STURGIS | A photographer asked Sturgis motorcycle rally Grand Marshal Jessi Combs to pose for a photo standing next to her Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Combs, however, balked when she realized the photo of her and her Harley would be taken in front of a semitrailer that carried the huge image of an Indian Motorcycle — suddenly the biggest competitor for cycle dominance at the Sturgis rally.
“That biker dude’s on an Indian,” Combs protested of the background image.
Combs’ reluctance to be seen in the same frame with a brand of motorcycle other than a Harley-Davidson underscores the renewed rivalry between two iconic American motorcycle brands.
Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle banged handlebars and footpegs for motorcycling supremacy on American roads and racetracks through much of the first half of the 1900s, until a series of business missteps ended with Indian Motorcycle closing its doors in 1953.
Harley reigned supreme for more than 50 years both on the racetrack and the street as other American brands, including Excelsior-Henderson and most recently Victory, have come and gone.
Minnesota-based Polaris, a longtime maker of snowmobiles and utility vehicles, helped revive the Indian brand by taking over production of the big V-Twin bikes in 2011.
Bruce Eide of Sioux Falls, owner of Indian Motorcycles of Sturgis, has overseen expansion of the Sturgis location to become the top Indian dealership in the country, just as Black Hills Harley-Davidson in Rapid City is one of the top Harley dealerships worldwide.
The renewed rivalry between the two American brands is good for all of motorcycling, Eide said.
“Polaris took one of the really great brands of American history that had been silent for so long and in a short time — 72 months — turned it into a really big deal again. That’s good for the industry,” he said.
Beyond Harley and Indian, other brands, such as BMW, Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki, Moto Guzzi and Ducati will also see a benefit from any spotlight on motorcycling, Eide said.
“Bikes from all over the world are coming to Sturgis,” Eide said. “How cool is that?”
The biggest impact of the renewed rivalry has come on the racing track.
Polaris announced a year ago it would return Indian to the American Motorcyclist Association’s premier racing division, the American Flat Track (formerly Grand National Championship) Twins series, with the introduction of the Scout FTR750.
Indian secured the services of three top riders for its new team, including four-time AMA champion Jared Mees, 2013 champion Brad Baker and reigning champion Bryan Smith. Both Mees and Baker were signed away from Harley, with Smith coming over from Kawasaki.
The powerhouse Indian Wrecking Crew has been dominant from the beginning, winning 11 of 13 AFT Twins division races thus far in 2017.
“Completely unbelievable that you could take a bike from absolute zero, no engine, no frame, no wheels and no suspension and it’s winning a race against global manufacturers in its first race. That just doesn’t happen,” said Gary Gray, head of Indian’s flat track racing program.
Mees did much of the development work on the new FTR750 and leads the Twins series point standings with seven wins in 13 races, including leading an Indian sweep of the top three places at Tuesday’s Harley-Davidson Black Hills Half-Mile at Black Hills Speedway. Smith has won four races. Baker holds third in the standings with no wins, but with a slew of podium finishes.
“I tested it all last year so I knew what to expect with the bike,” Mees said. “I knew it was going to be pretty dominant.”
Kawasaki’s Briar Bauman is the only non-Indian rider to crack the win column, including a comeback victory at Sunday’s Buffalo Chip TT in Sturgis on Sunday. Mees rode to second in the event, sponsored by Indian Motorcycles, followed by Jake Johnson giving Harley its first podium finish of the year.
Harley is rebuilding with an all-new program built around a new production-based engine, the XG750, a new team headed by Terry Vance and riders Kenny Coolbeth Jr., Jake Johnson and Brandon Robinson.
Vance, co-founder with Byron Hines of Vance & Hines, a leading producer of high-performance equipment, said the new team is working hard to up its game and that the rivalry has been instrumental in refocusing interest in flat track racing.
“Everywhere we go we get great crowds. We’ve got to get in the game and once we get there, we’ll be in good shape. It’s just going to take some time,” he said.
Gray said flat track motorcycle racing was one of the top motorsports in the world and Indian was one of the top teams when the company shuttered in 1953. He said in recent years the sport has been on the decline.
“We felt we owed something to the industry to bring interest back to the sport,” he said.
The renewed on-track rivalry with Harley-Davidson has apparently had its desired effect.
AMA officials, citing both the Harley-Indian rivalry and a television deal with NBC Sports for a delayed broadcast of AFT races on NBCSN, say attendance has dramatically risen this year.
That trend showed at both races this week in the Black Hills.
Sunday’s Buffalo Chip TT at the campground’s amphitheater east of Sturgis, and Tuesday’s Black Hills Harley Half-Mile at Black Hills Speedway east of Rapid City played before near-capacity crowds.
Spectator interest, combined with winning or at least a strong showing on the race track, also translates into sales for the street.
Vance said that ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday,’ maxim is the reason for using the XG750, a factory production engine that can be found in Harley-Davidson showrooms, as a platform for their racing program.
“Our goals are to sell bikes at the dealership level. That’s what we want to do,” Vance said.
Gray said Indian’s on-track success with the race-bred FTR750 has helped boost Indian road bike sales by 17 percent in the second quarter of 2017.
“People say, wow, Indian motorcycles are sure fast on the track. Maybe I should give it strong consideration,” he said.
(Editor's note: the above story has been changed to reflect the correct state of origin for Polaris).