An Interview with Tyler O’Hara, 2022 King Of The Baggers Champion

There is no giving up with Tyler O’Hara. In 2020, many saw the Indian driver as a shoo-in for the inaugural King of the Baggers (KotB) Invitational. O’Hara also kept up the hype, leading his rivals a country mile with just five laps to go. That’s when the unexpected happened.

O’Hara ran wide at the tricky Laguna Seca bend. His Indian Challenger crossed the gravel trap. Fortunately, he kept the rubber side down, but the unforced error relegated him to third place. O’Hara would not be deterred, however. He cut across the field like a hot razor through peach fuzz, seizing the first King of the Baggers crown in the process.

Since then, the single race has grown into a series of six rounds. The entry list has grown from 14 entrants in 2020 to 22 riders in 2022. There has been one constant throughout this change – Tyler O’Hara.

After relinquishing the title in 2021, No. 29 returned in 2022 with one goal in mind: to reclaim the KotB crown. O’Hara did just that at rain-soaked New Jersey Motorsport Park on Sept. 11, 2022. After that title-winning performance, we sat down with O’Hara to find out how his no-give-up attitude will help him defend Indian’s throne. in 2023.

You won the first-ever 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?

Whenever you have a rivalry there is always a challenge. You are racing against one of the biggest motorcycle manufacturers in the world, Harley-Davidson. You are against all odds. It’s really motivating as an athlete, and as a team, to be the underdog. It’s a bit like David against Goliath, Indian against Harley-Davidson, and it’s very motivating.

With this huge rivalry, it has forced me to raise my game every year and strive to be the best I can be. It’s the same for the whole team and this year has been the toughest yet.

You know, Kyle was named first [Harley-Davison] factory jumper [in 2021]. We are both A riders and our job is to win. We have different personalities. It makes me very motivated to beat him. It’s part of being a rival. I have the greatest respect for him and the Wymans. As for the competition, that would be Kyle Wyman and his brother, Travis. For me, it’s very motivating for me to go out there and beat them.

A mechanical breakdown at the Road America round (Milwaukee) derailed your 2021 title shots. This year, you’ve completed all races and taken back the KotB crown. How has the team improved the Indian Challenger’s reliability and how has that consistency contributed to your title chase?

I feel like I’ve always been a regular rider. The thing about the S&S Cycle team is that we really do our homework and our testing, but at the same time we’re a little conservative when it comes to taking steps towards an engine assembly or change of configuration. I think a lot of it comes down to knowing what works and what our strengths and weaknesses are.

Our bike handles very well and our motors are really strong and reliable. The first race weekend, Kyle [Wyman] had a mechanic [issue]. For me, it was the start of the championship. From that race, I just picked my next rival for that weekend and I would race with that person specifically. I managed the championship in this regard. Knowing that my closest rival had a bad weekend, I took advantage of it.

We all know that Harley-Davidson will do everything in their power to reclaim the KotB championship in 2023. To make sure that doesn’t happen, what can Indian do to improve the 2023 Challenger racing machine?

We found stuff at the end of the year. We are still fine-tuning the configuration and ergonomics of the chassis. 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 capable of, 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 and nimble bike that can dominate for a very long time. Indian Motorcycle is in my opinion the most innovative motorcycle company in the world.

Bobby Fong taking a win at VIR (Virginia International Raceway) is a great testament to the quality of the bike. Jeremy [McWilliams] thus, winning at Daytona with the fastest top speed. Then, Bobby, on this very technical and fast track on which he can also win. As a corsair [racer]if I was looking at a bike with true racing DNA, I would be looking at the Indian Challenger all day.

You fought 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 need to do as a rider to stay ahead of the pack in 2023?

Tyler O'Hara and Jeremy McWilliams

When I had comments about my teammate, and who I thought was the best candidate for the team, for the development of the bike and for me to win the championship, it was Jeremy McWilliams. He has such a wealth of knowledge and experience at so many different levels and bikes. He makes me a better driver, a better person, on and off the track.

There are no alpha males in the pits. We fight hard and clean. We leave it on the trail. I knew having him as a teammate was going to be a challenge and that I had to prove myself every time on the track. He picks up speed faster than me sometimes in qualifying. Using him as a carrot last race weekend really helped me. Even in wet conditions he drove past me and I was able to keep up with him as he has experience in many different situations.

He is like my brother. We’ve gotten so tight this year. We feed off each other so well. We look a lot alike. We have such good energy. He makes me better in many ways, but I feel like I keep raising my game every year. I feel like I’m entering my prime and really understanding how to manage these championships and win at the same time. I feel like I’ve found my place riding these big, heavy bikes. 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 did the development work. For the first year or two, people didn’t really have a clue what it took to do road racing. Everyone was making drag race bikes with lots of power and real flat swingarm angles. They could go straight quickly, but they couldn’t go around corners.

It’s just an evolution of the sport. It’s such a cool sport. You get a lot of different characters and personalities. Among the top 10 guys, you have 10 different champions from different disciplines. The competition is tough and I see the rivalry lasting three to five years at this level. I can see 35 bikes on the grid. People want to be involved. Fans show up. They sell out. People are really enthusiastic. They can really identify with these two American brands that go against each other. It’s not better.

Wiley C. Thompson