The toughest part about riding Indian’s King of the Baggers Challenger is going slow. Tucked in behind a photo car it feels agitated and anxious. The bike lunges and hesitates in an uncomfortable sequence, subtly reminding you that Indian Motorcycle Racing did not build this bike for pageantry. This is a racebike and it was made to go fast—as a racebike should.
Indian is no stranger to building race-winning machines. The company was founded by racers who developed America’s first motorized bicycles and it’s been racing for 122 years—although not continuously. Indian swept the Isle of Man TT in 1911 with a little luck and some rather forward-thinking (for the time) innovations; Burt Munro set land speed records; and the original Indian Wrecking Crew (Ernie Beckman, Bill Tuman, and Bobby Hill) tallied 14 AMA national wins between 1950 and 1953. Seventy years later and Indian Motorcycle Racing has added another feather to its cap by winning championships across three widely varying classes, including King of the Baggers (KotB), Super Hooligan National Championship (SHNC), and American Flat Track SuperTwins.
Asking Indian to choose a favorite among those titles is like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. They’ll lie and say there are no favorites, but there is always one. Sorry, kid. In the case of these championships, it’s hard to imagine Indian not feeling more than sentimental about the King of the Baggers crown that it’s pried from Harley-Davidson’s hands. Rivalries—especially those that have lasted more than a century—have that effect.
Related: Why King of the Baggers Racing Is So Popular
To win in this class is to showcase the capabilities of the bikes people are buying. “The top-selling bikes in America are baggers, and that’s what we’re racing,” says Gary Gray, vice president - racing, technology, and service for Indian Motorcycle. “If you go to a race, like with Laguna Seca where everybody parks down in the bowl, 10 or 15 years ago it was sportbikes, but that’s not what people ride anymore. They ride baggers. So it’s really cool to get this heavy iron out there and show people what it’ll do.”
The bikes that Indian is rolling out, together with S&S Cycle, are a far cry from what anyone expected to see when the first King of the Baggers exhibition race was announced for 2020 and the package has only evolved since then. Look closely and you’ll find the bones of a production bike, but that image is quickly blurred by a throng of race parts and production-based (so Indian says) pieces that are so heavily modified they’re almost unrecognizable.
During a recent preseason test at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, we had the chance to talk to the Indian Motorcycle Racing team about the project before throwing a leg over Tyler O’Hara’s 2022 championship-winning Challenger. Perhaps the best reminder of how special this bike is: The fairings wore signatures from Tyler and the team. Nerve-wracking? Yes.
Fears of binning Indian Motorcycle Racing’s pride and joy vanish rolling out of hot pit, though it takes a minute to feel truly comfortable behind the big OEM-ish fairing that serves as a visual reminder of the bike’s size. Indian is using the passenger footpeg mounting holes as the mounting point for the S&S foot controls, and while it admits to wanting to move the rider forward on the ‘23 racebike, these ergos work well for the unacquainted. Consider them a middle ground between racy and roomy; natural and at the same time, not. Ironically, it only takes a few corners to forget the bags are there.
Related: Indian Motorcycle Racing Announces 2023 Race Teams
Nearly every moment on the Challenger is like weaving in and out of two vastly different worlds. Riding the bike feels like a balancing act; push in some places, ease off in others.
There’s a lot less easing off when you’re Tyler O’Hara, and to Indian’s credit, it’s built an incredible package around the stock frame, modified only for additional cornering clearance. Propped up on an Öhlins TTX 36 shock, modified FG 8603 fork from a Ducati Multistrada (!), and heavily braced OEM swingarm, the bike transitions from side to side with an unexpected sense of urgency. Of all the things we expected to be startled by on this test day, turning in too early was not one of them. And yet that was the case as we rolled through the tight left-right transitions at Chuckwalla on our first flying lap. It’s shocking how nimble and sporty the Challenger feels at speed.
The bike has a slightly different personality when banked over in long, sweeping corners with the throttle partially cracked or off, and it takes time to become comfortable with how much the bike wallows while on its side—a subtle reminder that this chassis was not built for racing. Someone like O’Hara rides right through that, while our best solution was to ease up and let the bike move as it wanted. We’re in no hurry here. Important to mention is that we tested the bike on Dunlop Q4 rubber, but slicks are spooned on for racing duties. That extra grip might increase overall composure, though Indian riders admit that there’s always been a bit of chassis flex.
Well-developed Öhlins suspension and a stout braking package featuring race-spec Brembo calipers are well-integrated into the platform and an indication of the excellent work Indian has done to turn this Challenger into a racebike. The suspension doesn’t feel harsh like a superbike might, but offers great support when hammering on the brakes or driving off a corner. The bike weighs 620 pounds, per MotoAmerica rules, and while you’d expect that mass to overpower any parts you throw at it, that definitely isn’t the case with these bits.
Related: First Track Test Of Indian Motorcycle’s Race Bagger
Speaking of weight, Indian has cut so much meat off the bike that it actually needs to run 10 to 15 pounds of ballast on the bike to meet minimum weight requirements. “We’ve moved it all over the place, but most of the time we’re racing with it down in the bellypan,” says S&S’s chief engineer Jeff Bailey, a critical player in the project.
Indian is continually working on the design of the adjustable billet triple clamps and fine-tuning the geometry, because in racing you’re never truly satisfied. Even still, the setup we rode offered an incredible amount of confidence at corner entry. Somehow, dropping anchor and then trail-braking into a corner doesn’t feel out of place. You’re never struggling to get the bike toward the apex, or feel like it’s in charge. A generously sized thumb brake helps the bike steer even tighter according to O’Hara, while also stabilizing the chassis and minimizing the aforementioned flex.
Corner exits are evidence of the solid work Indian has done with the engine, which is making something like 160-plus horsepower. There’s ambiguity in that statement because this is a racebike, and race teams don’t generally want anyone knowing exactly what they’re working with. What we do know is that Indian is using 110mm big-bore pistons and cylinders, CNC-ported cylinder heads, and camshafts with higher lift and more duration. Crankcase main bearings are locked in place and billet manual lash adjustment rocker arms (machined from a solid chunk of steel) are used for durability. The compression ratio is 13.0:1.
It wasn’t always easy to make that 160 hp, and it wasn’t until before Daytona last year that the team “found a few things.” Big changes include a move away from the twin oval throttle bodies and stock airbox, which is actually part of the Challenger’s frame. A large, 78mm throttle body from automotive aftermarket company BBK was the solution, and the results speak for themselves. The intake on the bike we rode was partially tucked underneath a slightly modified tank, while a new-for-’23 setup uses a simpler design with a longer runner placed just outside the tank. An added benefit of the new system is that it helps make power in the rpm range the Challenger will now be racing in; MotoAmerica has lowered the rev limit to 7,700 rpm for the 2023 season. “We were a few hundred rpm over that before,” Bailey says. “We kept extending the rev limiter for certain corners at certain tracks to save a shift once in a while, but peak power is around 7,700 rpm.”
Powering out of a corner on the Challenger feels akin to being strapped to a Boeing 747 at takeoff. You can feel the weight before momentum picks up and suddenly you’re eating up tarmac in such rapid fashion you can’t help but be impressed. An abundance of torque makes the bike feel almost easy to ride, and yet all the power Indian found means the bike keeps pulling right up to the rev limiter. Tapping said limiter while leaving pit lane served as a clue to always be watching the shift lights at the top of the AiM TFT dash display. The series of green, yellow, and red lights come quickly.
Massive torque and very large, single throttle body can make for a difficult-to-control motorcycle, especially at anything less than 50 percent throttle opening, thus a lot of time was dedicated to tuning the throttle map. The addition of a MaxxECU enabled Indian to take the next step in tuning. In its current state, the throttle feels sharp, but not overly aggressive. You want to have as much feel as possible when cracking the throttle on a 620-pound racebike with an astronomical amount of torque, and in this latest system Indian seems to have accomplished that—yet another testament to the time and effort this team has put into developing this bike. Even if it is hard to ride at photo speeds…
Another interesting part of the powertrain is the transmission—it’s stock. And it works exceptionally well. Funny enough, this is one of the things we came into the test most concerned about. Touring bikes aren’t known for having the most seamless transmissions, and reports coming from media tests on Harley-Davidson’s Screamin’ Eagle Road Glide racebike—including Cycle World’s own Michael Gilbert—suggested that the transmission was a big weak point for H-D. Fortunately for Indian, that is not the case. Adding to the experience is a bidirectional quickshifter that’s tuned to absolute perfection.
Glowing as all of these comments might be, it’s important to say that this is still a very difficult motorcycle to hustle around a racetrack. Not because of any performance limitations, but because of how truly unique it is and the mindset you must be in to push it to its maximum. We did not come anywhere near that limit in our short time with the bike, but at the pace we rode, it was a genuinely fun experience. What Tyler O’Hara, Jeremy McWilliams, and everyone else on the King of the Baggers grid is able to do on these motorcycles is astonishing.
Credit also goes to the Indian Motorcycle Racing team for continuing to push the limits in search of faster lap times. Their dedication to the project shows through in every part that was engineered, raced, and reengineered. How far this project goes is yet to be seen, but even in its current state, it’s clear that Indian’s built a true racebike. A very fast and very capable racebike.
Interested in experiencing the bike for yourself and have a rather massive chunk of change sitting around? Following our test, Indian announced that it will be selling the Challenger RR, a race replica Challenger with nearly identical build sheet to Indian’s racebike. All yours for “just” $92,229…
Helmet: Arai Corsair-X
Race suit: Rev’It Apex
Gloves: Rev’It Apex
Boots: Alpinestars Supertech R