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.