Hayden Gillim surprised roadrace fans in 2023 by scoring the King Of The Baggers championship on his privateer Vance & Hines Road Glide. He not only beat the factory Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle teams, he also earned MotoAmerica’s Stock 1000 title riding a Suzuki GSX-R1000 sportbike.
The February issue of American Rider includes a full test of the V&H Road Glide penned by noted motojournalist Alan Cathcart, who rode the bagger at NCM Motorsports Park in Kentucky. While there, he sat down with Gillim for the insightful interview seen below.
The 2024 KOTB season kicks off at Daytona on March 7-9. Held in conjunction with MotoAmerica’s roadracing events, the KOTB series expands to 16 races over eight double-header weekends this year.
Back in 1985, Freddie Spencer became the first and only rider to win both the 250GP and 500GP world championships in the same year. It was a superhuman achievement, given not only the intense competition he had to confront in each of the two radically different categories and the physical demands of doing two grueling full-length GP races on the same day, but also the different riding styles he had to employ to be successful in each class.
In 2023, Hayden Gillim achieved a comparable duo of title victories. He became the 2023 King Of The Baggers champion on the Vance & Hines Racing Harley-Davidson Road Glide, as well as MotoAmerica’s Stock 1000 champion on a Suzuki GSX-R1000. To swap over several times a weekend between the hyper-torquey American V-Twin and the high-revving Gixxer sportbike displays versatility and courage of the highest order.
Hayden Gillim, 29, grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky. If that place sounds familiar, it is the hometown of the Hayden family of racers, including the late MotoGP World champion Nicky and brothers Tommy and Roger Lee Hayden, after whom his mom, Kerri Gillim (née Hayden), named her son. Like his cousins, Hayden Gillim began racing flat-track at an early age and had barely turned 6 when he was gifted his first motorcycle.
The chance to talk with Hayden Gillim after riding his title-winning Harley bagger revealed a super-versatile racer aiming to repeat as KOTB champion.
AR: Hayden, I understand you come from a full-on motorcycling family?
HG: Yes, you might say it’s in the blood! My mom raced flat-track and motocross when she was a little kid, and my grandpa raced, my uncle Earl Hayden raced, and obviously Nicky, Tommy, Roger Lee Hayden – the whole Hayden clan who are my namesake.
AR: Yes, but they didn’t win two AMA or MotoAmerica championships in the same year on two such radically different motorcycles! When did the KOTB deal come together?
HG: I talked to Terry (Vance, team owner) and Craig (Koontz, team manager) at the end of 2022. I raced with them in 2020 and 2021 when all this bagger racing was just starting. Back then, it was just a modified streetbike, so not so great, but I still finished third in the 2021 series on it. I decided to not do it in 2022 because the way they were talking, we weren’t going to test much. The way the class was progressing so fast, I was concerned I’d get left behind.
But then seeing the steps they made in 2022, I was bummed that I wasn’t a part of it. Being able to get on board again for 2023 was really satisfying, even if we only finalized the deal in January, just six weeks before the Daytona season-opener. We did no testing, so my first time on the bike was at Daytona when I lined up for Race 1. James (Rispoli, V&H teammate) won, and I finished second! It all came on from there.
AR: There was no race for the Suzuki at Daytona, but then at Atlanta when you got started on it, you were off the pace in Stock 1000 with a DNF and a sixth.
HG: The Stock 1000 didn’t start off great, but then at the next round at Barber, I won both races! That was the start of what turned out to be a really good year on that bike – I won six out of the 10 races. Going back and forth from class to class was tough, but it was very rewarding, though pretty trying at times. I was nervous I couldn’t give each team enough of myself, but that’s one thing that people who know me know, I give 100% every time. I’ll give everything of myself, no matter what bike it is, team it is, who it is. I just want to race, and I want to make sure I do the best I can for whoever’s putting me out there.
AR: Okay, but surely it affected your performance swapping back and forth all through each race weekend between such radically different motorcycles. You won championships with both, but was it tough adjusting to that?
HG: Yes, the beginning of the season was really hard, especially at Atlanta, which was the first time I rode the two bikes the same weekend and had the worst results of the year on both! It took me halfway through the season to be able to get off the Stock 1000 and onto the Bagger and not take time to get up to speed. At the beginning of the season, it took me three or four or even five laps to really get going – and these were only five or six-lap races!
But we had a little bit of luck this year. I know some of the things the other guys can do on the bikes, and a lot of that is just seat time. Where everyone else was able to test the bike and put it through its paces, I was having to learn on race weekends and wasn’t able to put 100% of my effort into it. And so I feel like coming away with the championship was a pretty solid end of the season. I expected to be there, but I didn’t expect to come away with the title.
I got away from racing a couple years ago, but then when I got back into it full-time last year, my wife, Summer, and I talked about it a lot. The biggest thing for us was just to make sure I finished every race. In the past, if I didn’t have the pace, I’d push myself past my limits and crash trying to win. But the last two years I’ve finally realized that in a full season, it definitely pays to not have the DNFs, so I made a point to myself and to my family that if I couldn’t win, if I didn’t have the pace, just to settle for what I could get, and it would all work out in the end. I think I was inside the top five in every race of the King Of The Baggers series.
I admit it was difficult at a few of the rounds having to swap suits, swap bikes, everything – and jumping on something like the bagger that was completely different from racing the Stock 1000. This was one of the best, if not the best, year of my life as far as racing goes.
AR: Stock 1000 was pretty tense as well, no?
HG: The beginning of the season was very rough for me, I had a DNF and a seventh-place finish the first two races of the season. All the other front-runners were first, second, third, and so I had to do some clawing back. Luckily I was able to win six of the 10, including the last race of the season in the rain in (New) Jersey. But that’s definitely not how I wanted to do it – I wanted to win races, not to have to come back from a 40-point deficit after the first round.
AR: Give me some tips about how to ride your Harley bagger. First of all, how on earth do you make the clutch start? The seat is so high that, even though you’re 6-foot tall, you barely can touch the ground with your toes.
HG: There’s a lot of hopping from side to side to get the bike going. I’ll usually start it on the button, hop on it, and then just shift my butt over to the right side so I can touch my right foot down, which lets me just reach the shifter with my left toes. It’s a unique bike that’s very tall, so I don’t know how some of the shorter guys are able to ride them and keep them upright. It definitely helps being a little bit bigger to at least get the bike going. But once you do get going, they’re really good bikes, even if the way you sit on them – the ergonomics of the bike, the way they work – is a lot different than any sportbike.
AR: Did you have to change the riding position around a lot to get it to suit you?
HG: No, because we run motocross handlebars, and I usually run my handlebars out pretty far anyway, so these actually felt pretty good. The biggest thing was that our bike is a little bit more upright than a sportbike, so I feel like I’m riding a little bit more of a V-Twin motocross bike most of the time!
AR: Especially when you get air with the front wheel waving in the air!
HG: That comes because there’s so much weight in the back, and you feel a little disconnected from the front end. You know, it’s easier to lock up the front end than on a regular sportbike, so a lot of the braking on the bagger is done with the rear brake, just to get the bike settled and slowed down. But you can do a lot of trail braking with the rear brake. The front is so light that I’m not super comfortable with the front end of it, so everything for me goes through the back of the bike. To get the bike to turn, it’s through the back – everything is through the rear brake and the throttle, especially to finish corners and also to get the corners started in the first place.
I actually never ran a thumb brake until this year. They had them on the bike when I got on it at Daytona, and immediately I was in love with it. With the thumb brake, it’s easier to modulate the lever pressure. Also, on all the right-hand corners, it’s harder to get to the rear brake with your foot, and so it’s quite a bit easier to operate the rear brake with the thumb lever.
Also, on these (bikes), you don’t put in so much force with your hands when you’re braking, so it’s actually pretty easy to use. But I tried one with my Superbike and I didn’t like it – I preferred the rear foot brake. Plus, the way the bikes work themselves, you know there’s so much swingarm angle, so that when you get on the gas and the shocks fully extend and start fighting back against you, you have to pick the bikes up pretty quickly to get them off the side of the tire.
AR: Do you rev the motor right out in the gears?
HG: I rev the crap out of it! Here at NCM Motorsports Park where you’re driving on the side of the tire in a lot of the corners, I’ll actually use the rev limiter as a traction control in a few of the turns.
AR: From pictures I’ve seen of you and watching you on video, it seems you don’t use as much lean angle as Jeremy McWilliams or Tyler O’Hara on the Indians. Is that deliberate?
HG: I think a lot of it is, yes, because my comfort level with the front end isn’t 100% yet, and that’s what I’ve talked to the team about. I don’t have the seat time to know exactly where the bike will go if I push it harder right to this limit. That’s why it’s important to do more testing.
The more seat time I can get on it, the more lean angle and the faster turn speeds I’ll get. Like today, I felt like I was actually starting to get it really leaned over and cranked over to the side. I know a lot of the guys can get really leaned over really far, and right now I can get away with the way I’m riding it and do a little bit of point-and-shoot, not so much roll speed. But I know as everybody progresses and the bikes get better and everybody learns more, I’m going to have to start cranking it over further to get the lap times out of it.