Jarod Vanderkooi: Harley-Davidson’s Unlikely Hero
It’s been the question among fans and the dirt track community for a year now: When – or will – Harley-Davidson’s semi-new XG750R powerslide into the top tier of AFT Twins competition and run with the Indians?
It’s a fair query despite the inherent technical and design imbalance between the production-based XG and the from-scratch prototype Indian. Harley dirt track fans either aren’t aware of the production vs. prototype issue or aren’t interested; they simply want the orange and black to compete – and now – as it works to regain the championship mantle held for so many decades.
The 2017 season was full of challenges for H-D’s factory team, and even this year’s Daytona TT was a downer for a Vance & Hines crew that worked so hard over the off-season to improve their motorcycle.
But two weeks ago at the Atlanta Short Track on the red-brick clay of Dixie Speedway came a breakthrough: H-D factory rider Jarod ‘Captain Chaos’ Vanderkooi, the 20-year-old junior member of a three-rider team sporting two veterans with plenty of Grand National wins under their steel shoes, ran second to eventual winner and reigning Grand National Champ Jared Mees for much of the Main event. Vanderkooi held off Indian-mounted Kenny Coolbeth and XR750-mounted Jeffrey Carver Jr. until the last few laps, eventually finishing fourth and just off the podium – which would have been his first-ever in AFT Twins competition.
“I was really bummed right after the race,” Vanderkooi told us after the Atlanta round. “I thought, ‘Damn, what did I just do?’ It was an emotional reaction to having let those guys by at the end. I know that racetracks change two and sometimes three times during a 25-lap Main event, and I didn’t adapt with it. For most of the race I had the speed to get second; but I didn’t change up my lines, and it cost us.
“But 15 minutes later,” Vanderkooi continued, “after I’d realized what we’d done and what we’d accomplished, I felt pretty good about things in the big picture. We took all the heavy lifting that Brandon and the team had done last year and over the off-season and moved it forward, and proved the bike can run up front. That’s a big deal. Yeah, there’s still some work to do, but we’re moving in the right direction, and I have a bunch more confidence going forward. I think our entire team does, too. And hey, we shut a lot of the haters up!”
Vanderkooi barely qualified for the Semis after an electrical gremlin relegated him to 11th in his Heat, a race in which he was gridded mid-pack due to slow qualifying. But that would change on Sunday...
Some haters will disagree, but Vanderkooi is correct on all counts. His crew worked steadily through the day Saturday, qualifying slowly and barely making Sunday’s Semi when an electrical gremlin pushed him back in Heat number three to 11th – last to qualify. But they stuck with what they’d learned in the off-season, not changing the bike front to back as some did over the weekend (including Mees), and had confidence in the black magic concoction the V&H crew had stirred up over the winter. That confidence in set-up paid off on Sunday, with J.V. grabbing third in his Semi and then running up front for the majority of the Main event.
“We didn’t really change much at all on Saturday or overnight,” Vanderkooi told us. “It wasn’t the bike; it was more me, really. I just let it ride. I felt comfy during practice and qualifying, and even during the Heat race; the times just weren’t there yet. I figured we’d get faster the more time I spent on the bike.
“The track on Saturday, especially early on, was really hooked-up; you could go as fast as you wanted, and let it all hang out. Some of the ballsier riders posted fast times, but it’s easy to go a little too far when it’s like that and find yourself on the ground. I’m only 20, but I know what that feels like, so I was trying to be a little more precise. I’m a better racer than qualifier, so I was patient, knew things would change, that the track would dry out and reward more precise riding. I figured we’d be OK come race time, and wasn’t too worried.”
Vanderkooi came alive in his Semi, starting from the back row and picking riders off one by one to finish a respectable 3rd. Here he goes underneath teammate Brandon Robinson (44), with Jake Johnson (5), Danny Eslick (64), and Briar Bauman (14) in his wake.
Of course, then the rains came, postponing the Semi and Main events in both classes until Sunday, when the weather was forecast to be much drier. Sure enough, Sunday dawned cloudy but dry, and the cycle – semi-moist and hooked up in the morning, with the track drying out and getting slicker in the afternoon – happened again, but more quickly this time around.
“The rain delay didn’t bother me,” Vanderkooi told us. “I figured Sunday would be sorta like Saturday … hooked-up early and then dryer later on. But I was surprised how quickly it got slick and grooved up on Sunday. I think most riders were surprised.”
Vanderkooi’s patience was about to pay off, though whether his speed in Semi number one came from his more precise riding, his bike’s settings, or a combination of both is hard to know. Regardless, he just plain ripped, starting from the back row and methodically picking off riders during the 10-lap sprint and finishing ahead of some serious AFT Twins competition, including Kayl Kolkman (4th), teammate Brandon Robinson (5th), Jake Johnson (6th), Danny Eslick (7th) and Brian Bauman (8th). Fast qualifier JD Beach on the Yamaha didn’t finish due to a flat rear tire – which kept him out of the Main.
“I got a pretty good start in Sunday’s Semi,” J.V. remembers, “but it was really hectic early on. I started on the back row, in about the middle position with no one to my right and the whole racetrack free and clear above me. So I was sort of up on the groove, which is usually slippery … but my XG launched pretty well. You have to be smooth out there on the start. I was able to move forward steadily and was pretty happy with the result.”
Vanderkooi's Semi finish put him on the front row for the Main, and he made the most of the opportunity, putting himself in the lead pack right away and sticking reasonably close to eventual winner Jared Mees (1) for most of the race.
In the Main, things went even better for Vanderkooi, who started well, got himself into the lead pack, and worked his way to second place, just a second or so behind Mees, who began to slowly carve out more of a lead every lap. J.V. held second for the race’s middle laps, and even seemed able to hold off the onslaught from Indian-mounted Coolbeth and XR750-mounted Carver for a while.
I started next to [Brad] Baker,” J.V. remembers, “and got a decent start. Brad’s bike didn’t hook up, and he was back pretty early because of it. I got into the lead group, and things were happening fast. I settled in at the halfway point and just clicked off a bunch of consistent laps. But as the track changed, I wasn’t changing with it.”
All too true. Not only were his unchanging lines on the now-slick blue groove slowing him down, especially vs. Carver who began going higher and then lower to generate more grip than the blue groove offered, J.V.’s soft-compound Dunlop rear – the type of tire the team had used throughout the entire weekend – began to overheat and go off. Some of that heat buildup was normal for the abuse a 25-lap Main Event dishes out. But some was also due to Vanderkooi’s blue-groove lines and lack of top-shelf experience.
At the end it all came down to this: Vanderkooi stubbornly sticking to the blue groove and struggling with a greasy rear tire, with Kenny Coolbeth (2) and Jeffrey Carver Jr. (23) closing in, both using alternate lines to gain speed and eventually pass J.V. "I definitely learned some things," J.V. said later.
“[The tire] worked well for much of the race,” J.V. told us, “but then it got slick and greasy. It slowed me down, but it wasn’t just the softer tire. It was me, too. I should have changed lines, moved up, carried more momentum, looked for the grippier red clay higher up. The tire would have lasted longer, and I’d have had a bit more grip. But hey, it was a learning experience for me. Carver, man, he’s a wizard; he’ll always find something that works!
“Honestly, I learn a lot from these guys. I’ve been riding the Twins class for four years, but I’m only 20, and every weekend I take something away. I learned a lot [at Atlanta]. I’ve been staying with Briar [Bauman] and Shayna [Texter] and Cory [Texter] lately, and working out with them. It all helps. And Brandon [Robinson, his teammate] … I lived with him for months pre-season, and he was like a Dad to me! [Laughs]. And when Kenny [Coolbeth] passed me, it was sorta cool; I’ve always looked up to him, and when he said ‘good job’ after the race, it put a smile on my face.”
The guys behind young Vanderkooi in the Main? Wiles. Lewis. Baker. Smith. Johnson. Superb riders all, and winners, too.
“J.V. did a great job all weekend,” Harley-Davidson team boss Terry Vance told us post-race. “We knew right from pre-season that he’d be up to speed quickly at the Nationals, and he proved it in Atlanta. We missed a little on the set-up with Sammy and Brandon at Dixie, but we'll hopefully get that fixed by Texas. For Jarod to go so well this early in the season is a great boost for the entire team.”
The Kid, it seems, has arrived. As has Harley-Davidson’s XG750R racer. All of which gives the Motor Company – and Terry Vance – a lot more confidence going forward.
This weekend's Texas Half-Mile should be very good.