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."
Convincing existing teams - some of which have hundreds of thousands of dollars tied up in XR750 inventory - to switch is a tall order. But for riders moving up to Grand National Championship Twins racing, the Kawasaki is a viable alternative.
"I would certainly look at the Kawasaki route, but I would put an asterisk next to the $12,000 price tag. It's BS," seven-time GNC champion Chris Carr said. "It's a good sales pitch, but it's not reality."
"The numbers that have been proposed are that it costs $6000 to $12,000," continued Carr. "I don't know many race teams at the top of the sport who are going to buy a motor off of eBay, for one, as a basis to start a program. Is Bill Werner going to tell you everything he's done? He's always going to hold something back. So we're going to have to develop our own stuff. They'll tell you how to do basically a stock one. Bill Werner is not going to tell everything he does to his motorcycle and give that to the world. It's just not in his makeup," nor anyone else's, Carr says. "I guarantee you Bill Werner didn't spend $12,000 to win those races over the last four years." Very few people have Werner's knowledge, experience, expertise, or connections, all of which he's drawn on in improving the Ninja dirt tracker.
The different power and handling...
The different power and handling characteristics of the Kawasaki forced Smith to adapt. "I spent my whole career adapting to [the Harley]. Just about the time I figured that out, I had to get on something totally foreign to me"
Kawasaki knows they can't rely on teams buying wrecked bikes and motors as the heart of their programs, which is why they've agreed to sell complete engines, according to Werner, which Carr believes is a positive step.
"I don't want you to get the impression that I'm dumping all over this thing," he said. "I think it's great that the Kawasaki has been competitive and it's won a couple of races. That was the idea of narrowing the gap between the Harleys and the existing motorcycles out there and those guys are to be commended. They did a good job with the rules package the way it was. It was something that needed to be done in order to help identify some competitive brands. And the Kawasaki has proven to be one of them, at least on given days. I think it's great for flat track, I really do. The key will be are there any more out there?"
According to Werner, there will be five or six more Kawasakis next year, including two being built by longtime tuner Skip Eaken, Bubba Shobert's former tuner. There are dealers in Pennsylvania and Texas going to Kawasaki, as well as one in Canada, "so it's made its mark because it's an inexpensive alternative for some guys who just say, 'Well I can't beat Kenny Coolbeth anyway, but I want to be able to get fifth or sixth, so I have a bike just as good or maybe better than him I can get my fifth or sixth, and at a third the price.' Some guys are realistic about their abilities. They just want to go racing and they're thrilled with fifth or sixth or whatever, and they can go to the next race and not invest a fortune doing it."
Still Some Development Needed
Although the Kawasaki is still...
Although the Kawasaki is still having problems getting hooked up in the middle of the turn, there obviously aren't many issues coming off the turns, as demonstrated by Smith's lead during a heat race at Springfield.
The area that needs the most improvement on the Kawasaki is mid-corner grip. From his vantage point behind Smith, Carr could see that "in a straight line [the Kawasaki] accelerates better. We're running all over it through the middle of the corner and he gets the thing off the corner OK. But once he picks it up onto the fat part of the tire, where it's more apt to get really good traction, it accelerates like a son of a bitch." Obviously, mid-corner is a struggle. But that might be an engine problem as much as a chassis problem, Werner admits, since he hasn't sorted out the fuel injection.
"I've been learning on the fly, and believe me, I'm of the age where computers were not taught in school," Werner laughs, when asked how he learned programmable fuel injection. "And I still have a lot to learn. I've taken some class work from Dynojet over the phone, so to speak, and muddle my way through it. But it's still an area that I need more expertise on, because it's one of the keys to operating a fuel injected bike successfully. Once you understand the systems better and learn how to manipulate the controllers for the ECU, it could be a decided advantage because you can do things fast. Between practice and the heat race, you just open up your laptop, instead of changing jets in your carburetors with needles and pilots and mains.
"Fitting a power curve to a given track is still the biggest challenge in dirt track racing," continued Werner. "That's where Harley-Davidson just has reams and reams of history. The guys that are on them have been at the same track on the same bike many, many times and there's banks of data that you can reflect on, and that's always an advantage."
Having ridden XR750s for years, Smith pointed out that getting a Harley to a baseline "doesn't take long. You bolt it together and it's pretty close." Whereas with the Kawasaki, "We've just got so many variables we've been working on all year. The main thing we're working on is getting power to the ground. The biggest thing for me is everything happens real slow on the Harley, the power comes on real slow, you can ride it more aggressively. With the Kawasaki, the power comes on quicker and the handling is a lot quicker. You have to ride it differently. With the Kawasaki you need more finesse, you have to be more precise in doing your job. The Harley engine's a big tractor, which is the obvious advantage it has on slicker tracks, it just goes forward. The Kawasaki, horsepower-wise it's equal, but it just comes on quicker - you have to be easier on the throttle. So it's that fine line we've been messing with all year. On smaller tracks you have work to do getting the power to the ground. It doesn't matter how much power you have, you have to get it hooked up. The mapping, the cam timing, with a brand new bike there's a million variables and during the season it's hard to test."
No discipline is more dependent on racing as development than dirt track. Rarely is any testing done, which means that everything has to be done at the track, which is constantly changing. The track could be watered at any time and, Werner said, "they don't tell you whether they are or they aren't. Or they just perceived the program's going along too quick or whatever...and then they'll water it before the main." Smith concurs. "It's really crazy in dirt track with them watering or not watering it and it gets slower and then dries up and gets faster. That was the case at Springfield," he said. "They watered the track before the heat race and it lost a bunch of time. We made a gear change for the final, went one way with gearing thinking it would be slower. The last third of the straight we were on the rev limiter. The very first lap, I wished I had one more gear." Werner remembers that, "Luckily it was good enough coming off the corner that the only time they could pass him was going into the corner and he could get them off the corner and get back in front of them. But it got to be kind of hairy, because they were all over him at the end of the straight. So it created some issues, but he rode it well enough and was strategic enough that we still managed to pull off the win."
Bryan Smith's win at the Indy...
Bryan Smith's win at the Indy Mile during the Indy MotoGP weekend was the improbable culmination of several years' hard work by Werner (on right) to turn a commuter/sportbike into a dirt track winner.
"I'm the outcast, the power comes on in different places and I can ride it differently," Smith said. "The advantage at the Indy Mile is I could do things nobody else could do because of how the power comes on. The thing's a handful, not better, but different, and it opens up options. It's not the same old rat race on the same groove. You make your own lines."
Simply being different won't be enough to convince the teams who have major dollars tied up in Harley XR750s to jump ship. "I think we're all looking for an affordable replacement to the XR750," sais Carr, "but it's just not there yet. Obviously Werner and his guys have done a good job, but they haven't proven it's a good choice week in and week out. I think that's what it's going to take for someone like myself or some of these other team owners out there who have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in XR750s over the years. Werner did because he could. And there's a difference between those who can do it and can't afford to do it. And Werner set it up to where he could afford to go another route and play for a while and he's done a good job with it."
Seven-time AMA GNC legend...
Seven-time AMA GNC legend Chris Carr (4) has seen the Kawasaki's potential. "We're running all over it through the middle of the corner and he gets the thing off the corner OK. But once he picks it up onto the fat part of the tire...it accelerates like a son of a bitch."
In the end, Carr believes, "A lot of this was done by Werner because he wanted to prove a point. He also wanted to turn his nose up at his former employer and he won't be shy to admit that either."
Until then, the Kawasaki will only get faster. Werner will figure out the fuel injection and traction issues. Smith will continue to adapt to the bike. Others will join in and increase the knowledge pool. And dirt track racing will be better for it. Says Carr, "People do astounding things when they're motivated and he was certainly motivated to do something."