Turbocharged Days: Testing Turbocharged Bikes in the Seventies

Dain Gingerelli reminisces about riding turbocharged bikes with top 1970s drag racers.

  • Terry Vance running the lights on a turbocharged Suzuki in 1977.
    Photo courtesy Dain Gingerelli
  • Russ Collins (left) and Dain Gingerelli in 1980.
    Photo courtesy Dain Gingerelli

These photos show two of the top 1970s motorcycle drag racers — Pro Stock rider Terry Vance (on bike, circa 1977) and the late Russ Collins (shown standing under Orange County International Raceway’s Christmas tree lights, circa 1980). That no-name guy on Collins’ left is me, when I was sport editor for Cycle Guide magazine.

The Vance photo is especially interesting, though, because he’s riding a competitor’s bike, a turbocharged Suzuki GS750 belonging to American Turbo Pak. To this day Terry and I joke about this photo because he claims he never rode the bike!

I was doing a performance article for Hot Bike magazine, attending a test session with the late Bill Hahn, owner of ATP, at Irwindale Raceway. By chance, Terry and his tuner Byron Hines were also at Irwindale testing their R.C. Engineering drag bike. R.C. Engineering, of course, was owned by Collins, Vance’s and Hines’ employer during that halcyon time. In the course of the day Hahn invited Vance to ride the turbo’ed Suzuki, and as the photo confirms, the most dominant Pro Stock racer of his era accepted the invite. Here’s a back story to the back story: During this session, Hahn’s ace rider, Jay “Pee Wee” Gleason, showed me how to properly launch a turbocharged bike off the line. The secret, Gleason pointed out, was to “rock” the throttle slightly below redline to maintain maximum boost from the turbo’s impeller.

Gleason’s best E.T. for that day was 9.83 seconds (his best ever was 9.35), and Vance — with only a couple runs to acquaint himself with the turbo’s intricacies — posted a very respectable 9.93. As for boy journalist, I posted a 10.54. But that lesson proved beneficial to me as we fast forward to 1980 and a Honda CB750F that Cycle Guide turbocharged using an R.C. Engineering kit. That accounts for the photo from the Cycle Guide article of Collins and me chomping on cigars (Collins’ trademark) beneath OCIR’s lights, because later in the day I took our magazine project bike for its maiden pass.

Collins also sent his top-gun rider, Johnny Kirkwood, to assist me. Kirkwood was RCE’s turbo-bike rider, and he and I traded passes, the goal being to get the otherwise stock Honda into the 11s. In stock trim the 750F was good for mid-12-second quarter-mile times, so we were aiming high considering that tire technology alone restricted traction. There was no wheelie bar, either.

All afternoon Kirkwood and I hovered in the low 12s — 12.02 was our best. Finally, I popped an 11.99, which stood for the day. We were in the 11s, and I had the personal satisfaction of having out-gunned one of the top pro riders in the turbocharger class. It was also a spiritual redemption for me, having played third fiddle to Gleason and Vance that day at Irwindale. Obviously, I managed to hold on to what Gleason had taught me three years prior. Sometimes the job of a motojournalist can almost be too much fun. — Dain Gingerelli

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