Harley-Davidson and Indian have a rivalry that stretches back more than 100 years, and nowhere is that rivalry more intense than in MotoAmerica’s King Of The Baggers series. We took a ride up to the Monterey Peninsula to gather insight behind the scenes at Laguna Seca.
“I think this is the hottest racing going on in America, if not the world,” Tyler O’Hara, King Of The Baggers’s reigning champ, told us. “It’s a spirited rivalry. We’re selling 40% more tickets at every race we go to.”
O’Hara races an Indian Challenger in the series, but Harley-Davidson is on the same page. “I think it’s the most exciting race series out there right now,” said H-D’s president and CEO, Jochen Zeitz. Bill Davidson, a progeny of the MoCo’s founders, described the series as “amazing.”
“Yeah,” weighed in Gary Gray, Indian’s vice president of racing, service, and technology, “having Harley-Davidson – the biggest brand in V-Twins – to race against lifts all ships. Their marketing muscle and the amount of money that they can spend to help promote the sport is vastly bigger than anyone’s. So, for them to be in and promoting the series and racing against them, it’s an honor that’s gone on for 100 years between the two brands.”
Rivalries are a big part of what makes sports interesting, so it’s entertaining to watch two American companies battling on the racetrack.
“It’s cool when you race superbike and everyone is buddies on the grid,” said Kyle Wyman, H-D’s lead rider on the Screamin’ Eagle race team. “But it’s also cool when you show up and there’s walls between our trucks and we don’t talk to each other. There’s that fire burning, so it’s super fun.”
Chuck Aksland, who is part of MotoAmerica’s management team and has worked in every level of motorcycle racing, including a 20‑-year stint working with three-time world champ Kenny Roberts, says he’s never seen a rivalry like Harley versus Indian. “It’s cutthroat,” he told us. “A lot of emotion.”
NASCAR For Motorcycles
Going racing at a factory level can be ridiculously expensive. If you added all the racers, mechanics, and support staff from Harley and Indian, you’d sum up to about 30 personnel that need to be paid, fed, and transported to every race. So why spend all that money?
“One of the reasons it’s so popular,” related Jason Kehl, H-D’s manager of engineering and race team principal, “is because of how closely tied it is to the most popular motorcycle in the U.S., which is now the Road Glide – it surpassed the Street Glide. (They’ve) been the bestselling motorcycles in the country for a long time, and that means there’s a lot of them to come out to the races. Not only that, we continue to sell them when people see them out on the racetrack.”
“To be racing in KOTB,” Indian’s Gray noted, “is first and foremost because we’re a racing brand. Secondly, it’s because this is our bestselling product. We sell a lot of baggers – it’s our most profitable bike. It’s like the F-150 to Ford – it’s where we make our money. It’s really cool, very NASCAR-like, to take something that people ride to the track and ride to work and run across country and go racing with them.”
“If you look at limited-brand series like NASCAR,” Kehl observed, “which is another very American thing, people become fans of their teams.”
For Indian, which lives in the shadow of the MoCo, the marketing benefits of racing on equal footing with the 800-lb gorilla can be huge. Case in point: A dude in a Harley hoodie showed up at Indian’s autograph table and had O’Hara sign his name over a bar-and-shield tattoo, speaking volumes to how consumers can be pulled to a brand.
“That was amazing,” O’Hara laughed. “I don’t know if he lost a bet, but he just kept saying, ‘Hey, respect – respect, man.’”
The Road Glide And The Challenger
It’s no fun to watch a racing series that is dominated by a single brand, so MotoAmerica has designed a rules package that attempts to provide parity. Stock frames are mandated, but swingarms and suspension are open. Minimum weight is 620 lb. The powertrains must use stock crankcases and transmission ratios.
There’s a divergent set of engine rules to address the balance of power between the (mostly) air-cooled Harley and the liquid-cooled Challenger. The Indian motor’s more modern design with overhead cams is limited in size to 112ci (1,834cc), with the stock stroke and a bigger bore, but it can rev higher for the potential of more horsepower. The MoCo is able to run 131ci (2,147cc), the extra 19ci giving it a significant torque advantage.
When Indian agreed to the 2022 rules package, it didn’t expect to see H-D introduce liquid-cooled cylinder heads on the Road Glides midway through the season, ostensibly the same system used on the Road Glide Limited’s Twin-Cooled motor. Though not a fully liquid-cooled engine, there’s no denying the benefits of lower cylinder-head temperatures, irking Indian.
Last year, there were no rev limits in King Of The Baggers – and there were several motors that expired before the end of the races. MotoAmerica decided to use electronically governed rev limits to ensure decent reliability. Aksland said MotoAmerica received data from the teams after the last race of 2022 to determine the new rev limits for the bikes.
For 2023, Harley’s M-8 is capped at 7,000 rpm, while the Indian is able to charge up to a 7,700-rpm limit, 300 revs less than previously used.
“We put these things in place to slow them down a bit and make them more durable,” Aksland continued. “Then at the first race at Daytona, they were like four seconds faster, 10 mph more.”
Neither team wants to reveal how much power their mills actually produce, but those in the know believe the Harley puts more than 155 hp to the ground, while the Challenger has perhaps 10 ponies extra but less torque. At Laguna, O’Hara had a slight edge in speed, posting 142.3 mph on the front straight to Wyman’s 140.6.
King Of The Baggers Teams
The racers get most of the glory, but it’s the people supporting the racers that make it all possible, everyone from truck drivers to PR agents to do-it-all go-fers. These people have undeniable dedication and passion for racing that rivals the high-profile racers behind the bars.
The Harley-Davidson team has the best story among the brands. Virtually all members of the squad have day jobs at the MoCo, sidelining at the racetrack on weekends because of the passion they have to succeed against their rivals.
Each bike is assigned a crew chief, a chief mechanic, and a secondary mechanic. Add in team principal Kehl, a truck driver, and two other support staff, and we’re up to 10 personnel. Plus racer brothers Kyle and Travis Wyman and a PR flack.
Kyle’s crew chief is Bjorn Christensen, who has spent 20 years at Harley, lately as manager of vehicle dynamics. Brit Dave Hopkinson, an experienced race mechanic, works with Kyle as the only non-Harley employee on the team. Wes Orloff, a staff calibration engineer for H-D with 24 years of service, is Travis Wyman’s crew chief. Both Christensen and Orloff describe their contributions to the race team as highlights of their careers.
“How far the team has come and how passionate they are about their jobs and the work they do is the most prideful experience to me,” related H-D’s Kehl about the crew he helped assemble. “It was an opportunity to really stretch ourselves from a development standpoint and learn more about the motorcycle.”
Conversely, the Indian team is staffed by a group mostly sourced from its longtime partner S&S Cycle, plus a few experienced mechanics who are subcontracted. Al Ludington, a multitime championship winner with legendary racer Miguel Duhamel, was brought in to be crew chief for champ O’Hara in 2023, while teammate Jeremy McWilliams is chiefed by UK-based mechanic Martin Szlagowski, a longtime ally. Each rider is also backed by a fly-in mechanic and one S&S tech, plus an electronics expert from S&S for each.
“We’ve got about 16 people here working on it,” said Jeff Bailey, chief engineer for S&S Cycle. “Plus the riders, plus some of the other folks that come and go, and there’s more people back in the shop.”
The two factory teams are joined on the grid by several satellite teams and a smattering of privateers. H-D has the formidable Vance & Hines team running Road Glides for riders Hayden Gillim and James “Hogspoli” Rispoli. Under the Saddlemen banner are riders Cory West and wife Patricia Fernandez-West, along with new teammates Frankie Garcia and Jake Lewis.
Indian’s primary satellite squad is the Roland Sands Design team with riders Kyle Ohnsorg and Bobby Fong. Ohnsorg has an interesting backstory – he works by day as an engineer and test rider for Indian.
King Of The Baggers Races
There’s not a lot of sitting around in the pits. Various crew members diligently hustle through an endless list of tasks to make sure everything is in place for flawless performances from their riders.
Friday is the easiest day for the teams, with one qualifying session for the KOTB class and one for the Super Hooligan series. Saturday is jam-packed, beginning with another qualifying round and then almost immediately to the three-lap Challenge race for the top six qualifiers.
Kyle Wyman started the Challenge race on pole (1:28.6) and pulled a 1.5-second gap on Gillim to earn the $5,000 dash for cash, with O’Hara finishing nearly 3 seconds behind in 3rd.
While spectators chowed on lunch, racebikes were wheeled back into the pits for setup changes to try to improve their performance around the track. Tick tock, and it’s time for the first Super Hooligan feature race.
McWilliams made Indian proud when he edged the KTM Duke of Andy DiBrino by just 0.017 second and set the quickest lap of the race with a 1:30.7. Cory West posted a competitive 1:31.3 on his Saddlemen Pan America and rounded out the podium.
The King Of The Baggers were unleashed two hours later, and the eight-lap race had a surprise ending. O’Hara led most of the event until he ran wide in Turn 2, allowing Wyman to sneak ahead. It looked like clear sailing for Wyman to the checkered flag, but O’Hara made a daring last-lap move up the inside of Wyman entering Laguna’s famous Corkscrew corner. Then, while entering the final corner of the race, both riders low-sided simultaneously and crashed!
It was like Christmas for Vance & Hines riders Gillim and Rispoli, who nabbed the top spots on the podium. Bobby Fong earned 3rd place for the Sacramento Mile/Roland Sands Design Indian team. The two felled racers were able to pick up their bikes and finish the race, with O’Hara coming in 4th and Wyman finishing 9th.
“I’m proud of my ride, and I’ve got no regrets,” O’Hara told us after the race. “To pick it up and get 4th, I think it’s pretty incredible. A little bittersweet, but I wasn’t going to ride around in 2nd place.”
As for Wyman, he was dejected by how the race ended. “I was just hanging in 2nd, trying to play a smart race. I was just making sure I was there in case he made a mistake, and he did. Then, coming into the last corner, he crashed, and I was on my head before I knew it.”
The teams would have another shot at earning wins the next day, so they set forth spinning wrenches to fine-tune setups. Engines in the Wymans’ bikes were swapped, as was O’Hara’s. The reigning champ is apparently much harder on motors than his Indian teammate, especially with downshifts.
Both factory teams would have moments to shine on Sunday. In the Super Hooligan race, Jeremy McWilliams delighted Indian with another victory, making it 2-for-2 on the weekend. He was followed home by teammate O’Hara and the pesky KTM of DiBrino.
Things got gloomier for Indian in the King Of The Baggers race. Kyle Wyman took the lead from the start, with O’Hara giving chase before he was passed by the Road Glides of Rispoli and Gillim. In the end, Wyman took the win and was followed by Rispoli and Gillim, rounding out the all-Harley podium. O’Hara had to settle for 4th place, followed by McWilliams, Travis Wyman, and Ohnsorg.
“That was perfect,” Wyman told us after the race. “I don’t think I missed an apex. To be the guy that can get it done today, like we did, that’s phenomenal, especially after having that big mistake yesterday.”
“Well,” O’Hara responded, “me and Jeremy are having to override the bikes. We’re kind of on our back foot right now, not having so many Indians on the grid and then just down on displacement. There’s no replacement for displacement.”
Kyle Wyman’s performances allowed him to hold onto his championship lead with 148 points. Rispoli and Gillim were next in line, while 2022 champ O’Hara was a distant 4th in the standings.
The series returned to action a few weeks later at Brainerd International Raceway in Minnesota. O’Hara won the Challenge race while Kyle Wyman logged a lowly 5th. Race 1 saw Gillim bag another win, followed by Fong, Rispoli, and Wyman. O’Hara DNF’d.
In Race 2, Fong romped away to a win over Gillim, followed by O’Hara, Rispoli, and Wyman. Gillim emerged with the points lead but just 3 points ahead of Wyman and Rispoli, who are tied. Bobby Fong is the highest-placed Indian rider in 4th, 7 points ahead of the slumping O’Hara who has yet to win a feature race this season.
“I feel like there needs to be a little more give and take as far as development,” O’Hara weighed in. “And I’m pushing that towards MotoAmerica. I’m not going to give up. These guys aren’t going to give up. I’ve got a lot of dog in me, and I’m hungry, man.”
The KOTB series has been a shot in the arm for MotoAmerica events, attracting a new clientele to the roadracing community.
“Rather than just being a sportbike series,” said MotoAmerica’s Aksland, “we’re creating a motorcycling party for all genres and fans and motorcyclists to come. We benefit from how they are promoting their involvement in the series, and it’s bringing in a different crowd. It’s fun to have all these different types of motorcycles here.”
“There’s a lot of bagger buyers here,” Indian’s Gary Gray noted, “so I think it’s helped MotoAmerica and what they are trying to do and build up racing again. We’re all working together trying to get people inspired about motorcycles.”
“I would encourage anyone to come see it in person,” Kehl underlined. “You can watch all the cool marketing videos and social media posts, but seeing it in person is a whole other thing. And then the sound of it. I mean, the big one-liter pistons, the sound they create ripping down the straightaways on these racetracks is something else. It’s truly unique.”