“Granddaddy” Joe Smith: Motorcycle Drag Racing’s First Superstar

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Things were different then: “Granddaddy” Joe Smith running the strip on his Shovelhead-powered drag bike around 1970 — wearing street shoes.
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An evolution of Joe Smith’s first King Rat drag bike, built from a $50 basket-case Harley Knucklehead.
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Joe getting some air under the front tire of King Rat, probably around 1969.
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Joe (right) and teammate Jim Cook before the finals at the 1971 Indy Nationals where he won his first of three NHRA Championships.
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Joe on his Shovelhead drag bike getting the Top Fuel Eliminator trophy from trophy queen Molly Blue at the 1972 Hot Bike Nationals at Lions Drag Strip in Los Angeles, California.
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Racing was a family affair, with everyone helping Joe at the strip including his daughter, Patti.
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Joe (left) and his Shovelhead beating Larry Welch riding Sonny Routt’s twin-engined Triumph at Indy in 1971.
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The frame for Joe’s twin-engined drag bike, the Double King Rat.
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Joe with the Double King Rat in the mid-1970s.
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Joe Smith today, at home with his three Wallys — the Oscar of the drag strip — for winning the 1971, 1974 and 1975 NHRA National.

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.

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