I recently sat down with Erik Buell of Erik Buell Racing. Having been on the forefront of the American Sport Bike scene for many years, EBR recently took a major hit when Harley Davidson suspended their operations. Now, Erik has set out to recreate the scene – again.
Craig Kruckenberg: Now that you’ve had time to absorb everything that happened, how do you feel about HD (Harley Davidson) and what happened to Buell Motorcycles?
Erik Buell: I’m sorry that we didn’t get to do the things that we wanted to do, or rather the things that I wanted to do. They had to make the hard choices and unfortunately it was to focus on the core market of that business model that existed in the late 80’s. I don’t know that it was the right choice, but it wasn’t my choice to make. I hate losing the inertia and the forward motion that we had, it has its advantages as well. Now I can do what I want and what needs to be done to bring the American sport bike to the forefront. A fresh start and freedom to set my own agenda is exactly what I need.
CK: How did you feel about the HD announcement and the infamous video?
EB: Did you know that was a year ago almost to the day?
They let me know about 5 days before hand and it was absolutely sickening to me. The first thing for me was a feeling of dread thinking, what am I going to do for my employees? It was the longest 5 days of my life. Not only did the decision directly affect us, but it affected all of our suppliers as well. The trickledown effect was staggering in how many people had to be let go by all of these companies that stuck with us thru thick and thin, and now due to decisions beyond our control they are telling their people, “Go home, we don’t have work for you anymore”.
CK: Why close the doors and not sell?
EB: Who knows? There may or may not have been a deal on the table, but for HD it was all about not letting anyone else into their dealer network. Period. If they sold to someone like Can Am then those guys had instant access to HD.
CK: How did you feel when HD announced they were acquiring MV Agusta?
EB: I didn’t think it would work for them from day one. I know Claudio and I know their company and it doesn’t make any sense. It didn’t have the profit model of a Harley and all they could see was dollar signs. They saw these bikes that sell for $25k and if they don’t sell well just cut costs out of the models. I wish they could have taken all those millions and given them to me instead but they didn’t do their homework. Good for Claudio and the rest of his team because they are sitting pretty now aren’t they? Could you imagine what Buell could have done with a $100 million plus injection into the Barracuda? It’s scary to think of what could have been.
CK: Was the 1125 the highpoint for Buell?
EB: The highpoint of Buell hasn’t been reached yet, the 2011 bike is! Don’t get me wrong the 1125 is a great bike with great wind protection and really comfortable, and its stupid fast on the racetrack. But, once you get the people to bite on the fact that you are a legitimate sport bike manufacturer you need to bring the heat and put your superbike out there before you introduce comfort. The first water-cooled bike we should have put out was the Barracuda. That’s what the business case called for and that’s what the plan was, but it got cut out of the business case by HD when they said “you guys can’t be copying the Japanese and making one of those hyper bike thingies”. They just didn’t understand their market audience, because it doesn’t matter if you’re copying the Japanese, the Germans, the English or whoever. A great bike speaks for itself.
The original concept of the 1125 with the fuel in the frame was built back in 88 and that preceded the VR1000. Another 10 years after that in 98 we instituted the Revolution project which was the development of the motor that wound up in the Vrod. That motor was ours and we did that development work before they decided to take it a different direction. What we needed was a visionary inside the company and we didn’t have that when we just kept saying that we need a water-cooled sport bike. HD offered us the revolution in their form after the fact and said here you go, but I just couldn’t take a 230 pound lump and make a real sport bike that I could be proud of. As much as I love all kinds of bikes, performance bikes are where it’s at for me. If I can’t make it go fast, be nimble then I don’t want it.
EB: We were beyond that at Buell. Back in the day we launched our own spec series with the original S1 and then took that to pro thunder and never looked back. We at Buell want to race against the competition, not just against the other guy on the same machine. It’s not interesting racing to me. Moto 2 is the same for me. At least they have different chassis’s, but it’s not nearly as exciting to me. Right now you can’t argue that DSB is right now some of the most interesting racing going today. To me DSB, AMA superbike and world superbike are where it’s at.
CK:What are your thoughts on previously being called the American John Britton?
EB: We never had a chance to meet but we talked on the phone many, many times before he got sick. We never had the chance to get together and make some of the things we wanted to. I think back on that possible collaboration and think “what if?” He was truly amazing and a real engineer’s engineer. It is a humbling comparison for sure and I feel honored.
CK: What are the plans for the 1190 and EBR in 2011 and going forward
EB: Plans are for a small production run, but we’re tiny now. We only have about 10 people here and of course we hope to ramp up when time, orders and money allow. We plan to make them top shelf all the way with good suspension, carbon fiber, and some trick bits. It’s hard though because we have to bring the 1125 in right now and do the 1190 conversion here. The bottom end remains the same, but new valves, bigger cylinders, rods……you know all top shelf. We want these to be durable and fast. Something comparable to buying an S or R model Ducati but with American flair. It will be exciting, challenging, scary, and turbulent I’m sure. It’s like starting over for us again and now I can look back on mistakes I made before, and I’m sure I’ll make more, but I can learn from the past and tweak or refine the things that need work. We hope to go back out and change the way people look at bikes again, not just look at the new and weird innovations and laugh. Perimeter brakes and fuel in the frame were laughed at, but nobody denies that they work now do they?
Racing is where my heart and the basis of the company are at. We want to put out the best race ready products we can and everyone works so hard to achieve that. We have been so fortunate to have guys like Geoff (May) that we love working with and is a great development rider. We always look for reliability and work hard to make sure that our packages are ready to race right off the truck. It’s tough though because we are extremely lean now compared to the dollars we had behind the program before. Like this year in particular we wanted to get as much life out of our motors as we could because we didn’t have the money to swap motors in between practice and race time, but it’s also an at track R&D session for us. Over in Europe with the Pegasus guys, they ran one of our motors for many, many consecutive weekends. The labor might be more intense to tear it down, look at it, and then reassemble but when you have a race bike with a hard 1500kns on it speaks volumes to its durability. And that’s a hard 1500 because our German rider Harald Kitsch is a big man. Like 6’6” and 200 lbs and he can ride up front even at his size. He’s incredibly talented and if he would have been engineered genetically different he would be a valentine Rossi if he was 130lbs. 1500kms is probably the equivalent of a hard 100-200k miles on the street.
Right now our focus is on getting ready for next season and hopefully we will be at Daytona if we can get a few built and get them homologated before then. Other than that we should be ready to go.
EB: That is so cool! They put a ton of engineering into taking something that was a great bike and making it their own and that’s what I’m all about. That front end perks my interest as an engineer I can appreciate all the work.
EB: One thing I really like is that it still really functional as a bike and you can still ride it fast. Give me something stripped down and light like this. Purpose built, light, with ground clearance. This is a perfect blend of form and function to me!
EB: I love the radical euro street fighters. The XB’s already have that type of a look anyhow but at not such an extreme degree. So much attention to detail.
CK: What are your thoughts on street fighters in general?
EB: You know what I love the most is the people. The same guys that build bikes like these are my type of people. Devoting hundreds of hours on a manual Bridgeport to “improve” on something that some engineer somewhere thought they had all figured out. Guys that have like interests tend to flock together no matter if they’re Buell owners, chopper guys, Ducati guys, or street fighters. I like all things high performance and stripping bikes down to the core like street fighters do are exciting to me. I’ve got a garage full of dirt bikes and fast street machines because that’s who I am. You need to know your core market.
At this point we trailed off into small talk about WI back roads and common interests, and I could have stayed and talked for days with Erik. Not only is he a true motorcyclist at heart, but he is down to earth cool! Taking time out his schedule to sit down and chat with me is beyond words. We wandered out into the shop to snap photos and I was instructed to keep my lens turned away from a few key areas and projects that I can’t speak of here for fear of a good old fashioned East Troy ass beating.
If you would like to support EBR and their racing effort you can go to www.erikbuellracing.com and donate to the cause by buying some gear.