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Harley-Davidson’s Announced Restructuring of Racing Effort Raises Questions

Harley-Davidson’s announcement that it is re-doubling its efforts to develop its ten-year old VR1000 racing platform is curious for a number of reasons. Harley says it will take much of the development in-house, and take advantage of the experience and knowledge of its engineers, as well as those employed by its sister company, Buell. Additionally, Harley will strengthen its ties with Ford Racing and Cosworth Racing — shifting the actual building of the VR1000 superbike motor to Cosworth by the end of the year.

Harley is calling the 2001 Superbike season a “re-building” year. Re-building from what? If my memory serves me correctly, Harley hasn’t had much more success than it had with Miguel Duhamel at the controls early in the VR1000 project. If anything, development (versus the competition, at least) seems to have gone backwards for several years. With two talented riders last year, for instance, Harley was lucky to have one of them make it into the top ten on any given race weekend.

By all accounts, Harley is a large, healthy and profitable corporation, with tremendous resources (both financial and engineering). Why has it allowed the VR1000 superbike program to languish this long? Is there a sentiment within the company that sportbikes aren’t really “Harleys”? If other relatively small companies, like Aprilia and Ducati, keep pace with the latest technological developments and race with cutting-edge designs, why doesn’t Harley?

From my perspective, Harley’s racing effort has hurt Harley’s reputation, not helped it. If Harley’s superbike team at least seemed to have a direction, and appeared to be trying to win (rather than just going through the motions), I think we would all be a lot more sympathetic. Instead, we see a large, wealthy corporation spend years making what seems to be a half-baked effort at racing. I just don’t get it.

Finally, why is Harley bothering with development of a ten-year old design? Why hasn’t it resitned and built a new sportbike by now . . . a bike people can actually afford to buy and ride on the street? In my opinion, that would enhance Harley’s reputation.