A Dealer/Racer Resurgence?

In the lexicon of motorcycling racing, the words factory ride have always been special, conjuring an epic, almost mystical image in the minds of enthusiasts, racers and even factory riders themselves. Whether in road racing, motocross or flat track, a fully supported deal with a manufacturer isn’t just a rider’s Best Possible Scenario for winning races and championships… it’s also the rarest ride on the planet. Motorcycling hen’s teeth, if you will.

In the post-war era of professional flat track racing, and especially in the years after Indian closed its doors in 1953, the number of factory rides has been tiny. It got even smaller when Honda pulled out in 1988 after several years of relative domination, leaving just two slots per season – those of the factory Harley-Davidson squad – right up until 2017, when Indian Motorcycle re-entered the fray with the FTR750 and the latest iteration of the Wrecking Crew.

So who was there to challenge the factory boys of Parker and Carr (and Carroll Resweber, Cal Rayborn, Rex Beauchamp, Mert Lawwill and Jay Springsteen before them) during all those years when Harley-Davidson’s legendary XR750 had basically zero competition? Who were the guys who could run near the front and occasionally challenge a factory rider for a podium position? Typically it was a dealer-backed rider on an XR, some with connections to longtime Harley team boss and racing legend Dick Obrien’s factory skunk works in Milwaukee, some without.

Things are different these days on the dealership level and have been morphing for a decade or two for a wide range of reasons, but historically, motorcycle dealerships have been owned and run by enthusiasts – not businessmen. And these enthusiast-dealers have historically been quick to go racing despite it being common knowledge that the quickest way to turn a fortune into dust is to get involved in competition. Before the days of an all-encompassing media, being at the races – whether at local events or on the National circuit – and supporting racers was an effective way to get your shop’s name in front of other enthusiasts, especially with Cycle News covering nearly every race in the country. So more often than not it was money well-spent… and a fat deduction come April 15th.

Jay Springsteen, a Bartels Harley-Davidson rider from way back. Springsteen archive.

The names are legend: Puckett Motors. F&S. Gerencer’s. Lancaster. Bartels. Coziahr. Tilley. Moroney’s. And many others.

Moroney’s Cycles in New Windsor, NY, owned and run by Pat Moroney, son of founder James Moroney, is a prime example of the enthusiast/sponsor/dealer. After getting out of the Army after a stint in Korea, the elder Moroney took a job at Brown and Koberlein Harley-Davidson in the mid-1950s, eventually buying the shop and, in 1972, moving it to its current location on Union Ave. in Windsor. Born in 1959, Patrick began riding early, and raced professionally from ’74 to ’84, racking up national numbers, wins and top-10 rankings galore. Patrick took over management of the store from his father in the mid-’80s and really hasn’t looked back since.

“My dad sponsored a dirt tracker back in the ’60s on a KR750,” Moroney says. “Cliff Caswell, I think. It wasn’t much as far as sponsorship goes; Dad was more into dirtbikes, which he hooked me on at an early age. I raced Suzukis in those days, first TMs then the RMs. I won a lot of races on those things!

Pat Moroney, pro motocrosser turned Harley dealer turned race-team sponsor. Moroney archive.

“After I took over the business from Dad, and after busting myself up a few too many times road racing, I still had the itch to compete and ended up sponsoring a local kid named Jason Fletcher on a Rotax. That led to me buying an XR750, which was so addicting. It’s black magic to be able to make an XR really run and hook up. We struggled early with the XR, though; I just couldn’t make them fast enough. I had a dyno, but just didn’t know enough. We worked hard, and asked a lot of questions, then met up with Don Tilley, who was doing a lot of road racing with the XR, and who helped with our 883 road racing and dirt track teams. Learned a lot from him. Then I met Mike Hacker, who was 16 or so at the time, and began sponsoring him after Fletcher got hurt. We raced 883s and the XR, and we clicked; we were fast. He won the 883 championship right away and ran up front at Springfield on our XR; he was this young kid who just came outta nowhere. This was 1995, I think, and Hacker got a top-10 in the Grand National Championship.”

Mike Hacker (67) exploded onto the scene with Moroney backing in the early 1990s. Maroney archive.

Later, Moroney added the late Davey Camlin to the team, with legendary tuner and Hall Of Famer Skip Eakins tuning XRs and 883s for he and Hacker. Will Davis and tuner Mike Wheeler joined the team a year later, with Davis and Moroney forging a tight bond – right until Davis was tragically killed in 2001 at the Sadalia Half-Mile.

The late, great Davey Camlin. Maroney archive.

“That was a tough period for everyone,” Moroney remembers. “Will was one of my best friends and a mentor; he taught me so much. Bike setup, all of it. Such a veteran, such a natural rider and racer. A genius, really. Our team just came apart.

The late Will Davis was more than an awesome rider; he was a friend and mentor to Pat Moroney. Maroney archive.

“But then I hooked up with Jared Mees and a kid named Jake Johnson; hired ’em both from the amateur ranks, and boy, was it intense! Every race was a total battle, total chaos. They were friendly but so competitive, such intense rivals, sometimes beating on each other all race long. Eventually I had to put Jake on the 750 so he wouldn’t take Jared out! Won the 883 championship with Jared, and Jake started winning on the 750 right away. So we went from no team to winning again pretty quickly. I hired Rich Hansen, an excellent local wrench, and had a great engine guy named Dyno George doing motors. We also hired Bill Werner on a short-term basis for some of his expertise on the 750. He taught us a lot. Even had Nicky and Roger [Hayden] and [Kenny] Coolbeth on my bikes! When Jared and Jake left I hooked up with Bryan Smith, who came pretty close to winning the Twins title; we won a lot of races and were the team to beat for a while.

Bryan Smith (42) and PJ Jacobsen (99) on Moroney-backed XR750s. Maroney archive.

“Then, of course, the market crashed a year or two later, and that had a dramatic effect on racing. We went from selling 400 Harleys to 200, the banks wouldn’t loan money, it was pretty difficult to make ends meet, and we couldn’t justify spending the money on racing – though I have to tell you, all along I was happy to spend it on racing and not give it to the government! When a bunch of dealers in the area went out of business it helped us stay afloat, but not quite enough to jump back into racing. And when the FTR750 came out and pretty much obsoleted the XR, I knew I was done. The XR750 is such an amazing motorcycle, and for so many years, too. Nearly 50 years. Just incredible.”

Another high-profile dealer/racer collaboration is that of three-time Grand National Champ and Motorcycle Hall of Famer Jay Springsteen and Bill Bartels, owner of Bartels Harley-Davidson in Marina Del Ray, California. Bartels, an enthusiast from way back, found himself working at a couple of Los Angeles-area Harley shops, and when one of them went away he bought the franchise and moved in ’83 to Culver City, California, just a stone’s throw from the famed Sunset Strip.

“We opened in Culver City because of the lower rents there,” Bartels said, “and I’m amazed we were able to make it work. We started with peanuts. If not for Harley-Davidson loaning me $50,000 – which they weren’t in the habit of doing – for payroll and such, I don’t think we’d have made it. We worked hard, things got better and better, and eventually we moved to Marina Del Ray, where we are today.” Bartels hooked up with ’Springer in the late ‘80s and the two stayed together for the better part of two decades.

Springer (9) and the brilliant Mike Hale (32) were teammates on the Bartels Harley team for a spell. Bartels archive.

“I call him Uncle Bill,” says Springsteen, “because, to me, it was a lot like having a factory ride, just without the big factory salary! [Laughs] This was after the factory threw me out the door and Scotty [Parker] took my place. Bill and his wonderful wife Merle treated me so well. They took care of everything; they paid for a mechanic and engine builder – Joe Bisha and Jim Kelly; paid for gas and provided us with nice vehicles to travel in; paid for hotels and food, and all the stuff you need when you’re on the road. We had Mike Hale with us for a while. Bill never asked for money from me, and he let me keep my winnings. He and Merle are such good people.”

In 2007, Springsteen made one final and dramatic Grand National Championship appearance at the Springfield Mile – the drama coming from his recovery from a broken back the year before.

“I broke my back because of an accident at a race last year and I didn't want to end my career like that," the 50-year-old Michigan resident said at the time. "The doctors said I could never race again and I proved them wrong. I want to retire on my own terms and I'm ready for this race. It's great to have the opportunity to not only race one last time, but to race one last time at the Springfield Mile and to do it wearing Harley-Davidson colors. I love racing on the mile and this is going to be the last time I race this event. It's going to be great.”

Of course, Bartels was there, backing ‘Springer up just as he’d been there the previous 20-some years. “I'm a racer, too,” Bartels said at the time, “and I knew he would not let that injury keep him down for long. I think it's wonderful that he's racing at Springfield this weekend, but I expected that. I think it's really exciting he will be racing with the Harley-Davidson family.

Springer (still with Bartels backing) and Steve Morehead - Hall of Famers both - got together earlier this year for a 'fun race' at Wauseon, much to the fans' delight. Dave Hoenig.

“Jay is an unbelievable talent,” Bartels added. "If it wasn't for his age, he could go on. His talent has never wavered. He's more cautious today, but he can ride a motorcycle as fast as anyone out there and he's 50 years old. I don't know anyone else who can say that. This is our 19th season together and I've enjoyed every bit of it."

Up until a couple of months ago it’d been years since a Harley-Davidson dealer had turned a wrench – or signed a check – in anger at a professional flat track race. The combination of the XR750’s obsolescence, slowing new-bike sales in the wake of the 2008 recession, the emergence of Indian’s dominating FTR750 in 2017 and the fact that there really aren’t as many we’re-racing-come-hell-or-high-water enthusiast-dealers out there has created a vacuum in the AFT paddock – one that’s been filled, of course, by a variety of Indian dealers.

But there is one exception: Black Hills Harley-Davidson and its owner-partner/GM Terry Rymer, who earlier this year put a deal together with Terry Vance of Vance & Hines Racing and the Harley-Davidson factory to compete in AFT’s new Production Twins class on an older-gen XG750 racer. After trying out multi-time Daytona 200 winner Danny Eslick on the XG at this season’s Texas Half-Mile, Rymer and Co. signed James Rispoli in June, who promptly podiumed at the Lima and Black Hills Half-Miles. Then, seeing momentum, the team signed AFT Singles points leader Dalton Gauthier to partner with Rispoli, with Gauthier grabbing fourth at Black Hills and then winning the Sacramento Mile. It was not only the first Twins-class win ever for the XG, it was Harley-Davidson’s first win since Jeffrey Carver’s Texas Half-Mile victory way back in April of 2017 – on an XR750.

Dalton Gauthier gets well-deserved congrats after his - and the XG's - first-ever Twins-class win at Sacto for Black Hills H-D. Scott Hunter.

“Look,” says Rymer, “I’m just a freaking motorcycle nut, you know? For me, being involved at this level with AFT and the Harley-Davidson team and Vance & Hines…it’s a dream come true. I love every minute of this. I grew up watching Roberts and Spencer and Lawson and all those guys, and to be doing this in the sport those guys all took part in is just amazing. It’s a win for the shop, too. Fans and customers watch the races, cheer for our riders, see us involved … it gets everybody jacked up, and I have sold motorcycles based on our participation. It’s the icing on the cake. Plus, we’re giving back to the sport and the younger riders coming up, Dawson [Schieffer, Black Hills’ AFT Singles rider], James [Rispoli] and now Dalton [Gauthier]. We’re pretty excited about all this, and I like where things are headed, for us and for – hopefully – other Harley dealers, especially with some new engine platforms on the way from Harley in the coming years. It’s going to be interesting.”

It’s going to be interesting. One can be sure that many a Harley-Davidson dealer uttered those same words at the beginning of untold racing seasons over the years.