Obituary: Harley-Davidson VR 1000
by dean adams
Thursday, August 30, 2001

Harley-Davidson officially killed the VR 1000 Superbike program a day or so ago after thirteen years of effort on their part to become competitive in America's premier racing series. A bit of history and analysis is in order.

The VR 1000 project was started in 1988 by then VP of Engineering Mark Tuttle. He instructed H-D designer Mark Miller to design the engine; Miller got as far as the bottom end, whereby the project was then brought to Roush Racing in 1989 for most of the remainder of the engine design phase.

The VR 1000 was a plan destined for greatness, well, at least at one time it was. In 1988, a liquid-cooled, fuel injected V-twin was to become the weapon of choice for Superbike racing, and by debuting one in 1990, Harley was in position to ride that wave to the fullest. Ducati was brought back from the brink of corporate death by their 851/888 series of sport bikes, with exactly that configuration.

While the VR 1000 project was at Roush, a talented young designer engineer named Steve Scheibe worked on different areas of the bike, including the cylinder heads and the machine's fuel injection system. After a running engine was conceived, Harley-Davidson wanted to bring the project back within the halls of Harley-Davidson racing and engineering, but they wanted someone from Roush to oversee the project. Scheibe left Roush and became a Harley-Davidson employee in the early 1990s.

Former GP chassis designer Mike Eatough, who came to Harley-Davidson when H-D acquired Amstrong, designed the VR 1000 chassis, widely described as one of the best Superbike chassis ever.

The first strike against the VR 1000 is that it took too long to get on the racetrack. Commissioned in 1988, it would not be until the late spring of 1993 when the bike had its first real test, at Gratten Raceway, in Michigan. In that period (1988-1993) the Japanese had one-by-one opted out of racing, only to re-enter in the early 1990s, and Ducati led the way, winning World Superbike races and championships with the dominant V-twin design. If the VR 1000 had hit the racetrack in 1991 as it did in 1996, the results would have been much, much different. The sub-150 horsepower it put out in 1994 would have made it a strong contender in 1991. However, in 1994, the horsepower curve was exploding, and H-D were down by, well, at least, ten when they rolled the bike out of the transporter at a racetrack for the first time.

It was not until 1994 that the bike debuted in public—at the Daytona 200. When it did, it had Harley's signature back and orange paint, but was fitted with goofy Wilwood brakes, Penske forks, but the former were never raced--it had Ohlins for front suspension and Penske on the rear. And it was slow.

Harley knew they would need a proven, motivated rider. Although Scott Zampach and even Scheibe tested the bike when it was a prototype, original riders for the 1994 team were famed Canadian race-winning machine Miguel DuHamel and Fritz Kling, albeit Kling did not start riding until after Daytona. Harley snared DuHamel away from Grand Prix racing with a hefty (at the time) $225,000 salary.

At Daytona it was clear that the VR 1000 was not ready for a long race at a very fast racetrack. DuHamel's VR 1000 DNF'd the race with a loud explosion while running well back. Electrical problems and large spinning metal pieces were hitting each other inside the engine, it was clear that the VR 1000, even with its long development period, wasn't ready.

Yet, when the team arrived at circuits that suited the bike, DuHamel rode like a God. He qualified the VR 1000 on the front row at Mid-Ohio, and actually led the race until the shift lever fell off the bike. Then he led the race at Brainerd, something experts thought would be an impossibility given Brainerd's one mile long front straight. A brief ride off track took him out of the running for the podium.

DuHamel left Harley at the end of the season and former Cagiva GP rider Doug Chandler joined the team the next year. 1995 was largely a season to forget, Chandler was injured for most of it; however, his teammate and childhood dirt track rival Chris Carr did put the VR 1000 on the pole at Pomona though, the first and only pole the VR would ever score.

So-called experts will gloss over the VR 1000's history as one failure after another, but, in fact, the 1996 season was fairly decent for the Harley-Davidson team and would be the one in which they were the most consistently competitive. Tom Wilson, who realized a lifetime dream by riding for Harley on their Superbike program, won the Mid-Ohio Superbike race on the VR 1000—he crossed the finish line first—but a red flag thrown out to stop the race put the race back a lap; Pascal Picotte was (ironically) credited with the win. Need more? At Sears Point that year, Carr qualified second fastest, with Wilson too on the front row. The pair ran second and third in that race before it was red-flagged and re-started. Their clutches then dust from two starts, they didn't do much after the race was re-started. (They finished 4th and 5th.) After Sears, Wilson went to Las Vegas and qualified on the front row.

click for larger version - image by tim huntington There's more. Pascal Picotte finished second and third on the VR1000 in two different seasons, and, perhaps more importantly than that, led the Daytona 200 for a few laps before slow pit stops doomed him to a poor finish. It hasn't all been bad. It's been primarily bad, of course, but not all bad.

In that period there were huge political battles inside Harley-Davidson over the team. The budget for it went from being the responsibility of engineering to marketing. Forces inside Harley-Davidson tried to have it killed and usually Scheibe had to put his neck on the tracks to get funding every year. Scheibe is not a people person, which is not a insult, and his battles with VP of Engineering Earl Werner and Erik Buell are legendary within the halls of Juneau Avenue.

Moreover, the modern upper management at Harley could never get their head around the fact that in order to compete with Honda, Yamaha and Ducati, they'd have to spend sums commensurate with those teams on their own race team. And they would have to commit to spending those sums for several years in order to keep pace. Yet, almost every Fall the race team's future was in doubt (the program was cancelled at least once before, but saved).

There came a point where to take the team to the next level, new management would have to work with Scheibe or take over the team. The bike needed experienced race staff, experienced at winning, and developing a race-winning motorcycle. Muzzy, Mathers, Leonard, Ludington, Kanemoto, Plumlee, etc ... all names that were mentioned, some were even interviewed. None were ever hired.

If one is looking for an example of how to build a winning race effort in an arena where the company has no experience, one only has to look at the 1980s Honda dirt track effort. Although they had never raced dirt track as a factory before, in the early 1980s, Honda wanted badly to go dirt track racing, and to be successful at it. So, long story short, they acquired all the dirt track racing talent they could find to ride the machines, riders like Bubba Shobert, Freddie Spencer, Ricky Graham, Hank Scott and Doug Chandler, among others. Then, they started acquiring successful dirt track tuners, like Skip Eakin and Doug Chandler's father-in-law, Jerry Grifith. Rob Muzzy was brought in to work on the effort as well. It didn't happen overnight, and they had to build their own version of the Harley-Davidson XR750 to get it done, but after some time, Honda's dirt track bikes were winning races, and the championship. Honda didn't care how much it cost, they simply yearned to win and knew what it would take to win, and they did it. Honda has long understood that the actual point of racing is winning.

After Tommy Wilson suffered career-ending injuries at Loudon, Harley-Davidson hired Scott Russell, former World Superbike champion and Daytona winner to ride the bike. They did so, although any veteran race watcher could (and assuredly did) tell them that Russell had limited success as a develop-as-you-race rider, and had actually never before ridden a Twin in his life. They paid him a huge salary, money a cynic would say should have been spent on hiring six of the best mechanics in the paddock if they truly wanted to win races.

It was during this period that the bike seriously lost touch with the other teams in terms of power and reliability. Harley swapped from Ohlins suspension to Showa, and in one of the more bizarre instances, tested the VR against several Japanese streetbikes during a mass test at Road America. They discovered what most already knew: a Supersport-prepped Suzuki GSX-R750 was damn near as fast as the VR 1000 Superbike.

In the final year of the team, Scheibe left and John Baker, who had no race team management experience at all, was brought in to take over. Baker was quietly criticized as more of a company man and a politician than a race team manager. All press communication with him had to go through public relations, and more often than not it came from press releases. A cynic might see that they had funding for PR, but it probably should have been spent on R&D.

Baker had big talk just last Spring about what the future would hold for the VR, yet now even he too was blind-sided by the factory when they simply said "no" to 2002.

Harley will not race next season, nor will they support any privateer teams. They have "no plans" to get back into roadracing, ever.

It wasn't all bad, but in hindsight, a great deal of the trials of the VR 1000 Superbike were very bad.


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