HomeColumnsTom McCarthyNHRA Top Fuel Motorcycle: A Historical Perspective

NHRA Top Fuel Motorcycle: A Historical Perspective

Elmer Trett Top Fuel Motorcycle

NHRA Top Fuel Motorcycle: A Historical Perspective

With the National Hot Rod Association, Gerber Collision & Glass, and NHRA Route 66 Nationals, presented by PEAK Performance, unfolding, it’s time to take a look at a bit of Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing history. The return of this class to the NHRA is a historic one for the Top Fuel motorcycle community, as this class is as old as the NHRA itself when viewed in a historical context.

Author’s Note: The information you see here is a partial excerpt from my upcoming book, “Top Fuel Motorcycle Anthology,” which will be in print in the spring of 2026.

To understand the historical importance of this May 19th, 2024 event, it is helpful to know some of the background of fuel bike racing relative to the National Hot Rod Association sanction.

Top Fuel Motorcycle’s roots, as an evolving category of drag racing competition, really began during the formative years of drag racing as a sport. During the late 1940s, progressing into the 1950s, as dry lakes, racers began showing up at Southern California “Speed Meets” held at abandoned airstrips; as the cars gathered to see who was fastest, so too did the motorcycles. Highly modified street bikes, mirroring the “Hot Rod” cars, began showing up to see who had the fastest machine.

Joe Smith Top Fuel Motorcycle
Joe Smith, cira 1950 seated on his home crafted Knuckelhead, Harley Davidson street bike he turned into a drag bike, by his own hands. Photo courtesy of Joe Smith.

For motorcycles, some of which ran fuel mixtures back then, one excellent example is the Harley Davidson modified street bike built by Chet Herbert, the father of famed and accomplished Top Fuel dragster racer Doug Herbert. This famous motorcycle, known as “The Beast,” is one of, if not the first fuel bike of its kind—a modified street bike built to handle a nitromethane-infused mixture.

As reporting from back in the day indicates, this 1947 VL Harley Davidson Knucklehead was altered by Chet Herbert, beginning sometime in early 1950. By summer, during the June/July Speed Meets at Santa Anna, in southern California, Chet Herbert’s Harley 1950 initially ran 103 MPH in June of 1950. It was ridden at the time by racer Johnny Hutton. During the bikes metamorphosis in the months/years that followed; the performance increased to 121.62 MPH, piloted by Al Keys. Ultimately, the bike’s peak performance came to 129.49 MPH, with Ted Irio driving. The fuel mixture was said to be a combination of alcohol, nitromethane, water, and castor oil, gravity-fed into Offenhauser Midget Carburetors.

The Beast Top Fuel Motorcycle
Chet Herbert’s “The Beast.” One of, if not the first drag bike to ever run nitromethane for fuel, as a drag bike, in drag racing competition. Tom McCarthy Photography

Chet Herbert sold this bike to fund his newly minted racing camshaft business, which later became the legendary “Chet Herbert Cams.” During the early 1950s Speed Meets, this fuel-powered drag bike sometimes beat all the car entries, winning the coveted “Top Speed of the Meet” and defeating well-known drag racing pioneers like Calvin Rice and Art Chrisman—legends all.

The Beast Top Fuel Motorcycle
The Beast is a great example of early fuel bikes, how they were made and what all modern drag fuel bikes have evolved from. Such drag bikes were home built and there was no aftermarket at the time. Everything was hand crafted by the riders and builders. This bike was made by Chet Herbert, Top Fuel car racer Doug Herbert’s dad. Tom McCarthy Photograph

As can be seen in the photos, Chet bobbed the fenders to reduce weight, removing anything not needed in order to lighten the motorcycle. While a stock Knucklehead of the day sported a single Linkert carburetor, The Beast used a pair of rare, Offenhauser Indy-type carburetors, modified to handle the Nitromethane, Methanol, odd mixture. Please note this drag bike was hand-shifted, foot clutch actuated, and the magneto kill device was a shocker to use on hot, sweaty days at the track!

The Beast Top Fuel Motorcycle
There are three wires on The Beast and two of them are spark-plug wires. The third is this ground-strap direct to the magneto. The drag bike pilot only needs to push the grounding strap to the handlebar to ground out the mag, and kill the ignition. However, sweat soaked gloves or bare handed driving will make the person the ground first. Tom McCarthy Photography

The NHRA did not recognize the dragster class of Top Fuel cars until its announcement, late in the 1963 season, that beginning in 1964, the class would be contested for championship points. So prior to the 1964 season, there could be no official class of Top Fuel motorcycles per se, within NHRA. While Top Fuel cars evolved within the NHRA and other racing sanctions, Top Fuel motorcycles were not officially recognized as a competition class until the 1970 season.

Barn Job Top Fuel Motorcycle
Clem Johnson’s creation “The Barn Job” was a bike he began making and race out of his barn, hence the name of his drag bike. This Vincent from the personal collection of author John Stein, is a beautiful representation of the 1950’s into the 60’s fuel bike evolution. Tom McCarthy Photography

Yet the fuel bikes, many of which simply ran on their own, independently, continued to evolve throughout the 1950’s and the 1960’s. Solid examples of this; George Smith (Sr.) co-founder of, S&S Cycles, built and raced “The Tramp” beginning in 1958, and raced it during the 1960’s, as did Clem Johnson with his historic Vincent known as “The Barn Job.” From the year 1960 forward, racers like Joe Smith, Marion Owens, Pete Hill, John Gregory, and Boris Murray were already on drag bikes, experimenting with fuel, throughout the first two decades of drag racing.

Sonny Routt Top Fuel Motorcycle
Sonny Routte’s magnificent double engine Triumph, which ran on nitromethane is a pristine example of the fuel bikes that dominated the mid to late 1960’s era of fuel bike racing. This bike from the collection of Sid Chantland, is a masterpiece. Tom McCarthy Photography

John Gregory, who began racing drag bikes in 1951, soon began racing with fuel mixtures and later went on to build and compete with one of the most recognizable Top Fuel motorcycles ever created: The Hog Slayer. The world-famous Hog Slayer, Norton double won its first National in 1970 and went on to win 5 World Championships. T.C. rode the Norton to a 180.13 M.P.H. record in the Guinness Book of World Records.

John Gregory Top Fuel Motorcycle
John Gregory is a walking encyclopedia of early drag bike racing as he entered the scene in the early 1950’s and not only raced his own creations, but was personally responsible for hand crafting the earliest versions of the slipper clutch and the two speed transmissions, now used in most all fuel bikes today. This pioneer gave much to T/F motorcycle drag racing. Tom McCarthy Photography

During the mid-1960s, organized motorcycle drag racing began to take shape across the United States. One of the first notable organized annual motorcycle drag racing sanctions began with the forming of the Mid Atlantic Motorcycle Association (M.A.M.A.) in 1967. As printed flyers of the era indicate, there were organized motorcycle drag meets, which included classes of motorcycles grouped by engine displacement and type of fuel.

Pete Hill Top Fuel Motorcycle
Pete Hill has been riding and racing Harley Davidson motorcycles for decades. His two blown, injected, Top Fuel Knuckelhead, Harley Davidson drag bikes thrilled fans of motorcycle drag racing for over three decades. His NHRA T/F motorcycle drag bike licence was signed off on by Buster Couch. When his local drag strip didn’t allow motorcycles to be raced in the very early years of drag racing, Pete stuffed one of his Knuckelhead motors into a dragster chassis he created and he raced that. Such was his devotion to his beloved Harley’s that remains unchanged to this very day, Tom McCarthy Photography

This bike was classified as A/FB, indicating a large bore displacement bike burning nitromethane. Therefore class A, plus the letter F, equaled that it was a fuel (B) bike. A designation of Jr./FB would be a smaller displacement combination fuel bike. This held true no matter the manufacture of the motorcycle, be it a Norton, BSA, Triumph, Vincent, or Harley Davidson. If it burned Nitromethane, its displacement determined its class, and, of course, the engine was not burning exclusively gasoline.

Boris Murray Replica Top Fuel Motorcycle
This light and lightning quick double is a replica of Borris Murray’s drag bike, built by Glenn Kerr, who knew and raced along side Boriss many years ago. Many of the photos seen of Borris in magazines and today on the internet, show him on a bike with a full or partial fairing, which was true to the era he raced the bikes. But what you see here is what was under all the aerodynamics. Special thanks to Glenn Kerr for re-creating this. Tom McCarthy Photography

In National Dragster, Volume 42, page 3, 1966, a report from the NHRA Irwindale track noted that the Murray and Cook drag bike “Blazed the slick” to a recorded 10.01 ET @ 157.89 MPH on their twin-engine Triumph, an astounding top speed for the time period.
In 1970, with the formal formation of the AMDRA, as a sanctioned extension of the NHRA, under the direction of sanction leader Roy Strawn, organized motorcycle drag racing really began to come into its own.

Roy Strawn Top Fuel Motorcycle
Roy Strawn from the early 1960’s was a drag bike racer who just could not get enough of the sport. So he went on to become the first organizer of an official motorcycle sanction as an extension of the NHRA, the AMDRA, or as it was then known in 1970, the American Motorcycle Drag Racing Association. Thomas Laughlin Photo.

Again, from the pages of National Dragster, the Indy edition, 1970: VOL XI 24, September 18th edition, 1970, page 18, Larry Welch Nabs the first-ever “Bike Eliminator.” This was during the 16th annual NHRA US Nationals. Twenty fuel bikes entered the event, for an eight-bike field competition field. Joe Smith was the #1 qualifier with a 9.21 @ 154.90 MPH recorded time.

In the semi-finals of the event, the quickest recorded A/FB (Class A, Fuel Bike) time was recorded by Boris Murray’s twin-engine Triumph with a stunning 9.03 @ 170.13 MPH, when Boris defeated Doug Gall. Larry Welch won the “1st Ever Bike Elim” as proclaimed by National Dragster. Larry clocked in with a winning 9.34 @ 161.29, and Boris Murray went quicker/faster with a recorded 9.14 @ 169.49, but Larry’s quicker reaction time won him the event.

Official NHRA Records were printed for the first time in National Dragster on page 45 of this issue. They proclaimed Joe Smith the quickest with his 9.16 and Boris Murray’s 166.35 the fastest for official NHRA “National” records. It is very important to remember here that official records needed to be backed up within 1%. So, while quicker and faster times can show during competition, the numbers had to coincide with the official rules of the day to be stated as official records.

Thus in 1970, Top Fuel motorcycles became recognized as a class of NHRA competition. The TOP FUEL motorcycle record at the end of the 1970 season stood fast with a 9.16 elapsed time by Joe Smith (single engine HD) and the MPH record was held by Boris Murray with a 166.35 MPH set with a double engine Triumph.

Top Fuel motorcycles flourished and evolved as an official class of competition with explosive growth during the AMDRA years the sanction operated on behalf of the NHRA, from 1970 through 1976. During this “Jurassic Period” of Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing, the diversity of drag bikes competing in TOP FUEL motorcycles was at its peak. It was possible for drag racing fans to attend an all-motorcycle event and witness single-engine and double-engine nitro bikes in side-by-side competition together. Double-engine nitro Harleys were very popular, as was the double-engine Norton Hog Slayer T.C. Christensen piloted. Also, the bikes of Boris Murray and Sonny Routt were standouts from the late 1960’s.

Joe Smith Painting Top Fuel Motorcycle
This David Uhl painting, commissioned by Harley Davidson, was crafted by the famous artist in 2016 and was done so from an old photo of Joe, on his beloved Knuck, circa 1960. This is a great tribute to a great fuel bike pioneer, who devoted decades of his life to the class and the sport, Artist copies are available by contacting David Uhl. Graphic Courtesy of David Uhl

The triple Honda of Russ Collins and the double-engine Kawasaki built by Big Carl Ahlfeldt entered the fray in the mid-1970s as well. Russ’s famous Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe triple, went 8.46 @ 173 for the low qualifier during the Hot Bike Nationals in late 1974. Joe Smith, on his double-engine HD Shovelhead, defeated Russ in the finals when Russ spun the tire. Joe Smith ended the year 1974 with the TOP FUEL official record of 8.20 @ 176.47 MPH. One year later, at the end of the 1975 season, Russ turned the tables on Joe Smith. He ended the season with the new national record of 7.86 and Joe held the MPH record with a top speed of 182.55 MPH.

 Top Fuel Motorcycle Triple
Russ Collins triple, known as the Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe was named after an 1800’s railroad line. Today it’s being fully restored by his son, Russ Collins Jr, who is also restoring “The Sorcerer.” Russ hopes to have both bikes fully restored by the end of 2024. Russ Collins Jr Photo

In 1976, the days of the multi-engine bikes were numbered when Ron Teson’s creation of his new Top Fuel Honda inline four-cylinder bike proved that a single-engine, supercharged motorcycle with four cylinders was quicker than any other combination – thus ending the double-and triple-engine dinosaur’s era. This also cemented the place of Top Fuel motorcycles in drag racing.

Teson Record Top Fuel Motorcycle
During the 1970’s, inasmuch as the AMDRA and the NMMRA were both extensions of the NHRA, official elapsed time national records and miles-per-hour record certificates were issued. This one from 1978 was issued to Ron Teson, the owner/builder of the Teson and Bernard, Top Fuel bike. Jimmy Bernard took over the driving duties for Ron Teson, which allowed Ron, who built and raced the bike for years, to concentrate fully on the development of the motorcycle. The little four cylinder Honda 750 hybrid was the T/F bike that ended the era of the multi engine bikes and was the inspiration for Mike Gray to build the Terminal Van Lines bike. Tom McCarthy Photography

The AMDRA folded as a sanction at the end of the 1976 season due to financial woes. This temporarily ended TOP FUEL Motorcycle’s participation in the NHRA. It resumed in 1978 with the creation of its next incantation, the NMRA.

Ron Teson Top Fuel Motorcycle
This single engine, supercharged, injected T/F Honda in the fall of 1977, posted an official NHRA record of 7.65 seconds and stopped the MPH timers, and recorded a 182.42 MPH top speed. It’s concept proved that a single engine drag bike with a supercharger and nitromethane fuel was the best combination for Top Fuel motorcycles. Every Top Fuel drag bike today owes it’s lineage to this drag bike. Photo Courtesy of the Ron Teson archive.

At the urging of NHRA Division 1 Director Darwin Doll, former Tech Director for the AMDRA, Jim Harris, a former motorcycle drag racer who also worked with Roy Strawn and the AMDRA, took up the helm of the newly minted NMRA, the National Motorcycle Racing Association, an officially recognized sanction offshoot of the NHRA.

This returned Top Fuel motorcycle class racing to the National Hot Rod Association. The NMRA was absolutely pivotal to the growth of Top Fuel motorcycle. Without the support and financial backing of the National Hot Rod Association, Top Fuel Motorcycle, would not be where it is today.

As an example of the tremendous evolution of Top Fuel motorcycle development during the NMRA years, in October of 1978, Russ Collins, on his new Honda, “The Sorcerer,” stunned the NHRA with a breathtaking 199.55 MPH blast. Then, in 1980, Bo O’Brachta ended the season that year with a jaw-dropping 7.08 pass, and the drag racing world proclaimed him “Seven-Oh Bo.”

Elmer Trett Top Fuel Motorcycle
Elmer Trett in the near lane and Larry McBride on the far side, have set the bar high for all Top Fuel motorcycles, for all time. Elmer was Larry’s mentor and many times Larry has commented, “He taught me all I know and I wouldn’t be where I am today, if not for Elmer.” Together, they are two of the best ever to throw a leg over a Top Fuel motorcycle. Larry & Elmer, 1993 or 1994 Prostar racing action at Atlanta, dragway. Tom McCarthy Photography

In September of 1983 at the NHRA US Nationals, Elmer Trett ran the first official NHRA 200 MPH pass for Top Fuel motorcycles, with a 201.34 clocking during E-1. He also went on to win the event. The following year, at Indy in 1984, during the final season of Top Fuel motorcycle, as a championship point’s class, Sam Wills won the event over Brian Johnson of England and went 7.03 @ 195.23 in the process.

The National Hot Rod Association’s contributions to Top Fuel motorcycle as a class, are both vast and historical.

Sam Wills Top Fuel Motorcycle
Sam Wills has been racing fuel bikes since 1975. Here he is in the winner’s circle in 1984 after his win at the US Nationals. The motorcycle in the photo is NOT the TVL bike. This is the second generation of the TVL bike; known as the Virgil Naff bike. Photo copy from the Sam Wills personal archive.

Unfortunately in 1984, due to then NMRA director Jim Harris becoming deathly ill, and no one being qualified to run the sanction, in 1984, the NMRA ceased operations. This also marked the official cessation of Top Fuel motorcycle as a point’s class within the National Hot Rod Association.

For Top Fuel motorcycles as a class, this all came full circle in 2023, when the NHRA announced its 2024 racing schedule, including the class once again as a championship point class.

Officially the new Pingel Top Fuel sponsored class of competition begins on May 17 to the 19th 2024 at the Gerber Collision & Glass, NHRA Route 66 Nationals, Presented by, PEAK Performance. History will indeed be made that weekend as this will not only mark the return to championship points competition, but per NHRA competition rules, the Top Fuel bikes will be running 1,000 feet, as do the other fuel competition classes. In as much as no records exist for thousand-foot competition by TFM, every pass during the race will be a race, within the race, to see who sets the first official NHRA 1000’ Top Fuel motorcycle record.

Larry Spiderman McBride Top Fuel Motorcycle
Larry McBride has devoted much of his life to Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing. He began racing fuel bikes, during dirt-drag meets in the early to mid 1970’s. Larry got his start riding for Squeaky Bell on a Harley Davidson Sportster made by Newton “Squeaky” Bell. At the 1980 NHRA, US Nationals, Larry, for the first time, rode Danny Johnson’s Top Fuel Kawasaki and this was Larry’s first experience racing a Top Fuel Inline Four cylinder (I-4) drag bike. The NHRA announcer at the event noted Larry crawling all over the top of the bike “Like a Spider”, trying to drive the bike and keep it in the groove. His live commentary over the PA system is how Larry came to be known as Larry “Spiderman” McBride. Tom McCarthy Photography

Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing in 2024, with the NHRA, has a four-race schedule. The first event is the NHRA Route 66 Nationals, May 17 through the 19th, followed by the NHRA Virginia Nationals on June 21-23, the NHRA Brainerd on August 15-18, and the season-ending event at Charlotte, NC, at the NHRA ZMAX on September 20-22, 2024.

Tom McCarthy Until Next time…

– Tom McCarthy

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