Chasing Harley: 1980's Flat Track Endeavors
The 1970’s + 80’s were some funky years in the flat track world, motorcycles were quickly evolving and manufacturer’s were fighting to claim the title of the best performing motorcycle and team. During the late 70’s through the 80’s we saw all sorts of oddball bikes popping up and making their attempts to claim the title. In this story we’re going to cover one specific model that made an appearance in the flat track world for a short stint, that many people may have forgot about our weren’t aware it was even a thing. Before we dive into the trials and tribulations of this specific manufactures push into flat track, we need to give a bit of back story and lay out the foundations of how this came to be.
Through the 1970’s Harley-Davidson was the big name in flat track racing, dominating with their aluminum XR-750. This had other manufactures sweating trying to design something that would outperform and out ride the XR. Yamaha gave Harley a fair shake in the mid 70’s with the legendary TZ750, a four cylinder two-stroke monster piloted by the legendary Kenny Roberts. Within the same year the TZ took Harley by storm at the Indianapolis mile, the AMA changed the rules to twin cylinders only which banned the TZ from racing again and sent Yamaha back to the drawing board. The new two cylinder rule gave Harley a big advantage throughout the rest of the 70’s due to other manufactures not having any bigger displacement twin cylinder bikes. In 1975 Yamaha developed the OW72 which was based off the XS650 platform, the following year Roberts won four Grand National races beating Harley, but it wasn’t enough to clinch the title.
As we enter into the 1980’s Honda and Yamaha began testing many different models to try and achieve a glimmer of hope to compete with Harley’s wicked XR-750. Honda hit the ground running starting with the CX500 which quickly failed due to overheating. It turns out trying to get 750cc out of a 500cc engine and keeping it properly cooled was tricky. With the fail of the CX500, Honda quickly looked for the next model to try and the NS750 was that model. The NS seemed to work and provided a-lot learning lessons for Honda as they developed a race specific model that would end up being the RS750. (We will do a deeper dive on Honda in a upcoming story)
With Honda quickly developing a race ready model, it was time for Yamaha to step up to the plate and show a glimmer of hope. There wasn’t much more Yamaha could do with the OW72 to achieve more power so it was on to testing a new model. In 1981 Yamaha put together a team of wildly talented individuals ranging from tuners to racers. The mission was to develop a flat track machine that could compete with Harley on the AMA Grand National circuit. With the team selected and Yamaha giving factory backing, it was time to unveil the model… The Virago XV750… you read that correct. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Yamaha Virago line, this was their first foray into the V-twin cruiser market, these bikes were built to compete with the Sportster and many of Harley’s other great cruisers. So, why does this seem like an odd model to base this new flat track program off of? Well, a few reasons; It’s a shaft driven model built for cruising, and it was Yamaha’s first attempt at a V-twin engine. But maybe starting with a fresh platform allows for more growth and development as R&D begins.
The factory backed team was lead by the racing legends Kenny Roberts & Mert Lawwill with Bud Askland, C.R. Axtell, Dick Mann, and Mike Libby playing a big supporting role in the development of this bike. Yamaha set out with the intentions of building competitive bike and offering it to privateers at a reasonable price. Racing as a privateer and not receiving the factory backing was tough, and at the time it cost $5000 for a privateer to buy a XR750 motor from Harley. As you can imagine $5000 in the 80s for a motor alone was a lot, but to be competitive in the AMA Grand National competition it was necessary. I like to believe Yamaha set out with the best intentions to help the every day racer compete on a national level at a fair price, and from a manufacture what more could you ask for. On paper the Yamaha Team seemed to be set up for success, but they are up against Harley’s monster.
During the early development of XV750 flat tracker, Kenny Roberts was focused on winning the FIM 500cc Motorcycle Grand Prix Championship which meant most of the heavy lifting was left to Mert Lawwill. Mert and Dick started designing the cradle frame and suspension while C.R. Axtell worked on getting the most power out of the XV. We mentioned the bike was originally shaft driven and Yamaha had a clever work around for this. The XV750 was Japan’s version of the U.S. XV920, in the U.S. these models were only offered in shaft driven, but in Japan the 750 was offered in either shaft or chain driven. With the 750 stock crank being over built to handle the power of the U.S. 920 they simply imported 75 motors from Japan and the bottom end was ready to go with a chain. The next step for the motor was narrowing it up, the ignition and alternator were moved and a narrower aluminum left side cover was made. Another issue arose during development and that was the rear cylinder exited at the back of the head which mean the rear pipe needed to be bent around the gearbox and swingarm in result blocked airflow and caused the rear cylinder to run much hotter than the front. Their fix for this was to run a different cam in the rear cylinder versus the front cylinder. The horsepower of the XV was rumored to be in the ball park of Harley’s XR750 which was extremely promising. Mert had high hopes in this motor and believed it could go 100 race miles between rebuilds which is extremely impressive.
With the bike assembled and testing beginning, a new problem arose. Mike Kidd, flat track veteran and rookie Jimmy Filice were brought on as the factory rider for the team. Mike noted when cornering the bike felt like it wanted to stand up, opposite of his cornering. The XV engine ran backwards compared to other V-twins, meaning the crank spun the opposite direction of the wheels. Mert and the crew didn’t believe this would affect handling but it was clear this could be a potential issue. With the recent issue and the season starting in 81, Mike piloted one of Mert’s Harley’s while the XV was still being refined. This put Mike in an interesting position, being a paid factory Yamaha rider but piloting a Harley. As the year progressed, Mike found himself in the running for the championship on the Harley and felt that continuing to develop the XV would knock him out of the running for the championship. The chase for the No.1 plate may have become a downfall to the XV project.
In 1982, Mike signed with Honda which meant Jimmy Filice was the sole rider of the XV750 project. Jimmy did the majority of the development on the factory Yamaha XV750 and came close to getting the bike in the main event a few national races. His closest attempt was in the Last-Chance qualifier at the Sacramento Mile, leading on the last lap Jimmy and Jay Beach got tangled up which caused Jimmy to drop back to 4th place. As the year went on the team was able to find more power, but resulted in engine failure multiple times under strain. In July Jimmy crashed at the Indy Mile and broke his wrist which resulted in him missing the rest of the season and the Yamaha XV program being put on hold. Yamaha offered a few riders spots on the team to pilot the bike but they had declined the opportunity. The industry was entering rough territory and budget cuts were introduced which required Yamaha to pull the plug on the XV750 Flat Track project.
Although it was a short lived project, we like to think Yamaha may have been on the path to a successful flat track bike. At the end of the day they designed one awesome looking cradle framed bike that will forever be embedded in flat track history. Everyone may not know the story of the XV flat tracker but we’re here shine some light on an interesting era in the flat track world!