HeadLine News

Friday, December 17, 2004 - 08:18:33 AM EDT

Tim Hailey, Dragbike.com

NHRA DRAMA


NHRA Drama Part 1: Different Futures Seen in Smokey Crystal Ball
By Tim Hailey

Needless to say, lots of changes have taken place during the off-season regarding motorcycles at NHRA POWERade races. First, Harley-Davidson's Screamin' Eagle performance parts division took their Nitro Harley sponsorship away from the IHRA and threw their resources behind the full AHDRA schedule and selected exhibitions at NHRA events.

Then 30 year-old, three-time NHRA Pro Stock Bike champion Matt Hines announced he was climbing off his Suzuki seat to devote more time to the Vance & Hines V-Rod program. Actually, Matt gave two reasons for the move, the other being that the team was a victim of the class' epidemic lack of sponsors.

More recently, Star Racing announced that they were disbanding their ultra successful team, winners of the last 3 NHRA championships. Again, a lack of sponsorship was cited as the reason as George Bryce and Angelle Savoie raced all last season without a reliable, primary sponsor.

Within a day or two, Angelle announced that she would be teaming with Antron Brown on a second bike at the similarly under-sponsored Team 23. A silent investor had stepped in with a loan to float the team through the first half of the season, and the team thinks that the pair will have a better chance at landing a major sponsor than they did racing against each other.

Internet forums and phone lines are buzzing, so it's time to try and separate fact from fiction-or at least get some heavy hitters to weigh in with their speculations and opinions. Do this winter's announcements indicate a major change in the structure of professional motorcycle drag racing at the NHRA is immanent?

Raised Eyebrows

It was after the Screamin' Eagle deal that a rumor began to circulate that Harley sponsorship would take over the motorcycle class at NHRA POWERade races when Suzuki's current contract as the official NHRA motorcycle expired, and the imports would shift to the Summit Racing Sport Compact Series.

"That's farther from the truth than everything I've ever read," said Gary Raasch, director of the NHRA's Summit Racing Sport Compact Series. "At least for the POWERade contract (through 2007), they (Pro Stock Bike) are gonna last. They're not gonna race in our race."

"It's not true," Antron Brown agreed. "I talk to the people at NHRA almost every day. As long as POWERade is in there they're behind the Pro Stock Bike category."

"I don't think so," was George Bryce's opinion. "Matt's deal, I'm sure that has a lot to do with all the talk. But with the money that Harley is paying to the Hines family while they're building bikes that outperform the Harleys-that just can't go on forever."

"It's speculation at this point, but some of the stuff I get says 'Yes,'" countered AHDRA Pro Modified champ Mike Lozano of San Antonio's Lozano Brothers Porting. Mike and his brothers have built winning engines for everything from the 24 Hours of Daytona to Indy Cars. Now he's turning his attention to building a two-bike (1 Buell, 1 Sportster) Pro Stock Bike team with retired Tulsa businessman John Hammock to go NHRA racing.

Doug Vancil and his Nitro Harley colleagues will make a
major impact on the NHRA tour in 2003.

"I don't know that I have an opinion as far as it going all Harley," two-time AHDRA Pro Stock champ Tom Bradford said about the POWERade series. Tom is the current AHDRA record holder with a 7.475 aboard his S&S/Hal's H-D Buell and reports that David Feazell ran a 7.32 at January's Super Bowl of Pro Stock in Houston. "But I'm nervous about the future of the class. The #1 (Savoie) and #3 (Hines) guys in the class are either not coming out or might not come out for the whole season."

If Screamin' Eagle dollars do place Harleys as the POWERade Series' motorcycle class, Bradford further worries that gas bikes might get left out. "I'm concerned that the Nitro Harleys might kick out the Pro Stock Bikes, including Harleys. I'm concerned that we're finally gonna get this thing to happen and we're gonna get the door slammed in our face."

"Obviously, the crowd's gonna love the fuel bikes," said Lozano. "Everybody loved watching Mark Conner's bike make passes at Houston. I think a lot of those guys had ever seen a fuel Harley run."

"I think it's gonna happen," said Prostar Top Fuel champion and NHRA Top Fuel Bike exhibition pilot Larry "Spiderman" McBride. "Whether it takes another year of exhibition races, I don't know. It's good for all motorcycle racing."

If Nitro Harleys become a regular pro class at NHRA races, what about McBride's "Kawasaki?" "If Harley's putting up the money, I don't think you'll see Kawasaki's there," said Vance & Hines/Drag Specialties Nitro Harley rider Doug Vancil. "Even the blower bikes will have to run at the sport compact races!"

And if Nitro Harleys become a regular pro class at NHRA races, will McBride be a part of it? "I guarantee it," said Larry. "Would I run a complete circuit? I don't know. That depends on sponsorship."

A scan of the AHDRA schedule for 2003 shows NHRA tracks Gainesville, Topeka and Atlanta suddenly replacing tracks like Bradenton, FL, Roswell, NM, and Delmar, DE. Surely the AHDRA is benefiting in many ways from their partnership with Screamin' Eagle and the NHRA. Is it a calculated move for a full-on SE/NHRA deal? "I don't know any of that to be true," said AHDRA's Lisa Hegler. "The way we look at it is that Screamin' Eagle was looking for a different venue for Nitro Harleys. I can't speak for the deal with NHRA. We just happen to be fortunate that they're taking our top fourteen. We're grateful that Screamin' Eagle has put their trust in us."

"It could be a calculated move, but I think it's a loss for us," Vancil said about not racing with a major car sanction in '03. "Our purses went down and we'll be running on tracks that haven't had 200 cars running down it. We're all looking forward to it, but not looking forward to it."

What's The Mix?

"The Rumor" includes variations on how this might take place, with fuel bikes at half of the races and V-twin Pro Stock bikes at the other half being a popular version. Full fields of competitive fuel Harleys (the exhibitions will have 14 bikes qualifying for an 8 bike field) shouldn't be a problem at NHRA races. In fact, North America might be experiencing a glut of the beasts. 32 of them showed up for the AHDRA Finals in Las Vegas in October with a bump spot of 7.31. A good V-twin Pro Stock field might be a little more difficult.

"I think you'll eventually see all Pro Stock Bike Harleys," said McBride. "But it may be on down the line. There aren't enough of them out there now."

Despite his support for Suzukis, his interest in selling his world champion TL-1000, and Star Racing's ongoing customer support, Bryce is placing his eggs in all baskets. "I am building a nitro Harley and I am building a pro stock Harley," reported George. "It could go that way. I'm going with the flow, that's a fact."

Now, it's been reported for sometime that Star Racing and high performance V-Twin house S&S had entered into a racing partnership of sorts right after the Vance & Hines deal with Screamin' Eagle was announced. Little seemed to materialize except a Pro Street bike that George rode around the pits at a Prostar race a while back. That bike is now in the hands of Nicholas Gonatas, who runner-upped on the bike in the last two AHDRA races this past year. Fred Collis occasionally talks about riding the much-anticipated Star V-twin Pro Stocker and it has been known to make some passes at their local track in Georgia. Then at the Prostar World Finals last November, in between winning rounds on Paul Gast's Hayabusa, Fred mentioned casually that he and "some other guys" had bought a fuel Harley to "play around with."

The resources that are being put into Pro Stock Bike efforts like the Lozano/Hammock team (including a new dyno building at LBP) suggest that the team is expecting more than the chance to make some qualifying passes against imports and, perhaps, win a round. In fact, the growing flood of NHRA V-twin Pro Stock teams (Lozano/Hammock, Star, Vance & Hines, Bradford/S&S, Feazell, etc.) qualifies as a "movement" and seems to function like the "consumer confidence" economic indicator. Despite Vance & Hines' well-funded total lack of V-twin success and Feazell's hard-working near misses, racers are opening their wallets and jumping into the fray. V-twin diehards fighting the good fight? Or astute businessmen with their ears to the wind and their eyes on the future? Surely there is a mix of both in here.

Terry Vance was the man in the early days of Pro Stock Bike.
1981 NMRA Gainesville. Photo by Greg Guarinello.

Oddly poised at the crossroads of the whole issue is Marty Ladwig, the 2-time Prostar 600 SuperSport champion. Marty is currently driving a GM-backed Pontiac Sunfire in the Sport Compact Series, is building a Kawasaki Pro Stock Bike, and used to work for Lozano at LBP. Like Bryce, Ladwig is prepared to race anything wherever the action leads to. But like Lozano, Ladwig is sure that Harley-Davidson will be controlling the motorcycle action at POWERade events.

"All indicators point to the V-twinization of Pro Stock bike," said Ladwig (Marty has since received denials of any such thing from NHRA officials). "You have to look at it from the NHRA guy's minds. They finally get their big American V8's with the big American V-twins. You should have seen at the Super Bowl of Pro Stock. When the Harley's pulled up, everybody cheered."

Marty also pointed to something we'll call the Terry Vance Effect. Like El Niño, the motorcycle performance industry heavy hitter seems to change the weather around him. "I don't know if you can say that, but I suppose he does have some influence," said Vancil.

"Terry Vance used to race Top Fuel and that was the show at NHRA," said Ladwig. "He switched to Pro Stock and so did the NHRA. Now he's racing V-Twins, nitro (with Vancil) and gas (with the V-Rod)."

"I've been saying that for at least two years now," agreed Keith "Scooter" Kizer, president of AMA/Prostar. "As soon as there was a rumor that Vance & Hines was building a Harley Pro Stock Bike, I said that's what would happen."

Scooter reported that the NHRA approved Dave Earl's Trac aluminum chassis without even having seen it go down the track. "We think Dave is doing everything he needs to do, but we've been very careful and taken six months to approve that chassis. Terry needed that chassis to go racing with."

Vance doesn't think that his opinion matters, that only NHRA President Tom Compton's and Harley-Davidson's Mike Kennedy's statements count. "The bottom line is that I can tell you what I think," said Vance. "I can give you an opinion based on conversations I've had with any of those guys, but it's not more than hearsay."

"I think people are thinking too hard," said Harley's Paul James. Kennedy was at MBA school so James was speaking for the H-D Motor Company. "Obviously, for us, it's a great opportunity (the NHRA Nitro Harley exhibitions) to showcase those bikes in front of that crowd. But we're concentrating our testing and development to be competitive in Pro Stock Bike. We're certainly excited about everything we're doing."

Vance recounted that NHRA Pro Stock Bike as we know it started mostly because of Suzuki's involvement with the class. "That happened in 1987." He then scoffed at the idea of a 16-bike V-twin Pro Stock field and speculated about the marketing potential of Top Fuel. "If that's (a Harley-sponsored restructuring of the class) going to happen what would make that happen? Does sponsoring a Nitro Harley class at NHRA races help Harley-Davidson sell motorcycles? The bottom line is whether Harley-Davidson is in position to maximize their brand. I'm not really one to say. I'm sure you can talk to a lot of Harley Top Fuel riders who think it's going to happen because they want it to happen."

AHDRA Champ Mike Lozano sees the Harleys becoming the show at the NHRA

Mark Conner would be one of those. He rides the Alamo City Nitro Harley, firmly believes that Harleys will be the 2-wheeled show at POWERade races, and thinks that Vance is the driving force behind the deal. "He's to Harley-Davidson right now what Kenny Bernstein is to Budweiser," said Conner. "Pro Stock motorcycle racing and motorcycle racing in the NHRA is about to become very different in the next year."

"Let's say Suzuki's contract is up," said Lozano. "They've got X number of dollars. You know Harley can double it, triple it, whatever. And the bikes sound like what the fans there are used to. You ship the Suzuki's off to the import shows and it's their crowd there anyway."

"I think that's just his opinion," Bryce said about Lozano. "He gets that from the people he talks to. It could be going that way, but I've never heard it."

But Lozano does get some scoop, divulging Andrew Hines as the new V-Rod rider before it was posted anywhere. And remember, Bryce is placing his bets across the board. And while one moment he'll say "It sure looks like it's going that way" about a possible Harley takeover, he'll suddenly be inspired to dig in and say "I don't see it. We can run away with our tails between our legs but all we have to do is put on a good show."

Lozano thinks he knows Star Racing's future. "I don't think you'll see George Bryce build another Suzuki Pro Stock motorcycle," said Mike.

"I never say never, cause never's a very long time," said Bryce.

"Never" is a word that's been used at Star Racing before. 

To be continued....

 

Check back for the second part of Hailey's story where he delves deeper into the breakup of
George and Angelle and continues his fight to get the sports movers and shakers to fess up on
the real deal with the NHRA and Harley Davidson.

Tim Hailey can be contacted at timhailey@earthlink.net

 

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