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Motorcycle Drag Racing: A History

BY JOHN S. STEIN FOREWORD BY SANDY KOSMAN


A HARLEY-DAVIDSON PANHEAD FROM THE FIFTIES WITH (LEFT TO RIGHT) SPONSOR JOHN GREGORICH, RIDER BILLY HOLCOMB, AND CREW MEMBER BOBBY BLANCHETT.


CHAPTER 2 IN THE BEGINNING

of early motorcycle drag racing are sketchy, its origin is clear: Drag racing evolved from illegal street racing and nearly everyone who has drag raced got their start there. Much of the reason, of course, is its “accessibility.” You don’t have to haul a motorcycle somewhere to drag race it. There are streets everywhere, and a lot more of them are straight than not. “Main Street south between L.A. and Long Beach, right next to the power lines, was a favorite spot,” recalls southern Californian J.W. Griffin. “Word would get around by phone, some street bikes and maybe 10 to 15 cars showed up and we would run. We didn’t have a flag, the starter just waved his hand!” Not surprisingly, the racers soon caught the attention of the police. A cat-and-mouse game had begun, and some of the performance-oriented shops quickly allied themselves with the mice. Motorcycle shop owner C.B. Clausen, for one, ran an ad promising that a particular high-performance camshaft he designed would help street racers outrun police. WHILE SOME ASPECTS

SANTA ANA: THE FIRST DRAG STRIP.

Racing on the street had its obvious drawbacks, the police being just one of them. And so, on July 19, 1950, C.J. “Pappy” Hart established the first drag strip in Santa Ana, California. There was a quiet little airport in town and Hart and partner Frank Stillwell made a deal with its manager to rent an unused runway every Sunday. Hart determined that a drag race should be a quarter-mile in length, having borrowed the distance from thoroughbred racing. That connection, he believed, would help publicize the sport and gain acceptance for it. Drag racing was something he had been around his entire life. “When I was growing up in Ohio,” Hart said, “every stoplight, every night was a race.” The trophies Hart provided went mainly to motorcycle racers. Although cars also raced at Santa Ana, top speed was often set by motorcycles— with Bud Hare, Tommy Auger, Pete Lockhart, Lloyd Krant, Bill Johnson, Mike Ward, and Pat Presetti winning Top Eliminator titles between 1950 and 1956.

C.J. “PAPPY” HART FOUNDED THE SANTA ANA DRAG STRIP AND LATER MANAGED LIONS DRAG STRIP.

IN THE BEGINNING

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BIKES RACED CARS, ALTHOUGH NOT ALWAYS AS FRIENDLY COMPETITORS. PART OF THE REASON WAS THAT THE MOTORCYCLES GENERALLY WON.

ALTHOUGH BEST KNOWN FOR HAVING WON THE DAYTONA 200 ROAD RACE (AND HAVING A SON THAT DID AS WELL), FLOYD EMDE ALSO DRAG RACED EARLY IN HIS CAREER. SO DID OTHERS NOT GENERALLY ASSOCIATED WITH THE SPORT SUCH AS DON VESCO, GARY NIXON, AND DENIS MANNING.

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THE GREATEST CHALLENGE WASN’T ALWAYS FROM THE OTHER RACER; IT WAS OFTEN FROM THE TRACK ITSELF.

Track conditions at early drag strips were often poor and the worst of them may have been Paradise Mesa in San Diego. “It literally was on top of a mesa,” recalls Bobby Sirkegian. “If you did not get stopped, which a number of the drag cars could not get stopped, you virtually would go off a cliff!” Not surprisingly, the early races had little in the way of safety equipment and even less in the way of rules. Riders didn’t wear helmets until the early Fifties when the Cromwell was introduced, and it would have been of limited help anyway. Essentially, the helmet was made of paper maché. When the McHal and Toptex helmets came along, they were safer but hardly safe. No one wore leathers and few wore boots. Short sleeve shirts and tennis shoes were the order of the day. A flagman was positioned 20 feet ahead of the riders and a set of lights at the end of the track recorded speeds. Elapsed time wasn’t a factor since there was no way of measuring it. Only top speed mattered, which tended to favor West Coast racers. Since southern California had long been home to dry lakes racing at El Mirage and Muroc, top speed was the barometer by which performance was measured. In parts of the country that didn’t place importance on top speed, drag racers instead focused on elapsed times.

AS AUTOMOBILES BECAME MORE COMMON AND TRAFFIC IN DETROIT WORSENED. POLICE OFFICER WILLIAM L. POTTS DECIDED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. BY ADAPTING RAILROAD SIGNALS FOR STREET USE, POTTS IN 1920 DEVELOPED THE WORLD’S FIRST 4-WAY, THREE-COLOR TRAFFIC LIGHT. GOOD FOR SAFETY — AND DRAG RACING.

AS MOTORCYCLE HISTORIAN PETER CARRICK OBSERVED, “FROM A STANDING START TO MAXIMUM SPEED OVER A SHORT DISTANCE MUST BE THE OLDEST FORM OF MOTORCYCLE RACING—FOR IT IS MORE THAN LIKELY THAT THIS WAS HOW THE FIRST-EVER MACHINE WAS TESTED; AND THE SECOND MACHINE BUILT WAS RACED AGAINST IT.”

IN THE BEGINNING

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SPONSORS GO WHERE THE MONEY IS AND IN THE EARLY DAYS, THERE WASN’T ANY.

JIM HUNTER ON THE HARLEY-DAVIDSON KNUCKLEHEAD “MILWAUKEE VIBRATOR”. HUNTER WOULD LATER GO ON TO BECOME A TOP DIRT TRACK RACER ON BSAS.

The builders of early drag bikes were more often than not also the riders, tuners and sponsors. Since motorcycle drag racing was so far out of the mainstream, there was little money to be made. And with little money to be made, there was little incentive for sponsors to get involved. The reward for winning was a trophy, although winners at Santa Ana did have an alternative. “You could tell Mr. Hart you wanted money,” recalls Gary Richards, “and he would buy the trophy back for the wholesale price of $7. With $7 multiplied by however many races we won, we could have ourselves a pretty nice barbeque.” In time, the money would come but it would be a while and even then, it wouldn’t be a lot. The first time the team of Sonny Scott and Priness Perry were paid for winning A/Fuel Motorcycle was in 1964. They received $300 for their efforts. Which begs the question: In a culture in which money is so often the great motivator, why would people race when there was so little to be made? One reason, of course, is that racers during these

GEORGE VARNER (LEFT) AND PASADENA, CALIFORNIA, TRIUMPH DEALER POP GRAVES.

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formative years had more of an amateur mentality than a professional one. And for many that was all right. “What is important to remember here,” said Professor Robert Post, “is that building a better drag racing machine was good for personal satisfaction and for status within a marginalized subculture, but it paid few dividends otherwise.” IF ROAD RACING WAS BALLET, DRAG RACING WAS RAP AND MANY PEOPLE DIDN’T UNDERSTAND IT— OR CARE TO TRY.

The early motorcycle drag racing subculture was a sport of—and for—outsiders. If drag racers were second-class citizens, motorcycle drag racers came in a distant third. Not surprisingly then, there was little enthusiasm for it among most drag strip promoters. A 1965 article in Modern Cycle suggested, “Sooner or later somebody will have to make a decision: Either motorcycle drag races constitute a spectator sport worth presenting in some decent, organized manner, or they’re not worth a tinker’s damn. Right now, the two-wheeled dragsters are being treated as stepchildren of the big rail jobs at most drag strips around the country, and that does nothing to interest either spectators or entrants.” Even at popular venues, motorcycles ran perhaps once a month— and it was generally street bikes that ran. At larger events such as the 1961 U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships and NHRA Winternationals, there were no motorcycles entered. By contrast, at the East Coast National Motorcycle Drag Championships in 1968, there were twenty-six motorcycles in A/Fuel alone.

THE CADET “SLICK” The Long Beach Night Drags in 1956 marked the appearance of a new type of tire from the Cadet Tire Company of Los Angeles. It was a regular street tire onto which a “slick" had been grafted. Sometimes, the arrangement worked. Other times, it didn't and the grafted portion would separate from the rest of the tire. Because of the less-than-sophisticated way the tires were made, they were often so far out of balance that racer Bob Theiler recalls having to add as much as two pounds of lead to bring one into balance.

“…building a better drag racing machine was good for personal satisfaction and for status within a marginalized subculture, but it paid few dividends otherwise.”— P R O F E S S O R R O B E RT P O S T LIONS DRAG STRIP.

One of the places where motorcycles would be appreciated early on was Lions Drag Strip. When Long Beach, California, Judge Fred Miller tired of having street racers appear before his court, he arranged a meeting between hot rodder Mickey Thompson and Eddie Baker of the Lions Club—a nationwide service group dedicated to community betterment. They, in turn, met with Juvenile Department representatives and worked out an agreement whereby local Lions Club chapters would raise money to build

IN THE BEGINNING

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PART OF THE REASON FOR DRAG RACING’S APPEAL IS ITS CLARITY. “IT’S THE ARM WRESTLING OF MOTOR SPORTS,” SAID SANDY KOSMAN. “THERE’S NEVER ANY QUESTION AS TO WHO WON.”


a drag strip at an abandoned railroad yard. On October 9, 1955, Lions Drag Strip opened with Thompson as its sole paid employee. Although controversial, Thompson was in the words of Cycle magazine, “the best thing that has happened to this sport since the introduction of nitro as a fuel”. Most racers were equally approving. “He doesn’t shove us into the background,” said Triumph racer Jim Cook at the time. “Thompson understands that our engines are just as unique as those that power the big rails and gives us the same consideration he does to these.” Although racers will always have their favorite venues, virtually all of them competed at Lions including Dewey Merritt on an A.J. Lewis-built, Triumph fueler that had turned 132.48 mph; Mike Ward’s fuel-burning Triumph “Eight Ball” ridden by Bill Johnson; the team of Martz and Auger; and Joe Dudek’s Triumph Thunderbird, which held the 40-inch gas record at Santa Ana, San Fernando, Pomona, Saugus, Long Beach and Colton.

AFTER BEGINNING HIS RACING CAREER ON A HARLEY-DAVIDSON “KNUCKLEHEAD” GASSER IN 1962, BILL CHAMBERS SWITCHED TO FUEL. HIS BEST RUN WOULD BE A 9.02 AT 165 MPH ON A 96 CUBIC INCH SHOVELHEAD.

IN THE BEGINNING

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Motorcycle Drag Racing: A History  

The History of Motorcycle Drag Racing by John S. Stein.

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