Harley-Davidson XR1200: FIRST RIDE

Michelle Baird | February 19, 2009

With threatening black clouds rolling into the area, referee Duke Olliges gridded the National ahead of the Trophy Race.

The sun-blocking clouds brought a welcome respite from what had been blistering temperatures and also provided an eye-pleasing respite for the riders, most of whom were using darkly tinted shields.

Fast heat-winner Steve Morehead led the 16-rider field around on the first circuit, but unlike most of the races that had preceded it, this race was not a one-man affair. In fact, for the first eight laps, it was anyone’s race.

Morehead led lap one, Parker led lap two, Morehead lap three, Parker lap four, Morehead lap five, Kidd laps six-seven-eight, and then it was Parker, Parker, Parker – all the way.

That’s Jack Mangus’ report on the 1979 Duquoin, Illinois, AMA Grand National Championship main event in the August 8, 1979 Cycle News, and it was the race that put 17-year-old Scott Parker’s name in the record books as the youngest rider to win a Grand National race. Over the course of the next couple decades, he went on to become the winningest rider in the GNC series, and the XR-750 he rode still tops the list as the most dominating dirt-track racing motorcycle of all time. It’s this legacy that spawned the new Harley-Davidson XR1200.

Scotty Parker and fellow dirt-track legend Rich King played a big role in fine-tuning the XR1200 for the street and retaining the aggressive attitude of the dirt tracker, and so it was fitting that he came along with the Motor Company crew to introduce it to the American press on a ride through California’s Palomar Mountains – just a hop, skip and a slide from the famous Del Mar Short Track. The European press wasn’t invited, because they’ve had the XR1200 since April 2008: The XR1200 was initially designed and launched only in European markets, but the H-D men said American demand is why they made the XR1200 available in its homeland, and so an initial run of 750 bikes were made for the USA.

And the sportiest, best-handling Harley is finally here –  whether that’s because of American demand, or the work of a savvy marketing department, or perhaps something to do with H-D resolving a trademark issue with California’s Storz Performance regarding the “XR1200” marque in June of 2008. (California’s Storz Performance filed a patent in 2006 for “XR1200” for its Sportster dirt-track conversion kit.)

Nonetheless, demand probably is a top reason, and proof of that came at the Long Beach IMS, where lines were consistently two hours long to ride the demo XRs. And when I sought one out on the convention room floor, I had to wait in line behind a couple of guys who wanted to swing a leg over the bike that they had already sent in their deposits to buy one of the $10,799 bikes.

It’s understandable how someone would want one just from seeing it in a photograph, with its dirt-track style bodywork, black cast-aluminum three-spoke wheels, and upswept satin-chrome exhaust. Once these customers finally get one home, they will undoubtedly be more than pleased with the purpose-built sportster engine that brings the street tracker to life. That engine has more power than other sportster motors in part due to the increased compression ratio and higher performance cams. H-D raised the redline to around 7000 by making a whole new crankshaft that is lighter and stronger. H-D says the XR clocks in at about 90 horsepower with 74 foot-pounds of torque at 4000 rpm.

To handle the extra heat from the higher output, there’s precision oil cooling in the cylinder heads, which never was uncomfortably hot at all on our chilly afternoon ride, even when we hit a bit of San Diego traffic leaving the mountains back to civilization, so the XR doesn’t need a cooling fan that would distract from its looks. External oil plumbing is a nod to the race styling, and even the airbox is hidden under the right side of the 3.5-gallon tank so there’s an unobstructed view of the silver-powdercoated XL Evolution 1200cc V-Twin engine.

The oil cooler protruding out in front of the rider’s left knee is the only part that might be considered visually distracting on the XR, but it is soon forgotten when revving the XR’s strong motor that is smooth with barely a hint of vibration.

A unique upswept, high-volume 2-1-2 straight-shot exhaust system includes dual mufflers and is finished in luxurious satin chrome.  They are positioned high up to allow for good clearance when leaning into corners and help give a very pleasing bass rumble (especially when a pack of them come blasting around a canyon corner) and have been carefully formed and placed so as to not block the view of the engine.

Sporty rearset footpegs provide additional cornering clearance and keep the rider’s knees crouched and feet back in an “attack” position.

The wide low-rise dirt-track-style black handlebars are a comfortable reach with good leverage. The 29.2-inch seat height makes flat footing and balancing the 580-pound bike a piece of cake. I was glad the XR is not a lightweight anemic bike, because it stayed planted in the extremely windy conditions we rode in that day, yet the torquey motor and quick steering make it seem lighter than it is. You don’t realize the weight of the bike until you are lifting it up off the sidestand, which is not overly difficult because of the low seat height, but it is effort enough to remind you that this bike weighs in the ballpark of a middleweight cruiser.

Despite the “attack” posture of the lower body that the XR1200 positions the rider, the overall riding position is relaxed and upright. Levers are nice and thick, with a bit of a stiff pull that needs more than two fingers, but this helps remind you not to release too fast, unless you are purposely trying to loft the front wheel, as Mr. Parker repeatedly demonstrated how easy this is to do with the XR’s torquey engine.

The minimalist compact instrument cluster keeps with the minimalist race theme, and combines handlebar-mounted electronic speedometer with odometer, a white-faced tachometer, dual tripmeter and a clock. There’s a low-fuel warning light, low-oil pressure light, and engine diagnostics readout, too. The turn signals, like many Harleys, are self-cancelling – always a nice feature for those of us without thumbs like E.T.

The sport-tuned Showa suspension with inverted 43mm front forks and twin preload-adjustable shocks combines with lightweight sharp-looking black cast-aluminum three-spoke wheels. The rake is fairly steep at 29.3-degrees, offering responsive quick-steering and is a factor into the excellent handling. The stock suspension settings made for a solid ride that wasn’t abrupt or jerky, and cornering angle was surprisingly deep for a Harley.

H-D spent a great deal of time developing just the size and type of tire, and the result is an excellent, sticky Dunlop Qualifier D209 – 18-inch front / 17-inch rear – made specifically for this model. This choice of buns gives excellent confidence and feedback to the rider, and we put them to the test on slippery roads lightly coated with dirt in high winds in the ultra twisties of Palomar mountain area – a lesser tire would have made for a scary (and slower) ride.

The Nissin dual front brakes with four-piston calipers and 292mm patented uniform expansion rotors are strong and not to be grabbed. They are plenty strong enough for aggressive stops.

There’s a standard passenger pillion and footpegs (though that passenger would need to be on the petite side to fit on that perch), and optional luggage is available, which is is designed to look like a part of bike, rather than just a strapped-on afterthought.

Leaving the Palomar Mountains, I finally caught up to Parker and found myself lined up at a red light with him, with an open road in front of us. He revved the motor. I revved back. At green, clutches dropped while throttles twisted, and the XRs rocketed off the line, spitting pebbles from the fenderless back tire at anyone who had the misfortune of stopping too close. And just for a split second, I was laughing inside my helmet because I actually had GNC champ Scott Parker in my mirror. As I came out of fantasy land, acknowledging that he probably let me “win,” and that this was the streets of San Diego, not the Del Mar Short Track, I was grateful to H-D for reviving a piece of American heritage through this bike for all of us non-racers to have a taste of what it’s like to be Scott Parker.

So can this homage to dirt track go to the racetrack, for real? Well, it’s already being raced on the track in Spain in what’s called the BBQ Series – a barbecue/music/race fiesta. And this year, it has its own class in British Superbike Series.

Whether it was American jealousy of our brothers over the pond that got it here, or clever marketing, it doesn’t matter – so far, this is the coolest, best-handling Harley to hit the streets.

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