Eatmyink feature September 2017

Curious Case of the Countdown Comeback

story and photos by Tim Hailey


The first race of the Countdown marked the second straight V&H/H-D winners circle and this one was a lockout by the team

It would be impossible for any journalist to write about the last two NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle races without addressing the elephant in the room—the uncanny ability of the Screamin’ Eagle/Vance & Hines/Harley-Davidson team to find its mojo in the Countdown to One championship playoff series. It’s familiar, it’s real, it actually happens, and—much like politics in the U.S.—it divides the fan base. Where some see the sport’s most experienced, successful and well-funded team preparing itself all season for when it really counts, others see sandbagging and manipulation to keep NHRA rules-makers off their Bates Leathered backs.

Andrew Hines' "Evil Empire" helmet in the zMAX winners circle

Rider Andrew Hines addresses this second crowd with “Evil Empire” painted on his helmet, proudly co-opting the conspiracy theorists’ own projection of what his team represents.

First off—like NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson and the #48 Lowe’s Chevy—the V&H/H-Ds don’t ALWAYS win the championship, but they do a lot. Last year, their Suzuki engine customer (V&H motors powered half the entry list at last weekend’s NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway) Jerry Savoie rode his White Alligator Racing TL1000 to the championship, and Savoie nearly won it the year before also.

Defending champion Jerry Savoie redlighting against Krawiec in the zMAX semis

That Savoie championship may have in fact driven V&H’s decision to build and test a new chassis this year when H-D shelved their V-Rods and had the team switch brand identity to Street Rods. V&H took that opportunity to redesign their chassis that had remained mostly unchanged since the program’s inception.

But the new design was slow—especially in the all-important first 60 feet—and the team mostly languished far from the front of the field. So at Indy’s U.S. Nationals—the world’s biggest drag race, NHRA’s most prestigious, the last race before the Countdown, and with a doubled winning purse—V&H went back to their old chassis with the new bodywork on it.

Old chassis, new body, same winning ways—Andrew Hines qualifying #1 at zMAX

They old/new combinations were quick and consistent right off the trailer, and rider Eddie Krawiec qualified number one and won the race. Two weeks later at zMAX, for the second event in a row, Krawiec and Hines came off the trailer with identical ETs. This time Hines qualified number one and Krawiec won the race.

Keyboard commentators, who feel they’ve seen this film before, were quick to strike. “More sandbagging than (hurricanes) Harvey and Irma combined,” said one member of the Facebook group.

"We didn't have to go straight to be quick back in the four valve days," said Matt Hines

And in truth, V&H/H-D’s own actions have sometimes fueled the conspiracist’s fires. For 2009, and in a manner very different from NHRA’s usual open discussion of rules changes, wording was slipped into the rulebook allowing the V&H bikes specifically to run 4-valve heads. The rest of the class went ape-shit, but it took years for that rule to get changed back, and only after a barrage of bad PR led by longtime V&H nemesis George Bryce.

These days there is only one thing left that separates the V&H/H-Ds apart from their competitors, and that’s their exclusivity. Their motorcycles and engines are not available for purchase nor does the NHRA require them to be, as they require others—such as the S&S V-twins used in Buells and their gen2 “Victory” motors. While not necessarily a competitive advantage in itself, this exclusivity continues to ruffle feathers both online and at the track.

“No doubt they work hard,” Matt Smith Racing tuning consultant Steve Nichols said, also in the Facebook group. “Just wish other teams could buy them and compete with them. This is what other manufacturers have to do. Much respect for the hard work though.”

Something that even the most hardened haters can’t deny is V&H’s engineering ingenuity and work ethic. The organization earned their huge budget from H-D and spends it to put the best equipment and team possible on track for the desired result.

According to Krawiec, it's hard work that makes all-V&H/H-D finals like this one possible

“We won Indy and we stayed around and tested,” Krawiec said after winning at zMAX. “A lot of people would say ‘Hey, you won Indy, why would you stay?’ Because we need to be better. We were going consistent 1.07 60 foots and that’s not good enough with the caliber of motorcycles that we’re racing against."

Can anyone else in the PSM pit match the V&H/H-D effort in budget and manpower? Not really, but that’s professional racing. Does that effort guarantee a championship? No. We’ll see what happens at Maple Grove, Gateway, Dallas, Vegas and Pomona.