HomeColumnsTom McCarthyTop Fuel Motorcycle 2023: The Evolution Continues

Top Fuel Motorcycle 2023: The Evolution Continues

Top Fuel motorcycles
Thundering, fire breathing, Top Fuel motorcycles are alive and well, globally in 2023. This is Jay Turner of North Carolina in AMRA action in Ohio, 20 May 2023 at Summit Motorsports Park. Photo © Tom McCarthy Photography

Top Fuel Motorcycle 2023: The Evolution Continues

In the year 2023, many racing fans, and some racers too, are wondering about the whereabouts of Top Fuel motorcycles and their future. These concerns are generated by the lack of a solid-backed Top Fuel motorcycle class within a major motorcycle drag racing sanction in the continental USA.

It must be noted from the start that while multiple sanctions are hosting Top Fuel motorcycles of the two-cylinder variety, there is no competition point’s class per se, for the inline-four-cylinder bikes as of July 2023, within the USA when this story was written.

Yet there is Top Fuel motorcycle racing as a points championship class in the U.K., the E.U., and Australia for inline-four-cylinder bikes. These countries also host versions of the hybrid V-Twins as various Top Fuel bikes of the two-cylinder variety.

Svein Olav Rolfstad
The nitro bikes of Svein Olav Rolfstad (Norway), seen here at Tierp Arena, 2023, are a stunning example of the kind of craftsmanship and engineering seen by racers and fans “Across the Pond.” This is a 55 degree engine block, supercharged, sporting 117 cubic inches of displacement. The motorcycle has delivered a 6.23 elapsed time so far, with plenty more in store. The workmanship and creativity speak volumes of the Norseman. Photo by Ian King.

Top Fuel motorcycle fans and racers should not fret about “Where have all the T/F bikes gone?” Rest assured, Top Fuel motorcycles are alive and well globally as a class of competition. Top Fuel in the USA and abroad is evolving as a class, while the sport of motorcycle drag racing is also changing.

The Beast.
The Beast: One of the first, if not THE first drag bike to run nitromethane, was witnessed in competition in Santa Anna, California, in 1950 at the Orange County Airport, when the birth of modern day drag racing was conceived. This drag bike, built by Chet Herbert, the entrepreneur who founded Herbert Cams, was a marvel in its day. This is a great example of the evolution of all modern era Top Fuel motorcycles. Photo © Tom McCarthy Photography

Evolution keeps any species alive, and cumulative change is forced via adaptation to the existing conditions. If racers and fans look about, you’ll notice more drag bikes and more opportunities to race every weekend now than ever before in the sport’s history.

So why, you ask, are there fewer Top Fuel motorcycles and places for them to race in the USA?

Because business is business and contrary to popular belief, Top Fuel motorcycles do not run on nitromethane alone – first, they burn money in great quantities – the broken parts and consumables follow. If there are no bucks to race with, you get no Buck Rogers; it’s that simple.

Offenhauser Carbs
Offenhauser Carbs, feeding a mixture of Nitromethane, alcohol and water, to a 1947 Harley Davidson Kunckelhead engine powered this bike to 129.49 MPH. The motorcycle featured a hand shifted, foot actuated dry-clutch. Photo © Tom McCarthy Photography

Until a class sponsor comes forward, putting up thousands of dollars to infuse into a sanction’s expenditures, racers will adapt to existing financial conditions. They will continue to match race, as their money permits.

Going racing requires sufficient funds first. This holds true for any racer. The money first has to come from somewhere.

If one were to consider the sportsman and E.T. model of funding and racing, this is the foundation most motorcycle drag racing sanctions are built upon.

There are hundreds of thousands of street motorcycles on the highways and byways of the USA. The average motorcycle sanction hosting M/C drag racing here in the USA has 15 or more classes of drag bike racing. The AMRA and the AHDRA, to name a few, fully host Top Fuel Harley as a class. But over 90% of the participating class entry fee-paying racers are street bike derivatives.

The street bikes and sportsman drag bikes form 95% of the competition drag bike classes, and all have vast support from the aftermarket. Clutches, fuel-flow valves, shifters and electronics: whichever high-performance enhancements work on drag bikes, also works on the street bikes. Today’s aftermarket is thriving! Many of these aftermarket companies support various sanctions and classes which race their products.

The aftermarket manufacturers help fund the purse winnings for selected classes and racer entry fees help fund the sanction, which rents or leases a racing facility to race at. E.T. and sportsman racing is flourishing and self-sustaining.

There are three wires on this fuel bike and two of them are sparkplug wires. The third wire will ground out the magneto, killing ignition spark, when held against the handlebar. Photo © Tom McCarthy Photography

In contrast, less than 50 Top Fuel motorcycle teams are active in the USA currently, and 80% of that number are active Top Fuel Harley motorcycles. Less than ten active Top Fuel four-cylinder bikes are ready to engage in championship point’s series racing in the USA in the year 2023.

It’s a bitter pill for some to swallow, but racing, as a sport, on the highest level, is a business first and a costly pastime as a secondary consideration. Not everyone has thousands of dollars of disposable income to burn freely after first putting groceries on the table and keeping the lights on at home. This separates the hobbyist and the professionals, having the skills AND the financial means to race at the highest levels.

Top Fuel motorcycle is not for kids. It’s not for the weak nor faint of heart. It takes the heart of a Lion and the financial resources of a substantially successful business enterprise to race at the top levels of ANY motorsport. Be it F-1, NHRA tier-1 professional classes, or Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing, these levels of competition REQUIRE the resources to race at this level.

The Top Fuel motorcycle competition class is the sport of Kings in motorcycle racing. There are no faster, quicker, or more expensive bikes anywhere in motorcycle racing. Going zero to 100 MPH in 1.25 SECONDS is not for the meek.

This is the crowd that watched Larry McBride set a new high-mile-per-hour mark, at Virginia Motorsports Park, on May 14, 2022, when Larry, while match racing with Dave Vantine, posted a 268.38 MPH run. Photo © Tom McCarthy Photography
No drag racing sanction can pack the stands with thousands of spectators like the National Hot Rod Association. Photo © Tom McCarthy Photography

A Top Fuel motorcycle, on a record run will cover the first 660 feet of the race track in about 3.7 seconds and will be going over 200 MPH at half-track. Then in less than two seconds, it will cross the finish line at about 265 MPH. Close to 4 gallons of nitromethane will be consumed, a $300 rear tire will be trashed, and if all goes well, the bike might be ready for another run in about two hours, with a team of three to four highly skilled mechanics preparing the motorcycle.

Top Fuel GOAT List
This GOAT list (greatest all time runs) shows the strength, depth and globalization of Top Fuel motorcycles, as a class. Note that racers from the USA, Greece, UK, Sweden, Finland, Australia, Norway, and Canada, occupy the top twenty of the world’s quickest Top Fuel motorcycles. Image courtesy of Par Pippi Willen.

If anything goes wrong mechanically during a Top Fuel motorcycle pass, somewhere between $300 to $30,000 worth of expendables just took a hit. This is normal during Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing. The crew, the bike, the consumables cost thousands of dollars just for a team to show up.

As a veteran Top Fuel motorcycle pilot once said, “If you’re not ready to blow the cylinder heads of the bike right now, you don’t belong here.” Sacrifice and commitment to purpose are essential elements of Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing. They are not accessories.

The racers with the heart and wherewithal to go Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing are here in the USA. If or when a class sponsor steps up to properly sponsor the class, the racers will come if they build it.

Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing is not dead or dying: It’s evolving, as every business must. How it evolves from here is up to the business elements associated with the sport and the racing teams.

As for the sanctions, the NHRA has long supported the class of Top Fuel motorcycles. It began for the NHRA in the mid-to-late 1960’s when the sanction noticed the fuel bike classes evolving during that era. Joe Smith, who had been racing in southern California since the early 1950s was a well-known racer to the NHRA hierarchy. Joe always had a professional appearance and had excellent performance on the track. So he was the kind of racer the NHRA embraced most.

Joe Smith
Joe Smith of Covina, California, played a major role in bringing Top Fuel motorcycles into the spotlight by partnering with the then, blossoming National Hot Rod Association during the 1960’s and well into the 1970’s. His barn storming, exhibition runs at select NHRA drag races bred acceptance for the bikes, as a class. Photo Courtesy of Joe Smith Family Collection.

Joe developed a working relationship with Wally Parks and Steve Gibbs, who were pillars of the NHRA at the time. They invited Joe to come to do exhibition passes at selected NHRA national events. Joe was sponsored initially by Laidlaw Harley Davidson and, in time, the H.D. factory.

In 1970, the AMDRA American Motorcycle Drag Racing sanction first formed, becoming the bedrock of the actual class of Top Fuel motorcycle. The NHRA formed AMDRA in support of organized motorcycle drag racing. Their first organized sanctioned meet was in July of 1970 during an NHRA meet at Bowling Green, Kentucky. Joe Smith set a new NHRA National Record for A/F B (A Fuel- Bike), of 9.16 @ 163.24 MPH. Boris Murray then upped the MPH to 166.35.

Steve Gibbs
During the 1960’s, NHRA founder Wally Parks and Steve Gibbs (pictured here) worked with Joe Smith and through this collaboration, together they brought fuel bike racing into prominence. This launched the class of Top Fuel motorcycle. Photo © Tom McCarthy Photography

The first running of Top Fuel motorcycles at the U.S. Nationals was indeed in 1970. As a prelude to the U.S. Nationals in 1970, National Dragster ran a photo of a prominent British Top Fuel bike “Pegasus” that was slated to compete at the prestigious U.S. Nationals, that year. (National Dragster Volume XI, #21, dated 28 August 1970.) England’s Derek Chin piloted Pegasus on the nitro-burning Vincent. Also from the U.K. was the supercharged, double-engine Triumph of Dennis Norman, who qualified 8th.

At the 16th Annual NHRA, U.S. Nationals, in 1970, there were more than 20 entries for the 8 bike qualified field. The class was titled “Motorcycle Eliminator” for the event. The number one qualifier was Joe Smith with a 9.21@ 154 MPH, and top MPH was Boris Murray who clocked in with five runs of 167 MPH! Larry Welch won the event that first year. No one can say the NHRA has not supported Top Fuel motorcycles. And they still are to this very day.

The IHRA embraced the Top Fuel Harleys during the late 1990s and well beyond 2000 with their Top Fuel Harley program. This led to dozens of Top Fuel Harley teams that still exist in one form or another. This is why there are still nearly two dozen T/F Harley teams race-ready.

The Man Cup motorcycle drag racing sanction that was an outgrowth of AMA/PROSTAR honored the Top Fuel motorcycle class from inception and would still do so today – if proper funding were present. In the economic climate of 2023, after the Covid impact on economics, it’s just not financially wise to fund any competition classes that are not self-sustaining.

There is great hope on the horizon.

In 2023, as many Top Fuel motorcycle teams begin doing exhibition passes at significant car events; more of the general public, who do not usually see Top Fuel bikes, now get the chance to witness the incredible spectacle of Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing. All it takes is one business person in the crowd to step forward, and everything changes.

There is no telling where, if, or when a financial backer will come to the forefront and say, “Hey, let’s go racing.” The sanctions are willing to work with the racers, and the racers are ready to go racing. The rest is economics.

Larry McBride
This particular practice pass by Larry McBride on Thursday, November 21, 2019, during a Man Cup sanctioned event, is the quickest pass by a Top Fuel motorcycle to date. Man Cup has offered a home to Top Fuel motorcycles since its beginnings in 2010. If class sponsorship were there to fund the big bikes today, the new leadership of Man Cup would be more than willing to work out details. Photo © Tom McCarthy Photography


Author’s note: Special thanks to contributors to this story, Joe Smith and family, Steve Gibbs, the NHRA Museum, Phil Burgess, Frank Spittle, Johnny Vickers, JTR, Doug Herbert, Ian King, Pär Pippi Willén, Svein  Olav Rolfstad, Team McBride, AMRA, Man Cup, Roy Strawn, Jim Harris.

Tom McCarthy Until Next time…

– Tom McCarthy

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