone who knows me knows I don't ride that way."

But in some ways I sympathize with Halbert. I've heard far worse racer whinges. Remember Nigel Mansell, in F1? His constant litany of complaints would make a guy like Halbert seem positively stoic. And some of the shit I read on Facebook in the fallout of Halbert's complaint/Carruthers' editorial (which was not mean)/Halbert's rebuttal (which was not irrational) was out of line. 

I read some bus driver refer to Sammy as "lil' man". I thought to myself, "Dude, whoever you are... you're a bus driver. Halbert may be short, but no one who's seen him ride doubts his manhood." 

Bryan Smith is probably my favorite active racer. I think he represents the best of contemporary flat track, and I'd love to see him win the title on a gorgeous new bike like Howerton's Kawi. But that ain't happenin' this year. On the other hand, Halbert could win the championship, and it might not be bad for the sport if Slammin' Sammy was to carry the #1 plate in 2013. America loves to hate a badass, aggressive champ with a chip on his shoulder. (Think: a 3/4 scale Dale Earnhart.) 

If Sammy can pull off another win or two and win the title, he'd set up a great rivalry for 2013 -- the year of the Kawasaki.

1 comment:

  1. Giving the Harley's 1 mm larger restrictor will actually be much EASIER on the Harley motors, and you failed to point out that the Kawasakis have NO restrictions.

    Bryan is wrong other Kaws have lead races #44 a midpack guy almost won the Indy Mile, and the aggressive riding issue I brought up is legit. That is what is going on with the big difference in straight away speeds! If I really wanted to win the Springfield Mile I would have had to slam or take Bryan out, instead I just raced for second.