What’s so great about motorcycle drag racing? It’s like a line in the Lovin’ Spoonful song that says, “It’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock ‘n roll.” To those who are dedicated followers of it, the sport makes perfect sense. To those who aren’t, it makes no sense at all. Motorcycle Drag Racing: A History (Gearhead Publishing, 2011) by John S. Stein is for both kinds of people. This book documents the incredible 60-year history of organized motorcycle drag racing with full-color photographs and fascinating stories of the people behind the ever-evolving machinery. Find out how the addition of car parts and engines turned Japanese motorcycles into exceptionally fast and fluid bikes in this excerpt from Chapter 9, “Made in Japan.”
In 1964, Honda launched an advertising campaign to convince everyone that the nicest people could be found on Hondas. When their CB750 appeared five years later, everyone would also realize that you’d find the quickest people on them. With a 68 horsepower, SOHC, four-cylinder engine, its extraordinary performance was made even more so courtesy a handful of west coast tuners—most notably R.C. Engineering and Action Fours.
Action Fours’ “2x4”
Santa Ana, California-based Action Fours—headed by Bill Hahn Sr., Fred Stepp and Jim Dickinson—was one of the first to sell performance parts for the Honda 750, many of which found their way onto their twin-engine gasser called, logically enough, “2 x 4”.
The machine featured engines bored to 785cc, 12:5:1 pistons, and Kenny Harmon “F” grind cams along with stock carburetors, clutch and transmission. Rather than coupling the engines with a chain between the ends of the crankshafts as everyone else had done, or using a rubber belt as others would soon do, the machine ran a chain from the crank centerline of the front engine to the rear one.
The motorcycle proved formidable even though it weighed 480 pounds, or 175 pounds more than Boris Murray’s twin Triumph, and about 220 pounds more than the quickest Sportsters. At the Hot Bike Magazine/NHRA Nationals in 1972, rider Hahn made a 9.57 .second run at 148.53 mph—four-tenths and eight mph faster than the existing record. He then faced Sportster-mounted John Heidt in the Final—a 9.5 second motorcycle against a 10.3 second motorcycle, a 148 mph machine against a 132 mph one. Although Hahn lost the race (asleep at the starting line), the point had been made.
The event was interesting for other winners as well, two in particular. Russ Collins won B/AB and someone by the name of Terry Vance won C/AB. Things would get very interesting very soon.
The R.C. Engineering Gasser
While the Action Fours machine may have been the first to use a pair of four-cylinder Japanese engines, the R.C. Engineering gasser took it to an entirely new level in terms of sophistication and performance. The machine was so far ahead of the competition, it wasn’t funny—unless you were Russ Collins, Terry Vance or Byron Hines.
The team started winning early in the summer of 1974 and didn’t lose until the fall of 1975. Along the way they set five AMDRA/NHRA elapsed time records and five speed records; were the first, and continued until Fremont to be the only team on gas to run in the eights at over 160 mph; and recorded an incredible 8.47-second pass during the Supernationals at Ontario. The R.C. gasser, in fact, was perhaps the most dominant motorcycle in the history of drag racing, winning 22 of 23 races in which it was entered.
The machine was built by Bryon Hines, who was just 24 years old at the time, and Russ Collins’ first employee. A pair of CB750 engines were bored and stroked to just under 1100cc each. R.C. 327 cams were used along with Weber carburetors and ARD magnetos. A Gilmer blower belt connected the engines, and a six-inch wide M&H tire was mounted on a Kosman wheel/disc set-up. Larry Williams built the 72-inch wheelbase frame out of chrome-moly steel, with the engine pod made of aluminum alloy.
One of the most troublesome areas for twin-engine bikes at that time was the clutch. Hines hoped to avoid these troubles by using a Crowerglide automotive unit in conjunction with a Lenco two-speed, transmission. Although many people told him the arrangement wouldn’t work, it did, and the machine often turned times that would have qualified it somewhere in the middle of the pack in Top Fuel Motorcycle.
What happens when two-wheeled guys start borrowing from four-wheel guys.
While the R.C. gasser was notable for its performance, it was also significant for the amount of car technology it incorporated. Motorcycle guys were now following what car guys had been doing, and no one did it more often or cleverly than R.C. Engineering.
They were the first to develop the four-into-one exhaust system for motorcycles and in fact, the company was formed in April of 1971 to manufacture that product. They developed the use of Weber carburetors for Honda 750s. Until then, the Italian-made Webers were the domain of expensive sports cars like Ferraris. They were also the first to use automotive ignitions on motorcycles; Crowerglide clutches; Gilmer belts to connect the engines; and Funny Car-style remote starters.
Other Japanese “twins”
Because of the success of the R.C. Engineering twin-engine machine, others started building similar ones. Among them was the “Buzz Saw” of “Fat Bill” Bernard and Ron Teson, so named because of its rivalry with the “2x4” of Action Fours. In time, there would also be a number of Kawasaki Z-1-powered doubles including those of Carl Ahlfeldt, Harold Eide, Norris Bruce, Dave Borbeau, and Don Mills.
Not all of the Japanese-engine doubles, however, were large displacement. Bob Braverman, Doug Schwerma, and Pat Miller built exceptionally quick machines using 250cc and 350cc Yamaha engines.
Triple your pleasure, triple your fun
At that point some builders asked themselves if one engine is good and two is better, then what about adding a third? You couldn’t argue with the logic and judging by their performance, you couldn’t argue with the results either. At various times there were at least five competing, with none more famous than that of R.C. Engineering.
“Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe”
“We thought about building a Triple in September of 1972,” said Russ Collins. “We looked around at Top Fuel and saw what everybody was running, and realized that, for the most part, most concepts hadn’t really changed for ten years. Either the bikes were single-engine Harleys or double-engine Triumphs.” And so, Collins and Bryon Hines began constructing something that Cycle magazine described as “...in every conceivable way almost beyond imagining.”
The team began work on the triple in the spring of 1973, was delayed while the company moved to a larger location, and continued on the project in earnest in July. “The first thing we did was cut the transmission off three motors,” recalled Collins. “We knew we were going to need some kind of transmission and an automotive-type, slipper clutch.”
As fate would have it, famed automotive drag racing driver/innovator/tuner Dale Armstrong worked in the shop next to Collins and the two became friendly. Armstrong suggested that Collins and Hines make a trip to San Diego to visit Lenco Transmissions. Although company owner Leonard Abbott insisted, “I don’t make motorcycle stuff”, they returned with one of his two-speed transmissions anyway.
The pair then traveled across town to see the folks at Crower, who said pretty much the same thing. They had a clutch designed for a small block Chevy, so Collins and Hines took that.
With those components chosen, the engines were then assembled using mostly off-the-shelf R.C. pieces such as their 327 camshafts and Goldenrods, along with Venoila pistons and Hilborn injectors.
Although Hogslayer held the record at 8.45 seconds, it took three years to set. The first time the triple ran it turned an 8.55.
Ever the showman, Collins recalls when the machine appeared for the first time. “We had it in the back of our truck and needed a crane to lower it onto the scale. No one had seen it before and it weighed around 850 pounds versus 350-375 pounds for other Top Fuel bikes. People were laughing at it, with tears running down their faces.”
They didn’t laugh for long: The machine ran 8.55 at 166 mph its first time out and in October of 1975 became the first motorcycle into the “sevens” with a 7.96 second pass at 176.81 mph.
Nor were NHRA officials laughing. They were in as much awe of the machine as everyone else and at the Springnationals in 1973, it became the first motorcycle to win the NHRA’s coveted “Best Engineered Award”. At the NHRA Superfinals at Ontario Motor Speedway, Collins would also make a remarkable 7.86-second pass on the machine.
The Denco “Triple-Triple”
During the early 1970s, Northern California-based Denco was a leading provider of performance parts for Kawasaki two-strokes. To showcase its products, the company decided to build something that would make a statement—much as Collins had with Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe.
To accomplish this, owner Dennis Dean did what others had done over the years and turned to Boris Murray for help. The Murray-designed machine used three-cylinder, 792cc, H-2 engines along with a Crowerglide clutch and Lenco transmission. In order to harness the enormous power of the engines, the primary drive consisted of a 2-inch wide toothed belt, 3-inch wide second belt, and four-row chain to the clutch.
“Once we finished the bike,” Murray recalls, “we took it across the street to the Fremont drag strip for its first test. Other than that terrible sound, it was a joy to ride. I hate two-strokes and those nine pipes put out that nauseating sound. After getting nine carbs in sync, we gave it a go. Pretty slick, went 160 something in the low 9s. Not bad for a “ring-ding” on gas.”
Indeed. In 1975, Murray set both ends of the Top Gas record his first time out. At an all-bike meet in Fremont the following year, the machine made an 8.60-second run at 169.84 mph—beating the record of the R.C. Engineering double by ten miles per hour and, of course, winning the event. At the Hot Bike National at Fremont, Murray bettered the record with a remarkable 8.30-second run.
Pat Miller’s triple
The House of Wheels-sponsored machine of Houston’s Pat Miller was another important triple. Yamaha 350cc road racing, engines were used, each of which produced 60 horsepower. In order to harness their power, Miller built one of the first “slipper” clutches for a motorcycle and used an enormous trail bike sprocket to overcome the limitations of the four-inch Avon slick. It didn’t always work, as the motorcycle would often burn the tire for the entire quarter-mile. When it did work, the B/Gas machine was exceedingly quick with a best in the low tens at 144 mph.
For his “Z-3”, Bob Davis took three Kawasaki Z-1 engines and bolted them into a specially made frame. The result was a 1,045-pound, 650-horsepower machine capable of 7.8-second quarter-mile runs at 186 mph.
Davis won seven of 15 races in IDBA and Dragbike! competition, and anticipated having the same degree of success in the NHRA until they imposed a limit of two engines per machine.
He then spent the next few years building a Top Fueler that would meet those qualifications. Just as it was completed, the class was eliminated altogether. And Davis? “I felt they could change the rules a lot quicker than I could build motorcycles, so I quit racing.”
The triple-engine, Norton “Tri-clops” from Performance Cycle in Metarie, Louisiana, was another machine with tremendous potential. Built by David Daly, Tracy Clouatre and Alan Mavor (who also rode), its best performance was 8.25 seconds at 175 mph. The machine was later sold to Sunset Motors and renamed “Hogslayer III”.
On paper at least, more engines meant more horsepower. It also made for greater complexity. With three times the parts, there were three times the chances (or more) for something to fail. But when they didn’t, the triples of Collins, Denco/Murray and Pat Miller in particular were virtually unbeatable.
The first triple was actually that of Canadian Richard Forest. Originally built in 1965 as a twin-engine BSA, the machine was prohibited from racing by the NHRA, which stated in its rulebook, “Only motorcycle production engines will be permitted. Maximum number permitted: two.” As a result, the “Bentley’s Special” was never able to compete.
The Honda 750
The Honda CB750 engine was an engineering masterpiece, and one ideally suited for drag racing. “At that time there was so much potential in the Honda engine,” said Bryon Hines, “you could make mistakes and still go faster each week.” There have been a number of engines that significantly impacted the sport but none more than this one.
In 1976, the triple was destroyed in a crash that put Collins in the hospital for several weeks and in a wheelchair for several more. After the crash, Collins suggested that doubles and triples be outlawed for safety reasons. “Of course,” he recalls, “I was building a single at the time."
While recuperating he sketched out the design for “Sorcerer”. Honda liked what they saw and gave him a reported $50,000 to build it. As motorcycle historian Mike Griffin observed, “In terms of complexity, mechanical sophistication, intimidation, and sheer thermo-mechanical violence, this machine has it all.” And in this case, “all” meant a 7.62-second elapsed time and 199.55 mph speed at the 1978 Supernationals.
While you’ll find car-derived touches on all of the Russ Collins/Byron Hines machines, none were to the same degree as this one. The 800-pound motorcycle was powered by a pair of inline four-cylinder Honda engines arranged in a “V” shape (effectively a V-8), in conjunction with a GMC 3-71 supercharger that had been extensively modified by Mert Littlefield, and special fuel injection system from Bruce Crower.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Motorcycle Drag Racing: A History by John S. Stein, published by Gearhead Publishing, 2011.