Archives: The First One Brand National

Larry Lawrence | February 7, 2018
Mike Kidd wins Terre Haute 1975.
Harley-Davidson racing boss Dick O’Brien (shaking hands with winner Mike Kidd) had to be thrilled at Terre Haute in 1975, when the field for the AMA Grand National was all Harley-Davidson XR750 race bikes. It was the first time a single brand made up the entire field of an AMA Grand National. (Gary Van Voorhis photo)

August 17, 1975 marked a milestone AMA Grand National race. That day on the Action Track Half-Mile in Terre Haute, Indiana, for the first time in history, every motorcycle that ran in the national was a single brand. That brand? Harley-Davidson.  

It’s amazing to think it took 21 years for the series to have its first single-brand national.

There was a perfect storm that day in Indiana, to set up an all Harley day at the national. By 1975 the powerful British brands of Triumph, Norton and BSA were basically closing down and very little support was given to the AMA Grand National Championship in ’75 with Mark Williams getting limited backing from Norton. So with the British bikes pretty much out of the way, the only serious challenge to Harley on the flat tracks was defending national champ Kenny Roberts on the full factory Yamaha. Yamaha also supported Gene Romero to a lesser extent.

Also, that year there were updates to the Harley-Davidson XR750, which gave the bike both more usable power and reliability. The aluminum XR was in its fourth season and the Milwaukee-based brand was benefiting from tons of development in those years from numerous factory and factory-backed riders.

Yamaha was pushing the XS650-based (750cc) to its absolute limits. Tremendous head work on the Yamaha had closed the gap on the Harley, but Roberts was still getting smoked coming off the corners by the grunt of the V-Twins. And with the Yamaha on a knife’s edge of tuning, it was becoming unreliable and Roberts found himself sidelined numerous times during the ’75 season. It got so frustrating for Roberts and Yamaha, in desperation they turned to the Yamaha road race engine, the two-stroke TZ750 and Roberts ran that bike at several big tracks later that summer, including his famous victory at the Indy Mile. But at Terre Haute Roberts was on the traditional Yamaha vertical twin.

The hard clay of the Action Track developed a narrow blue groove that day, so passing would be very difficult. Trying to go around someone meant going off the groove where it was slick, usually resulting in losing positions. That was another thing that played right into the hands of Harley riders that hot and humid day.

Track conditions were slow. Corky Keener’s fastest time in time trials (25.704) was nearly 8-10ths slower than John Hateley’s 1973 track record of 24.903. Seven of the top 10 qualifying times were set by Harley riders.

Harley-mounted Frank Gillespie, Dave Sehl, Mike Kidd and Paul Bostrom won the four heat races, giving another indication of how the day was going to go.

Bill Eves very nearly put his Triumph in the field for the main, but in last-lap draft move on Gary Scott’s Harley came up just short. There was only one more qualifying race and so far, every bike in the national was a Harley.

It seemed a fairly safe bet that Roberts might win the second Semi, but the problem was he’d blown up the gearbox in his primary bike and he found his back-up machine slow. Roberts and fellow Yamaha rider Romero were in the hunt the entire way. Romero led early, but Harley’s Mert Lawwill worked his way past to take over the lead. Roberts, Romero and Eddie Wirth got into a great battle for second, but there was no catching Lawwill and only the winner was checking his ticket to the national and when Lawwill won it, history was made, the national, for the first time ever, would be all H-Ds!

The national was quite a story in itself. Mike Kidd, who had just recently come back from nearly a year off after suffering a twice broken leg. A Triumph factory rider the year before, Kidd was now racing an unfamiliar Kruger Racing Harley-Davidson.

Going into the national, the fast line was at the very bottom. Corky Keener’s mechanic Nick Deligianis called it perfectly before the start when he told Cycle News reporter Gary Van Voorhis “Whoever gets a good start and keeps it on the pole (the low line) – that’s the way it’ll end up.”

Terre Haute 1975 cover
Mike Kidd celebrating his Terre Haute victory made the cover of Cycle News.

As 14 Harley’s roared off the line for the start of the national Rex Beauchamp and Dave Sehl got great starts off the line, but ran just a tad high off the line between turns one and two and Kidd, inches from the inside guardrail slipped underneath then and took over the lead as the pack headed out onto the back straight.

In the closing laps Beauchamp would run right up on Kidd every lap in turns one and three. He was trying to pressure the young rider into an error, but Kidd, in spite of saying he was gassed by the end of the race, clung to the low line giving Beauchamp nowhere to go.

His win marked just his second national victory every and a triumphant comeback from a long layoff.

You can see in winner circle photos Harley-Davidson’s racing manager Dick O’Brien standing behind Kidd with a huge smile on his face. A clean sweep of every position was a dream for “OB” and he was the leader of the factory team the first time it happened.

O’Brien might have been harkening back to how far the team had come in five years. The perfect sweep meant Harley had come full circle from the dark early days of the iron-head XR750. Harley got humiliatingly shutout of the 1970 San Jose Half-Mile with not one Harley-mounted rider qualifying for that highly-attended national.

From no Harleys to all Harleys. “OB” and the rest of the Harley faithful probably had a great celebration that night.'

Larry Lawrence | Archives Editor In addition to writing our Archives section on a weekly basis, Lawrence is another who is capable of covering any event we throw his way.