There’s no quit in Tyler O’Hara. In 2020, many deemed the Indian rider as a shoo-in for the inaugural King of the Baggers (KotB) Invitational. O’Hara backed up the hype too, leading his rivals by a country mile with just five laps to go. That's when the unexpected occurred.
O’Hara ran wide at Laguna Seca’s tricky turn two. His Indian Challenger plowed through the gravel trap. Fortunately, he kept the rubber side down, but the unforced error relegated him to third place. O’Hara wouldn’t be deterred, though. He cut through the field like a hot razor through peach fuzz, seizing the first King of the Baggers crown in the process.
Since then, the one-off race grew to a six-round series. The entry list expanded from 14 participants in 2020 to 22 riders in 2022. There’s been constant throughout all that change—Tyler O’Hara.
After relinquishing the title in 2021, number 29 returned in 2022 with one goal in mind: reclaiming the KotB crown. O’Hara did just that at the rain-soaked New Jersey Motorsport Park on September 11, 2022. Fresh off that title-winning performance, we sat down with O’Hara to find out how his no-quit attitude will help him defend Indian’s throne in 2023.
You won the very first King of the Baggers Invitational in 2020. Over the past two seasons, how have your rivals pushed you to dig deeper and raise the bar?
Anytime you have a rivalry there’s always a challenge. You’re racing against one of the biggest motorcycle manufacturers in the world, Harley-Davidson. You're up against the odds. It’s really motivating as an athlete, and as a team, when you’re the underdog. It’s a little bit of David versus Goliath, Indian versus Harley-Davidson, and it’s highly motivating.
With this huge rivalry, it’s forced me to elevate my game every year and strive to be the best I can possibly be. That’s the same for the whole team and this year was the toughest, most challenging year yet.
You know, Kyle was brought on as the first [Harley-Davison] Factory rider [in 2021]. We’re both the A riders and our job is to win. We have different personalities. That makes me highly motivated to beat him. That’s part of being a rival. I have the utmost respect for him and the Wymans. As far as competition, it’d be Kyle Wyman and his brother, Travis. For me, that’s highly motivating for me to go out there and beat them.
A mechanical failure at the Road America (Milwaukee) round derailed your 2021 title chances. This year, you finished every race and recaptured the KotB crown. How did the team improve the Indian Challenger’s reliability and how did that consistency contribute to your title run?
I feel like I’ve always been a consistent rider. The thing with the S&S Cycle team is that we really do our homework and testing, but at the same time, we’re a little conservative when it comes to making steps to a motor package or a setup change. I think a lot of that is knowing what works and what our strengths and weaknesses are.
Our bike handles really well and our motors are really strong and reliable. The first race weekend, Kyle [Wyman] had a mechanical [issue]. For me, that was the beginning of the championship. From that race on, I just picked my next rival for that weekend and I’d race that person specifically. I managed the championship in that respect. Knowing that my closest rival had a bad weekend, I just capitalized on it.
We all know that Harley-Davidson will do everything in its power to take back the KotB championship in 2023. To ensure that doesn’t happen, what can Indian do to improve the 2023 Challenger race machine?
We found some stuff at the end of the year. We’re still just refining some chassis setup and ergonomics. We’ll see what the rules package will be for next year. That’s going to be a big indicator, as far as what we’re able to do, but I feel like my Indian Challenger still has the DNA of a stock [road-going] Indian Challenger.
We have the fastest top speed. Our transmission is excellent. I think it’s the smooth, well-handling motorcycle that can dominate for a very long time. Indian Motorcycle is the most innovative motorcycle company in the world right now hands down, in my opinion.
Bobby Fong getting a win at VIR (Virginia International Raceway) is a big testament to how good the motorcycle is. Jeremy [McWilliams] as well, winning at Daytona with the fastest top speed. Then Bobby, at that real technical, fast track that he can win on as well. As a privateer [racer], if I were looking at a bike with the real race DNA, I'd be looking at the Indian Challenger all day.
You’ve battled Harley’s Wyman Brothers for the last two titles. You also have an ex-MotoGP, KotB race-winning teammate in Jeremy McWilliams. What do you, as a racer, have to do to stay ahead of the pack in 2023?
When I had input on my teammate, and who I thought would be the best fit for the team, for the development of the motorcycle, and for me to win the championship, that was Jeremy McWilliams. He has such a wealth of knowledge and experience on so many different levels and bikes. He's just making me a better rider, a better person, on and off the track.
There’s no alpha male in the pits. We race each other hard and clean. We leave it on the track. I knew that having him as a teammate was going to be a challenge and that I needed to prove myself every single time out on the track. He gets up to speed faster than me sometimes in qualifying. Using him as a carrot at the last race weekend really helped me out. Even in the wet conditions, he’d go in front of me and I was able to tail him because he has experience in so many different situations.
He’s like my brother. We’ve grown so tight this year. We feed off each other so well. We’re just a lot alike. We have such good energy. He makes me better in a lot of ways but I feel like I keep elevating my game every year. I feel like I’m just getting into my prime, and really understanding how to manage these championships and win at the same time. I feel like I found my niche, riding these big, heavy motorcycles. I just want to dominate my niche.
The King of the Baggers series has come a long way since the 2020 Invitational. Where do you see the series going in the next few years?
I see more dealerships getting involved on both sides (Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle). We’ve done the development work. The first year or two, people didn’t really have an idea of what it took to go road racing. Everyone was making drag race bikes with a lot of horsepower and real flat swingarm angles. They could go straight fast, but they couldn’t go around the corners.
It's just an evolution of the sport. It’s such a cool sport. You get a lot of different characters and personalities. Within the top 10 guys, you got 10 different champions from different disciplines. The competition is stiff, and I see the rivalry going on for three to five years at this level. I can see 35 bikes on the grid. People want to be involved. Fans are turning out. They’re selling out. People are just really enthusiastic. They really can relate to these two American brands going head-to-head. It doesn’t get any better.