For the Archive. RIP Babe Demay
from October 26, 2020
by Dean F. Adams
Monday, November 6, 2023
Cyriel "Babe" DeMay, the man behind the design of both versions of the Harley-Davidson XR750 engine, was not a passionate enthusiast of this iconic American racing engine.
I once gave him a call at his shop a few years ago, and at that time, he was in the midst of single-handedly removing an engine from one of his XR750s. He came across as rather dismissive of the XR750 engine, his contribution to its design, and the legendary status it had acquired in the world of racing. On that day, his thoughts seemed fixated on the engine's weight (160 pounds), the substantial maintenance required (a minimum of 25 hours per race), and the exorbitant upkeep costs. Babe, then 83 years old, casually mentioned that he simply lifted the engines out of the frame without the aid of a crane or cherry picker when I asked him about it.
However, Babe did share that one of his happiest moments was watching his XR750s being loaded onto someone else's vehicle and leaving his driveway. With the proceeds from that sale, he could embark on his final racing bike project, the Yamaha FZ07 engine, a project he was instrumental in initiating for dirt track racing.
Throughout most of his adult life, Babe played multiple roles, including being a rider, engineer, and tuner. He started as one of the original "fast boys from Illinois" before transitioning to Harley's race department alongside Dick "Obie" O'Brien. By the late 1970s, he found himself collaborating with Kenny Roberts at Yamaha.
In his later years, Babe found renewed enthusiasm in the Yamaha FZ07 project. Finally, here was a modern engine that offered reliability and decent power without needing constant disassembly after each practice session.
One of Babe's last riders was Dominic Colindres, a talented racer who tragically became paralyzed while competing on Babe's Yamaha at Peoria. Following this incident, Babe initially retreated from racing. However, in our last conversation, he expressed his readiness to return to racing, all he needed was a rider and a sponsor, as he claimed, "It's all set to go."
Unfortunately, Babe passed away October 26, 2020 at the age of 88.
A younger colleague of Babe's said of him today:
Babe was old school and always to the point, but always polite as well. In the decade or more I worked with him, he always asked if I had time to talk before he launched into what he needed. We had a conversation once about the XR, and he said something along the lines of, "Harley stopped assembling new XR engines a long time ago. Now when you order one you just get a crate of parts to put together. I think they started doing that because they knew we were going to throw 90% of the original parts in the garbage and install good quality components instead."
Before I met him in person, we spent a lot of time on the phone. His soft and slightly quavery voice made me wonder if he was really up to running a dirt track team at his age. Then I met him in person at the track and watched him sling fully built race engines around like they were nothing. He was such an impressive guy in so many ways.
He was incredibly supportive of his riders, and worked in an apprenticeship type model. Quite a few of his riders lived with him and worked in the shop with him. That didn't mean it was something glamorous like rebuilding forks or porting a head. It usually took the form of "The shop sink is dirty, go get the scouring powder and a sponge. When you're done with that, get the broom." I remember one rider pushed back against such lowly work, he was out the door and on his own the next morning.
I feel privileged that I got to know him a little. He was a special guy, and they don't make them like Babe any more.
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