HomeColumnsTom McCarthyTop Fuel Motorcycle Legend: Joe Smith - Part 1

Top Fuel Motorcycle Legend: Joe Smith – Part 1

Top Fuel Motorcycle Legend’s Series

Joe Smith: Part I

Harley Davidson Top Fuel Motorcycle Legend

In the annals of motorcycle drag racing history, one name will always stand out whenever the topic of early fuel bike racing comes up; Mr. Joe Smith. Most racers know him as “Granddaddy Joe Smith,” a man as fond of his children and grandchildren as he is of his fuel bikes. Other racers know him and will remember him as one of the great Harley fuel racing pioneers, a man whose efforts date back to the very beginning of drag racing itself.

Joe was born in Parsons, Kansas, about one hundred miles southeast of Wichita, Kansas, on May 18, 1930. “I grew up in Parsons, Kansas, during the depression era,” he recalled in a phone interview. “When my family situation changed back when I was a young man, I found myself on a Greyhound bus headed for southern California. Our family landed in Huntington Park, a city located in the south of Los Angeles County, California, in 1939.”

Joe grew up in the land of speed, where drag racing itself began as a sport. When Joe turned 20 years old in 1950, that was the same year the Santa Ana “Drags” began at the Orange County Airport for the first time. The airport segment used to hold the first drag races was about a half-hour ride from Joe’s home.

Top Fuel Motorcycle Legend: Joe Smith
Joe Smith, Top Fuel Harley motorcycle drag racing pioneer.

At Santa Ana, dry lakes racers from southern California would drag their hot rods from their garages, meet at the airport, then race against time clocks over a measured distance of 1320 feet to see how fast they could go. This event was the actual birth of drag racing. Three years later, Joe would attend his first drag race.

In 1953, the NHRA, under the guidance of founder Wally Parks, held its first official “Drag Race” at the Pomona Fair Grounds in Pomona, California. Joe was there as a spectator with his wife Patricia, whom he married in 1952. While seated in the stands, the young couple was quite impressed by what they saw “It looked like a lot of fun to us,” Joe recalls. “At times, there were more bikes than cars out there, and some were going pretty fast.” Joe liked the hot rod cars and was a car guy at heart, but the bikes made a strong impression on him as well, and he mentioned it to his wife, who intuitively knew what to do.

Next spring, for Joe’s birthday, she gave Joe a gift he’d never forget. On May 18, 1954, Joe was walked out to his garage on his 23rd birthday to find his wife, for a bargain price of $50, had bought him a motorcycle. “What’s this!” he exclaimed. His wife replied, “Well, you said you wanted one, and you wanted to race, so here you go.” Sitting before him was a Kunckelhead-powered Harley Davidson awaiting his attention, and before long, the changes began.

As a youth, Joe had worked several jobs, and his mechanical aptitude was already in place; he was working as an automobile mechanic. At the time Joe received the first motorcycle, he didn’t know how to ride it, but he did know how to chop & channel cars and build hot rods. Heck, a drag bike was just a two-wheeled hot rod. Joe worked with leading artisans at the time in a craft that takes great skill. He knew how to use all the essential hand tools; quickly, Joe took to drag bike racing like a duck to water.

Not long after Joe received the birthday gift of a lifetime, he came across a 45CID Harley Davidson Flathead basket case. Joe picked up the Flathead for short money, built it mostly in his bedroom, and started driving it on the street while he and his buddy Dick Butterworth created Joe’s first drag bike. Dick was married to one of the ladies in the office where Joe was wrenching, and they all became the best of friends.

Mr. Butterworth had built an off-road VW racer that Joe raced for a bit, and when it came time for Joe to build a racer of his own, they just dug right into the project together.

The first drag bike Joe took to building was his 74 cubic inch Knucklehead powered Harley Davidson birthday gift. Joe learned that a stock Knuck held 61 cubic inches of displacement, so he knew someone had been inside this motor before him. “The bike was yellow and looked like it’d been in a muddy field for some time before it came to me. It was a mess.”

As a hot-rodder of cars, with some racing experience, Joe knew the weight was the enemy. So he bobbed the fenders, took off as much weight as possible, and then fashioned a pair of aluminum fuel tanks that straddled his upper main frame rail. Later in the drag bike’s refinement, Joe went to local junk yards searching for worn-down bald car tires, one that would fit his rear wheel. There were no drag slicks for motorcycles in the 1950s, so Joe went tire hunting. Joe also set the bike up for Jockey shifting with his left hand, then added a pair of Linkert M74 carburetors to handle the mixing duties. While pump gas brought the bike to life, other blends would soon follow during the months ahead. It wasn’t long before aviation fuel, or Av-Gas found its way into the fuel tanks.

There were several drag racing classifications for the motorcycles in 1956 when Joe first started testing. Competition classes at the time were based solely on engine displacement starting at 20 cubic inches, then came 30, and 40 CID. The big motorcycles of the day were engines that displaced 61 cubic inches or larger, which was the top of the heap for motorcycle competition. Joe Smith started at the top.

Joe’s first passes came at the old San Gabriel Raceway strip, actually located in Irwindale, California. They were quite tricky as he had to get used to reaching down for the transmission linkage with his left hand to shift the bike. He recorded a pass of 102 miles-per-hour in 1956 and then was up to 124 mph at Lions drag strip in 1958. Joe recalls 1957 as his first serious full season of motorcycle drag racing.

Top Fuel Motorcycle Legend: Joe Smith
When Joe Smith began hitting the drag racing tracks, he did so in style, with this 1959 Ford Ranchero. His Harley Davidson drag bike is powered by a Knucklehead series engine.

His buddy Dick Butterworth had to move on with life, and as Joe’s drag racing focus increased, he soon teamed up with Clem Johnson, and they formed Smith & Johnson racing for a while. They raced quite a bit together during the years 1956 to 1959. There were no drag slicks, no slipper or lock-up clutches, no air shifters, no tachs on the bikes. As Joe recalled, “We all built what we had with what we had to work with. Because you had to make all your own stuff, you were a part of it. You had speed secrets no one else had.”

This was diverse drag racing, no cookie-cutter bikes that all looked the same. Racers felt more like a part of what they were racing because what they had was what they built. Out on the racetrack, there were mostly Triumph, Norton, Vincent, Indians, an occasional BSA and of course, Harley Davidson motorcycles.

Joe took a break from motorcycle drag racing from around 1959 to 1964 while committing himself to family life. Together with his wife Patricia, they had children to raise. Son Eugene was born in 1956, then daughter Patti was born in 1959. Joe had a family to tend to; racing had to wait.

As life rolled along for the Smith family, in 1964, Joe acquired a new Chevelle as his daily driver. But this thing had some get-up-and-go to it, and Joe decided to find out what it could do. He took it to the local Fontana drag strip to see what numbers it had in it. He found that he and his wife, Patti missed drag racing more than they knew. It was time for a return. In late 1964 he decided to build another drag bike.

In 1959, when Joe and his family decided to take a break from drag racing, Joe sold his Knucklehead drag bike. In 1964, he had to start from scratch. Once again, he set about finding everything he needed to create another Harley Davidson; Knucklehead powered drag bike.

It wasn’t long before he found all the right parts, made a frame jig, and crafted another drag bike, this time in his stepmom’s backyard in a six-by-fifteen-foot chicken coop! Joe did all his welding, fabricating, head work, lower-end rebuilds, everything. Joe Smith built every drag bike he ever raced. There was very little he ever farmed out for work during his twenty years of motorcycle drag racing.

During the 1965 season, Joe quickly realized his new Knucklehead-powered drag bike was on par with his previous build, but Joe knew he needed more. He began to experiment with “Tipping the can.” Joe started adding nitromethane to his tank with other components to create a fuel blend.
Gasoline and nitromethane did not mix properly together. Fuel cars were running blends of 86/14 nitromethane to methanol, and sometimes 50/50 was given a shot, as well as a variety of other additives.

Quickly horsepower levels came up, and so did the performance; and parts breakage came with that as well. He tried “boxing” his connecting rods for added strength and fabricated stronger motor mounts. These were steps in the right direction, but what Joe needed was a bigger, stronger motor.

Joe began looking at the new Harley Davidson big-twin motors just coming into production: The Harley Davidson Shovelhead engine. Joe’s beloved Knuck went out of production in 1947. The Panhead motor took center stage from 1948 to 1965. In 1966, when Joe Smith was serious about getting back on top in motorcycle drag racing, the new Shovelhead motor was the latest generation of engine available.

In 1966, Joe removed the Knuck from his frame rails, then made whatever chassis modifications he needed to to stuff the new Shovelhead into the drag bike chassis. It was time to take his motorcycle drag racing to a new level.

Coincidently, by the mid-1960’s, after-market motorcycle racing parts were starting to emerge. In 1967, the S&S Cycle company released their new “fuel” carburetors to motorcycle racers. Leo Payne got S&S #2, and Joe Smith received S&S carburetor #3. These new carbs were a huge improvement in fuel-air distribution. Stroker kits were now readily available for Harley Davidson engines. Motorcycle drag racing was taking off, and Joe Smith was right out front.

The quickest elapsed time and fastest miles per hour Joe ever recorded with his gasoline-fed Knucklehead up until 1959 was an 11.02 ET at 129.00 mph and a 10.52 ET at 138.00 mph on fuel. When he returned to the drag bike wars in 1964/65 his personal best ever runs with his Knucklehead bike resurrected improved to a 10.80 ET at 132.00 mph on gasoline and a 9.39 ET at a whopping 162.00mph on nitro. When Joe put the Shovelhead motor into the bike, he increased to times of 8.64 at speeds of 177.40 mph in the years to come. Joe’s education in gas and fuel from the 1950s was now starting to pay off.

The year 1967 marked the start of the modern era for Top Fuel bike as a class and for Joe Smith Racing. Joe’s family was now taking on a more stable form. Son Eugene was now eleven and his daughter Patti turned eight, so the kids could travel better on racing weekends. Smith family racing was starting to take shape.

Top Fuel Motorcycle Legend: Joe Smith
Joe’s son Eugene, helps dad get ready for a run. Every component on this Shovelhead drag bike was built by Joe Smith. Note the 4” Avon slick on the rear wheel. The bike has three wires: Two sparkplug wires and a magneto grounding wire for engine kill.

In the mid-1960s, when Joe first started using the Shovelhead engine, he built his first one with a set of Panhead engine cases and installed a 4 1/2 inch set of S&S flywheels inside, pushing a pair of 3 and 13/16 inch pistons. Initially, the jugs were S&S manufactured, but he changed to Burkhardt Engineering cylinders in the seventies. The valve lift came from a .525 lift Leineweber camshaft, and the entire configuration yielded 102 cubic inches.

A Harley Davidson four-speed transmission was installed behind the motor set up by Joe for fuel racing. Joe used third gear as his first gear to launch the bike, then when the RPMs were right, he shifted into high gear; so the bike was run as a two speed that he hand shifted.

To further accommodate the loads generated by nitromethane racing, Joe used a special throw-out arm and bearing he fabricated. He then removed the kick start cover and made a blank-off plate to take its place. There wasn’t much done to the gearbox to handle the stress of nitromethane racing, but later in his fuel bike developments, he removed the third gear to make it a high gear only bike. A stock Harley Davidson Big Twin clutch was first used and then modified by using Barnett clutches which he could use as a hand-activated slider. A Triumph spoke type rear-wheel sat in the chassis, accommodating a 4″ wide Avon tire in the back. All racing modifications were hand crafted by Joe Smith.

It should be noted in the mid to late 1960s, Bob Laidlaw of Laidlaw Harley Davidson was Joe’s initial backing sponsor. The complete top floor above the main showroom was full of old Harley Davidson parts of all kinds at Laidlaw’s, and that’s where Joe acquired most all his parts, including the rear wheel, to build his race bike. When Joe was racing, and something broke, the loft was where Joe went for parts, including when he put the Shovel top end on the Panhead bottom end. Everything using Panhead parts came from surplus up in the loft. The only thing that didn’t was his hand-built frame in the chicken coop.

When Joe started racing the fuel-powered Shovelhead drag bike, when he left the starting line, he launched in third gear and shifted into high gear when it felt about right. Joe would literally place his left hand on the shifter mechanism and would feel it when the bike transmission was ready to be engaged by gently pulling up on it.

This two-speed gearbox, hand shifting method lasted only a short time. At one race while shifting with his left hand and twisting the throttle with his right, Joe went into a high-speed wobble and came off the bike. After that, Joe decided to launch in high gear only. During the initial launch, spinning the rear tire became the best way to get the bike off the starting line. In the mid to late 1960’s, there were no slipper clutches for fuel bikes.

High horsepower bikes just spun the rear tire for a distance down the racetrack until drag bike speed and rear wheel rpm’s caught up with each other. Sometimes providing for an exciting ride for the fuel bike pilots who were all racing without wheelie bars at the time; they hadn’t been invented yet.

For Joe Smith Racing, 1968 to 1972 was time spent getting to know and develop what was needed to race Shovelhead engines on nitromethane. Once the motor started to make power, keeping it in one piece to tune it was number one. But stout as the engine was, Joe could tour almost a whole season on it without a teardown. So, Joe concentrated on clutch development and chassis modifications to handle the power. Once it all started to come together and live, the elapsed times started to drop.

Initially, the Shovelhead on nitromethane ran 9 second elapsed times around 9.20 @ 166.00 mph, but he was slipping the clutch and breaking the tire loose during every run. This often resulted in long-distance burn-outs at the launch until the rear wheel speed caught up with the motorcycle’s speed; then, the tire finally hooked up to the race track. Because of this, Joe started working with Marvin Rifchin of M&H Racemaster tires to develop a drag slick just for drag bikes.

Top Fuel Motorcycle Legend: Joe Smith
On June 9, 2016, renowned artist David Uhl, of Uhl Studios released his tribute painting to Harley-Davidson and its presence in NHRA drag racing with a rendition of Joe Smith, the Harley Davidson motorcycle drag racing legend who brought notoriety to the marquee while racing with the National Hot Rod Association from the 1950’s into the 1970’s. Copies of the artwork can be purchased at: https://www.uhlstudios.com/artwork/collections/racing-and-hill-climb/granddaddy/

Here Joe tells the story of how that came to be: “In the 1960’s, our burn outs were stationary. We did them against a fence post or set of parallel steel pipes welded up that looked like a segment of the fence. Some tracks even had a burn-out board area they wanted you to use because stationary burnouts tore up the asphalt, and the tracks didn’t like that at all. Sometimes to put on a show, I’d do a long smoky burn out against the back of my truck, usually the back bumper. I’d set the idle speed up on the truck so when the burnout started, my wife would take her foot off the brake, with the truck in drive and it looked like I was pushing the truck with clouds of smoke billowing behind us – the crowd loved it! Other times, like before an important run, if a track had no stationary burn-out bar, I’d sometimes use the right front wheel of our truck.

One day when I was at Venolia pistons picking up my yearly supply of sponsored pistons when I walked past Joe Pisano’s open office door, he called me in. He asked if there was anything I needed he could help me with, like nitro, methanol, whatever the need. Joe owned Venolia pistons at the time and was a long-time veteran fuel racer. So I said to him, “The bikes could sure use real drag slicks instead of us using that Avon tire all the time.” Being the great guy he was, Pisano picked up the phone and called Marvin Rifchin, the owner and idea man at M&H Racemaster tires in Gardner, Massachusetts. About six weeks later, M&H delivered five 4-inch wide M&H Racemaster drag slicks with different tire compounds for me to start testing. They hooked up so good I blew a few motors testing those first few tires. But that’s how my team became associated with M&H Racemaster and how today’s drag slicks on motorcycles started.”

Once Joe got the new motorcycle drag slick to hook up, the clutch-motor combination was in harmony: history for motorcycle drag racing leaped forward.

It happened the weekend of March 5 – 7, in the year 1971, at the big NHRA Gas and Fuel Championships held at the Formosa/Bakersfield drag strip. Then and there, Joe Smith ran the first 8 seconds elapsed time for motorcycles.

As Joe recalls, it unfolded like this: “The week before the March meet while making some passes on a Saturday night at the Irwindale drag strip, I blew my 102 cubic inch motor out of the frame – right in the lights. And I was not too happy about it because I wanted to make the Bakersfield meet badly! I did NOT want to miss the big race at Bakersfield.

The NHRA had invited fuel bikes to run as a class and looked for an eight-bike qualified field as part of the NHRA’s show. All the big guns were going to be there, Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, everyone who was anyone would be at this event, I could not miss this race. After tearing what was left of my motor out of the frame and discovering my frame wasn’t damaged in the top-end engine explosion, I started looking for parts to put something together for the big race.

I repaired my crankcases with some careful heli-arc welding. While examining what was left of my lower end, I found my boxed rods were ok but the flywheels were junk. The cylinders could be used again even though they had a few scratches. I had a set of new 4 3/4 inch S&S flywheels and a set of used pistons that Venolia had given me. With some delicate work on the used pistons, I put together a 108 cubic inch motor to replace the destroyed 102-inch motor that blew up. Soon we were headed to the March meet with a motor that hadn’t been fired yet, and I wasn’t even sure about all the repaired parts, not to mention the welded crankcases.
But that’s what I had to work with, so off to the big Bakersfield race we went.

When we got to the track it was a packed pit area. I was lucky and got to pit in the dragster pit section. After we got set up, we took the bike down the end of the return road and fired it up to check it out. I rode it the short distance back to our pit area and found my right leg was soaked with nitro. When I put the bike up on wooden blocks and started looking for leaks, I found a jet stream of nitro squirting out from between the cylinder and head on the rear cylinder.” Joe’s wife said, “I guess that puts us on the trailer.”

Top Fuel Motorcycle Legend: Joe Smith
Joe Smith sitting on his Harley Davidson Knucklehead powered drag bike: his first build. Joe built and tuned all his drag bikes he ever raced by his own hand.

Joe replied, “Oh no, it doesn’t,” and he took a long center punch out of his toolbox and, using a hammer, started tapping dimples around the leakage until it stopped. He made one pass that afternoon, and the motor shut off at about the 1000-foot mark. Joe’s wife said the motor sounded different, but the bike turned 9.18 @ 164mph even with the early shut-off. It was late in the day, so we went back to the motel. After all, it was party time. During big race weekends, the motel parking lots were full of racers of all kinds working on their race machines and of course, partying was part of it all.

Early the next morning, when Joe got to the pits he noticed the same jetting was still in the carburetor that he used for the 102″ motor, which was a .502 main jet. But now the engine was up to 108″ cubic inches as a result of his latest engine repairs. So Joe changed to a .512 main jet and added a larger air nozzle. He then put the usually 86 % nitromethane-methanol mixture in the fuel tank.

He remembers the big day well, “We got in line for our first run on Saturday. It was a long wait, but going down the fire up road and letting out the clutch, I knew it was going to be a different ride. When I came to the line, the green light flickered, and right away, the front wheel was in the air. I rode it as far as I could, then had to bring her back down and came back on the throttle again. That run was a 9.04 @ 166 mph. Later in the afternoon, when it was time for our second qualifying pass, I fired it on the fire-up road, and even the idle was different. What a difference a few cubic inches made! That, plus the additional nitromethane volume we were burning, made the difference.

When the green light came on, Joe carried the front wheel about a foot off the ground until half-track, backed off gently, setting the front wheel down, then rolled on the power back to full throttle. The results were historic: a motorcycle’s first 8-second pass ever. Joe stopped the clocks with an 8.97 elapsed time at a thundering 168 MPH!

The next day during eliminations, Joe went on to win the first-ever NHRA fuel bike eliminator, defeating Boris Murray in the final round. Boris ran a stout 9.02 @ 167mph but couldn’t catch the new world-record-holding eight-second Harley Davidson of Joe Smith.

This set the stage for the next phase of Joe Smith’s historic motorcycle drag racing career, a career to this day, most motorcycle drag racers can only dream of; racing for the Harley Davidson factory AND the NHRA!

Stay Tuned for Part 2 next month. 

Tom McCarthy Until Next time…

– Tom McCarthy

Top Fuel Motorcycle Legend’s Series with Tom McCarthy is © Tom McCarthy 2022, all rights reserved. No text portions or images from this series may be copied in part, or fully, without the expressed written consent of Tom McCarthy. Violators may be subject to legal action.

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