BILL WERNER

Cycle World - - Makers - By KEVIN CAMERON / Pho­tog­ra­phy by SAVERIO TRUGLIA

With gi­ant rid­ing tal­ents Gary Scott, Jay Spring­steen, and Scott Parker (re­mem­ber peo­ple call­ing him “the Parker kid?”), Har­ley-david­son fac­tory me­chanic Bill Werner or­ches­trated 13 AMA Grand Na­tional dirt track cham­pi­onships. Then as an encore, he cre­ated a new win­ning ma­chine by im­ple­ment­ing his knowl­edge in the form of the Kawasaki Ninja-650-based ma­chines that rose up to suc­cess­fully chal­lenge the Har­ley-david­son XR-750S long be­fore In­dian re-en­tered the se­ries in 2016. The easy ac­ces­si­bil­ity of Ninja 650 parts and know-how has made those ma­chines the most nu­mer­ous in the Amer­i­can Flat Track pad­dock—werner’s orig­i­nal cre­ation has be­come “power to the peo­ple.” Just as Rob Muzzy made him­self into “Mr. Su­per­bike,” Bill Werner is Mr. Dirt Track.

“My getting into rac­ing started with a friend com­ing over on his 305 Honda,” Werner be­gan. “He asked me, ‘You wanna go see a dirt track over at Cedar­burg?’ I’d been to scram­bles but I’d never been to a dirt track, so we went. Car­roll Reswe­ber got tangled up with an­other rider and didn’t finish. That was my first ex­pe­ri­ence with flat track,” Werner re­mem­bers. “A short time later, a friend with a BMW said to me, ‘You oughta come meet Ralph Burke—he tunes for Car­roll Reswe­ber.’ So we went over there, and over time be­came friends and I hung out there. One day I saw an ad: ‘Rac­ing me­chanic wanted at Har­ley-david­son.’”

The first thing he got wasn’t en­cour­age­ment. “Burke said, ‘Aw, that’d be a ter­ri­ble job—you wouldn’t like it. You’ll be all cov­ered in cast-iron dust from grind­ing cylin­ders and doing the bor­ing jobs no­body else wants.’” And he was right. “It was a ter­ri­ble job,” Werner re­calls, “pol­ish­ing rods, port­ing cylin­ders. But that was my ap­pren­tice­ship.”

No­tice he said “port­ing cylin­ders,” not port­ing heads. That’s be­cause the Har­ley flat­head KRS that dom­i­nated rac­ing in those days had their

ports down in their cylin­ders, which were cast iron.

Rac­ing at Har­ley in those days was a fac­tory ac­tiv­ity—it was not contracted out­side. There was a proper fore­man (Roy Bokel­man), drafts­men, a de­signer, and me­chan­ics and ma­chin­ists. Above it all was “Obee”—rac­ing man­ager Dick O’brien. This or­ga­ni­za­tion was not us­ing a True Tem­per crow­bar to pry open HRC crates. These men were en­gi­neer­ing, man­u­fac­tur­ing, and main­tain­ing rac­ing mo­tor­cy­cles. It was all in-house. Down at the end of Juneau Av­enue in Mil­wau­kee, you turned left and climbed up the iron out­door stair­way to the Rac­ing De­part­ment.

When I ask about the rel­a­tive im­por­tance of ma­chine prepa­ra­tion and the part­ner­ship with the rider, he says: “I think a lot of the fac­tory guys—they’re as­signed a rider and that’s the re­la­tion­ship. I call it a mar­riage—you live with each other, you travel to­gether, you learn to­gether—it’s based on trust.” Werner says it goes both ways, and across dis­ci­plines, point­ing out that Wayne Rainey said the same thing re­cently.

At one point dur­ing Scott Parker’s re­mark­able achieve­ment of nine na­tional ti­tles, Har­ley an­nounced that Parker and other key Har­ley­david­son per­son­nel would be rewarded by a trip to Hawaii—a grand all-ex­penses-paid do-up. “Bill and his wife are com­ing, right?” Parker asked. The re­sponse was, “Uh, well, no. You see, he’s… just an em­ployee.” To which Parker replied, “If

“What scares ’em is fear of dy­ing. What drives ’em is fear of fail­ure.”

he’s not go­ing, then I’m not go­ing.” Bill and his wife went to Hawaii.

Dur­ing the two years Har­ley took to make up its mind about rac­ing in the 1980s, Werner ran the pro­gram out of his own house. “Scott was mak­ing re­ally good money and he paid me well, plus bonuses. Rid­ers op­er­ate on an in­cen­tive, and I work bet­ter with an in­cen­tive too.” When rac­ing went back in-house, Parker kept the bonus sys­tem in place. Werner puts it simply: “He sent my kids to col­lege.”

The sen­ti­ment is there, for the peo­ple any­way. When I ask if he misses the leg­endary XR, Werner is mat­ter-of-fact. “It did what it did well,” he says, “but it got to be very la­bor in­ten­sive to keep run­ning. I don’t think I’d be will­ing to do what it takes today. Modern en­gines are just eas­ier.” Chris Carr told me some years ago that his fac­tory XR was given a fresh con-rod big-end roller assem­bly for each race. Why? An en­gine de­signed to make 75 hp at 7,600 rpm in 1972 was pound­ing hard to make 95 to 100 hp at close to 10,000. O’brien had warned pri­va­teers about revving over 9,200 rpm in 1982. Those stresses quickly ex­ploited the slight­est de­fect in those fast-spin­ning and heav­ily loaded rollers.

But there was also magic in that en­gine, in the form of ca­pa­bil­ity tuned in over time, and I won­dered how he trans­lated that into a quite dif­fer­ent liq­uid-cooled plain-bear­ing par­al­lel-twin Kawasaki Ninja 650-based bike. “You have to un­der­stand the Har­ley power curve,” Werner says. “You know the power char­ac­ter­is­tics the dif­fer­ent tracks need—one place you need fat torque, an­other place you need some­thing thin­ner, more grad­ual. You can over­power the race­track very eas­ily.” Yet an­other nu­ance in the dance of dirt track.

Like the psy­chol­ogy of how a rider on 1-mile oval can run a bike into a turn wide open, then switch from be­ing side­ways be­cause of power to be­ing side­ways from slow­ing down. The brevity of his an­swer shows there’s only so much that can be un­der­stood. “What scares ’em is fear of dy­ing,” Werner says. “What drives ’em is fear of fail­ure.”

On the topic of drive, the last ques­tion is an ob­vi­ous one: Does Bill Werner plan to live for­ever, and carry on wrench­ing? “I still have an in­ter­est in it,” he says. “I’d like to do it for at least a few more years, although the travel is getting to be a con­sid­er­a­tion. The things that con­sume most of my time are mo­tor­cy­cles and some­thing that might surprise you: in­vest­ing, which I’ve been doing since the 1980s. I sure as hell don’t golf!”

Not spend­ing money on clubs and greens fees will cer­tainly help re­tire­ment sav­ings. And even from afar, he’s clearly still in­ter­ested. “I’m look­ing forward to next year and see­ing the evo­lu­tion of Vance & Hines in dirt track,” Werner muses. “I’ve of­ten won­dered why Har­ley doesn’t show more courage in doing it them­selves.” He’s a fan and a mem­ber of the team, for bet­ter or worse. “I’m cau­tiously op­ti­mistic,” he says. “Clearly, they picked the right sub­con­trac­tor for drag rac­ing. Now we have to see if they have the right one for dirt track.”

Werner in his Mil­wau­kee base­ment shop, where he once ran the Har­ley-david­son fac­tory team.

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