Person of the Week “Legends” Elmer Trett

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Person of the Week “Legends” Elmer Trett
Vol. 2, Issue 1
Wednesday, January 6, 2010



Elmer Trett, The Father of Modern-Day Motorcycle Drag Racing

Photos by: Larry “Rabbit” Smith, Dave Kommel, Matt Polito, and unknown

In most industries, be it sports, entertainment, commerce, industrial or politics, it takes either a first name or a last name and in most cases both to clearly introduce a person. In the entertainment world, those who have vainly forgone their family name to be divas with a single name can only be identified by that one name. In our drag racing world we have Garlits, Prudhomme, Bernstein, etc. but only by last name can they be described because Don, Don or Kenny could be dozens of people. Only in motorcycle drag racing does one man’s first or last name describe the greatest man who ever threw his leg over a motorcycle. When you hear the name Elmer, there is no second image that comes to mind. When you hear the name Trett, you instantly retain an image of a giant who walked amongst us mere mortals.

Born March 14, 1943 in Corbin, Kentucky, Elmer Trett grew up the youngest of nine children. His dad, Robert L. Trett was a Baptist preacher, just like his dad before him. Elmer’s mother, Allie Blankenship Trett, was active in the Holiness church and one was a Democrat and the other a Republican. Talk about a house divided, would you have loved to be a fly on the wall at friendly debates during dinnertime at the Trett house? I’m sure it was no different than today, except back then you were either a Truman fan or a Dewey fan.

Elmer was very active in church and had perfect attendance in school. Right up until the time he quit in the 8th grade. Life wasn’t easy during the those days. Being the baby of the family, Elmer was raised by his siblings more than his parents. He grew up sneaking off with his older brothers’ motorcycles and riding them, sometimes wrecking them. He left home at the age of sixteen and went to the big city of Cincinnati, Ohio to look for work. By the age of nineteen he met his first wife, Sandy, by whom he had two boys but soon divorced. He then married another girl, Jacquelyn Schooley.

Elmer started drag racing in the late 60’s at Thorn Hill Dragway in Kenton, Kentucky. He first raced Harley-Davidson street bikes. He used to race on the streets mostly, but kept getting hurt. One day he hit a car and that was the end of racing on the street. The dragstrip was the only place he rode after that, feeling that was safer. After Elmer and Jackie married, his love for motorcycles grew. Jackie said, “You could not love Elmer and not love motorcycles.” He worked for a Harley-Davidson dealer in Hamilton, Ohio for a while, then started racing professionally in the early 70’s. Racing became a family affair for the Trett’s and by the time the 1975 season rolled around the whole family was traveling to the races, including one-month-old Kelly.

Drag racing led to Elmer opening his own motorcycle performance shop in Oxford, Ohio where he worked primarily on Harley-Davidsons. He converted his single car garage into a shop. Later he move to a building in Hamilton, OH where the name was changed to Trett’s Speed & Custom.

Elmer’s professional racing career started out on the Harley circuits racing against the likes of Ray Price, Bonnie Truett, Marion (Mo) Owens, Pete Hill, Carl Ahlfeldt, John Thronson, Dick Prime and eventually Jim McClure. His first drag bike was a Top Gas Harley (High Gear Only by today’s standards), which he quickly started laying down consistent good numbers on. Soon bigger, better, and faster motorcycles were desired. The first of the historical machines was a bike named “Daddy Zeus,” a double engine gasser built by Sandy Kosman in 1977.

Elmer was famous for naming his drag bikes and engines, but it is funny to hear how it all started. The Trett’s were on the way back from a race when they pulled into a gas station. The attendant looked at the bike, which was on an open trailer, and said, “That thing looks like Zeus.” Elmer smiled and got back in the car and asked Gina what Zeus was. She said, “That’s a Greek god, Daddy,” Elmer thought that sounded good, so he started calling the bike Daddy Zeus. I know you are thinking, “Hey, since Elmer was the first guy we ever saw using Zeus fasteners, did he invent them and is that where the name came from.” Sounds good, but it is actually Dzus, named after inventor William Dzus in 1932 who developed them for the aircraft industry. I know, too much information, but I thought I would keep you from having to Google it.

From that point on, every bike and engine had a name. Elmer was known to name other people’s engines too. He once suggested the name “Nero” for Larry McBride’s main engine. Larry liked it and stamped into the engine case. It wasn’t until Elmer won the championship that year that he told Larry the story of Nero. In years past, Elmer drove an asphalt truck for a living. As he was going through a little town one day a dog ran out in front of him. He slammed on the brakes so hard that the truck behind him flipped over trying to miss Elmer’s truck. The dog didn’t make it. Trying to do the right thing, Elmer went into the town’s only establishment, a country grocery store, to the stares of everyone inside. Someone pointed to him and said, “That’s him, he’s the one who killed Nero.” As it turned out, Nero was the town dog. Larry wasn’t very happy when he learned the name was just one of Elmer’s many jokes. Nero, the engine eventually died too, but is still proudly displayed as a trophy at McBride’s shop, Cycle Specialist.

Daddy Zeus is the bike that started Elmer’s focus on appearance. A lot of you can relate to this just as I can. Many of you know my dad, Jim Kizer, who raised us around the boat-racing scene. That was a world where the paint job on your boat and your crew uniforms defined who you were. A racer might show up in a twenty year old pick-up truck pulling a tricked out boat, but it was all about the boat not the tow vehicle. Elmer and the Trett’s brought that same logic to motorcycle drag racing. Elmer always had to have a new bike for every season or at least a new paint job while Jackie handmade their crew shirts.

Daddy Zeus is also the bike that Elmer crashed at Thorn Hill crushing his right wrist, which had to be pinned. The surgery prevented Elmer from ever being able to bend his right wrist backwards. This is why he had to take his right hand off the handlebars to grab the brakes.

The next Harley was called “Pure Pork” or Betsy as the girls called it, built by John Dixon. The name Pure Pork came in the second year of its competition after it was painted orange and black. Its best numbers were 7.67 @ 183.55. Elmer also crashed this bike at Cecil County Dragway in Maryland after the wheelie bars broke. Jim McClure was in the other lane and almost crashed trying to get stopped so he could get to Elmer. When he got to him Elmer yelled, “Pick the bike up so the fuel don’t run all over the paint.” After all, broken bones and cuts can grow back. Do you know how long it takes to strip a bike to the frame to repaint it? Elmer did have his priorities. Two weeks later he was racing it in Epping, New Hampshire. Steve Stordeur later rode this bike before it was sold to Frankie Spittle who renamed it Freight Train. Google “Elmer Trett Freight Train” images for photos. You knew I would get you Googling sooner or later.

The Harley era was followed by the Mountain Magic series after the Trett’s relocated from Ohio to Demorest, Georgia, north of Atlanta, just west of Atlanta Dragway. The 80’s started out great for Elmer with backing from Harley Davidson but cutbacks left him without factory support and forced a tough and unpopular decision. Elmer decided to move to the more modern Japanese in-line four design, a decision that only settled in with the Trett women after the first races proved to need less maintenance between rounds.

John Dixon also built the first Mountain Magic chassis. The chassis was actually built for Elmer to be used with a supercharged nitro Harley but when the Harley sponsorship went away, Elmer and Steve Stordeur cut the chassis up and rebuilt it using what would later become known as the Trett bottom ends. The castings were designed and patented by John Dixon. Elmer, Russ Collins and a couple of others bought the castings, but Elmer was the only one who was successful with them after he reworked the Kawasaki version. Russ wasn’t so lucky using the Honda version. John later sold everything and the rights to Elmer.

The second Kawasaki chassis was built by Bonnie Truett of Truett & Osborn. Elmer put this bike on what he called a “diet” making lots of parts out of magnesium, titanium and used a lot of aluminum bolts in non-stress areas. This is the bike that would run the historic 201.34. The action photo was taken in England at the Transatlantic Bike Meeting at Long Marston in 1984.

Elmer crashed this bike at the NHRA/NMRA event at Indy that same year, but then still ran it the remainder of the 1994 season. When Bonnie and Elmer built the chassis they used only front axle adjuster bolts; there weren’t any on the backside. On the pass that he crashed, the chain jerked the wheel forward and the bike started to go side-to-side and high sided him.

The rest of the Mountain Magic series, five in all, were built by Elmer’s eventual good friend, Jim “Puppet” Ditullio of Race Visions in Buffalo, New York with other design and fabrication work done by Britt Lynn in Georgia. After the crash at Indy, Puppet had one of the guys from his area bring the bike back to New York with them. He checked it for straightness and put axle adjusters front and rear so that wouldn’t happen again. So when Elmer decided it was time for a new chassis, Puppet was first on the list.

While I’m on the subject of “Pup,” had the fax machine never been invented Elmer and Puppet would have gotten a lot more sleep. In addition to being a world-class metal sculptor, Puppet is the best motorcycle cartoonist of all time. The majority of what came across Elmer’s fax machine was never seen by anyone other than those Elmer showed them too before the fax paper turned solid purple. But then again, I received lots of them and I know others who did too. Sending a fax wasn’t exactly cheap back then. Too bad the scanner and email wasn’t invented yet.

Even though the Trett’s only lived twenty miles from Atlanta Dragway and Elmer spent numerous days hanging out there with the likes of Warren Johnson, it was Jim Turner’s Piedmont Raceway that Elmer called his home track. A track in which Elmer had his own key to the gate. Upon each test session, the track was always perfectly prepared and hence the perfect Top Fuel motorcycle test track. Elmer could always trust the results of testing. If something went wrong, it was the bike, not the track. His favorite lane was the right, which was posthumously named after Elmer. I’m not sure that it was he favored the right, or chose not to use the left, which is the lane that took the lives of Marty Blades and Jim Schumacher in back to back runs at an IDBA event in 1987. After that horrific weekend, the track was completely rebuilt including concrete walls and is today known as the premier eighth mile track of the South. But, Elmer was not there that weekend, so the right lane may have just been his favorite.

The first time I visited the Trett home, my brother, Terry and I were attending a Keith Code roadracing school at Road Atlanta. After attending the AMA race on Sunday watching our hometown friend Kevin Schwantz bang handlebars with his rival Wayne Rainey, we drove over to Elmer’s mountain retreat killing time before our Monday school. I remember driving up his road lined with kudzu. As we pulled in the driveway, up the hill and to the right was their log home. Off to the left was the shop, Trett’s Speed & Custom. I’m not sure we even made it in the shop before Elmer took us off in his new Ford dually to run an errand. I don’t remember going anywhere specific but I think it was more a trip to show off the new truck. Elmer must have been a moonshine runner the way he handled that truck. Back at the shop it was a treat to see the true house of speed and all the goodies inside. Then we made a trip through the woods and over the hill to Gina’s house. You thought I was going to say Grandma. For me, it was really a trip to see a painting.

Out of the Mountain Magic series, the most popular to both the family and the fans, was the purple bike laced with magenta, black and silver. The same bike made famous by the night time pass along side of his arch nemesis, Tony Lang, at Atco Raceway on September 11, 1994 where he ran the 6.36 @ 234 mph. As you read Gina’s hand written notes from their log book, you can hear Elmer’s soft spoken, gruffly voice when he notes, “It left good, hazed the tires through the middle, rolled part off, came back in, it moved big time on top.” The Atco pass was made more famous by Kenny Youngblood in his limited edition print.

Shortly after Jack O’Malley and I purchased Prostar from Joe Sway, I commissioned Kenny to do a painting of Elmer using photos from Dave Kommel of Auto Imagery. My only request was that I get the first print available after Elmer got his allotment. Elmer got number 1-15 and I got #16. Gina got the massive original, which was the reason for my trip to her house. Kenny’s website quotes him saying, “This was another one from the heart. Although I had never met Elmer before doing the painting, I was a huge fan and admirer of the soft-spoken man and his awesome machines. I loved putting the flames up behind the seat, but the thing that makes the painting was not planned. I had originally figured to just show a dark shield on his helmet, but after seeing some daytime shots where his face could be seen, I decided to use some “artistic license” and show his face in the night shot. After completing the painting, I finally did speak to Elmer on the phone and he lived up to all of my expectations.”

As much as the world loved the purple bike, over the winter of 1995, Elmer called and started teasing me about his new paint job and that I would not believe it. He wouldn’t tell me what he was doing only that it was “wild and unexpected.” He had me and everybody else believing it was Kawasaki green. The Trett’s showed up at the DealerExpo two weeks before the season opener at Gainesville with a blazing yellow “Mountain Magic” with black and orange stripes complete with new black Lou’s Leathers with yellow and orange stripes.

So started the 1996 season with a yellow motorcycle. As the year progressed, so did Elmer’s pursuit of the 5-second barrier, though he didn’t know it at the time. Starting out the season Elmer’s quickest pass to date was a 6.23. Breaking the 5-second barrier was not talked about until after the next to the last TF event of the season where he ran the infamous 6.069 @ 234mph during the Pingel Thunder Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Elmer qualified #1 with a 6.21@235.10 on Saturday setting one leg of breaking the mph record. Sunday’s eliminations matched Elmer against Ron Webb in round one where he laid down a 6.12@230mph setting one leg on the E.T. record held by Tony at 6.19, which was incidentally set in the final round of the World Finals in Gainesville the previous year against Elmer. In the semi’s he took out Tony with the record breaking 6.069 with a 234mph to back up the 235.10. In all the interviews I have done with the POTW series, this pass is the single most remembered and cherished pass in history.

This set the stage to run the world’s quickest side by side pass against his protégé, McBride in the final round. All of a sudden everyone was thinking we could actually see the historic five, which nobody had contemplated coming into the weekend. Then wouldn’t you know it, the bottom dropped out of the sky and the event was rained out. It was 1996 that 10 out of 11 Prostar events where either rained on or rained out. It was decided that the pass would be completed on Saturday at the World Finals. Only one problem, the NHRA U.S. Nationals was coming up in two weeks where Elmer, Larry, Chris Hand, Tony Lang and Ron Webb were scheduled for exhibition passes. Now there was plenty of time to think about the barrier. The Trett’s had worked all year to get the clutch and fuel system where it needed to be and the 6.06 pass is where it all came together.

The next weekend we were hurrying around the house getting the kids ready to go somewhere when the phone rang. As Debbie answered the phone, the voice on the other end said, “Is the old man at home?” Debbie looked at me with her head slightly tilted and a smile on her face, “It’s Elmer.” She knew our plans had just changed and sent the kids back upstairs to continue their playing. Debbie knew that when Elmer called, it was always a minimum two-hour conversation.

The conversation started out with Elmer laughing about my poor Honda Cub which ended up underneath his motorhome as he was preparing to leave IRP one week earlier. That’s a story I’ll save for another day. For now that story will stay between Gina and I. Elmer finally got around to what he really called about. He called to assure me that he would not run the first 5-second pass in front of car people. It was important to Elmer that the barrier be broken in front of true motorcycle fans. He felt doing it in front of a car crowd would rob the sport’s true fans of the privilege.

Elmer’s call meant the world to me, so when I hung up the phone the subject never crossed my mind again until one week later when the phone rang again and it was Dave Kommel. He was very short and serious. He asked me I had heard about Indy? I said, no, assuming he was calling about a record run with the cars. He asked if I was sitting down then proceeded to tell me that Elmer had just been killed. My heart sunk to my stomach. He went on to explain that he was killed in the exact location of the track where NHRA’s Top Fuel points leader, Blaine Johnson, was killed only 24 hours earlier.

After spending some private time together with my family, I packed a bag and headed for Indy. As I approached the back gate and the credential building, the NHRA staff was anticipating my arrival and quickly got me through the gate and to the Top Fuel Bike pits. It was a very sorrowful day, but the seven-hour drive had exhausted most of the tears. I was taken to the NHRA tech compound where both Elmer’s bike and Blaine’s car were secured. I asked Gina if I could keep the bodywork, which I would explain later what my plans were. That night I took the bodywork over to Doug Sholty’s shop, Square One Graphics. Doug and I took painstaking steps to cut the bodywork into multiple pieces, which I took back to Houston to my mother’s picture frame shop. We cut out each of Elmer’s sponsor’s names from the bike and framed them along with a photo of Elmer taken by Matt Polito. Each sponsor was presented with their piece at the Prostar award banquet in Gainesville. In addition, each Top Fuel rider who competed against Elmer in 1996 was also presented with a piece of the bodywork that came from the tail section.

You can Google the name Elmer Trett and read a plethora of stories written throughout the years which will chronicle Elmer’s list of accomplishments. But any part of his story could not be told without mentioning that Elmer was the first to officially break the 200mph barrier during a sanctioned event. He also led the charge through the next increments of 210, 220 and 230. It was the fear of breaking through the 240 mark that worried Elmer. The tracks weren’t getting any longer and he was seriously concerned about the 250 mark coming too quickly. He always said, “The first one to run 250 will also be a fueler we lose off the end of the track.” As it turned out, it would be McBride who finally broke the 240 barrier in 1999 and Korry Hogan who broke the 250 barrier in 2008, both without incident due to the advancement of brake technology. In other accomplishments, Elmer was honored as person number fifty in NHRA’s 50 Top Drivers of All Time during their 50th Anniversary celebration. <Insert NHRA 50.gif> Elmer was also inducted into both the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

The Trett family rebuilt Elmer’s bike back to the purple version and presented it to Bobby Moore, owner of Race Rock Café during a Prostar banquet. The bike was loaned to Bobby to display at his restaurants, first at the Orlando restaurant then at the Las Vegas location which opened with a gala event featuring the who’s who of the motorsports industry including the Trett family. After the closing of the restaurant years later, Elmer’s bike sat in the garage at Kelly’s house until Jackie called me and asked that I find a permanent home in which others could enjoy it. Ed Youngblood, former and greatest President of the AMA and moto historian (www.motohistory.net), rose to the occasion and put me in touch with John Parnum, owner of JP Cycles who also owns the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa.

Today, Elmer’s bike is in a wonderful display including, helmet, leathers and other memorabilia to be enjoyed by all.

In total Elmer claimed eight Top Fuel titles, three with Prostar (1990, 1993, 1994). He was only one qualifying pass away from claiming his ninth title at the Prostar World Finals. But it wasn’t so much his victories that he is most remembered for as his dedication to the sport and to helping make it better for the next generation. I wish Elmer could have seen the events at Chicago, especially the one with Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha demo rides in conjunction with our event and a 1/2 mile flat track race. He would have loved that track. Or the Atlanta event with 5,000 spectators. He would have been very proud and felt that his work had finally paid off. It was Elmer who convinced Tony Lang to make the move from Funnybike to Top Fuel. Little did he know that Tony would be the guy who would go on to win five Top Fuel titles, four of which could have been Elmer’s had Tony stayed in FB. Make no mistake; the Lang camp was the rival team. Ironically, outside the obvious McBride, Hand, Webb and Brian Johnson camps, Tony Lang was truly one of Elmer’s biggest fans and eventually the father to Elmer’s grandchildren. Ironically, it was also Tony in the opposite lane on Elmer’s final pass.

After Elmer’s death, his daughter Gina and Tony Lang developed a relationship that led to their marriage. As the owners of MTC Engineering, the Lang’s asked that the MTC sponsored event at Atlanta be changed to the MTC Elmer Trett Nationals. At the first event, the Lang and Trett families held a befitting tribute to Elmer with Elmer’s bike being towed down the track by Jackie Trett with Tony Lang riding Elmer’s bike.

This year marks fourteen years since we lost Elmer. For me, that’s exactly the number of years that I knew Elmer. I met him for the first time at the last motorcycle event at Orange County Raceway in California back in 1982. He was a true mentor, friend, and advisor. But more importantly he was a competitor and ambassador to the sport we love. You cannot record the history of motorcycle drag racing without Elmer being at the top. If there is ever a Top Fifty list for the sport of motorcycle drag racing, without question Elmer will once again be #1.

Other areas of interest:
Competitors in the pre-Prostar years: Ray Price, Bonnie Truit, Terry Vance, Bo O’Brochta, Big Carl Ahlfeldt, John Thronson, Dick Prime, Marion Owens, Pete Hill, Jim McClure, Terry Kizer, Russ Collins and many other greats.

What did nominee drive to the races in the early years? Harley Years, orange Ford van, then in the 80’s we went to a Box-van, then on to a Ford crew cab dually w/ matching trailor, then to the motorhomes and trailors.

What sanctioning bodies did nominee race with? PROSTAR, IDBA, NMRA, DRAGBIKE, IHRA, NHRA, SCRA, AHRA…

Spouse’s Name: Jackie Trett

Children’s Names: Elmer Trett Jr. , Steve Trett (deceased) Marilyn, Randy & Mike Robbins, Gina Trett Lang, Kelly Trett Thomason

Occupation: Owner of Trett’s Speed and Custom

Home track: Piedmont Dragway owned by Jim and Dora Turner.

Team Name: Trett’s Racing

Crew Members: Jackie, Gina, & Kelly, along with Britt & LeighAnne Lynn

Sponsors: Web Cam, Belt Drives Limited, APE, Shumaker Racing Components, Arias Pistons, Tsubaki Chain, Performance Machine, Britt Lynn, Dayco, Lou’s Leathers, Torco, Whipple, Fram/Autolite, Copper Gaskets, Custom FRP and Merashoff.

Interest outside of racing: Boating… Going to the lake with his ski boat and eating at his favorite restaurant ‘the Runway’

First motorcycle: a Harley of course…

Person of the Week: Legends – The Beginning

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