Sideburn is proud to be the first media outlet anywhere in the world to officially announce that the 2018 Harley-Davidson American Flat Track Team will be made up of Brandon Robinson, Sammy Halbert and Jarod Vanderkooi and we have exclusive interviews with the two new signings.
Speculation has been bubbling since it became clear that only Brandon Robinson would be retained from 2017's three-rider H-D team, with his former team-mates Jake Johnson and Kenny Coolbeth would be exploring new opportunities.
Milwaukee say the team will contest the season, and the H-D sponsored Summer X Games, in Minneapolis, on 'all-new Harley-Davidson XG750Rs'. We are very eager to discover what is all new about the 2018 version of the liquid-cooled bike that debuted competitively in 2016.
Harley-Davidson say, 'The XG750R flat tracker used by the Factory Team is powered by a race-modified, liquid-cooled, fuel-injected 750cc Revolution X™ V-Twin engine, an engine originally engineered for the Harley-Davidson Street® 750, a motorcycle built for maximum urban manoeuverability with rebellious Dark Custom attitude.
'The race-modified Revolution X engine, and a racing frame for the XG750R, were developed in collaboration with Vance & Hines Motorsports. The XG750R flat tracker motorcycle is not a production model. The Revolution X engine was designed and engineered at the Willie G. Davidson Product Development Center in Wauwatosa, Wis. The 750cc XG Revolution X V-Twin engine is for sale through Harley-Davidson dealers today and can be modified for racing use by aspiring dealers and privateers.'
When we asked H-D about the race bike's development, Scott Beck, Director of Global Brand Marketing, told us, 'We’ve made a lot of adjustments to the bike this off-season and we like where we are. It’s a long season and we’ll likely learn more as we go, but we are excited to get back to the track and get the season started.'
THE NEW TEAM - EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS
Sammy Halbert is a de facto former AMA GNC champion, but you won't find him listed as such. When AMA Pro Racing experimented with splitting the Pro class into separate Singles and Twins titles (2006-2009 inclusive), with no overall champion awarded. Halbert was the highest combined points scorer in 2009. That's why he was given the opportunity to run a single digit number, an honour only given to past champions. He chose to race with 7, but now runs number 69, the national number his late brother Jethro raced with in the GNC until his untimely death in 2015.
Sammy has regularly swapped teams through his career, but is always a threat. He was third overall in 2015, fifth in 2016 and fourth overall in 2017, behind the trio of Indian factory riders. Now 30, and a 13-time GNC race-winner, the Washingtonian could have the combination of hunger, aggression, skill and experience to make the XG750R a consistent challenger.
You were running so well in a private team last year, the only rider to really be able to consistently challenge the top three, what made you change direction?
SH: Thank you, we did have a consistent season last year and I have to thank the Estenson team for all they did for me but the only time we won was when I rode a Harley at the X Games. [Estenson] were headed in a different direction this season, and I've always wanted to ride for Harley-Davidson so I jumped when the opportunity arose.
The XG750R is still early in its development cycle, is this the right bike for the time in your career?
SH: I'm coming in at the right time. I'm happy with the direction the team is working in and I'm eager to prove what we can do on the track.
You've had successes on the XR750, what does it mean to be a Harley-Davidson factory rider?
SH: The Harley XR750 has been really good to me over my career, all of my GNC twins wins have come on a Harley. In the early days I was running my own team with my family out of a school bus, competing against the factory team. I never thought I would get the opportunity to actually race for the factory. It feels like all of my life's work has put me in this position and I couldn't be more pleased and thankful to my family, friends and supporters who helped get me here.
I was very surprised how little testing Vance and Hines chose to undertake last year. Have you got a test schedule worked out?
SH: I've never actually rode for a team that was able to make time for testing, it's hard in our sport to be able to build competitive equipment and make time to go test it. Teaming up with the factory is giving me the opportunity to finally put some testing time in, and I'm excited to have had the opportunity get back on the bike soon.
What do you and the team have to do to challenge 2017's top three riders?
SH: The key for us as a team is to get comfortable riding the XG750R at its limit. We're all on the same tires so if we can become one with the bike, we will no doubt push it to the limit and I hope we’ll finish at the front.
Did you speak to any of the 2017 team riders before signing?
Thankfully I'm at a point in my career where I’m on good terms with all the riders. I spoke with Brandon before signing, and I'm excited for my future and our whole team’s future with Harley.
What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the XG750R and what, if anything, are you looking to change?
SH: The team is busy making changes to the bike to put our best motorcycle out there on the track. I am excited to show what we’ve accomplished this off season when we go racing at Daytona.
Jarod Vanderkooi stands between the towering Robinson and the diminutive Halbert and was 2015 Rookie of the Year. Vanderkooi was the also 2014 GNC support class twins champion. Most recently he raced for the well-funded Richie Morris Racing squad, and was the team's twins rider in 2017, with Shayna Texter as his team-mate on the singles.
The 20-year-old Ohio rider was ninth overall in the 2017 standings, with joint best finishes of fifth at the Atlanta Short Track and Arizona Mile. He stood in for the injured Brad Baker on the factory Indian FTR750 at the final round of 2017 but failed to make the main after a mechanical DNF in his semi.
It's been a while between you being signed and the announcement being made, how difficult has it been to not shout it from the roof tops?
JV: The excitement has been built up inside me for a while now, and I just can’t wait to tell my fans and all those who have supported me.
Did you take advice before signing for H-D, if so, from who?
JV: I did talk to a few people to get some advice. Of course, the first were my parents, who have been a huge part of my racing career. I also talked to a few people that already were associated with H-D.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the XG750R from your point of view?
JV: The XG750R is a well-rounded motorcycle. The entire team has been putting a lot of effort into the bike over the off season. I'm excited to showcase the results of that work in Daytona.
You had a solid 2017 season, finishing ahead of two of the three H-D factory team. What gives you the confidence you can do a better job than them in 2018?
JV: Confidence is the key in all sport and specifically ours. Seeing the fight in the team last year and the work we’ve done on the bike in the off-season gives me a world of confidence coming into the season.
What are your targets for the 2018 season?
JV: As a team, we have definitely set the bar high coming into this season. Personally, I’m coming into the season ready to go. I'll not only be looking for my first career podium, but my first win.
Brandon Robinson the eminently likeable Robinson rose to become the team's preferred rider in 2017, ahead of the more experienced former champs Coolbeth and Johnson, and had new parts on his XG750R at the final round, parts it seemed neither of his team-mates had. Robinson has four won GNC mains in his career, including at Springfield and Lima, and finished his debut season on the factory bike seventh in the overall standings.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
2017 was a difficult and, being brutal, disappointing year for the official H-D factory team. They scored just one podium finish in the whole 18-round season, Johnson's third at the Buffalo Chip TT in Sturgis. The H-D team ended the season at Perris with all three riders qualifying for the 18-rider main, but Robinson's bike broke before the lights changed getting him 18th place (after finishing fourth in his semi, ahead of Smith on the FTR750). Johnson was 12th, Coolbeth 17th.
H-D's global marketing lead Scott Beck has a positive spin on H-D's position in relation to the current competition in American Flat Track: 'For us at Harley-Davidson it goes beyond just wins and losses. We own a 100+ year racing history seeped in heritage and legacy. We support pro and amateur racers alike. And, we want to showcase how H-D goes racing to grow the sport of motorcycling and increase the number of people throwing a leg over Harley-Davidson motorcycles. But it goes much deeper than just the professional level for us at Harley-Davidson. We provide products and experiences to bring the racing dream to life for all on two wheels. Harley-Davidson makes racing attainable for any rider who wants to go fast.'
The 19-round 2018 AFT season starts on 15 March at Daytona International Speedway. Follow the racing through fanschoice.tv