Bill Werner announced his retirement from dirt track at the '04 Springfield Mile on Memorial Day weekend. There was nothing left to win. As a tuner, he'd set every record in dirt track racing, none of which will likely ever be broken. He'd won 13 AMA Grand National Championships with a variety of legends, including Gary Scott, Jay Springsteen and Scott Parker. He'd won 150 races of every discipline: mile, half-mile, TT, and short track.
Retirement didn't sit well with Werner, who'd been on the go most of his life. It was only a matter of time before he got back into the game. The return took only a few years, and picked up speed in 2008, when he was in charge of both dirt track and roadrace teams. The common factor in both disciplines was the Kawasaki Ninja 650R, best known as an economical commuter bike. And there was success on both counts. Brock Schwarzenbacher won the final two races of the '08 Pro Expert Twins Championship. The roadracing experience had come earlier when he'd helped Springsteen and legend Gary Nixon with the Pair-A-Nines Moto-ST team in 2006. In 2007 Springsteen teamed with Jimmy Filice to win the Moto-ST Sport Twins class title.
Yet for all that success, Werner knew he wanted back into the big leagues. He realized that there was only so much he could do on his own and with the motorcycle; the difference between success and failure was "the guy sitting on the seat." Enter Bryan Smith. A former AMA GNC Twins runner-up, Smith lost his ride as a Harley-Davidson factory rider at the end of 2009. Werner scooped him up to campaign the Monster Energy Kawasaki Ninja 650R in the 2010 AMA GNC Twins series...and that's where the story gets interesting.
Riding the Bill Werner-tuned parallel-twin, Smith won the 2010 Springfield Mile by .048 seconds over seven-time Grand National legend Chris Carr, with Jared Mees a similar gap back in third. The top six riders hit the stripe separated by .265 seconds in a vivid display of why GNC mile racing is the most exciting form of two-wheel competition. At the Indy Mile a week earlier, Smith had beaten Carr to win his first mile of the season by .140 seconds, with third placed Kenny Coolbeth an interminable 2.398 seconds back on the lone factory H-D XR750.
The Harley Stranglehold
The Harley-Davidson XR750 has been the workhorse of dirt track, winning so many races and championships that very few have ever considered challenging its supremacy. Werner knew that. Until 2010, his 150 victories were won with XR750s. And, other than the brief but brilliant run of Ricky Graham and Bubba Shobert on Hondas in the mid-'80s, and Graham's final title in 1993, no manufacturer, Japanese or otherwise, had been a serious threat since Kenny Roberts won the second of his Grand National titles in '74.
Mile dirt track racing is...
Mile dirt track racing is one of the most exciting and closely fought motor racing around, with a lead pack of riders often separated by a gnat's eyelash. Here Smith leads the freight train out of a turn at Springfield.
Buying an XR750 isn't as easy as walking into your local Harley dealership. And if it were, it would cost a fortune. Which is why when Werner was tasked with finding a cheap but competitive alternative by the AMA, he looked at the Kawasaki Ninja 650 parallel-twin. "Two complete engines are just slightly more than the cost of one Harley crankshaft," Werner points out. "If you buy it right on eBay, and I've never paid more than $700 for an engine on eBay, $1500 to $2000 worth of engine mods. So you've got maybe a $3000 engine. A Harley crankshaft is $5000; if you buy the pieces, it's $5000."
Werner is almost evangelical when he speaks of his desire to make dirt track racing more affordable. He wants to see increased participation, instead of "the same 20 good old boys that dominate the sport because they've got all the connections, parts, money and whatnot. [We need to] grow the sport and this is how I think I can help do that. It's a great sport and it just needs more visibility. Everybody who watches goes, 'This is really cool. Why isn't this on TV every week?'" With no small amount of understatement, he adds, "I believe the potential of these two victories will alter the sport. And that's been my goal from the beginning."