Interview: Roland Sands builds “Challenger RR” race cruiser for Indian

Harleys and Indians are used to competing with one another in showrooms, but a new race series is putting these giant American cruisers head to head at the famous Laguna Seca racetrack in the “King of the Baggers” invitational – the motorcycling equivalent of a tractor race.

The whole idea is nuts; these things are built for cruising the highways in comfort and style, certainly not for plunging down the Corkscrew and bangin’ elbows on the racetrack. But touring “baggers” like Harley-Davidson’s Road Glide and Indian’s Challenger are all the rage at the moment, and customers have apparently been building their own “performance” versions to drop some weight from their 850-pound (385 kg) rides and give them a bit more capability in the corners.

So the idea of “performance baggers” is not a new one, and as soon as the word “performance” gets attached to anything, there’s gonna be goons out there who wanna race it. So, MotoAmerica and Drag Specialties have put the King of the Baggers race together to let race-tuned versions of these big ol’ Bessies duke it out on one of America’s most storied racetracks, with serious racers in the saddles.

At this stage, it seems some 14 teams are preparing to front up: 12 Harleys and two Indians. And while it’ll probably be a good giggle for the fans, the teams themselves aren’t muckin’ about. “In the very beginning we had the cynical guys saying this is only a game, or a gimmick,” said MotoAmerica’s Lance Bryson in an interview with Thunder Press. “Buddy, strap your effing bootstraps on because this sh*t is coming to town! Builders are not spending $60,000 to $80,000 on bikes for them to be a joke.”

Roland Sands, right, and a team member work on the Indian Challenger race bike
Roland Sands, right, and a team member work on the Indian Challenger race bike

Roland Sands Designs

When Indian decided to get involved, it went to one of America’s best known custom gurus, whose history as a national championship-winning GP racer made him the perfect guy to race-prep a Challenger: Roland Sands. So we caught up with Sands to have a laugh about the whole idea and find out how he’s prepping his team’s entry, which will be ridden by veteran racer Frankie Garcia, who is currently punting an FTR1200 around the flat track in the Super Hooligan series.

The following is an edited transcript.

Loz: Nice to meet you Roland, we’ve covered a few of your customs over the years, you make some pretty wicked stuff!

Roland: Thanks!

So what was the first thing that went through your mind when Indian got in touch and said “hey, we want you to make a racing cruiser?”

My first reaction was “why the f*ck would you do that?” (laughs) You know, my boy Rob Buydos who works over at Parts Unlimited hit me up about this project originally. He’s been bugging me to be a part of this thing.

Initially, I was really worried about doing this project. A road race track… I mean, Laguna Seca specifically? It’s a pretty daunting place. Have you been there?

I’ve never ridden it.

It’s a very technical track, a very difficult track. It’s the first track I ever won an AMA national at, on a 250GP bike. And it was also one of my first races on an AMA National. The first time I went there, I thought “this place is just the scariest track I’ve ever ridden in my life.”

Now that I know it, I love it. But I think putting a bagger on the track? It just presents a lot of unique opportunities for failure. (laughs)

Draggin’ some hard luggage through the Corkscrew?

Draggin’ some hard luggage through the Corkscrew! There’s also a lot of really flat corners that are very fast, where you’ll run out of ground clearance in a hurry. And particular places on the track where you might not think you’re gonna run out of ground clearance, but you do.

So part of me was really skeptical that the baggers would work – particularly the Harley. It was really only when I took a Challenger out and rode it myself that I thought it might make an OK track bike that we might get away with racing and have fun on.

I wanted to build a bike that would be fun on the racetrack, and wasn’t gonna be a let down. The Challenger checked off the boxes for me, I think it’ll be fun out there.

An S&S exhaust and new ECU are the only mods Sands made to the Challenger's standard 122-horsepower engine
An S&S exhaust and new ECU are the only mods Sands made to the Challenger’s standard 122-horsepower engine

Roland Sands Designs

Alright! So what sort of lean angle can you get out of the stock bike, do you know?

I don’t know, maybe 38 degrees? We didn’t measure the stock lean angle, we just went straight to jacking the bike up to get more ground clearance out of it. So first up we put a 17-inch rear wheel on, which gave us more ride height than the stock wheel. We sent the shock out to our friends at Fox Performance, and they lengthened the rear shock by about 20 mm, which will effectively give us about an inch and a half more ride height in the back with that larger rear tire.

Then with the front fork, we used a longer fork and drop-down triple clamps that we worked with S&S on, and we used a 19-inch front wheel. I think we’re about four inches overall higher than the stock bike. I hope we’re gonna get like 48 degrees of lean angle, maybe 49 if we’re lucky.

That’s not bad, man! If you hit 48 degrees on the road, you’re crankin’ it!

It’s a ripper! We’re hoping to get Frankie’s knee on the ground with this thing. He’s gonna be sitting pretty high up, but no higher than a sport bike. I think the seat height is about 33 inches [83.8 cm], which is a little tall, but pretty similar to something like an S1000RR.

I’ve got a picture of you here sitting on it on a bike lift in the workshop, looks like you’re right up on tippy-toes.

Yeah, I can barely touch the ground when I’m sitting on it. It’s tall, dude!

The significantly higher ride height means Sands has to tiptoe it at a standstill, but it'll be all-important for ground clearance at Laguna Seca
The significantly higher ride height means Sands has to tiptoe it at a standstill, but it’ll be all-important for ground clearance at Laguna Seca

Roland Sands Designs

What forks did you use?

We used the stock forks off of the Indian FTR1200. We sent them to our friends at GP Suspension and they modified the forks for the weight of the bike, and re-did the damping for race conditions. Those guys know what they’re doing.

Sweet, any engine changes?

S&S exhaust and a new ECU.

That’s it?

Yeah, we didn’t really do anything to the motor. We may end up being a little outgunned on the engine. I think S&S might have their bike pumped up a bit, so it might be quicker than ours, but I think our bike turns really well and it’s got a lot of ground clearance. One of the biggest issues will be how much you’ve gotta slow down for the corners. If you run out of lean angle, you’re not going to go so fast. We’re hoping we can carry more corner speed.

Right. So it’s 12 Harleys and one Indian in this race?

I think we’re up to two Indians now.

What are the regulations? How much can you modify these bikes?

Hmm. Gotta use the stock frame, you can’t cut the frames up, or change the geometry or move the swingarm pivots. You can replace suspension and wheels. You’ve gotta keep the stock bodywork, at least in shape. You can change it in scale, I guess, the bodywork rules are a little loose, but you can make anything you want out of carbon fiber.

Got it. Please, tell me you’re leaving the stereo in so Frankie can blast around the track playing Kenny Loggins at full bore.

Yeah, we’re probably gonna put a stereo in there for Frankie. We actually took the stock unit out because it was a little heavy.

(Laughing) You’ve got a special racing stereo?

We’re gonna have a racing stereo made out of carbon fiber. (Laughs) That might be a lie.

Yep, the bags have gotta stay on
Yep, the bags have gotta stay on

Roland Sands Designs

Do you have to carry beer in the tailbags?

Oh yeah, the bags will be coolers, for sure! We’ll have a 12-pack in each bag for after the race. (Laughs)

Gotta look after the boys back in the pits!

For sure man, and hey, you’re sitting on the podium, you don’t have to wait til you get back to the pits to drink a beer!

Awesome. So what state’s the bike in at this point?

We’ve got the steering back on, we’re waiting for the forks to come back from GP Suspension. We were gonna try to test on Monday, but I think we’re running outta time. It’s a pain in the ass to get it up there, Laguna’s six hours away. So I think we’re gonna do a full day test closer to here at Chuckwalla, maybe next Monday.

Sweet, how long until the race?

About a month. We started this whole thing at the beginning of last week. We’ve had zero time on this bike.

How do you rate your chances?

I think we’ve started with a bike that’s significantly better than the Harleys. That gives us a leg up. S&S has been really kind getting us parts that they’ve worked on and developed, that gives us some leeway too. I don’t know! I think our chances of having a good time and partying are really good!

Not the world's sportiest riding position, but you can bet he'll be much fresher than the superbike boys after a session
Not the world’s sportiest riding position, but you can bet he’ll be much fresher than the superbike boys after a session

Roland Sands Designs

Do you reckon Frankie’s gonna get an elbow down with those high bars? Maybe an armpit down?

I don’t think we’re gonna get an elbow down unless he falls off! We’re gonna try to avoid elbow downs this trip! (laughs)

Awesome mate! I’m looking forward to seeing the final bike and the race. I think this event will give everyone a smile.

I think it’s gonna be a gas, man. And you know what? Maybe there’s a little bit of potential inspiration for the OEMs with this project. Our bike will probably be down somewhere around 620 pounds [281 kg] from an original 820 pounds [372 kg]. I think it’s gonna work pretty good. So maybe it’s a chance for Indian to look at what a real high-performance bagger looks like and how it performs. Maybe it might inspire these guys to build some real high-performance baggers, which is something OEMs are going to have to do in the next couple of years.

A Challenger RR?

Dude. Coin that!

I’m registering the trademark right now before Indian gets it! My licensing fees will be very reasonable.

We look forward to hearing how the King of the Baggers race goes at Laguna Seca on October 23-25 and wish Sands and the Indian teams every success on the timesheets and at the afterparty.

Sources: Indian Motorcycle, Roland Sands Designs

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