Fish Out Of Water

Associate editor Trevitt explores the world of Harley-Davidson drag racing from the seat of a Sportster.

And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here?"Once in a Lifetime," by the Talking Heads

It was a fitting song, stuck in my head for the duration. "Here" was the AHDRA (All Harley-Davidson Drag Racing Association) final in Las Vegas, and I was riding an 883 Sportster in an event that paid $12,000 for first place-high stakes, as they say in Vegas. How I got there goes back to when I stopped by H-D's fleet center to pick up a Buell and watched Gene Thomason (who runs the center with his dad, Big Gene) working on his 200-hp Pro Gas AHDRA bike. Next thing I knew, Thomason had offered up a Sportster, ready to ride in the "High Stakes Shootout" event in Las Vegas, where I would compete against over 100 other Harley and Buell riders for $12,000.

I would be entering two classes in Vegas: Screamin' Eagle Performance (SEP), and the High Stakes Shootout. Both are ET classes, meaning you try to get as close as possible to a set time without going faster. The Shootout class is run as bracket racing, where competitors pick their own time, but in the SEP events, the index is set at 11.50 seconds (adjusted for altitude to 11.80 seconds at Las Vegas). Simple enough, then: get as close to the set time as possible, without going faster, right?

Here's where I'll let you in on a little secret. You see, when we do dragstrip testing for the magazine, we don't pay any attention to the lights-we don't care about reaction time, just how quickly the bike can get down the strip. Even though I've been down a dragstrip a few (hundred) times, I'd never given a thought to the lights. And cutting a good light, as any dragracing aficionado will tell you, is what it's really all about.

While I read up on the ins and outs of bracket racing and honed my reaction time using a video game, Thomason set to preparing the bike. In an interesting approach, he believes that the bike should actually be faster than the 11.50 seconds necessary, which gives a rider considerably more options when it comes to bracket racing. The idea, Thomason says, is to watch the rider in the other lane, and go just fast enough to beat him (or her-there are a number of women riding in the AHDRA series), but not faster. That reduces the chances of "breaking out" by going too fast. Obviously, in a perfect run I would have to back out of the throttle at a set point on the strip to avoid breaking out, but if I were to foul up the launch I could make up the lost time easier.

To that end, the basic 883 Sportster mill was beefed up to 86 horsepower with a Screamin' Eagle (Harley-Davidson's aftermarket performance line) 1200cc top end, big carb and pipes, but Thomason also works with the fact that making up time at the beginning of the run- by making the bike launch harder -pays off even more than adding horsepower. "Think about it," Thomason says as we discuss the various scenarios; "If you come out of the hole with a few bike lengths right away, it's your race to lose-you just have to watch the other guy."

So, my Sportster sprouted a few extra feet in the form of a $400 wheelie bar, beautifully built by Technically Structured Products (661/942-1855). Performance Machine (714/523-3000, www.performancemachine.com) provided a set of spun-aluminum wheels so we could run a Mickey Thompson (909/587-0101, www.mickeythompsontires.com) drag slick. Additionally, a Dyna (626/963-1669, www.dynaonline.com) two-stage rev limiter and shift light were installed. Thomason also changed the Sportster's drive from belt to a Regina chain (800/221-7291, www.lockhartphillipsusa.com) so that gearing could be optimized for the quarter-mile.

Going to school
Thomason, who also runs a one-day drag- racing school in conjuction with AHDRA events, opened our one-on-one lesson at Los Angeles County Raceway a month before the Vegas event with this jewel: "Forget everything that you know about drag racing." That was easy, as, well...I didn't really know anything to begin with. We went through the process of the burnout and getting the bike lined up straight down the strip, and then came shocker number one: with the two stage rev limiter, which holds the engine at a pre-set rpm when the clutch is pulled in, I could hold the throttle wide open from the time I staged. That was followed shortly by shocker number two: with the slick and wheelie bar, I wouldn't just let the clutch out when the lights turned, but rather I would slide my fingers right off it! So I hold the throttle wide open, then sidestep the clutch...right. And what's the first-stage rev limiter set at, half of redline? No sir, it's right at peak power, just 1000 rpm below the poor Sportster's 7500 rpm limit.

The main benefit of the two-stage limiter and wheelie bar is that it removes any inconsistencies that could arise from being slightly off on the launch rpm, throttle position, or how the clutch is let out. The top riders in the 11.50 SEP class routinely qualify within a couple of hundredths of that time, and that consistency is the key to getting as close as possible to the index time but not breaking out.

With the lesson over I was ready to try a few passes. On my first pass I just about launched myself off the back of the bike, it left the line that suddenly when I sidestepped the clutch. After changing my drawers, I made some low 12-second runs, which we figured would be about right once adjusted for LACR's desert altitude. And my reaction times weren't too bad either. The video game playing had paid off, and-once I stopped anticipating the lights and red lighting-I posted some .420 and .430 lights (.400 being perfect).

On to Vegas!
We arrived in Sin City to closed gates at The Strip, and the news that Friday practice-which I desperately needed-was cancelled due to gang-related security issues-how's that for a nice introduction to Harley drag racing? I would be thrown to the wolves on Saturday, with two runs of practice/dial-in for the Screamin' Eagle Shootout (the important, $12,000 race) followed directly by elimination rounds.

Adding to my lack-of-practice worries was the fact that the SES would be run under an ET light setup (where the three amber lights illuminate in steps, followed by the green) rather than the pro tree (all three amber lights together) I had practiced for. Because of these concerns, we settled on a conservative dial-in time of 12.00 seconds, with the idea that I would simply ride to beat my opponent rather than aim for the time. After the practice runs, and watching while the huge field qualified, it was evident that those used to the pro tree, which works on a .4-second reaction time, were often red lighting on the .5-second ET tree. Taking a very cautious approach, I won my first elimination round (riding against a pink Sportster) with a .8-second reaction time and backing off to just beat the other rider at the line-the strategy was working.

It was all for naught in the second round as I was soundly trounced by a Buell rider off the line and eliminated from the field-no $12,000 for me. Now, at least, I could look forward to the pro tree and SEP class, which we felt I was better prepared for. However, the restricted schedule-thanks to the cancellation of Friday's festivities and the addition of the Shootout class-meant I would have just one chance (instead of the usual three) to qualify for Sunday's event.

With so few runs (four to this point) at the Vegas facility, and since I backed off during one of them and missed a shift in another, we didn't know just how fast the Sportster would be in a straight-up pass. The danger in that was that I would break out in my qualifying run, eliminating me right away. So, in my one chance to make the field, and having executed a perfect launch and first half of the strip, I backed off before the finish and posted a 12.146-second time, which Thomason figured in a normal field would have qualified me handily. However, because Vegas is a special event and attracts an extra-large field, the cut-off time to qualify (in the top 32 of a 50-rider field) was 12.015 seconds and I missed qualifying by five spots. It was a long drive home.

What I Learned
As a way to get your feet wet dragracing, AHDRA's (336/924-2095, www.ahdra.com) SEP and ET classes provide good bang for the buck-the Sportster I rode can be duplicated easily for less than the cost of a new open-class sportbike, and I was racing for $12,000! The organization has a number of classes that you can progress into as your budget and experience grow-right up to six-second, 200mph Top Fuel bikes.

I can see how dragracing is addictive, especially in the index classes where skill is much more important than machinery. It all sounded so easy when it was first explained to me, but for days I was poring over my timing slips and analyzing every hundredth of a second. For two people lining up and going down a strip, the possible outcomes are endless-you can even win by going slower than your opponent. And the thrill of seeing the win light at the end of the strip is every bit a high as collecting the checkered flag at the end of a 25-lap roadrace. I was the proverbial fish out of water in Las Vegas, but I'm getting used to being dry.

Am I right?...Am I wrong?And you may tell yourselfMY GOD!...WHAT HAVE I DONE?

This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Sport Rider.