Harley-Davidson VR1000 Superbike—From The Archives

Hog Wild: We ride Miguel Duhamel's VR1000

We took Miguel DuHamel's VR1000 for a spin and now we are hog wild.
We took Miguel DuHamel's VR1000 for a spin and now we are hog wild.Photography by John Flory

This article was originally published in the February 1995 issue of Sport Rider.

How good is this thing? After all, isn’t performance the bottom line when discussing a race bike? Looks, comfort, fit and finish—who cares? If it can’t get around a track, nothing else really matters. Quality means quick laps, perfection means winning, and every minute of a racing team’s life is devoted to winning races. In 1994 Harley-Davidson’s VR1000 began the search for perfection—and it’s getting damn close.

Miguel DuHamel's Mid-Ohio effort came within a titanium sliver of perfection on America's great red, white and blue hope on the AMA Superbike battleground. The Milwaukee firm couldn't have picked a tougher arena: The AMA Superbike class has been described as the toughest national-level series in the world. The day after DuHamel slashed his way to the front of the field at Mid-Ohio (he dropped out of the lead to pit for shift-linkage repairs and returned to finish 14th), I became the only rider other than Miguel DuHamel to ride the number-17 VR1000. And I had only one question: How good is this thing?

Harley designed the carbon-fiber half-fairing to purposefully expose a good portion of the engine, including the dry clutch. The crew consists of (from left to right) mechanic Craig Fillmer, Racing Pr
Harley designed the carbon-fiber half-fairing to purposefully expose a good portion of the engine, including the dry clutch. The crew consists of (from left to right) mechanic Craig Fillmer, Racing Promotions Manager Art Gomper, Racing Engineer Scott Brooks, mechanic Al Stangler and Racing Manager Steve Sheibe. Miiguel's thumbs-up hints at his can-do attitude, a big asset for a rookie team.Photography by John Flory

Having competed a day before in the AMA 250 GP class, I was ready to find a few answers at speeds beyond a journalist's joy ride. I took confidence from DuHamel's amazingly successful weekend and knew the bike's capabilities were impressively high, at least in the Canadian's hands. As Cycle World's Don Canet contemplated riding Fritz Kling's number-77 VR, race-team manager Steve Sheibe gave me a quick rundown on DuHamel's machine as the V-twin warmed on the rear-wheel stand: "Racing shift pattern, five speeds and it runs out of steam at about 10,200, though you can spin it to 10,800 rpm," Steve shouted into my helmet. "These tires are scuffed and the pads are broken in...this is the exact setup Miguel used yesterday. It's ready to go."

The step from my TZ to Miguel’s VR isn’t very large, surprisingly enough. The Harley feels small, short and tight, like a custom-fit set of leathers or a carefully selected Stetson—perfect the first time you try it. Part of this immediate acclimation is certainly due to the function-first layout of the pegs, seat and bar that place the rider in the all-business crouch needed to ride at 110 percent, but the second factor is the VR’s chassis neutrality. The term neutrality can be translated as rider friendliness, and refers to a motorcycle that takes little extra acclimation because it has few peculiarities. When the term neutrality is used to describe the VR, it refers to not just the way the bike makes power, but the way it steers and stops as well. I felt instantly familiar with the Harley, even though I’d never even sat on it before. That’s a good thing.

The tank and seat are a one-piece carbon-fiber design, as is the fairing. The header pipes are titanium, though the VR is still a handful of pounds above the AMA minimum weight limit. Harley adapted u
The tank and seat are a one-piece carbon-fiber design, as is the fairing. The header pipes are titanium, though the VR is still a handful of pounds above the AMA minimum weight limit. Harley adapted ultrawide Marchesini wheels (3.75 front and 6.25 rear) for the 17-inch Dunlop slicks.Photography by John Flory

A bike with few surprises allows the rider to concentrate on cornering speed, and DuHamel has become legendary this year for his ability to rail through the turns. Harley’s adaptation of Öhlins’ incomparable inverted fork and the constant evolution of the Penske shock have reached the quality level of the VR’s massive girder-beam frame, providing a platform on which the rider can flirt with the outer limits of traction. As my entrance speed increased, the equanimity of the VR chassis let me know that the weak link in the system was the rider; DuHamel’s world-class riding ability has allowed him to take advantage of what the chassis offers, and it offers more than my brain was ready to use. I was left with an overwhelming feeling of control and stability, matched to a high degree of traction feedback from both Dunlop slicks. The VR chassis gave me a new perspective from which to judge racing machines.

Anytime the chassis is as understressed at speed as the VR’s, the rider will demand more horsepower until the bike is just this side of maniacal. Much of the VR’s ridability stems from the elasticity of the fuel-injected twin’s powerband, but I’m betting DuHamel would gladly trade 5000-rpm ridability for 12,000-rpm horsepower. In fact, getting air and fuel into the engine at high revs would seem Harley’s next priority, because a 10,200-rpm horsepower peak simply isn’t getting the job done when running against 14,000-rpm four-cylinders and 12,000-rpm twin Ducatis. Manageable torque is nice for a ride up your favorite road, but DuHamel wants tire-spinning monster power because that’s what he’s racing against. Make no mistake, the outright speed difference between the Harley and the Vance & Hines Yamaha (E-Ticket, Dec. ’93) is relatively small, but these guys measure life in 10ths of seconds and the difference between first and 12th at this level is usually mere bike lengths.

The carbon-fiber fairing bracket also houses the small battery that fires the spark plugs on the constant-loss Harley ignition system. The tack looks vaguely familiar, except for the extra numbers not
The carbon-fiber fairing bracket also houses the small battery that fires the spark plugs on the constant-loss Harley ignition system. The tack looks vaguely familiar, except for the extra numbers not available on a Sportster gauge.Photography by John Flory

So how does DuHamel do it? Certainly his riding ability is worth a handful of horsepower, but one must also look to the particular components on the VR, beginning with the suspension and brakes. Wilwood carved the six-piston front calipers from aluminum alloy and matched them to iron rotors; all-out stopping power isn't equal to the Smokin' Joe's RC45's carbon HRC system (Smokin', SR, Dec. '94), but feel and feedback are exceptional. That, combined with DuHamel's insane late-braking ability (remember Sears Point 1993?), allows the Harley to almost make up what it loses on longer straights. Front suspension is too important a component to not have perfect, and the megabuck Öhlins system saved the day by giving DuHamel a familiar starting point. After all, if you don't trust the front, you'll never go quick, and the Öhlins brought peace of mind along with fabulous performance. Harley stayed committed to the Penske shock, developing the American-made damper throughout the season by relying on DuHamel's feedback; the H-D team doesn't use an onboard diagnostic system yet. "I'm the computer," Miguel told us, "and I download to Steve Shiebe. Between the two of us, we figure it out."

In racing trim, the VR's fuel injection and cylinder heads are covered with a false airbox bottom that works with the fuel tank to form an airbox; the bike breathes air delivered from beneath the stee
In racing trim, the VR's fuel injection and cylinder heads are covered with a false airbox bottom that works with the fuel tank to form an airbox; the bike breathes air delivered from beneath the steering head without the benefit of an extensive forced-air system. A fully pressurized airbox to help the bike breathe on top can't be far away.Photography by John Flory

Those in the know claim Harley’s frame is the best in the Superbike paddock. There’s nothing earth-shatteringly special about it besides the inventive two-sided paint job; Shiebe knew rigidity ruled all and chased that goal with single-minded dedication. Massive is really the only word to describe not just the main frame rails, but the upper shock-mount beam and the steering-head structure. It might bend, but only after a head-on with a Kenworth. Even though the VR chassis incorporates head-angle adjustment and swingarm-pivot-height adjustment, the team hasn’t needed to vary the initial settings. DuHamel has settled on 24.5 degrees of steering-head angle, 3.8 inches of trail and approximately 55.5 inches between the axles, depending upon gearing. Is it any surprise that these numbers mirror the current 600cc sport-bike specs? Harley knew tackling America’s Superbike class with an all-new engine would be a daunting task, so why complicate the job by trying to reinvent the race-bike chassis?

How good is it? As a modern sport bike it’s fantastic, almost beyond reproach. Most manufacturers go racing with a modified street bike, but Harley built the racer first and is only now beginning to think about streetability. The VR has few compromises, and that means function rules all. As a pure racer, Harley’s ’94 VR is close to greatness, lacking only top-end muscle to finish the podium climb.

As a sport bike the Harley VR1000 is fantastic and really sets the bar even though it lacks top-end muscle.
As a sport bike the Harley VR1000 is fantastic and really sets the bar even though it lacks top-end muscle.Photography by John Flory