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Nitro madness: NHRA motorcycle drag racing

“It’s like a bomb going off.”

“When those dragsters take off, the blast pins you right to the fence.”

I’d been given lots of advance hype before I showed up at the National Hot Rod Association’s (NHRA) New England Nationals drag race weekend in New Hampshire, but I was unconvinced. Sure, drag cars are fast, but I wanted to see bikes. And walking around the pits, I wasn’t seeing the drag bikes I expected. Where were Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines, the winningest Harley-Davidson race team in North America? Where was Jerry Savoie, alligator farmer-turned-drag-race champ?

All I saw was a handful of oddball, unfamiliar V-twins, with riders I didn’t know. I returned to the grandstand, figuring I’d see a few riders I knew when the bikes eventually ran.

As it turned out, watching car after car blast by the bleachers wasn’t so bad anyway — the Top Fuel dragsters totally lived up to their advance billing. The dragsters were taking off from the line in an orgy of hydrocarbon combustion, the cars almost hidden by heat waves coming off their engines due to the instant explosion of fuel. They were running quarter-mile times around the four-second mark; watching the takeoff felt like working next to an F14 on an aircraft carrier deck, the blast from the engines rattling my sinuses inside my skull. Al Gore would weep at the fuel consumption, David Suzuki would cry.

Speaking of Suzukis, there were none when the bikes showed up on track. Instead, they announced the Nitro Harley class. Weird — the bikes I’d seen hadn’t looked much like Harleys. Regardless, they were running 1/4-mile times under seven seconds, and that certainly grabbed my attention! The sound is intriguing : when fired up, they don’t sound like a normal V-twin. Running down the track, they almost sound like the pulse jet out of a V1 flying bomb. And they’re not going much slower than a V1 bomb, with top speeds over 320 km/h — as long as they can get launched. A couple of racers ended up slowly puttering down the track after over-spinning their tire on take-off, causing them to abandon their run to avoid disaster. One of those racers is announced as Alberta’s Mike Scott, the only Canadian motorcycle racer here this weekend.

Once all the racers had made their passes, I headed to the pits. Time to find out more about Nitro Harleys. And time to find Mike Scott.

One of the Jay Turner team’s racebikes.

***

The answer to the mystery: Nitro Harley is a separate class from the Pro Stock motorcycle series, and they run on alternating NHRA weekends, for the most part — I happened to be at the Nitro Harley weekend, which explained the lack of modified street-legal bikes.

Although these bikes aren’t production-based, it turns out they’re pretty cool when you see them up close. They’re powered by nitromethane, same as the Top Fuel dragsters and funny cars, and the engines have a lot of similarities. One mechanic described his 45° V-twin engine as “a quarter of a Top Fuel V8.” And that is indeed what it looks like. These engines are custom-built from scratch, not adaptations of existing Harley-Davidson machinery, and that means they have an industrial look to them, like they’ve been machined from raw metal and bolted together with fasteners from an industrial supply warehouse, not a fancy-pants race shop. Many of the bike’s components (like mechanical fuel injection and ignitions)  are similar to what you see on the cars, if not the exact same parts.

I could see the wrencher getting tired of my clueless questions, so I moved along through the pits and found Mike Scott’s area. He explained his trouble earlier in the day: a problem with clutch adjustment meant he was putting too much power to the ground, which spun the tire. But there wasn’t much time to talk, because he was due on-track soon for the final qualifying session, and I really didn’t want to distract him while he got ready.

Blink and you missed it! The Nitro Harleys run quarter mile times under seven seconds.

Scott’s bad luck prevailed. At his final start, the clutch woes continued, and he once again spun his rear tire too hard; after traveling all the way from Alberta to New Hampshire to race, he was headed home without even getting a chance at Sunday’s elimination round.

***

Sunday morning, I headed back to the pits. One of the great things about the NHRA drag racing scene is the availability and openness of the racers and crews, both in the car and motorcycle scenes. Considering these are perhaps the fastest drag racers in the world, the chance to stand only a metre away and watch them wrench is pretty cool.

It’s even better when a pair of tuners from the top Nitro Harley team, Jay Turner Racing, let me pick their brains about their bikes (the team runs three bikes, if you include the machine Mike Scott rents from them). Jeremy Hoy, a North Carolina native. and Don Newlove, another Albertan, formerly Mike Scott’s crew chief, had all the time in the world for me, and were proud to show off their team’s bikes.

That 14-inch rear tire looks beefy, but it has a pretty limited lifespan.

By the numbers, here’s the rundown on Jay Turner’s bike: It has a hand-built 4130 chromoly frame, two-speed transmission, a centrifugal clutch, weighs between 900 and 1,000 lb, and makes roughly 1,000 horsepower (the centrifugal clutch makes it hard to measure horsepower accurately, says Hoy). It runs on a mix of 96 per cent nitromethane and four per cent alcohol; racers are allowed a 100 per cent mix, but Turner’s team finds the mixture with alcohol preferable.

The motorcycle burns approximately two gallons of fuel per pass. The bike is naturally aspirated, although some racers are tinkering with machines with superchargers or turbos. There’s no ECM, but the bike does have a lot of electronic sensors used for data acquisition. There’s an ignition controller on both sides of the box, offering redundancy.

The rear tire is a 14-inch wide Mickey Thompson slick that costs $400 and gets about nine passes before it’s toast. The front is a pretty generic Avon tire with much more life expectancy: “The front lasts about the whole year,” Hoy says. “It doesn’t see the ground much.”

That hand-built nitromethane-powered V-twin puts out roughly 1000 hp.

The engine itself is custom-built, starting with made-in-Canada cases from BRD. Jay Turner Racing’s machines have a 4 3/4-inch bore and 5 1/4 inch stroke; rules allow capacity up to 200 cubic inches (3,280 cc), but most racers are around 181 ci, Hoy says. That’s because winning is not solely a question of muscle.

“It’s not about how much power you put to the ground, it’s about how you manage it,” says Hoy. “0-60 feet is the hardest part … you want to get as close to the verge of spinning (the rear wheel) as possible, without spinning.”

Because of the blink-and-you-missed-it nature of drag-race qualifying, an equipment problem like Scott faced the day before can end your racing ruthlessly quickly. Running quarter-miles in the 6.30 or 6.40 range doesn’t leave much time to tinker.

“You gotta figure it out pretty dag-gone quick. You got four passes to figure it out,” Hoy says.

At the far end of the track, dual front discs and a single rear disc work in conjunction with a drag chute to slow the bike down. The chute isn’t there so much to provide stopping power as it is to make sure the rear tire stays planted, instead of bouncing — that’s Very Undesirable at 300 km/h.

How much does all this cost to build a bike? Don Newlove figures it’s about $100,000 if you bought all the parts, made a few yourself, then did the final assembly yourself. To buy one completely assembled, he figures the price tag is about $150,000. He’d know, because he’s worked on these machines for years, and he’s built quite a few of the parts on the Jay Turner bikes, including the frames.

That’s a lot of money, but considering these machines are probably the top-level bikes in drag racing, it’s not so shocking; compare the price tag to a MotoGP machine (more than $3 million to develop and build) and it’s a bargain.

One other detail Newlove and Hoy share: along with the brakes and drag chute, the riders are required to have another piece of safety equipment: a bulletproof vest. When these engines blow up, they can shoot pieces of shrapnel out just like a hand grenade, and the riders are draped over the machine, only inches away from the explosion. The vest offers just a bit more safety.

Most of the crowds aren’t there to watch the bikes, but they still have some devoted fans.

***

Eliminations kicked off Sunday, and one by one, the racers were picked off. It’s ruthless; it doesn’t matter if you’re quicker than the rider before you or the rider after you, if you don’t beat the other bike that’s on the same track at the same time, you’re out.

Eight racers are narrowed down to four in the morning’s session. When they return to the track later, the four become two. Then in the afternoon, Doug Vancil faces off against Jay Turner, beating him with a 358 km/h, 6.283-second quarter mile (Turner runs 6.487 seconds, 308 km/h). It’s a ripping fun spectacle, even if you do have to wait through a lot of car racing to see it.

And that’s the way it is with NHRA bike drags; although organizers say it’s the most-watched motorcycle racing in North America, the reality is it’s just a side show to the funny cars, dragsters and other cars. If you’re like me and you like to watch cagers pulling wheelstands, then you’ll probably enjoy the whole weekend; if not, you can always tune in on Fox Sports Racing and change the channel when the cars come on. Either way, it’s fun to watch.


GALLERY

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