Vance & Hines and Harley-Davidson go their (mostly) separate ways after 20 (mostly) happy years of racing bliss – and Vance tells us why in a Thunder Press exclusive
Courtesy of Thunderpress | Mitch Boehm
The news exploded across the racing and powersports terra firma last week like a shock wave from an F18 Hornet going supersonic: Harley-Davidson was ending its two-decade factory race team relationship with Vance & Hines in NHRA Pro Stock and American Flat Track competition, and refocusing its efforts on a more grassroots, dealer-oriented level of support – with Vance & Hines maintaining its role as the exclusive supplier of XG750R racing motorcycles.
Big news, for sure, especially given the phenomenal success the collaboration has chalked up over the last 20 or so years in NHRA Pro Stock competition.
But in racing and in business these things happen, and Terry Vance has been around long enough in his half-century in the powersports business, and run enough race teams during that time, to have experienced a lot of it.
So to dig into the story on a deeper level than what Harley’s short press release of last week offered, we sat down with Vance and asked the questions on everyone’s minds. Here’s how it went down. -Mitch Boehm
Before Harley, and before Suzuki, Yamaha and Ducati, Terry and Bryon raced a wide range of machinery. Now they’ve come full circle.
Thunder Press: OK, let’s jump right in. Vance & Hines has had a long and largely fruitful racing relationship with Harley-Davidson, with handfuls of championships over 20-plus years. Why did it end?
Terry Vance: It really all boils down to numbers. For any business, budgets must make financial sense, or there’s trouble. That’s why things ended. Right now, spending money on racing just doesn’t make financial sense for Harley-Davidson. It’s a great company with great history and superb products and a powerfully compelling brand, but they want and need to trend in the right direction sales- and cost-wise, and this decision is part of that. Any smart business would have probably made the same decision. Maybe not me, cause I’m a racing guy and I’m obviously biased. But it makes sense for them.
Byron and I have racing roots that reach all the way back to when we were kids in the 1970s. Ever since we launched Vance & Hines in 1979, we’ve always used racing to promote the brand. Over the years we’ve raced with Suzuki for 10 years, Yamaha for 10 years, Ducati for 9 years, and now 20-plus years with the Bar and Shield. So racing’s part of our DNA, and always will be. It was great racing with Harley-Davidson, and we loved every minute. But in the racing business sometimes deals end, and life goes on, and we’ll go on to do all sorts of great things in racing and in our high-performance motorsports business. We have tons of cool programs and projects under development in Santa Fe Springs [V&H’s headquarters] and at our Indianapolis facility, and we’re having the best year we’ve had in over a decade, so our overall business is strong. But right now, Harley-Davidson has bigger fish to fry…way bigger fish than American Flat Track or NHRA Pro Stock.
Terry with current V&H president Mike Kennedy when Kennedy was with Harley-Davidson – and had just signed V&H up to run H-D’s drag racing program.
Thunder Press: OK, let’s talk Pro Stock, which resulted in tons of success over the years.
Terry Vance: Yes, it’s been a great and phenomenally successful program over the years, with 10 NHRA championships and more than 100 wins between Andrew and Eddie. I think any OEM would love to be involved with a team that brought them a championship roughly every other year. Huge success, and tons of fun. Over the next few weeks we’ll be considering our plan for Pro Stock and NHRA for 2021. There’s some irony in all this, too, regarding Mike Kennedy, who’s now President at Vance & Hines. When we started the drag racing program 20-plus years ago, Mike worked for Harley-Davidson and was the individual who came to us and proposed having us represent Harley-Davidson in drag racing. I’m really happy he’s with us now; he’s super smart and totally understands the future for Vance & Hines.
Thunder Press: Looking at your AFT Program, what are your thoughts?
Terry Vance: Let’s go back to when this all started. When we launched the dirt track program several years ago, our orders – directly from Harley Davidson – were basically to just beat the then-current and hugely successful XR750. That’s what Harley-Davidson wanted, and that’s pretty much what everyone figured needed to be done. We thought we could beat the XR and we accomplished that. The XR is legendary, of course, but because of parts availability and technology advancements it’s outdated and not competitive any longer. It’s clear that if you were going to race for a championship today, you’d use the XG platform. At that point, remember, the FTR hadn’t yet proven itself. And with no real competition at the time, and with professional flat track racing in the doldrums at that moment in time, it didn’t make sense for Harley-Davidson to spend $20 million dollars on a new dirt track engine. People forget the situation at that particular time. But then the FTR turned out to be better than anyone expected, and since that point that’s been a challenge for us and for Harley-Davidson.
We underestimated how good the competition would be from the FTR, although – and people reading this may think I’m nuts – I still think we can get there with the XG. We made some huge strides during the latter part of this year, and the XG is now a much-improved platform. The motor’s not perfect in terms of its overall design and characteristics, and the crankshaft isn’t in the ideal spot for flat track racing, but it’s better than ever now, and our plan at Vance & Hines is to keep working on it. That’s the beauty of racing, and the situation creates a great challenge for us.
Disbanding the NHRA Pro Stock and American Flat Track teams was as painful for Vance and Kennedy as it was for the riders and crew members, as many have become like family over the seasons. Angelle Sampey pictured here.
Thunder Press: We need to ask you about the future, but first, what’s the status of your race team riders and crews?
Terry Vance: It’s really hard to end relationships with riders and long-standing crew members, but we have no choice. Ricky Howerton and Bryan Smith, for instance, were not only great to work with, but they really get it when it comes to AFT competition. Jarod Vanderkooi has some exciting things already lined up for 2021, and Dalton Gauthier is still under contract with Vance & Hines at this moment. We’re currently working on our plans for what we’ll do in flat track in 2021, so stay tuned.
Ending our professional relationship with Angelle Sampey in Pro Stock was really difficult, naturally, because we’ve all grown really fond of her over the past couple seasons. She worked really hard on and off the track for us. I’m super glad she got that win in at the Indy Nationals this year. It’s been an absolute pleasure to have her on our team. Both Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec will stay on as Directors at our Indianapolis facility, which we’ve refocused as the RDC – Racing Development Center. We are so thankful for all of these individuals, and we’ve gone out of our way to take care of them as best we can…but we simply can’t keep them without the two race teams operating.
Thunder Press: Harley’s press release of last week says Latus Motors is going SuperTwins racing next year.
Terry Vance: I’m pretty sure George Latus will field a team in 2021, but you’ll have to ask him about SuperTwins. Obviously, it’s a big step [from Production Twins to SuperTwins], and a lot of guys, me included, figured competing successfully in SuperTwins could be done. I believe that as long as there’s support from Harley-Davidson through major contingency, teams will enter Harley-Davidsons in both SuperTwins and Production Twins in 2021.
Vance & Hines team rider Jarod Vanderkooi will be riding for a different team in 2021, but he showed speed this year and put the factory XG750R on the podium at the season finale in Daytona.
Thunder Press: So what will your relationship with Harley-Davidson be like going forward?
Terry Vance: First off, we’ll be the exclusive licensed manufacturer and seller for Harley-Davidson XG750R racing motorcycles for AFT Production Twins and SuperTwins competition. And I’m very excited about this, as the bikes themselves are going to be even better in 2021. We’ve already sold 15 XG750Rs, and there are a number on backlog right now, so dealers are showing plenty of interest. The XG’s success is important for our brand, and we want to continue to win here. I think you’ll see more dealers jumping into the fray for 2021, especially with Harley-Davidson’s increased contingency program for 2021. Kudos to AFT and Michael Lock for adding Production Twins to the AFT formula. I had doubts about the class when Lock first told me about it a couple years ago, but he was right. It’s going to be great racing in 2021.
Aside from the XG sales program, we’ll also be doing special projects. We’ve built a very good relationship with Milwaukee over the years, and I believe they trust us. There’s still a lot of open communication there, and they’ve been a superb partner for many years and I believe that will continue in the future.
Thunder Press: Tell us about the Racing Development Center in Indianapolis.
Terry Vance: Without having two race teams to prepare for events and compete on a weekly basis, the RDC can pivot in a direction that allows the continued growth of the larger Vance & Hines organization – which means increased racing services for other teams and racers in addition to increased development of our performance streetbike and powersports lines for performance customers. Before, the RDC was doing 70% racing and 30% streetbike/powersports R&D. Now it’ll be the opposite, with the majority of R&D going to streetbikes, the side-by-side market, etc., with some of the R&D we used to do in California also moving to Indy. Aside from the XG750R motorcycles and parts, our RDC efforts will include the continued building of our all-new billet Suzuki-based NHRA Pro Stock drag racing engines (we’ve got two complete motorcycles being built now for Liberty Motorsports) and engine work and exhaust R&D for a wide range of classes and categories, including AFT Singles.
Thunder Press: What will your relationship with AFT be in 2021?
Terry Vance: We’re fans of AFT and like what they’re doing and enjoy the relationship there. We’ll almost certainly be involved at some level for 2021, but are reviewing our options at this point.
Thunder Press: Would you ever consider fielding an Indian-based dirt track team?
Terry Vance: I seriously doubt it. I don’t want to be a competitor to Harley-Davidson; I want to be an ally, as we’ve been for many years. It’s not that I dislike Indian, but I’m a Harley guy, and the relationship means a lot to me. Besides, the sport needs Harley-Davidsons on the race track. One of the best races recently was the 2019 Springfield Mile where the Harleys were close; it’s just way more exciting when more brands compete. AFT realizes this and that’s why they’re trying to figure out a way to make SuperTwins have more parity like it is Production Twins.
Thunder Press: Will Vance & Hines now go after the Indian performance products market?
Terry Vance: We have some products now but there are just not enough race bikes or street bikes out there currently to consider expanding our offerings at this time. Just not enough volume for a big investment at this moment.
In several ways, being cut loose from Milwaukee puts Terry and Byron in a familiar place, one they worked to great effect in their earlier days: Building high-performance products for a wide range of racers, manufacturers, models and genres.
Thunder Press: You’ve been at this game for nearly 50 years now. How much longer?
I’ve been so fortunate to be in this industry! I’ve gotten up every morning during all these years and looked forward to the day ahead. It’s never felt like work, so I’m very, very lucky. And now, with Mike Kennedy at the V&H helm, I’m extra excited about our future prospects and all the exciting projects we have working. So yeah, as long as I can keep doing what I’m doing, helping the company thrive and be successful in the powersports market, I’m a happy guy. I’m fortunate to have the resources to do anything I want these days, but I’m planning to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s what I love, and as I always tell everyone, I really don’t have a job.