The winter sun looms low over the desert’s craggy horizon. Stark rays rake across California’s Chuckwalla Mountains, hiding half the range’s jagged majesty in shadow. A southeasterly breeze lilts through the palm fronds. Contentment washes over me, the kind that accompanies a desert sunrise and a second cup of joe.
VROOM! The bassy burble of a V-twin engine shatters the tranquility in an instant. Air, fuel, and fire transmuted into cacophonous rapture, at 1,300 thunderclaps per minute. The raw racket issuing from Indian Motorcycle’s PowerPlus mill doesn't share the same lumpiness associated with most American V-twins. It doesn’t growl, it snarls. It’s both guttural and hoarse. And of course, it rumbles at the heart of Indian’s King of the Baggers (KotB) Challenger.
I actually have to ride this mammoth—and survive. Internally, I kick myself for not having my last will and testament in order. Hands clammy, heart trembling, I board the brawny bagger with the assistance of two Indian Motorcycle (IMC) Racing crew members. One shouts something about GP shift. I nod with feigned observance. My full attention at the purring Challenger’s command. I thunk the shifter into first gear, drop my visor, and roll out onto the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. So much for an easy-going morning.
Building the Beast
Before we discuss my dance around the 17-turn, 2.68-mile course with my 620-pound partner, we have to set the floor, if you will. IMC Racing reps will be the first to tell you that its 2022 King of the Baggers-winning Challenger benefits from the production model’s performance-first philosophy. It’s hard to argue with such claims when comparing the stock Challenger’s spec sheet to its rivals’.
Let’s get one thing straight, though—Indian isn’t rolling some garden variety bagger onto the KotB grid. Neither is it leaving any stone, camshaft, or bearing unturned in its quest for the almighty horsepower. Big-bore, 110mm pistons are the first indications of Indian’s intents. CNC ported heads and custom camshafts only edify the team’s power-hungry measures.
Good luck finding locked crankcase bearings and manual lash-adjustment rocker arms on a stock Challenger as well. Even project partners S&S Cycle designed a high-flow air induction system and a custom 2-into-1 stainless-steel exhaust for the title-holding bagger. If any doubt remains that these go-fast parts do the deed, all it takes is a twist of the wrist to dispel all disbelief.
Merely cracking the throttle produces scenery-blurring thrust that simultaneously sends you ducking for cover and begging for more. The hopped-up bagger doesn’t so much propel you forward as it tows you along, like playing tug-of-war with a freight train. That sensation isn’t short-lived either, with torque passing the baton to horsepower in the upper register.
However, the Challenger’s speed isn’t as blistering as it is savage. Even if the bagger pack’s a ranch-worth of pony power, hefty gobs of bottom-end torque still characterize the delivery. Unfortunately, the PowerPlus engine could only stretch its legs so far on Chuckwalla’s three short straights. That didn’t stop the bagger from barreling into braking zones with the fervor of a Great Dane unaware of its own size.
Off the corner, the ballistic bagger lunges forward with each stomp on the shifter. Yet, IMC Racing marries that initial propulsion with linear acceleration. For that express reason, I never experienced a leather-soiling moment under the Challenger’s charge. Much of that confidence, I owe to the race bagger’s highly-capable chassis.
A Twinkle-Toed Monster
King of the Bagger regulations dictate that teams and manufacturers can’t significantly alter the motorcycle’s frame. As a result, Indian only modestly modifies the stock frame and swingarm for ground clearance and bracing purposes (respectively). Everything surrounding that foundation, on the other hand, hails from the best aftermarket specialists in the game.
To no one’s surprise, Öhlins supplies the specially-formulated shock and fork, while a 17-inch wheelset accepts today’s top-performing superbike slicks. Triple clamps from S&S yield even more adjustability, but the brand’s billet front axle, billet clutch cover, chain conversion, and rear axle assembly save precious grams in the process. It takes a village when it comes to the brakes, though, with Brembo, Beringer, SBS, Hayes, Spiegler, and Galespeed all contributing to the effort.
Gallery: Indian Motorcycle King of the Baggers Challenger
In lockstep with the chassis, the race team also adapts the Challenger’s touring-friendly ergos for bar-banging battles. S&S leads the charge yet again, outfitting the rig with rear sets, a handlebar assembly, and an adjustable fairing. Saddlemen chips in with a streamlined seat while an AIM DL2 data-logging dash relays all the pertinent data to the pilot. Although, it’s the Challenger’s low-tech gas tank hump that steals the show.
The anvil-shaped accessory not only provided an anchor point for my knee while at lean but also blocked me from sliding up the tank when under heavy braking. Consequently, that tank hump became my security blanket, delivering tactile reassurance in times of uncertainty. After all, never had I ridden anything so bulky, and yet, so tall. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no stranger to riding baggers on the raceway, but such a race-based build is another experience altogether.
For the first lap or so I felt more like a monkey crawling over a hippo, at full stride no less. Each sensation foreign, every input amplified, I tiptoed around the circuit with none of the grace of a ballerina and all of the caution of a burglar. The Challenger’s rapid tip-in—which, for a bike of this size, seemingly defies physics—immediately startled me. A bike of this girth never assumes such a nimble nature.
Compared to its production counterpart, the KotB Challenger felt downright twitchy. Whether shifting weight from side to side or holding neutral throttle through Chuckwalla’s sweeping turn 13, the battle-ready bagger shimmied beneath me with regularity. Even the ultra-responsive brakes gave me a moment for pause, with the sharp initial bite forcing me to adjust my braking markers accordingly. That's when I realized that it was I that needed to adapt to the Challenger, not the other way around.
For the next four laps, I put my head down and pinned it. The Challenger responded best under those circumstances. Hard on the brakes heading into a chicane, I questioned its agility—only for the bagger to complete the complex with the utmost ease. Soon, I was cranking the bike over, nailing apexes with surgical precision, and getting on the gas earlier.
As I pushed the limits with each lap, I finally encountered the stability issues identified by S&S Crew Chief & Lead Engineer Jeff Bailey earlier in the day.
“It’s no secret, our bike always seems a little more unstable,” admitted Bailey. “When entering a corner, we get a little more weaves and wobbles, and all sorts of things going on. So, we’re still working on that. There’s a lot of small improvements, but we haven’t found the magic bullet on that.”
The rear end grew particularly squirrelly in braking zones heading into turns eight and 11. Straights precede both bends, which force the rider to rely on hard braking and downshifting to execute the maneuver. With more weight shifted forward, the rear tire’s reduced contact patch contributed to several minor slides. Toss in a downshift high in the rev range and the tail end wagged more than a corgi’s. To alleviate the problem, I frequently delayed my downshifts until the final braking marker, right before pitching the behemoth bagger into a corner.
Still, if I can work around the mild corner-entry wiggles, so can King of the Baggers' top racer. As 2022 KotB crown-holder Tyler O’Hara put it, Indian is “still tuning” its auto-blipper function ahead of the 2023 season. Aside from those stability woes, the race-prepped Challenger colored me impressed. The project represents the pinnacle of bagger performance, with superbike-worthy brakes, suspension, and tires elevating the platform’s potential. For many cruiser-styled motorcycles, the performance ceiling is ground clearance. It’s encouraging to see King of the Baggers teams disprove those myths with such convincing results.
In 2021, Harley-Davidson seized the King of the Baggers crown. Just one year later, Indian avenged that loss in dramatic fashion, securing the 2022 title in the final race of the season. As both American manufacturers prepare for the 2023 season, we fully expect the two heavyweights to land haymakers throughout the 14-race calendar. Similar to Ali versus Frazier, race fans are in for a rubber match for the ages.
Indian’s Challenger may be the defending champ, but in racing, stasis is death. The Motor Company won’t stop developing its Road Glide Special race bike any time soon. Indian can’t afford to rest on its laurels either. As Tyler O’Hara put it, “the evolution of this performance bagger is more and more sporty. They’re getting closer and closer to the superbikes, but we still have a lot of potential.” So much for an easy-going season.