Russ Collins Departs

Famed drag racer left an indelible mark on motorcycling and the people he touched.

Russ-Collins

Russ Collins, showman, professional drag racer, and problem-solver, has died of cancer, aged 74. I phoned Collins’ former employee, Byron Hines, for some insight. Collins had hired Terry Vance as a rider, and Vance and Hines became friends and, later, business partners.

“You could write a whole book,” Hines began. “He was the pioneer of the Big Show. In the heyday of Leo Payne and T.C. Christenson, Russ came and upset the whole apple cart.”

Before Collins, motorcycle drag racing had been a modest affair—little more than a tuned Triumph or Harley-Davidson engine in a modified frame. His flair for the radical and unusual transformed the sport into a freestanding show all its own. Those were the days when truly, if a little was good and more was better, then too much was just enough.

With apparent ease, Collins put all the high-performance technologies—supercharging, fuel injection, and high-energy fuels—to work, putting down run after run that challenged everyone to come up to his level. He saw the potential of the Honda CB750, both in drag racing and as a market, hundreds of thousands strong, for high-performance parts. He built a series of ever-more radical and successful drag bikes, powered by one, two, and three CB750 engines. Beginning with a four-into-one exhaust pipe, he took his ideas beyond sport to create an industry.

“He was the go-to guy on hot-rod parts,” Hines said. “He knew a lot of people in the industry. He liked to say that he’d opened his business on April Fool’s Day, 1971.

“The thing was, when he went to match racing, he was the premier guy. Everyone knows that. If anyone doesn’t acknowledge that, it’s because they’d been overshadowed by him.”

Curiosity, imagination, and intelligence are powerful tools. In 1969, they sent Americans to the moon and returned them safely to earth. When Collins needed information on fuel injectors and their flow and pulse rates, no one seemed to know anything. He built a test rig and used it to rate every injector on the market, then went on to provide the injectors that the market didn’t even know it could sell. This was a man who had learned in the best way, by doing, as a natural experimentalist. Starting as a mechanic and body man, he learned basics skills, then took them to California where motorcycling was growing explosively.

“RC Engineering was a pretty good place to be in the ’70s,” Hines concluded. “We were just fortunate to have been in his wake.”