RIP: Babe DeMay

Babe DeMay and Dominic Colindres at Austin in 2016.
Babe DeMay and Dominic Colindres at Austin in 2016.

For a guy who helped design both versions of the Harley-Davidson XR750 engine, Babe DeMay didn’t really seem to be a strong enthusiast of the iconic American racing engine.

I called him once at his shop for something a few years back. He was in the middle of pulling an engine out of one of his XR750s (solo) and he was quite, ah, dismissive, of the XR750 engine, his input on its design and how legendary the mill had become in racing. His thoughts on that day seemed centered on how heavy the engine was (160 pounds), that it took at least 25 hours of upkeep for every race it did and that it was painfully expensive to maintain. I think Babe, on that day of solo engine removal, was 83 years old.

Do you have a crane or a cherry picker to pull the XR750 out of the frame? I asked. No, I just lift them out, he said.

Later, Babe said that one of the happiest days of his life was seeing his XR750s leave the driveway in someone else’s vehicle. With the cash from that sale he could commence work on his final race bike project, the Yamaha FZ07 mill, of which he was one of the originators of the Yamaha engine being used in dirt track.

Babe was a rider/engineer/tuner for the majority of his adult life. As a rider he was one of the original FBFI (fast boys from Illinois) then transitioned to Harley’s race department with Dick “Obie” O’Brien. By the end of the 1970s he was working with Kenny Roberts at Yamaha.

The Yamaha FZ07 project had all of Babe’s enthusiasm late in life. Finally, this was a modern engine that was reliable and made decent power while it didn’t actually need to come apart to the crankshaft seemingly after every practice session.

One of Babe’s last riders was Dominic Colindres, a very fast rider who unfortunately was paralyzed while racing Babe’s Yamaha at Peoria. Babe went home after that and it was said he was finished with racing. However the last time I spoke with him he said he was ready to go racing again and all he needed was a rider and a sponsor “it’s all ready to go”.

He died yesterday at 88.

A younger colleague of Babe’s said of him today:

Babe was old school and always to the point, but always polite as well. In the decade or more I worked with him, he always asked if I had time to talk before he launched into what he needed. We had a conversation once about the XR, and he said something along the lines of, “Harley stopped assembling new XR engines a long time ago. Now when you order one you just get a crate of parts to put together. I think they started doing that because they knew we were going to throw 90% of the original parts in the garbage and install good quality components instead.”

Before I met him in person, we spent a lot of time on the phone. His soft and slightly quavery voice made me wonder if he was really up to running a dirt track team at his age. Then I met him in person at the track and watched him sling fully built race engines around like they were nothing. He was such an impressive guy in so many ways.

He was incredibly supportive of his riders, and worked in an apprenticeship type model. Quite a few of his riders lived with him and worked in the shop with him. That didn’t mean it was something glamorous like rebuilding forks or porting a head. It usually took the form of “The shop sink is dirty, go get the scouring powder and a sponge. When you’re done with that, get the broom.” I remember one rider pushed back against such lowly work, he was out the door and on his own the next morning.

I feel privileged that I got to know him a little. He was a special guy, and they don’t make them like Babe any more.

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