HomeColumnsTom McCarthyTop Fuel Motorcycle Legend: Joe Smith - Part 2

Top Fuel Motorcycle Legend: Joe Smith – Part 2

Top Fuel Motorcycle Legend’s Series

Joe Smith: Part II

The opportunity of a Lifetime

In the spring of 1971, after Joe Smith brought motorcycle drag racing into the eight-second elapsed time zone during March of that year, his phone began to ring. One afternoon the person on the other end of the phone was Wally Parks, Mr. NHRA himself, the Don of drag racing. He made Joe an offer he couldn’t refuse: “Joe, we really like what you bring to drag racing; we’d like to see you at our events. Would you like to show up at all our races and put on a show for the fans, what can we work out here?” That was the essence of the opportunity.

Joe recalls, “Wally called me for two main reasons, one, he wanted to congratulate me for breaking the eight-second barrier for drag bikes, and to let me know it couldn’t go into the official NHRA record books because the NHRA was not actually running fuel bikes as an official NHRA competition class at the time of the race. And the other reason was Wally wanted to see if Joe Smith Racing could show up at all or selected NHRA drag races and not only put on a show, but introduce nitro drag bikes to NHRA fans regularly. This was indeed the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to race and put on a show in front of thousands of racing fans.

Following his September 1971 win at the NHRA US Nationals, Joe Smith received this letter directly from Wally Parks, then president of the NHRA. Together, for years to come, they helped bring Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing into the public eye. – Photo Joe Smith family collection

Joe saw this as an opportunity to go drag racing as a vocation. If he could just find the financial backing, he would soon be doing exhibition runs at all, if not most NHRA events. If he could just find a backer, his new job, for which he needed a monthly check, was to go to all the NHRA drag races each season, do two or three exhibition passes each day of the event, plus if there were public appearances, Joe would be expected to show up with his drag bike for kind of a “meet & greet” the public on behalf of his sponsors and the NHRA.” What he needed to accomplish this was sponsorship, and he needed it NOW!

Joe could hardly believe his ears; this truly was the opportunity of a lifetime.

About a week after their phone conversation, Joe received a letter in the mail from Wally parks who extended a written invitation to Joe, inviting him to perform exhibition races at NHRA events. Wally’s reasoning was he wanted Joe to introduce motorcycle drag racing to the public who would otherwise never know drag bikes, let alone fuel-powered drag bikes. Some fans didn’t even know fuel bikes existed! Wally wanted NHRA national event spectators to view a new brand of drag racing excitement: Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing.

This endorsement letter by Wally Parks, to the Harley Davidson Motor Company displays conclusively how deeply the National Hot Rod Association endorsed Joe Smith and his racing efforts. Joe needed support from Harley Davidson and the NHRA, to do what he needed to do to race on a national level, full time for a full year. This letter helped seal the deal. – Scan by Joe Smith family collection

This agreement between Joe Smith and Wally Parks was endorsed additionally by Steve Gibbs of the NHRA, who was also a big fan and supporter of Joe and the fuel bikes. There never was an official written contract between the parties at the time; it simply was not needed. This was a time in America when men were men of their word. Each season Mr. Parks or Mr. Gibbs would contact Mr. Smith, and from 1972 to 1976, Joe was invited to bring Joe Smith Racing to NHRA fans at selected national events. Every year, Joe and his family would hit the road for about ten months, bringing Harley Davidson motorcycle drag racing excitement to thousands of spectators.

The advertising value did not escape the Harley Davidson Motor Company’s advertising department.

Joe knew he had a good reason to appeal to the factory, so with the help of his friend Bob Lebow, together they crafted a proposal for a racing budget to submit to Harley Davidson. Bob’s wife Lucy drove a Super Stock car in drag racing, so Bob knew how to write a proposal. Joe needed money and lots of it if he and the family were going to earn a living at this.

Willie G Davidson and his wife stand proudly behind the first Top Fuel Harley into the 8 second elapsed time zone, the winner of the 1971 NHRA, US Nationals. Joe Smith’s wife Patti is to the left in this image. – Photo Joe Smith family collection

Joe, knowing he was going to be living on the road for the whole year, saving only two months, had significant money concerns. Hotels, gas, and food were just the tip of the ice burg. There was a race bike burning nitromethane that could break parts at any moment; Joe knew he needed spares, so spare money was a must.

Life on the road also meant the occasional roadside breakdown was inevitable. He knew he needed to prepare in advance for this. Then there was the issue of being a homeowner. After all, the bills don’t stop just because you’re a roving, drag racing, rock star living life on the road. Joe could see this coming, so he sought additional support from the Harley Davidson Motor Company. Joe’s good friend Bob Laidlaw of Laidlaw’s Harley Davidson called the factory and put the bug in their ear; “If you help this guy, you will be helping all of us sell more motorcycles.”

It worked. The Harley Davidson advertising department got on board with Joe Smith Racing. Most of the money came from the advertising department, and the remainder came from the racing budget, and that made things more palatable for Dick O’Brian, who was in charge of the racing department at the time.

Joe’s dream of living life as a professional drag racer was coming true.

During the remainder of the 1971 season, Joe began preparations for his new family racing venture. Every member of his family had a job to do on race day. His wife made them all team uniforms. Once he lined up the finances, he started crafting another bike that was, for the most part, a duplicate of the one he ran the first eight-second elapsed time with as a spare bike. He now had a matter of a few months to prepare for a hectic 1972 season.

Joe intended to cover all the NHRA races they wanted him at, plus he intended to make a few “all bike” events that were now starting to crop up across the nation. Joe’s job with Harley Davidson wasn’t so much racing as it was “exhibition racing,” which is very different than conventional drag racing. Exhibition racing is a show performed by a drag racer, either solo or in pairs to entertain the fans to put on a show. Win, lose or draw, exhibition racers are there to put on a show, not win races. Racers engaged in drag racing, however, are two very different forms of motorsport entertainment. One is real competition, and the other is showmanship, but Joe Smith was determined to do both.

It was every motorcycle drag racer’s dream job, but only one man in the nation had it.

This made a lot of other racers somewhat envious, if not downright jealous. When Joe rolled up to an NHRA drag race, he just rolled right into the pit area no waiting. He had the best parking, and if he needed a few passes for friends or family, all he had to do was ask. Other racers were in long lines, and sometimes for hours. They also had to pay entry fees to get into the pits, and parking for racers is first come, first serve. To say there was some animosity growing between Joe and some of his fellow racers would not be an understatement.

“Whenever I showed up at an all-bike drag race, there was always this friction between me and some of the racers. I was often the number one qualifier when I did show up, and that just added to it.” But Joe was there to race, and on the starting line, there are no friends.

While Joe didn’t get to enjoy the camaraderie that most racers experience in the pits, what he did have was the adoration of many NHRA drag racing fans. He remembers, “Every time we started to unload our bikes, we had a crowd form. Same for every time we fired up one of the nitro bikes for warm-up, there was always a crowd around us. Coast to coast, we became famous, and the fans loved us.” This upset fellow racers even more, “baby NHRA Joe Smith,” some called him. Fame has its perks, but it also has a price, and Joe Smith paid it. But make no mistake about it, he was a racer, and he raced to win.

In 1971 Joe won the NHRA, Bakersfield Gas and Fuel Championships for bikes. In July, he was runner-up at the AMDRA races in Niagara Falls, NY, and at Atco, NJ. In September at the NHRA US Nationals, Joe took first place for fuel bikes, and his partner, who often match raced with him, Jim Cook, took second place on Joe’s second bike, ‘Rat Too’. Joe Smith Racing was ready for 1972 and his new full-time job as a professional motorcycle drag racer. He was booked for seventeen weeks on the road in 1972 alone.

While Joe’s primary bread and butter was exhibition racing and or match racing during NHRA racing events, he relished the chance to butt heads with other motorcycle drag racers who were racing on the “all motorcycle” national scene. Joe’s Shovelhead-powered drag bikes burning nitromethane, more often than not, we’re a number one qualifier on drag strips coast to coast. That lasted two seasons, specifically the 1972 and 1973, but Joe could see the writing on the wall, and by the end of the 1973 racing season, he saw double.

During the late 1960s, many fuel bike racers began racing double-engine fuel bikes. For example, Sonny Routt and Larry Welch were racing a twin-engine Triumph motorcycles, as was Boris Murray. T.C. Christenson and his partner John Gregory built a twin-engine Norton, and in 1971 Danny Johnson brought out a double-engine Harley Davidson Sportster he called Goliath. Many of the big guns in the class that was now becoming known as Top Fuel bike began running two motors.

What started Joe seeing double was what happened after the NHRA US Nationals – Indy – 1973. In that race’s final round, Joe faced Bob Mauriello in the final round of “Pro Bike” racing. Bob was sitting on a double engine-powered Triumph that trailered Joe. After the race, Danny Johnson gave Joe the nudge he needed to switch to a twin-engine drag bike. Danny said to Joe, “I guess you’ll have to build a double now to race,” and he said it with a mighty big grin. Joe replied, “If I build a double, you guys will be sorry.” He began gathering parts to build a new double-engine Top Fuel bike right after that race.

On the way home from Indy, Joe and his occasional crew member Gordon Kately discussed what they needed to do for Joe to create his first double-engine bike. When Joe returned home, he was soon on the phone making calls for chrome-moly tubing and aluminum plate. He first fashioned his motor plates out of 7075 aircraft aluminum and after hacksawing out the plates by hand, discovered that alloy was just too brittle for what he wanted. He switched to 6061 T-6 alloys and kept going. After a few more phone calls, Joe had a five-inch-wide car wheel delivered to his garage turned workshop, and he machined out a rear wheel hub and set of spacers out of light-weight aluminum.

For the motors, Joe created a pair of 108 cubic inch Shovelhead engines, identical bore & stroke, heads, and valves; everything he did to one motor, he did to the other. The double started life with a Sportster clutch; seven-disc, sintered iron, Barnett clutch plates sending power to a Lenco two speed. Joe later changed this to a B&J transmission and a fourteen-disc basket setup he created. An M&H Racemaster six-inch rear tire in the back gave the bike the bite it needed.

It took five months, from September of 1973 to the end of February 1974, to put the double-engine bike together. Joe and Gordon started testing in the spring of 74, while Joe continued his racing with King Rat till he became more acclimated to the new ponderous beast.

Joe’s record-setting single-engine bike King Rat weighed in at less than 300 pounds. The new double-engine bike was more than twice that weight coming in at close to 800 pounds. It balanced very differently than the single Joe had been piloting for the last nine years (1965 to 1974), so the driver needed track time to adapt. Practice lasted from spring to mid-summer. When the time came to debut the bike, Joe chose Indy 1974 to make good on his promise to Danny Johnson “If I build one, you guys will be sorry.”

When he returned to the NHRA US Nationals in 1974, once again, Joe Smith was a man on a mission, he was out to prove not only was he top dog but that he could keep pace with the times. He accomplished that in spades. Joe won the race, clocked an 8.45 elapsed time, and the “Wally” came home with him, mission accomplished. Double trouble had arrived. Joe commented during a post-race interview on the return road right after the run, “The bike just made three consecutive passes in the 8.40’s; I’m really happy about that.” His elated family hugged him as the tears began to flow.

Winning Indy is as big as it gets in drag racing. Joe won the NHRA US Nationals in 1971 again in 1974 and one final time in 1975. History repeated itself for the hard-working Joe Smith. The following fall in 1975, Joe repeated his win at the US Nationals, defeating T.C. Christenson in the finals to become the first back-to-back winner in Top Fuel bike at Indy (74-75).

When Joe Smith won the NHRA US Nationals in 1971, the class, at the time was simply called “Motorcycle Eliminator” at that event. Joe’s Top Fuel Harley was first in the 8 second elapsed time zone. This gave rise to Top Fuel Motorcycle, as a recognized class of drag racing by the NHRA. – Photo Joe Smith family collection

Joe’s back-to-back wins at the NHRA US Nationals were the pinnacle of his twenty years of motorcycle drag racing. With ten years of gas drag bike racing Joe took Harley Davidson Knucklehead engines as far as they could go on the drag strip. Then when he switched to the Shovelhead motors, he brought glory to that engine design as well running the first eight-second elapsed time ever for a drag bike. There was a lot of good in Joe’s storied career as drag bike racings first full-time paid drag bike pilot. But with the good comes the bad as well.

During the over two decades of Joe Smith’s motorcycle drag racing career, he suffered four crashes and one major fuel bike racing incident. Joe had this to say about his crashes, “I crashed at Lions drag strip in 1958, at the Irwindale track in 1969, at Indy in 1972, and at Freemont in 1976. All I can say is it hurts BAD when you fall down on the asphalt. Recovery was very painful. A few of those injuries still hurt today, especially during the cold and damp weather. It was always terrible for my wife and kids mainly because they saw it happen. Then they had to go through the bad times of getting me back on my feet because they had to take care of me.”

With Joe’s elapsed times now entering the low eight-second range, his speeds eclipsing 180mph, with an 800-pound bike under him and not one but two engines to take care of, his life was getting more expensive, more complex by the day. In 1975, Joe had been racing twenty years, ten of that as a full-time drag racer. His children had grown into teenagers, and his relationship with his wife was strained by it all. Drag racing was more work now than it was fun. In 1976 the inevitable followed, the moment when he knew enough was enough.

The family that races together, stays together. Joe Smith with his wife Patti, son Eugene and daughter Patti – Photo Joe Smith family collection

It happened after a racing event in Cincinnati, Ohio. Joe was at a race, but his core crew had evaporated without his family. By seventy-six, they were ready to move on to other things. If Joe wanted to go racing, that was his thing. The inner Joe Smith, the drag racer, he was on a tear; he knew he could get a lot out of that double. Joe wanted to keep going. But fate had other plans. Here’s what happened in Joe’s own words:

“When I pulled into the pits in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1976 for an all-bike race, I packed my gear, and when I got out of my truck all by myself, a giant of a biker decided he was going to be my crew for this race. There was not much I could do about it, he equaled three of me in size, and I needed help.

Even though this was an “all bike” racing event, I always had a little showmanship left over. So I waited until the last fuel bikes made their pass before I made my qualifying pass. It was big mistake. I got the bike ready for the run, it’s close to midnight by now, and the air had cooled off quite a bit. The starter waved me to start, and my giant helper spun the starter – the bike fires up immediately. The giant had trouble getting the starter off my bike, but finally, I’m ready for the burnout. But the two bikes in front of me were making their pass, and the guy in the left lane flipped it over his head on the launch.

The starting line official gave me the shutdown signal, and I hit the kill switch. The track cleanup crew had to attend to the mess before I made my pass. The giant started pushing me back (before I was ready) to the fire-up area, and I forgot to close the fuel shut-off valves on my twin fuel tanks during all the confusion.

When they cleared the starting line, and the track official gave me the fire up signal, we did the same staring routine as the previous one. I made a short burn out holding the front brake to let the bike move slowly forward. Now here was where the showmanship came in, which I normally didn’t do during an “all bike” event. I blip the throttle to clean the rear tire, then, to show off, I did another blip to carry the front wheel to the start line. BANG the rear motor does a Grenade act. It blew me into the air off the bike. The bike was in a ball of flames. When I came back down on it, I rolled off to the right to put out the nitromethane flames on parts of my leathers, but this time I didn’t get up.

They were ready to put me in the meat wagon, but I had to do something about my race equipment and knew a guy there that was a good friend of by buddy Gordon Kately. The track summoned him for me and I asked him if he would load up what was left of my bike and shrapnel and bring it to the hospital for me, and he did that. I found out later that the air had cooled so much, that I remember seeing a little frost on top of the float bowl before that last fire-up. What happened was, that one of the floats in the rear carburetor had collapsed, and fuel was running into the bottom end of my rear engine. I thought the bike felt a little sluggish during the burnout, but I didn’t think hard enough.

Joe Smith doing what he loved best during his drag racing years, 1953 through 1976. – Photo Joe Smith family collection

When I got to the hospital, they discovered I had broken some ribs and bruised my chest cavity, and they insisted I see my doctor the next day. I said I was from California and would be heading home that night. The doctor who examined me said I would never make it. He was pretty close with those words. They shot me full of painkillers, and I was on my way. I started traveling back west, and I made it back past Indy and spent the first night in some rest area. I don’t know how I got in the camper bed that night, but the next morning, I had to have some passer-by help me out of bed. I got a little farther along and ended up spending two nights in a motel somewhere down the road. I don’t know how, but I made it home.”

For Joe, this was his turning point. Here’s what was going through his mind at the time: “In 1976 after the nitro incident in Cincinnati, I started thinking about putting another rider on my bike. I asked another nitro pilot, Ron Fringer, if he’d take the job. If he had refused, I would have hung it up right then, I would not have asked anyone else. But he said yes and we finished up the 1976 season together. I think a motorcycle drag racing pilot, especially a Top Fuel bike racer, keeps record of how many times they come off their bike. We all hope it’s ZERO; after all, most times it hurts bad, and recovery can be very painful. Then there are the times you have close calls to crashing. I thought you could record those and number them on how close they were, like one through ten. But I didn’t have to keep a record they were always in my mind. You don’t forget the real close calls you have falling down; I never mentioned them to anyone. When you figure it’s just part of the thrill of drag racing. I had many close calls in my career but not one made me think of not riding. A combination of things made me decide to quit riding. My family life was not what I wanted it to be; my crew was gone, experienced help was getting hard to come by, and the 800-pound bike was not something I could just move around by myself. It was a lot of things all combined.”

It was time for changes in Joe’s life; here’s how it unfolded for him. “By 1976, my daughter had a boyfriend, so she was ready to stay home. The wife didn’t want to get on the road that year, she wanted to stay home, get a full-time job and do other things. My son was the only one left to go with me, but he wasn’t happy any longer just being a drag racer, so I’d lost my “family crew.”

I had already let the Harley Davidson factory know that I was considering retiring from drag racing in the beginning of 1976 season when I told them I was going to have Ron Fringer ride my bike. They agreed with the retirement idea because they wanted me doing their riding. They didn’t want to buy into Joe Smith Racing unless I was the rider. Well that was it for me.

Joe Smith with his double engine, Shovelhead, Top Fuel Harley, which was his final build. After winning back-to-back NHRA US National events in 1974 and 1975, Joe retired from drag racing after the 1976 season. – Photo Joe Smith family collection

I was going to open up my own Harley Davidson dealership in southern California after I quit drag racing, but the deal fell through, so I opened up my Hi-Performance shop in Covina, CA. When I sold my stuff, a guy from Texas bought the double-engine bike. Drag racing’s first eight-second motorcycle went to the Horton Brothers of Lone Pine, CA. I sold my leathers and helmets to some guy in Northern CA. The other single-engine bikes I built went to a Mr. Williams in Northern, CA. The Knuck’s I built went to some local guys here in southern California that I’ve lost contact with.”

That was it for Joe Smith Racing. He went on for a year with the high-performance shop he opened up in Covina, CA. Joe he had more work than he knew what to do with. His first six months after opening was just crazy. Everyone wanted a hot-rod tuned or built by the famous Joe Smith. But Joe had quite enough of that after over two decades of his life devoted to racing. After a year of operation, Joe closed it up his high-performance business and went to work for his good friend, Bob Laidlaw, settling into the rhythm of life.

Today, Joe still lives in sunny southern California with his daughter. His new hobby became Golf, a game he still enjoyed well into his 80’s. His three “Wallys” today sit on a shelf not far from sight. His 1971, 1974 and 1975 NHRA wins, all achieved at the NHRA US Nationals, remind him and all who see them, that Joe Smith Racing was a force to be reckoned with.

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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