Bill Werner is a legendary racing mechanic for Harley-Davidson who tuned motorcycles that carried Gary Scott, Jay Springsteen and Scott Parker to a total of 13 AMA Grand National Championships. When Springsteen set the record for all-time AMA national wins, it was Werner turning the wrenches. It was Werner who built Parker’s motorcycles when he later broke Springsteen’s mark. Werner is easily the winningest tuner in AMA Grand National racing history.
Werner was born, appropriately enough, in Milwaukee, Wis. He began his life-long interest in motors as a kid, starting with go-karts. While in high school, Werner got a summer job as a parts cleaner for a hot rod shop a few blocks from his house. His interest in motorcycling took off when a friend talked him into going up to nearby Cedarburg Fairgrounds to watch AMA national champ Carroll Resweber. Werner soon had a motorcycle that he used for basic transportation.
Watching Resweber also inspired Werner to get into racing. He started by running in local scrambles events. He recalls converting a Ducati Bronco into a scrambles bike by modifying the frame and wedging a 150cc Honda motor into the frame. Later he started flat track racing on a Harley Sprint. Werner progressed through the ranks as a novice, junior and ultimately earned his expert license, even though injuries and job responsibilities ultimately kept him from competing as an expert. Through racing, Werner met Ralph Berndt, who tuned for Resweber. Berndt became a mentor to Werner and even let him race an ex-Resweber Harley KR.
In 1966, Werner was working as a propane gas deliveryman when a friend showed him a want ad in the Milwaukee newspaper. Harley-Davidson was seeking a racing mechanic. Werner applied and eventually got the job. He started as what he described as "low man on the totem pole."
"Dick O’Brien (Harley's head of racing) called me Amos all the time," Werner remembered. "I just figured he didn’t know my real name. There were about eight people working in the racing department then. When you were new, you were treated like you didn’t know anything and I figure that was probably right. But you muddled along and picked up things, sort of paying your dues."
Werner worked primarily in the racing shop, except for the annual trek to Daytona each March. In the shop, he mostly worked on maintaining the factory Harley road racing machines. By the late 1960s, Werner was starting to come into his own as a top-notch tuner. Sid Carlson had some good results on a Werner-built Harley. In 1974, Harley-Davidson hired racer Gary Scott and Werner was assigned to be his traveling mechanic.
Scott won the AMA Grand National Championship in 1975 aboard a Werner-built bike. It would be the first in a long line of successes for Werner as a mechanic.
Before the 1976 season, Scott quit the team and young Jay Springsteen was brought in. The Springsteen/Werner combination proved to be a fruitful one. "Springer" won the title that year, but not before a dramatic last-race practice crash that almost cost him the championship. Werner stepped in and showed that not only could he fix bikes, but people as well.
"We were at Ascot and Jay only needed to finish fourth or better to beat Gary Scott for the championship," Werner recalled. "Jay and Rex Beauchamp were hooking up pretty good in practice and Jay went down hard. I ran over to where he’d crashed and he was pretty banged up. His biggest problem was his hand. He had a badly dislocated finger. The EMTs wanted to take him to the hospital. I’d been a wrestling coach and we used to deal with dislocated fingers all the time, so I grab his finger and pulled it back into place. Jay said it felt a lot better. He was still a little groggy, but he was able to qualify for the race. Then in the main he won even though he didn’t need to and earned the admiration of racing fans all over the country. It was one of the highlights of my career."
Springsteen went on to win three consecutive AMA Grand National titles riding Werner-tuned factory Harley-Davidsons.
By the mid-1980s, Harley-Davidson was going through a difficult downturn. The racing department was nearly eliminated. For several years, the factory racing effort was discontinued. Werner was the only person left in the racing department. Everyone else either retired or was laid off.
"I was basically shipping parts and answering the phone," said Werner.
Up-and-comer Scott Parker wanted to hire Werner as his mechanic. Despite initial resistance from Werner and Harley brass, Parker talked him into it and Werner effectively took on the responsibilities of two full-time jobs: by day, sole employee of Harley-Davidson’s racing department, and by night and on weekends, mechanic for Parker. It was a grueling schedule that Werner managed for two years.
In 1987, Werner pitched to management the idea that he be allowed to work on Parker’s bikes as part of his regular job for Harley. The fact that Parker was winning a lot likely encouraged them to agree and from 1988 to 1998 Parker made an unprecedented run in the Grand Nationals, winning nine championships. Parker would become the all-time winningest rider in AMA Grand National history in terms of race wins and championships. Werner was the man behind the scenes who helped make it possible.
But Werner wasn’t always behind the scenes. In the late-1980s, after being interviewed for a TV broadcast by Dave Despain, Werner was told by Despain that he was pretty good on camera and that he would like for him to become a color commentator for the races. Werner’s expertise added a great deal to the television broadcasts of AMA Grand Nationals. It also helped thousands of racing fans put a face to the name that was already familiar to them.
Werner has garnered many honors over the years, including AMA Mechanic of the Year a remarkable 13 times, and he won the inaugural AMA Pro Racing Award of Mechanical Excellence in 1996. He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2000. Werner retired from Harley-Davidson in 2004 and now competes in AMA Pro Flat Track with old friend Jay Springsteen as owner and tuner of the Monster Energy Kawasaki Werner Springsteen Racing team. He and wife, Victoria, have two children.
He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2000.