The Return of Hope: Bronson Bauman Brings Harley-Davidson Back to the Box

Had Bronson Bauman, Latus Motors, or the Harley-Davidson XG750R been absent from the 2022 Mission SuperTwins presented by S&S Cycle grid, it would have been understandable. Disappointing, yes, but understandable.

Collectively, the rider, team, and machine endured much toil during the 2021 Progressive American Flat Track season while receiving precious little in the form of tangible results in return. But rather than pack up and go away, they joined forces.

The early returns of that union have been spectacularly fruitful as Bauman muscled the Latus Motors Harley-Davidson XG750R to a podium finish in their first outing together at the Mission Volusia Half-Mile.

That represented a massive turnaround for the team, which counted a solitary eighth-place finish as its only result better than tenth a year ago. And while not quite as stark for Bronson, it marked his first podium since the 2020 season and offered a ray of hope following a largely demoralizing 2021.

That difficult ‘21 campaign came following a two-and-a-half-year run as a member of the factory Indian Wrecking Crew in which he earned a maiden victory, eight podiums, and two top-five championship rankings.

Bauman’s relegation back to privateer status in ‘21 proved to be a painful transition.

“Last year was definitely an emotional rollercoaster and mentally tough,” he said. “I was the main guy doing all the work. I didn't have the financial support to send my motors to someone to have them build them so I was building them myself, and driving the rig everywhere, changing the tires, and prepping the bikes during the week. At the track I had my father and Dave Atherton – that's a great combo – but that's a week-in, week-out ordeal that was stressful.”

The season started off chaotically – Bronson found himself fighting water pump seal issues with both of his racebikes at the opener – and rarely relented as the year progressed. While he flashed signs of speed, even the good days came hard.

“Port Royal was a catastrophe for me. We went to an outlaw race before it and blew up a motor. We had to throw the motor away and buy everything new. And actually, the brand-new motor we brought to Port Royal ended up having some mechanical issues too.

“So, we had two motorcycles pulled apart during the test day at Port Royal, and by the end of the day, we made one bike from those two and finally had it running.

“On raceday, we were actually fastest in final qualifying. That was the first time all year I really felt strong on the motorcycle, like we were going to be able to win. I got a terrible start in the dash for cash and still ran down the leaders. I ran out of time and made a bonehead, Hail-Mary pass for the win that didn't quite pay off, but we still ended up second.

“But we were fast. It was definitely emotional. Just knowing the hell the day before was. I literally thought I wouldn't have a motorcycle to race that weekend and asked people if they had one I could rent. It was definitely a struggle.”

That struggle gradually escalated to where Bronson began to question his future in the sport.

He said, “We never caught a break. There was always something. We never had two good bikes all season long. It was either a big mechanical or nickel and dime stuff that brought down my morale. I was really struggling with it.

“It was rewarding when we did have some success. My best finish was a fourth place at the New York Short Track. We were running third, but to be honest, I got tired during the Main Event because I'd been working so hard on my motorcycles throughout the week, I didn't have time to train. And it got to the point where I didn't even want to train. Halfway through the year, I was just beat down. I was just going through the motions.

“I'm very religious and I was thinking the big man upstairs was telling me, 'Hey, it's time to do something different.'

“I asked my girlfriend to marry me last year; I need to be able to provide for the family that I would soon be starting. I was questioning everything. It sucks because at the end of the season, I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to do that again. I was talking to some financial supporters, and they were going to pull their support for this year. The stars just weren't aligning.”

At least not in the way that Bauman could see them moving into place. But the Herculean effort he put forth did not go unrecognized, and the results he’d obtained when granted greater support were not unremembered.

The first star that seemed interested in aligning with Bauman was 2000 Grand National Champion Joe Kopp.

“I pitted next to Latus Motors quite often last season. I would talk to the guys, and they were nice and always had encouraging words for me when they saw me working on the bike. At Charlotte, I just finished qualifying and wasn't feeling that great. Joe came up to me and started talking to me a little bit and said I should have a talk with George Latus.

“(George) came over and started talking. He was asking what I thought of the bike, and what I thought I could bring to the table for the team. It went from there to him giving me a call and asking if I wanted to come out and just ride the motorcycles – no contract. He just wanted me to come ride them and see what I thought of them.”

It’s a good thing Bronson wasn’t looking for a sign from above when he did, otherwise the first day of the test might have been his last day in the sport.

“I flew out to California, and on the first day, I caught the motorcycle on fire due to a brake issue. The team was able to get it fixed up, and I was able to ride for the rest of the day. And then on the last lap of the first day, I crashed and broke my foot. ‘There goes my opportunity to possibly ride for those guys.’ It was an exciting first outing with the team.

“But it was a two-day test. George asked if I wanted to ride the next day, and I was like, 'Well, I flew out here to test the thing.' So I rode the next day with a broken foot. They said I didn't have to, but I wanted to. I think that showed them that I'm always going to put my best foot forward, even if it is broken.

“We ended up going to the Red Mile test after that, and that's when George asked me if I wanted to ride for them. We hit it off. Everyone is very down to Earth, and no one is like, 'I'm the man in charge.' We all work together as a team. It's a well-oiled machine, for sure. It's great to be a part of a team where if I want something done as simple as a stiffer brake spring, they are on top of it.

“It's been great, honestly. I went down to Florida a month prior to the start of the season. They got me a practice bike, and Joe was down there and pretty much at the track every time I rode. It was terrific. He wasn't focused on trying to make the bike better -- just getting seat time. ‘Ride it. Get reps in.’ I don't have a lot of time on an XG750R, so he was like, 'We're not chasing lap times, we're just riding.' That was good.”

A ride on the Harley that was once viewed as a serious uphill climb held considerably more promise coming into 2022 with the introduction of new regulations meant to level the playing field.

Bauman said, “Everyone on the team was like, 'We're gonna have a shot… We're gonna have a shot.' Everyone was making sure their ‘i’s were dotted and crossing their ‘t’s, that's for sure. The camaraderie was great, and everyone was excited to go racing. We may not agree with the rule changes to the Indians, but we're going to go racing no matter what the rules are.

“And the team worked really hard this offseason. They made a lot of changes to the motorcycle and made it fit me better. The first time I rode it, I said, 'Man, we need a longer subframe on this thing. It's too cramped up.' So they went right to work on it and a few other things. The XG has been known to be a very heavy motorcycle. They worked endlessly to try to shave weight off it and they continue to do so.”

That renewed promise was immediately realized with Bauman’s opening night third-place performance.

“Of course, everyone was thrilled. I told them that night, 'Hey, this is kind of my style track.' It was rough and hooked up and aggressive.

“Joe gave me some wise words before we rolled out, and it paid off huge. I went out and rode the way I know how to ride, and the bike was working great on that style track, being aggressive and giving it a lot of gas, and we were able to sneak away with a podium. It was tremendous, and of course, the team was through the roof. It was great to come out swinging like that.”

Asked for his thoughts on the XG750R in its current state, Bauman said, “I think it can be better than what it is. The motor package is strong. The chassis needs more development. It's had many great riders on it over the years, but the motorcycle I'm riding is completely different from the one ridden by guys like Jake Johnson, Kenny Coolbeth, and even Jarod Vanderkooi, who rode for the Harley team up until 2020.

“It's slowly evolving to be a better motorcycle, just as the Yamaha is. It just needs to be fine-tuned more, and I need to fine-tune my racecraft as well. As I grow and the motorcycle grows, I think we're capable of winning a race or two this year and being a top-five contender every weekend.”

Bronson sees Kopp as a key figure in unlocking the potential in both the bike and himself. Kopp has been widely praised by both the riders he’s worked with and the riders opposed to the riders he’s worked with. Even with just two races under their belt together, Bauman can already understand why.

“I might be complaining about the racebike a little bit, and Joe will be like, 'We can make the bike better, but you also just have to ride it as well.' Most riders don't take that too well, but for me, I'm okay with that. If I'm not doing that great on a day, I'm okay hearing 'You just need to pick it up.'

That was the case at Texas. I was struggling with the track, but Joe was like, 'Hey, everyone else has to ride it, and you've got to as well.'

“He's very smart when it comes to racecraft and on motorcycle set-up, which is huge. Last year, it was me and Dave Atherton, and I usually made the calls on the motorcycle. It was fine and dandy, and we had speed at certain times, but it's nice to have that accountability where if Joe says this is gonna work, it's gonna work.”

Their continued progress is certain to be carefully monitored by the sport’s legions of Harley-Davidson fans, who both hope to see the brand enjoy some immediate success and, ideally, reclaim its former glory in the not-too-distant future. The Volusia podium is a nice start, but it's just that – a start – for a fanbase that had grown accustomed to dominance and is now starved for victory.

Bauman understands those desires but, at the same time, can’t worry about what’s beyond his control as he looks to the season ahead.

“Of course, I hear the people in the background saying, 'Let's bring Harley back to the front,' and then after Volusia, 'Harley's making a comeback...' Well, hold on guys. I'm just focused on my job. Yeah, I'd love to bring Harley to the front again and have that great Cinderella story. But all I can do is focus on going to the track and having as much fun as possible and doing the best we can that day.”