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The Erik Buell Sessions

“All I ever wanted was to build a great American sportbike,” says Erik Buell. But for Mr. Buell, the road to that dream has been long and winding—a symbolically fitting experience because the motorcycles the former Harley-Davidson engineer creates are meant for just that environment. In conversation with Steve Bond, Buell shares his thoughts on air-cooled engines, the spirit of racing, and lessons from the past, as they discuss Bond’s track session aboard Michael Leon’s Canadian Thunder Buell XB9R.

Even though his latest sportbike is powered by a liquid-cooled Rotax engine, Erik Buell will not abandon air-cooled technology. “I’m still a big fan of air-cooled engines,” says Buell, chairman and chief operating officer of the motorcycle company that bears his name,”so don’t expect them to disappear just because of the new 1125R. Air-cooled engines still have a lot of unique strengths.”

Buell’s roots are firmly planted in roadracing. In his younger days, he was a nationally-ranked AMA Pro roadracer with a nine-to-five gig as a motorcycle mechanic. But being a determined lad; Buell enrolled in night courses and earned his engineering degree at the University of Pittsburgh in 1979. 

He signed on as a chassis designer for Harley-Davidson but left in 1983 to pursue the dream of building his own racing motorcycle. The first Buell was the RW (Road Warrior) 750 featuring a square-four, 165-horsepower two-stroke engine in a home-built chassis. A progression of events eventually led to a Harley XR1000 engine in a revised frame and the Buell RR1000 streetbike was born, selling 50 units in 1985.

Buell continued to forge a close relationship with the Motor Company, expanding into a line of Sportster-powered streetbikes. In the 1990s, Harley increased its investment in Buell until securing 100 per cent ownership in 2003.

Erik Buell and I have a “seven degrees of separation” factoid. I mentioned that the TZ750 he once raced is now owned by Supershow’s Bar Hodgson and I won a vintage race at the VRRA Mosport Festival in 2003 on his “old” bike. 

His eyes lit up and you could see the boundless enthusiasm bubble to the surface. “Man, I’d love to race again but my contract with Harley doesn’t allow it. It’s been a BITTER point of contention with me.” 

Once a racer, always a racer. 

Erik Buell may not race anymore but his motorcycles are racking up national championships in Canadian Thunder. Basically, Thunder is for air-cooled, twin-cylinder, production-based motorcycles with limited modifications. The main restriction is that at the end of the race, each Thunder horsepower must carry at least 3.8 pounds of motorcycle. So, if the dyno reads 100 horses, the bike must weigh at least 380 pounds. Which poses an interesting question for tuners: do they carve away the poundage or jack up the horsepower? Or a combination of both?

Even though former Canadian Superbike champ, Mike Taylor took the title on a BMW R1200S, Buell was well-represented as Michael Leon of Beaconsfield, Quebec finished a close second to Taylor on his XB12R. And Darren James has a rec room chock full of Thunder Number One plates he’s won on Buells over the last few seasons. 

AFTER THE FINAL NATIONAL, I WAS ASKED IF I’D LIKE A FEW SESSIONS on Leon’s Buell at Calabogie Motorsports Park. Asking me if I want to ride a motorcycle that’s actually won a Canadian National race is like asking the Mongol Hordes if they’d care to do a little more pillaging before supper. 

Calabogie boasts 23 challenging turns over its undulating, five-kilometre length. I’d ridden there only once before but some on-board Internet camera footage refreshed my memory. Fortunately, in addition to his racebike, Leon brought along a standard XB12R, which I opted to ride first. 

Crashing on your familiarization lap generally makes you look like the north end of a southbound horse but, full of video confidence, I bombed down the first straight, sat up to brake and immediately thought, “Uh oh. Horse’s ass time.”

I squeezed the lever to the bar, the back wheel came off the ground and I tap-danced around the corner, fortunately avoiding the gravel trap. Three turns later, when I got in hot again, it was time for a little chat with myself. 

“Take it easy idiot,” summed it up nicely. And, after a session or two, I started to get into the flow of things. The stock Buell XB12R was pretty good around Calabogie, if not blisteringly fast in a straight line (in retrospect probably a good thing) the speedo nudging 200 kmh at the end of the longest “straight.” I loved the way the motor pulled off the corners, the abundant torque making gear choice largely irrelevant.

Erik Buell concurs. “I get a lot of feedback from owners who say they love the torque of the 1200 engine and just ride around, short shifting all day,” he says. “More of our sporting riders probably go for the 9 instead of the 12, just for the revving ability.” 

The steering was very quick, yet stable over Calabogie’s many blind and off-camber crests, the only downside being a marked tendency to “stand up” under trail braking. 

After lunch, we fired up the racebike and you could tell it was all business. The exhaust note is much throatier and, when blipping the throttle, I immediately noticed the lack of flywheel effect as the race motor revs much more quickly.

The racebike accelerated harder and the free-spinning mill quickly surpassed the stocker’s 6,500 rpm limit, bouncing off the rev-limiter in the lower gears. As you’d expect, the racer was a little softer off the bottom and the gearing fitted was quite short. Pinned in fifth, the speedo (yes it still has one) was indicating “only” around 220 kmh halfway down the straight. 

Buell explained the difference between the XB9 and the 12. “The 1200 Sportster engine is fairly low revving,” he said. “But that’s simply a stroke issue, not an air-cooled issue. “The 900 engine has a higher redline due to the shorter stroke. Personally, I like the short stroke motor—I ride a Ulysses, which has the 1200, but I’ve also got a Firebolt and Lightning, and they’re both 900s.”

Crew chief Alex Grupp (from Milestone Motorsports in Whitby, Ontario) fitted a Brembo master cylinder because Leon likes the extra power and thinks it has more feel, while a stock caliper squeezes racing compound pads. Granted, I’ve never placed second overall in Canadian Thunder but I liked the brakes on the stock Buell better. To me, the racebike’s lever pull was not only overly firm, it was spongy and vague. Surprisingly, Leon uses stock footpegs and mounts because he says nothing drags and he doesn’t get cramped. 

Where the racebike really shined was the handling. Leon’s Buell has custom billet triple clamps with slightly different offset to slow the steering down a tad. It also has a totally different feel than the stocker and the tendency to stand up under trail braking was gone. 

In fact, I’d say the racebike’s front end feel is the best I’ve ever experienced on any motorcycle and, at the end of my final session, it felt as if I was actually carving my way through the asphalt with the front tire; it was that confidence inspiring.

by Steve Bond Canadian Biker #240

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