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Racing Into Rivalry: Indian VS Harley-Davidson


This entry began with the thought of attending the Flat Track race here in Phoenix last weekend. Racing is always exciting, and when it has the added drama of a rivalry, it’s just better. The race was the first mile dirt track showdown between the factory Indian three-rider team and the factory Harley-Davidson three-rider team since 1953.

Photo credit: American Flat Track

The short story is Indian finished one, two, and three. The bikes and riders were faster than everyone else from the first practice and led every lap of every race they entered all day. When the Indian team hired Bryan Smith, Brad Baker, and Jared Mees (who finished in that order on Saturday), they formed a monopoly on rights to the last five national champions. The bike they built, the FTR750 was purpose built from a clean sheet of paper to win at flat track. To further insure success they hired proven tuners aka crew chiefs in most forms of racing. They dotted every i and crossed every t.

Two of the three factory Harley-Davidson riders were unable to make the main event. The one that did had a mechanical failure and crashed. On paper, it might not look like much of a rivalry. That is the short story. For the full story, a bit of history is in order.


When the Indian factory racing team returned to racing this season, it reignited an intense rivalry with Harley-Davidson that began over 100 years ago. It took WWI to bring about the first armistice between the warring parties, which resumed almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Treaty of Verasilles.

The Great Depression might have ended hostilities between the two combatants. After all it, for all intents and purposes, ended most motorsports activities. However, in this instance only forced them to adapt. While the contest had been taking place with prototype racing machines also known as Class A, the game would now be decided with production based machinery known as Class C.

WWII provided another reprieve in hostilities. Once again the two teams took the gloves off as quickly as such a transition could occur.

The rivalry finally looked like it was over in 1953. An Indian rider won the championship while company was on its last legs. By the end of that year Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company officially closed its doors and its assets were liquidated. With no company and no assets surely that would surely be the end.

During the next 62 years, Harley-Davidson would face challenges from England and Japan. Despite that they would win 50 championships.


The Harley team was still running ancient side-valve engines known as KR’s up until 1970, despite the fact that they no longer sold street bikes of this type since the mid-fifties. Faster and more modern challengers from England in the form of Triumph and BSA, coupled with a rule change necessitated the creation of Harley’s first overhead valve factory race bike since the end of Class A racing in the early 1930’s. The new machine, dubbed the XR750, would go on to become one of the most successful racing engines in history. The pushrod, air-cooled, two-valve per cylinder machine would win 29 of 37 National Championships between 1972 and 2008, often against better funded efforts fielding more technically advanced machines.

The writing was finally on the wall in 2016 when the Championship went to a well-ridden, fully-developed, and properly-tuned Kawasaki Ninja-based machine.  Harley-Davidson, never known as one to embrace new technology, recognized that time was no longer on the side of the venerable XR750.

For 2017 the factory team finally gave up on the XR and decided to develop and campaign a machine called an XG750R. This engine is based on a model called the 750 Street. The Street has an overhead cam design. With liquid cooling and EFI. Welcome to the 21st Century.



Meanwhile, Indian rose from the ashes piled high in 1953. With the help of the considerable resources of Polaris Industries, the logo and brand were resurrected. What better way to announce the resurrection of Indian than to revive a Century-old rivalry? After all, two World Wars, an unprecedented world-wide depression, and even economic failure and liquidation could not kill it.

With the season four races in, Indian has finished first and second in two and swept the first three positions in the other two. Despite all that, the history between these two storied brands leads me to believe that this is anything close to being over.

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Steve Jenkins

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