Drag racing today, whether on four wheels or two, is nothing like it was. It’s a lot harder to find a drag strip close by, the small local drag strips have been disappearing along with many of the biggest and most famous, but to those who have ever spent their weekends at a strip, trying to shave a tenth of a second from their E.T., you know how addictive it can be. Motorcycle Drag Racing: A History, focuses on the two wheel subculture within the sport and it’s a fascinating story.
Street racing has been around, probably since the second motorized vehicle appeared, but the first actual drag strip is generally recognized as the one in Santa Ana, California founded by C.J. “Pappy” Hart, where he rented an unused airport runway every Sunday starting in July of 1950. He based the quarter mile distance on thoroughbred horse racing (hmm, … I didn’t know that), and, wow, how the sport grew from there!
If you happen to see any of the high dollar pro motorcycle teams today, arriving at a race in their fully equipped semi trailers and RVs, you would have to squint your eyes pretty hard to catch a glimpse of the humble beginnings of those early drag racers. There wasn’t any money in it, the speed equipment on your bike was whatever you made for it, the knowledge of what to do was whatever you figured out or dreamed up, your dynamometer was the seat of your pants, the transporter for you, the bike and your tools was an old pickup truck. Drag racing was new and raw and loud, a test of knowledge and skill, it satisfied your need to compete and gave you a healthy shot of adrenaline. Is it any wonder it took off?
Throughout the 1950s, racers ran motorcycles from all of the manufacturers, Harley Davidson, Triumph, Vincent, even Royal Enfield, but the companies themselves weren’t interested. Flat track and road racing were full of factory equipment, but drag racing was amateur all the way. The book has photos of a lot of the wonderful homebuilt machinery the racers built and the creativity is a joy for any motorhead to behold. Then, in the 60s, things began to, um … accelerate, lots of innovations, things like the slipper clutch which was kind of an accident, that kept the racers from burning up their four inch Avon slicks.
To try to summarize this book would do it an injustice, single engine, multi engine, V8s, gas, nitro, it’s all there, the stories just go on and on. Many of the names you’ve come to know, even some road racers, you’ll see where they got their start. The ETs went down, the top speeds went up and the costs, … they went way up. The camaraderie found at the early tracks, the low buck racing, it may be a time we’ll never see again, but it was a wonderful era. Simpler in many ways, fun to be sure, and young riders today are missing something in not having a chance to race like this, though, you can’t really miss what you’ve never had, so maybe they’ll look at it and see nothing in it. Who knows?
I was introduced to this book by Richard Pollock of Mule Motorcycles, who, after reading it, decided he really needs to build a drag racer and I have already thanked him for bringing it to my attention. He calls it the Holy Grail of motorcycle drag racing books. It was published in 2011, but I never noticed it before. I don’t know if many were sold, but for anyone interested in the sport, it deserves more attention. At first glance, you would think it was one of those picture books found on bookstore bargain tables, but you would be very wrong, though there are a huge number of photos, many of those are from the private collections of the drag racers themselves, the research and information in the book will tell you much about motorcycle drag racing history you never knew. It’s the kind of book that makes you think about building a racer yourself, so if there are latent drag racer tendencies in your personality, beware.
If the only racing you’re interested in is road racing, this isn’t for you, but if the idea of finding out, right now, if you’re quicker and faster than the other guy, if the idea of wide open, straight line racing makes you think, “yeah, I could do that,” then this is your book. Check it out.
Motorcycle Drag Racing: A History on Amazon