Joe Smith is one of the greatest motorcycle drag racers of his time, but by all rights he should not have lived long enough to see his first Social Security check. His crash in 1967 at Irwindale Raceway in California should have been enough to put him out of the retirement hunt. The high-speed wobble he experienced at over 150mph aboard his Harley-Davison top-fuel drag bike flicked him off the seat as if he were a piece of loose baggage.
“I fell off and beat it [the bike] across the line. I was clocked at 145 miles per hour,” recalls Joe, now in his 80s and still cognizant of every last detail of his experiences during those halcyon days when the learning curve for motorcycle drag racers was steep and the risks were many.
Smith, who eventually earned the nickname “Granddaddy” among his fans and peers, not only survived that get-off, but he went on to become one of the quickest and fastest Top Fuel motorcycle racers of the 1970s. In March 1971, King Rat, his Shovelhead-powered slingshot drag bike, propelled him through Famosa Raceway’s traps during the annual NHRA Bakersfield March Meet to become the first motorcycle to break into the 8-second barrier, posting a speed and ET (elapsed time) of 168mph/8.97 seconds. That he was the first to do so was incredible, but how he did it is even more remarkable.
That story begins a week before when his engine blew up at another race, forcing him to cobble together a new engine in only a few days for the upcoming March Meet. The replacement nitro-burning stroker engine used many special parts, including longer cylinder bolts. In his rush to assemble the substitute engine, Smith mistakenly selected one bolt that was slightly longer than the others. When he fired up the engine at the track, he detected a leak between the cylinder and head. With no time for a tear down, he grabbed a hammer and punch, tapping around the leak to force the metal so that it eventually closed the gap. Crude? Yes. Effective? Yes again, because the engine lit and held its compression. Smith didn’t know if the engine would blow up or run poorly when he staged, but he lined up and hoped for the best, and when the light turned green he was off. At the end of the run he sat sullen and forlorn at the finish line waiting for his crew — wife Pat, son Gene and daughter Patti — to fetch him with the pickup truck. As they approached, the truck’s flashing lights and beeping horn indicated something good: “She [Pat] said I was into the eights — an 8.97-second ET,” Smith remembers. The first sub-9 second time ever for a motorcycle, and few people even knew about the ailing engine.
Smith’s 8.97-second ET earned him the admiration of all the top automobile drag racers at the meet: “All the dragster guys were lining the fence, clapping. Tears were coming down [my face], and after that things went crazy for me,” Smith says. By crazy, he meant crazy good, because in less than nine seconds motorcycle drag racing and Joe Smith had propelled themselves to celebrity status.
For starters, the NHRA’s (National Hot Rod Association) president, Wally Parks, invited Smith and his bike to make exhibition runs at many of the major meets, all expenses paid, of course. Prior to that, motorcycles were essentially considered drag racing’s redheaded stepchild when marketed with the cars. The Harley-Davidson Motor Company also realized how integral Smith’s drag racing program could be to its marketing strategy, so they initiated a sponsorship package for the Southern California racer. Indeed, things had gone a little crazy for Joe Smith and his once-privateer drag race program.
It was a long and hard road to get there, though. Smith actually backed into motorcycle drag racing in 1954, when he and his wife were spectators at the local drag strip. A few motorcycles were competitive that day, and Smith turned to his bride and calmly stated, “That’s something I could do,” and left it at that. But Mrs. Smith didn’t leave it alone, and later she bought a $50 basket-case H-D Knucklehead for her husband’s 24th birthday. With the help of his friend Dick Butterworth, the bike slowly took the form of an early-era drag bike.
He began racing in 1956, and within a year he was winning races with that old jockey-shift Harley, posting respectable speeds in the 120s. But his first runs weren’t exactly glorious. “The first few times I raced it, I didn’t go too fast,” Smith confesses. In fact, the first time he rolled up to the start line, Bob Laidlaw, who owned Motorcycle Specialties (later to become Laidlaw H-D in Baldwin Park, California) went up to the line with him, and when he saw Joe put the bike into top gear, Laidlaw calmly stepped up and put the shifter into second. Joe spun the tire on that run and went to 105mph, and as you might guess, his times improved dramatically after that.
Smith never gave up and he never said “I can’t,” but he did quit drag racing for a few years. Sometime in 1958, close friend and fellow competitor Clem Johnson, who campaigned the notorious Vincent-powered Barn Job, invited Smith to race his bike. “I told Clem that I didn’t know how to use a foot shifter,” Smith says. “He just chuckled and said it was as simple as riding a bicycle.” It wasn’t quite that simple for Joe, and he flipped the Barn Job first time off the line. That experience suggested to him that, perhaps maybe, he just wasn’t cut out for this kind of stuff. Besides, he and Pat now had a family to support, so he hung up his gear, sold his bike and got on with his life as a carpet layer.
Fast-forward to 1964, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith had a little free time one Sunday afternoon. Why not go to the local drag races to see what’s cooking there? A lot was cooking, and some of the bike racers were winning more than trophies — they were taking home cash. It was like déjà vu all over again when Joe turned to the missus and calmly said, “Hey, we might be able to make some money doing this.” Joe was in the staging lane for Round Two of his drag racing career.
Laidlaw helped him out again, this time donating another Knucklehead in the form of a pile of parts that had been unceremoniously deposited in the nether reaches of his dealership years before. Joe knew exactly what to do with those parts, too: “It [the new drag bike] was identical to the bike I had in ’58.” That meant it had a 102-cubic-inch Knucklehead engine that was equally as fast the first one, turning 120mph speeds. Some of the other racers snickered at the bike, a relic in their eyes.
Smith saw things differently, and he continued tinkering with the bike. He even made his own frame: never mind that he didn’t know how to weld. Bold as ever, he laid pieces of chrome-moly tubing onto his garage floor and cut them to length using a hacksaw. He tack-welded them into place, and then took the assembled frame to a professional welder to have the joints sealed. The frame worked fine, enough to break 130mph, even though handling was sometimes an issue. No surprise since, as Smith points out, “At the time, I didn’t know anything about rake and trail and all that.” That prompted him to get a book and read up on steering and handling theories, and subsequent frames were more thoroughly thought out before they were welded — by Smith, no less, because by then he had learned to weld, too. He was slowly becoming a one-man drag race team that could do it all, including go fast.
Buoyed by his success, Smith decided it was time to put a little nitro fuel into his drag bike’s engine. It was like a junkie trying heroin, and the rush was dramatic. In no time his speeds jumped to 138mph, and eventually into the 150s.
But there was additional trial and error to be put behind him before big-time success found its way into his pit stall. He decided to try a Dunlop car tire on the rear of his drag bike. The 5 x 16-inch tire fit, and suddenly Smith “had traction like I never had before.” He also figured a way to transfer weight to the rear tire for better traction during launches, taking a pair of screen door hydraulic dampers normally used to regulate how fast or slow a door closes and mounting them to the fork lowers so that the hydraulic action would help keep the fork tubes retracted or extended as needed. Strange as it sounds, it worked, giving him a rudimentary form of traction control, even though there remained plenty of trial and error episodes for their development, too. He later used 5-pound lead weights to achieve similar results.
Looking to increase horsepower, Smith modified the Knucklehead’s brass Linkert carburetors (he was running two) with larger Amal remote float bowls that could hold more nitro. No luck; and his engine’s spark plugs indicated that the fuel mixture was too rich, prompting him to keep going leaner and leaner on the mixture setting. One time while reading the plugs he heard a voice call over his shoulder from someone passing by, saying matter-of-factly, “Too lean.” He peered over to see Leo Payne, one of the more successful fuel-burning riders of the time, by now walking back to his pits. “So I tried going richer,” Smith recalls, “and it worked.”
That brings up an interesting side story about Payne and Smith, and it shows the character of the racers during that time and the tenacity Smith carried with him. Payne had been invited to race his Sportster, known as Turnip Eater, for a best-of-three match race with Dave Campos at a track near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Campos’ bike wouldn’t run, so Smith volunteered to take on Payne, best out of three (the show must go on!). Payne won all three rounds, but later that evening when the racers gathered at Campos’ house for a friendly party, Smith learned that he had been had: The red light, which signals when a racer leaves the line too early for automatic disqualification, wasn’t working that day. Only Payne knew about the malfunction, so he launched early every run — all in fun, of course.
So Smith decided to have some fun, inviting Payne to his home track in Irwindale, California. “I beat him fair and square, three out of three,” Smith says. They remained friendly adversaries all the way until Payne passed away from cancer in the early 1990s.
Drag racing is a straight-line sport, but Smith’s career took a major turn in 1969 when he decided to replace his bike’s aging Knucklehead engine for the new Shovelhead that Harley-Davidson had debuted three years earlier. The Shovelhead was lighter and more powerful, and nestled inside Smith’s lightweight frame and blessed with a bevy of new speed parts the King Rat proved to be wickedly fast. It also drove off the starting line differently, forcing Smith to learn how to ride all over again.
“I watched how the car guys left the line,” Smith recalls, “and I applied that to the Shovel.” The result: a really fast ride. “I’d let the clutch out, and then turn the throttle on so I could take advantage of the engine’s torque. Torque got strong at real low rpm and it just kept pulling strong to redline, which wasn’t very high to begin with.”
Smith’s new Shovelhead engine was becoming more powerful, too, getting the bike down to a time of 9.02 seconds at 170mph. They were knocking on the 8-second door. Finally, in March 1971 Smith clocked the infamous 8.97-second ET.
By that time, Smith and Boris Murray with his Triumph double had become class adversaries. They also were the top two motorcycle drag racers in the nation, and the pair went on to form a sensational two-bike match race show at tracks across the nation.
Murray and Smith made good money during their match racing days, but one time a promoter in Washington tried to stiff them out of their appearance money. Murray and Smith found out where the promoter lived and knocked on his door at 2 in the morning. “Boris had his pistol stuffed in his belt, and I had a fork tube that I pounded on the door with. When he answered the door,” Smith remembers, “we said, ‘Where’s our money?’ He saw the pistol and the big fork tube, so he knew we meant business. He got our money for us real quick.”
Speeds continued to climb and ETs kept dropping, and to keep up with the competition Smith built a twin-engined drag bike, Double King Rat. After all, if one Shovelhead engine is good, two must certainly be gooder, no? He even developed his own primary drive and clutch system for the two engines.
Smith scored his first of three Wallys — drag racing’s highest honor in the form of statuettes presented to each class winner for the year — with his single-engine bike in 1971. Fittingly, the twin-engine bike scored two more in 1974 and 1975, when Double King Rat became the world’s fastest drag bike with a speed of 188.85mph and also the first 7-second Harley-Davidson. He might have earned even more Wallys had it not been for another spectacular incident at a track in Kentucky in 1975 aboard Double King Rat when one of the engines exploded at the start line, throwing Smith high into the air like a rag doll. “I looked down and all I saw were flames,” Smith recalls. He broke more than a few bones on landing.
By then his family-based race team had dissolved; he and his wife had separated and his children — now young adults — had bowed out of the racing program, too. Smith had been traveling the race circuit by himself, so he gathered his broken race bike, loaded up, and drove back to California, broken bones and all.
That pretty much marked the end of his racing days. While Smith recuperated he hired Ron Fringer to race his backup bike at various events that he had committed to earlier, but the first man into the eights was no longer in the saddle.
Smith and Fringer kept the program going for a while, but eventually the greatest motorcycle drag racer of his era was finished. He sold most of his equipment and bikes, and settled into a normal life. Now in his 80s, Smith remains active and willing to share many of his memories, and when you listen to him talk about his days racing, you wish you could turn back the clock to those glory days so that you could stand at the starting line to watch one more Joe Smith top fuel pass. And while the nitro fumes penetrate your nose and sting your eyes, you’d know that the discomfort is worth it because you’re about to see eight seconds of greatness unfold before you. MC
The latest classic motorcycle events and tours.LEARN MORE