Is there anything more exciting than a drag race?
Like automobiles, motorcycle drag racing dates back to the days of the first bikes a century ago, although the sport has evolved over the last few decades. The amateur races that were commonplace on rural back roads with the rules of "run what you brung" are long gone. Today, drag races are organized and sanctioned events with professional riders and sponsored teams.
Here we will cover the origins of two-wheeled racing and how legendary racers like Pete Hill and Joe Smith and their custom machines set the stage for a sport that has grown in popularity over the last few decades.
The Humble Origins
As life began to return to normal after WWII, the trend during the 1950s and 60s was for bigger, faster, and more powerful machines. While many people associate this era with automobiles, the same can be said for motorcycles. Unsurprisingly, speed contests became increasingly popular, which led to the idea of drag strips where competitors could push their vehicles (or motorcycles) to the limits in a controlled environment. The first was actually an unused runway in Santa Ana, California, where races were initiated by a flagger instead of the "tree" used today. Likewise, classes were still a decade away, and the winner was nothing more than who had the fastest bike.
For some, these are remembered as the "good old days" since there were no rules governing modifications or engine sizes, and most participants were amateur racers that built their own bikes. In other words, it came down to how much you were willing to spend, how creative you were, and how fast you wanted to go. This is especially true for the builds of well-known racers of the time like Pete Hill, Bud Hare, and Clem Johnson.
Using the latter as an example, he started with a 45-horsepower 998cc Vincente Rapide that evolved over the years into the iconic 450-horsepower drag bike known as Barn Job. Bud Hare chose a different route by stuffing a pair of 650cc Triumph engines into a custom-built chassis. Not to be outdone, there were triple-engine bikes, and by the 1970s, seven-second ¼ mile passes were not unheard of. However, in the following decade, things would change with single-engine and forced induction bikes becoming the norm, a trend that continues into the present day.
Since the 1980s, motorcycle drag racing has primarily been dominated by Japanese sports bikes, although it is not uncommon to see BMWs, Buells, and Harley-Davidsons at many events. Of all sportbikes, the most recognizable is the Suzuki Hayabusa with its 1300cc engine, and it is still regarded as one of the fastest production motorcycles ever made. However, there are a number of sports bikes that can run a 10-second ¼ mile with mild modifications but suffice to say, motorcycle racing has come a long way since the 1950s.
Evolution and Growth
You don't have to be a gearhead to know that the 60s and early 70s were the golden years of muscle cars and the quest for more horsepower. Even though motorcycles have been overshadowed by their four-wheeled counterparts, they followed a similar trend. Likewise, the idea behind drag racing is the same for all participants, with the goal of running down the ¼ mile faster than your opponent. As competitions evolved, it became evident some rules and restrictions were needed in order to keep events competitive. Simply put, a 600cc Honda CBR is no match for a race-built 1300cc Hayabusa, and this led to the creation of classes like Street ET and Pro Stock with rules covering engine size, modifications, and power adders, to name a few.
Since the 1950s, there have been several bodies dedicated to regulating (and promoting) motorcycle racing, such as the Mid-Atlantic Motorcycle Association and the American Motorcycle Drag Racing Association. While they have come and gone, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) is motorsport's largest sanctioning body, governing automobile and motorcycle drag racing.
Currently, there are four classes for bikes
- Street ET
- Pro Street
- Pro Stock
- Top Fuel
While the latter pertains to NHRA-sanctioned events, local organizations such as the NHDRO (based in the Midwest) and the Xtreme Dragbike Association (based in the Mid-Atlantic) promote and sponsor events with rules that may differ from the NHRA. Among them are classes based on engine sizes such as 600cc, 900cc, 1000cc or greater, and limits on modifications. At the same time, rules are frequently reviewed and subject to change in order to keep the playing field as level as possible.
It goes without saying that today's motorcycles have come a long way from those raced by Pete Hill and Bud Hare. Bikes are faster and more powerful than ever, with Larry McBride's 5.5-second, 264 mph ¼ mile pass in 2019 at South Georgia Motorsports Park is the current record.
Motorcycle Drag Racing Today
While there are no sanctioning bodies on the national level solely dedicated to motorcycles, most events adhere to NHRA guidelines. However, as mentioned earlier, local and regional events may have their own rules and classes, but generally speaking, they are similar to those established by the NHRA. Given there have been several governing bodies that have folded over the years, it is doubtful a new one will be created in the foreseeable future.
Like the 1950s, the quest for more speed and pushing the limits will never change. Sure, the bikes ridden by Pete Hill and Bud Hare pale compared to anything today, but they were the pioneers that set the stage for motorcycle racing. Who knows what 10 years will bring, and we may see bikes that can run a five-second quarter-mile at 300 mph. Not to mention more hybrid and electric motorcycles in the future. Regardless of how they are powered, there will always be a need for speed, and the desire to be the fastest down the ¼ mile will not change anytime soon.