Vol. 2, Issue 39
Jim McClure, The Father of Top Fuel Harley
By Keith S. Kizer
Photos by: Larry “Rabbit” Smith, Dwight Drum, and unknown
Born January 31, 1942 in West Union, West Virginia, James H. McClure was born in the northern panhandle hills of West Virginia where his father owned a sawmill. As a boy, Jim loved playing baseball and became so good and passionate about the game that it became his ticket out of the hills. He received a scholarship to play ball, but the sawmill was more important to his father than school. The way Jim saw it (no pun intended) he had two choices, the sawmill or join the military. The Air Force, not baseball became Jim’s ticket out of the hills and he never returned. Phyllis said he only went back six times in their 36 years of marriage and only for funerals.
Jim’s introduction to motorcycles came while he was stationed at Langley AFB. While there he would work at Newport News Harley-Davidson during his off time. So of course his first motorcycle was a Harley-Davidson Sportster. Outside of a pit bike, he never rode another brand.
Jim and Phyllis met in the ER. This came after Jim had served his time and was working in the shipyards. Phyllis was a young nurse and Jim came in the ER following a motorcycle accident where he broke several ribs along with a sizable case of road rash. Phyllis knew Jim because he was dating a girl friend of hers. Phyllis called her friend up to tell her to come to the hospital because Jim was busted up pretty good. The girl refused, saying “he should not have been out riding that stupid motorcycle anyway.” The head nurse gave Phyllis permission to sit with Jim that night. They were never apart after that night.
Jim and Phyllis loved to ride and one day decided to ride out to the local dirt drags to spectate. They spent the whole day watching the races. Jim said to Phyllis, “I can do that.” The next weekend Jim and Phyllis rode his Harley to the track. Jim raced and won. Phyllis said everyone rode their bikes to the track back then. But Jim’s arrival into drag racing forced everyone to step up and the days of riding to the races ended soon after.
Back in those days everyone named their race bike, much like race boats do to this day. Jim’s bike was call “Da Judge”. That came about one night when Jim dropped Phyllis off at home and went out riding alone. He used to take his ‘68 Sportster and do burnouts in front of a local bar. A State Trooper got wise to it and was waiting for Jim that night with his lights off. He chased for a while but Jim had a good jump on him and after getting distance on the Trooper, Jim went into a turn at about a hundred and crashed into a ditch. Clever way to hide from the cops. He managed to get himself back home but when Phyllis saw him walk in the door without the hearing the bike, she said, “Where’s the bike?” Jim told her that he had crashed it and that it was in a ditch so he was going to have to get some help and go back and get it. He also said, “You didn’t ask about me.” Phyllis replied, “You got home didn’t ya?” She was upset because they had spent every dime they had to buy that motorcycle. From that day forward, Phyllis had “Da Judge” painted on every new race bike.
From the mid-60’s through the late 70’s Jim McClure dominated dirt drags. It wasn’t until 1979 that he made the jump to asphalt. He started racing with IDBA and Dragbike.
Back in the early days there was just motorcycle drag racing, not imports only or Harley only, it was everybody racing together; American, European and Japanese. In the late 80’s Harley clubs started organizing events to race just Harley’s and departed from dominance of the European and Japanese motorcycles. Jim did not allow walls to be built around his abilities. He liked racing against the imports. As Phyllis would say, “he liked racing with those boys.”
One year Jim and Phyllis drove to Sturgis to race a Dragbike event that encompassed three separate races in three days. Jim entered his normal Pro Dragster class on Friday and won. The next day he told Phyllis he wanted to step up to the next class because he thought he could win and he did. On day three he took the final leap and entered the bike in Top Fuel. There was a racer out of the mid-west who dominated the class back then and Jim ended up running him in the final. Both riders red lit. Jim claims he won because the other rider’s reaction time was quicker drawing him off the line. Tom Laughlin made them re-run the race before he would pay. Jim won again. Three wins in one weekend.
Jim kept working on his performance and in 1985 turned from the stalker to the stalked. The International Drag Bike Association’s Pro Comp class was the equivalent of today’s Funnybikes. Prior to Jim racing his Harley in the class, it was dominated by turbo’s and nitrous. Jim proved a Harley could compete with the imports by winning the IDBA 1985 Pro Comp National Championship defeating the quickest of the 4-cylinder import machines in the class and in the process he became the first single-engine Harley to run a 7-second pass. With that goal accomplished, Jim set his sights on Pro Stock. Prior to the IDBA finals Jim informed Tony Lee, owner of IDBA, of his intentions. Following the IDBA banquet that year in Louisville, KY, Lee met with Terry Vance who advised Lee not to allow McClure in the class for fear of domination. Jim never returned to an IDBA event. Can you imagine how the course of Pro Stock history could have changed had there been a workable solution to Harley’s competing in Pro Stock back in the 80’s. Ironically, it was Terry Vance who put the first Harley-Davidson team together for NHRA Pro Stock racing some twenty years later.
When Jim left IDBA he started racing with the Harley Drag Racing Association. Jim’s innovations advanced the sport with two major changes. First was Jim’s new “Overkill” engine followed by a new chassis Jim designed. He took the engine and the chassis design to New York and met with Jim “Puppet” DiTullio’s at his shop, Race Visions. Jim never used another brand chassis again.
In 1989 Jim along with the top contenders in HDRA all showed up at the Inaugural IHRA Motorcycle Division (name used prior to Prostar) event at Atco Raceway. For the entire time the Harley’s raced with Prostar Jim and Phyllis where always a class act and willing to do whatever it took to help promote the sport and bring in spectators. This photo is of Jim racing Happy Ring in the final of that first race.
One of the best stories ever written that included Jim was a story featured in Larry Smith’s Handcrafted American Racing Magazine entitled “Psychological Warfare” which tells of Jim’s whit and humor he used to gain an advantage over his competition. As opposed to using any part of that story, I will suggest you read the short story in its entirety by clicking this link, “Psychological Warfare.”
Sadly we lost Jim May 1, 2004 after a long battle with complications due to internal injuries stemmed from two specific accidents. The first was a blower explosion during an AHDRA event at Atlanta Dragway in 1997. Jim and Phyllis were having problems with the bike all weekend. Each time they fired the bike the engine had an unusual banging. She told him when they got to the line if the thing was banging to shut it off. After the burnout she could hear the banging and tried to get him to shut it off. He wanted to continue. As he staged and launched, the engine exploded with such violence that it broke the frame which slammed into Jim’s chest and lifted him off the bike. He suffered broke ribs and severe internal injuries which Phyllis referred to as chest trauma. Jim remained in the Atlanta Baptist Hospital for two weeks. Family brought their van down, tossed a mattress inside and drove Jim back to Virginia where Phyllis’ doctors tended to Jim. The accident came late in the season at the beginning of fall. Jim was already booked into a match race in Hawaii in December. Against Phyllis’ best wishes, they went. When they got to Hawaii and to the tract Phyllis said he was white as a ghost and had no business on that motorcycle but he did it anyway.
Come the first AHDRA race three months later Jim was back on the motorcycle and winning races. He competed the entire season and was back in good health. The downturn would come with the first race of the season the following year at Orlando. Jim crashed at the top end due to poor track conditions and again suffered broken ribs and chest trauma. This was the beginning of the end for Jim. His health was in a continual decline following this crash.
Jim knew that it was time for him to step away from riding the bike. He eventually put Mark Conner on the bike with great success. The two had a close bond and Jim regretted not putting Mark on the bike sooner. The special friendship that Jim had with others could fill a book with the names of those who have their own favorite stories. The most important relationship was that of his wife Phyllis who was always by his side. Phyllis was the crew chief and sole pit crew most of the time. They were a two person team but were surrounded by friends who traveled the circuit just to be with them. In the Prostar years I remember Fred and Kage Buckley who were Larry McBride’s sponsors, but always set up camp with the McClure’s. Though both have lost their husbands, Phyllis and Kage still remain very close friends.
In Jim’s almost four decade racing career he amassed nineteen national championships, over one hundred national records, multiple Pro Rider of the Year awards, and an immeasurable amount of national event wins and was inducted (along with Phyllis) into the National Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Jim McClure won more races that any other Top Fuel Harley racer in history. A feat that will most likely never be matched. Out of all his accolades Jim always felt that his greatest accomplishment was winning Twenty-One national events in a row covering 1990-1991 with the AHDRA and IHRA (Prostar) sanctioning bodies. He was also proud of his rapport with his fans and the easy accessibility that the open pits at the drag races gave him to his fans. He was a mild mannered man who saw no since in getting upset or mad. In an interview with Dwight Drum and Gary Larsen of Stripbike.com, Jim said “blowing up and getting mad never made the situation better.” Gary also asked if Jim raced for the money or the thrills. Jim said, “Thrills. If it were for the money I would be in the wrong business. I also like the family atmosphere we have in this sport.”
Today, Jim and Phyllis’ son Jimmy is restoring Jim’s bike where it will be permanently displayed in the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. Phyllis has a busy life as she has adopted a 6-year old boy, Lucis, who keeps her as busy as a crew chief with two top fuelers.
For those who were lucky enough to have shared time with Jim and Phyllis or even if you only got to watch him from the stands, consider yourself blessed. Today is a completely different world at the track. Streetbike classes have replaced the majority of the staple classes and most of today’s competitors never got to witness the glory days when Jim and his fellow legends raced down the quarter mile. But they all owe much to Jim and the men and women who forged new territories and helped shape the sport today.
Other Areas of Interest
Spouse’s Name: Phyllis
Children’s Names: Jimmy, Diane and Debbie
Occupation (at time of competition years): 1979 Master’s Performance started in Newport News, but Jim tired of dealing with the street crowd and wanted to concentrate strictly on race bike and mail order. (old Stuckey’s)
Home track (at time of competition years): Richmond
Sponsors (at time of competition years): Rivera Engineering, S&S, Spectro Oil (early years), Redline Oil (final years) and Hampton Road H-D.
Jim’s interest outside of racing: Golfing
Who was some of the best-known racers of Jim’s time? Ray Price, Elmer Trett, Bob Spina, Chuck Foreman, Jaime Marocco, Happy Ring, Tator Gilmore, Marion Owens.
What did Jim drive to the races in the early years? Box Van
What sanctioning bodies did Jim race with?
IDBA, HDRA, IHRA, Prostar, ADBA, Wine Country Racing
What was Jim’s first motorcycle? Sportster
Who was Jim’s hero? Dale Earnhardt
If you are interested in being featured as person of the week, contact Dave Schnitz