Harley and Indian duke it out in hilarious King of the Baggers race
If racing is in your blood, you'll race any damn thing. In Norfolk, England, they hold an annual World Snail Racing Championship. In Nanaimo, British Columbia, they've been racing bathtubs since 1967. The Ranch at Little Hills allows staff and guests to race toilets. And at the hallowed tarmac of California's Laguna Seca last weekend, a brand new race managed to combine the speed of a snail, the handling of a bathtub and the riding position of a toilet into one grand spectacle: MotoAmerica's King of the Baggers.
Where I'm from, a bagger is a remnant of a soon-to-be-bygone era in which teenagers could get jobs at supermarkets, and shoppers had not yet been trained to act as their own cashiers. In the motorbike world, however, a bagger a cruising motorcycle with saddlebags. These machines are designed for light touring and doing loud laps of fashionable blocks. They're the kind of motorcycles that have large built-in stereos, so that everyone around you at the traffic lights can enjoy "Bad to the Bone," "Born to be wild," "Live to Ride, Ride to Live," and "Freewheel Burning" just as much as you are.
They're designed for comfort, for style, for presence and to proclaim carefree dominance over the great slabs of interstate highway that form the veins of America. They are not, in other words, designed to hunt apexes, shave tenths and go flat out for eight laps at a time. But that's just what they did, in a race event that captured imaginations and created a ton more smiles than your average superstock shootout.
And comical though the idea might be, serious cats came out to make it happen. A couple of weeks ago, we spoke to ex-national GP champion and famous custom builder Roland Sands, who was preparing an Indian Challenger for the race. Other teams were rumored to be spending as much as US$80 grand on their entries. And riders the caliber of ex-World Superbike pilot Ben Bostrom put their hands up to bang some elbow and drag some hard luggage in a race that had everyone's attention.
If this race was going to be a Harley vs Indian thing, well, Indian won. Tyler O'Hara brought his Indian Challenger over the line in first place, nearly two seconds proud of Hayden Gillim on the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Street Glide. It would've been quite a lot more, but O'Hara lost the front and ran off the track mid-race. He managed to keep it upright and rejoined the race with some catching up to do.
Third place, a distant 14 seconds back, was Frankie Garcia on the Roland Sands Indian – a bit of a miracle in itself after a brutal accident in Qualifying Practice the day before the race. Garcia was working on race starts when something went wrong, the Challenger's front wheel shot up and the bike flipped right backwards, slamming down on him so hard he was lucky to escape serious injury. Put on your best ouch face and check out the incident in this video.
It was a fairly sad 30-second wait – a full verse and chorus of "Bad to the Bone" – after Garcia before the rest of the Harleys started trickling in. And that's those that made the full 17.9-mile (28.8-km) distance at all. One failed to start, three more went bang during the race, including Bostrom's ride, and the race commentators had a full-time job working out what was engine smoke and what was dust kicked up by great big saddlebags dragging along the ground.
That's not to say things went faultlessly for the Indian riders either, as O'Hara elaborates: "Actually, at the start Frankie (Garcia) was telling me my bike was smoking and I was like, ‘You’re full of it. What, are you trying to psych me out?’ But he was serious. I looked at the bike and looked down and I saw a little brake fluid on the pipe. I said, ‘Okay, well we can figure this out. Don’t pull me out of here. We’re just going to figure it out.’ We didn’t have any rear brakes at all either, so that was a little interesting. We just did our homework and I was very fortunate that I was able to keep it on two wheels in the sand."
It's probably obvious that the water-cooled Indian, making a stock 122 horsepower, was always going to romp it in on a racetrack against an air-cooled Harley Street Glide that rolls out of the showroom rockin' less than 80 ponies until tens of thousands of dollars of performance parts are added. It's been a long time since Harley pretended to care about horsepower, but Gillim's bike had clearly been heavily breathed on by the Vance & Hines team, and it actually had the advantage on the straights. O'Hara had to get the job done in the corners, and he did so with a magnificent final pass just before plunging into Laguna Seca's storied corkscrew.
As a race, it wasn't as competitive as it could've been. As an event, though, it was magic. "It’s just so fun," said O'Hara, "being able to be part of this whole King of the Baggers. I haven’t seen people that excited about motorcycle racing in a long time. People were jumping up and down and hooting and hollering. It was just fun to put on a show with these guys. My hats off to everybody who rode a bagger this weekend because some of the bikes out there didn’t look too fun to be on. So hats off to the team."
Outstanding stuff. The race highlights below are guaranteed to give you a big grin. You just don't get to see knee-down, wheelie-popping cruiser riders in full leathers backing their 800-pound baggers into corners every day of the week. May there be many more!