Hand-shift Motorcycle Racers Dance to a Different Beat

Two AHRMA racers talk about their passion for hand-shift motorcycles.

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Rosco works his way around Utah’s Miller Motorsports track during the 2009 Bonneville Vintage GP.

Photo by Stephen Clark

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Vintage racers tend to ride bikes they have a direct, personal connection to. Gary Nixon usually hits the track on a late 1960s or early 1970s Triumph, while Jay Springsteen shreds his vintage rubber on a mid-1970s Harley XR750 or similar.

It makes sense; Nixon won two championships riding Triumphs in the 1960s, and Springsteen three aboard an H-D in the 1970s. So what motivates Ralph Wessel and Ross “Rosco” Tuffli to ride late-1930s American V-twins, bikes built before they were even born? They’re cool, that’s what.

“The hand shift is just the coolest because it’s the oldest stuff you can race,” says Tuffli, who’s been active in American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) road racing for five years, the last two of them riding a 1939 45ci flathead V-twin Harley-Davidson WLDR in the hand-shift and pre-1940 classes. Tuffli, 49, also owns a 1933 74ci VL, a bike he’s had for 22 years. “I just think the old stuff is cool,” he says.

Wessel says he got into hand shift because of his passion for Indians. Wessel, 50, started racing in the AHRMA series in 2000 and moved to hand shift in 2004. He currently has five Indians, including a Chief and two 1937 Sport Scouts, affectionately nicknamed One Little, Two Little and Three Little. “Indians are the best American made motorcycle,” Wessel says flatly. “The Chief was my first, but the Sport Scouts are what you race, and I’ve got a 1927 in the making with a leaf-spring front end. I want to run a 1930s-era engine and trans because parts are easier to get.”

The same but different

Tuffli, who used to go drag racing, started racing in AHRMA on a little Honda CB350. “For years I told my friends I was going to get a racing license and race at Daytona,” Tuffli says. “When they started rolling their eyes, I figured I’d better do it or shut up.” Tuffli went to race school, and the month after he finished he was on the track, racing a garage sale Honda. “My buddy Craig Breckon helped me through the school, and when we were done he said, ‘Next year you can get a bike.’ I got a bike for the next race. I built that Honda and made it track legal in a month,” Tuffli recalls.

The itch to race in the hand-shift class was a little harder to satisfy. “I’m constantly sleeping in my truck,” Tuffli says by way of explaining that he’s always strapped for cash. Two years ago he almost quit racing, but then Harley specialist Tom Faber at Faber Cycle and his pals in the Road Weasels, an Indian-only club (Tuffli also owns a 1938 Indian Sport Scout) out of Grand Rapids, Mich., pooled their parts and skills to build Tuffli the Harley he’s racing now. “They built the bike for me,” Tuffli says. “It’s really been a group effort and it really makes me feel good.” For 2008, out of a field of 15 riders (about average for a given year with maybe half that number competing in a given race) Tuffli ended up third in class in hand shift and fourth in pre-1940; he rose to second in class for hand shift in 2009.

Like Tuffli, Wessel started his AHRMA career on a Honda CB350. He also built a Triumph 650 for road racing, but after a few years he decided it was time to move a different direction. He sold the Honda and returned the Triumph to street status, and turned his attention to his small but growing collection of Indians, singling out one of his 45ci flathead V-twin Sport Scouts.
For his first few years Wessel consistently placed mid-pack in the hand-shift and pre-1940 classes. But things started changing in 2007, when he came in third in hand shift and fourth in pre-1940, and in 2009 he clinched the deal, scoring first in the hand-shift class while also nabbing third in pre-1940.

Unlike Tuffli, however, whose team Road Weasel Harley is basically unchanged from its first season (except for swapping the standard gear box for a close-ratio unit), Wessel has continuously improved his Indian. “I’m running standard valves but Carrillo rods,” Wessel says, adding, “but if you lose a piston the damn Carrillos will destroy everything else.” Don’t ask how he knows. Wessel’s also running high performance camshafts, but there’s only so much cam tuning you can do on an Indian as each of its two cams operates both the intake and exhaust valves for that cylinder. Even so, he says he can rev to about 7,000rpm safely, good for speeds in the high 90s. “We’ve been clocked at 100mph at Daytona,” Wessel says.

For both riders, racing in the hand-shift class has become something of an addiction. “The people are incredible,” Tuffli says. “You look at me, not everybody is going to warm up to me; these people did. And riding hand shift, now you’re like a Samurai with the club.” Wessel agrees. “I’m an addict and this is my fix,” he says, adding, “And it’s a good, healthy addiction, a good family-oriented sport even if it’s not recognized that way.”

Tuffli and Wessel both rode in the 2010 season opener at Roebling Road and Daytona in March. Tuffli managed a pair each of third- and fourth-place finishes in hand shift and pre-1940, while Wessel crossed the line in second place four times. For Tuffli, it was probably his last race of the season on the Harley. “My skinny ass can’t throw that bike around,” Tuffli says. “I’m building a 175 Honda twin to do the LeMans start. I’ve wanted to do that since the first time I saw it; it’s so cool.”

Wessel, however, is staying put: “In all honesty, I’m probably one of the bigger mouths promoting the old rivalry between Harley and Indian. I’ve got to try to defend this championship for Indian. Kyle Corser had it for Harley for two years, and before him Art Farley, and before Art, Will Harding had it for seven seasons on an Indian.” Wessel and Tuffli may not have started on old V-twins, but after seven combined years riding 1930s-era bikes as fast as they can go, nobody can say they don’t have a personal connection to their old American iron. MC