Sunday, September 2, 2007

A Night at the Drag Strip

It took all of the willpower that I posses. I really had to reach down deep inside to make myself NOT do something stupid. Though I have never had a drug habit, I am quite sure that the temptation is of the same magnitude.

It started when Jason Clampitt called me a about a week ago to remind me that the Kokesh All Harley Drags which he sponsors (and bears the Kokesh name) were coming up this weekend. I had, of course, seen the race on the Grove Creek Dragway schedule, but to be honest I hadn't given it a lot of thought. Since officially retiring from drag racing, I have been on a strip only about a half dozen times, and about half of those times was in my '58 Studebaker Hawk. The newest bike in our household is my wife's '47 Knucklehead. A stock 61 cubic inch with handshift, it's not what many would consider drag bike material. Besides, most every one I know with any sort of antique bike that I might have been able to coerce into racing would be at the antique motorcycle meet in Davenport Iowa for the weekend.

Left: Jason during test and tune

But, it would be nice to help support the yearly race. In fact, events like this tend to just disappear if they don't get enough participation. And participation doesn't require being highly competitive. The clincher was probably the fact that it was to be an evening event with the gates opening at 4:00 pm. This would enable me to keep my shop open normal hours Saturday morning.

So the 61" Knuckle it would be! This bike has always run very strong for what it is. The motor, which I completely rebuilt back in about 1989, is completely stock right down to the cam,with the exception of the most mild of porting work and a stock later model carb. When I say it runs strong I mainly base that on the fact that it will chirp the rear tire and pop the front wheel about an inch off the pavement when hitting second gear hard (yes, it does have a ratchet lid on the trans).

Well, you can't go drag racing with a muffler, so the first order of business was to find a piece of straight pipe to install in place of the muffler that normally resides on the end of the stock reproduction 2 into 1 pipe. I couldn't believe I didn't have a chunk of pipe long enough in my stash of junk parts. I did have an old slash cut 2" diameter muffler that had been gutted though. By welding a short section of straight pipe onto the front of it I had a rather painless "racing" exhaust system.

Let's see, a drag bike really needs a velocity stack. That was easy, since I sell them in my eBay store The late Shovelhead Kehein carb that I have on the Knuck has the same bolt pattern as an S&S "B" carb. A little rejetting, and I would be all set!

Oh, that's right: any kind of consistent launch would require a tachometer. Luckily I had saved an old Superglide tach from a crashed bike years ago. It still works despite the glass face having been broken and now removed completely.

You may be thinking "That's not so stupid, taking an old bike out to the dragstrip just for fun." Yeah, but that's not the part that I really struggled with. The stupid urge that I had to fight off so heroically was the urge to strip all of the excess weight off the bike for the weekend. Stock fenders; way bigger and heavier than needed. Besides I have an old flat fender that could have been shortened up to the bare minimum. Crash bars; dead weight! A little bates style solo would look good in place of the big stock solo with pogo stick! No need for a headlight; its DRAG RACING! I even toyed with the idea of changing the big stock 16" front wheel over to a 19" I have laying around. Of course that would have eliminated my front brake, making it harder to do a smokey burnout. And I did intend to do some smokey burnouts!

Well, since I am still alive and able to write, it is obvious that my wife Jane did not kill me, and that means I resisted the temptation to strip her bike down to "racing weight". But let me tell you, it was close at times. Even as late as Saturday morning I was looking at that big old front fender and thinking how much air it would trap!

Other than emptying the saddlebags, adjusting the tire pressures (60 in front, 20 in rear), removing the mirror, and tilting the handlebars down as much as possible, I managed to load the Knuck up in the back of our pickup without further modifications.

I wish I could say that Jane had as much fun at the races as I did, because I simply had a blast! I am sure that her enjoyment was based mostly on watching how much fun I was having. I think those of us who are husbands often take for granted how blessed we are in having wives who are willing to find enjoyment in the companionship of doing things together. Too often the "doing" is of those things we want to do, and not what our wives may have chosen. (As usual, I owe you one Sweety)

Upon arrival at the track and getting ready to tech in, I discovered that I had left my lace up work boots at home. I had moved them from the "to go" pile over next to a chair to change into them. At the last minute I decided to wear my cowboy boots until we got to the track. Hmm....slippery bottomed boots with a narrow heel were not my first choice for doing a burnout with a rocker (heel/toe) clutch pedal. I momentarily considered not doing any water burnouts, but quickly discarded that thought as counterproductive to the whole purpose of having fun!

If you have never done a burnout as part of drag racing, here's the deal. The purpose of the water burnout is to clean and heat up the rear tire for better traction. If you are using a treaded street tire and water stays in the grooves you have probably defeated the purpose. Some guys don't do them for that reason. But when you are running a 61" Knucklehead, the real purpose of the burnout is to have fun and show off!
When you see someone doing a water burnout, and they rev their motor but get very little smoke , it is usually due to using too low a gear. The smoke comes from tire speed, not engine speed. The water may do a little cleaning, but is mostly there to enable you to initially break the tire loose.

I do my water burnouts in 3rd gear. Now it is a piece of cake to break the tire loose in water by putting both feet on the ground, taking all of your weight off the bike, and holding the front brake on. With a foot clutch however, that is not so easy to do. Since I have the front brake lever on the right side like a late model, I have to work that along with the throttle with one hand. Add to this, the fact that a stock springer front brake is about a half step better than totally useless, and you can see that the burnout was the most complicated thing to do. Getting any kind of braking force on the front required squeezing with all four fingers, which left only my thumb and palm to control the throttle. Using the rocker clutch necessitated having the bike leaning slightly to the right when initiating the burnout. The lean meant that the rear of the bike would start to slide out to the left when I dropped the clutch. I also wound up putting much of my weight on the seat. This meant that the extra weight coupled with the limited horsepower of the little 61" Knuck would make the tire try to "hook up" and move the bike forward out of the water.

I found that if immediately after dropping the clutch, I got both legs in position so that my lower calves were braced into the front curve of the floorboards, then my feet approximately doubled the holding power of the front brake ( more of a commentary on the weakness of the front brake than the strength of my legs). Once my feet were planted I could feel the rear tire stop trying to grab and looking down I could see the smoke start to roll off the tire. When I felt like I had put on enough of a show, I would let go of the front brake as I sat down on the seat and let it walk out of the water box. Then I had to very quickly get the clutch in and the rear brake on (without letting my pant leg get sucked into the velocity stack) before crossing the starting line. I was also using the front brake at this time, but like I said, it was not a lot of help. After that lengthy description, it frankly doesn't sound like something a person should try to do. Guess its lucky I didn't try to describe it before doing it.

Even a normal burn out on a late model street bike is usually enough to get the blood pumping, so as can be imagined, my adrenaline was flowing pretty good by the time I was ready to stage the old Knuckle. Bringing the rpm up to 3500 for the launch proved to be just about ideal giving no engine bog, a little air under the front tire, and just a little tire spin. As usual, banging 2nd gear would momentarily lift the front tire again. With my chin down on the tachometer and my right leg pulled back to clear the velocity stack, each time I hit another gear it would slide me back an inch or two on the big old Harley solo saddle. By the second or third pass I had realized I was better off winding out 3rd gear rather than shifting into 4th just before the finish line. If that description sounds like I was going really fast, well...I wasn't. My best time of the evening was 10.221 seconds and 67.02 mph on the eighth mile track. How could it have been so much fun at such slow speeds?

Left: the Knuck

There was not a huge turn out of bikes, so there was little or no waiting to make passes during time trials. I think I made more than 10 passes with plenty of time for the bike to cool down a little after about every third pass. Happily this was an eighth mile track so the little 61" was not humiliated as much as if it had been a full quarter. Surprisingly, many of the other bikes did not pass me until I was already in 2nd gear. Most likely they were spinning their tire off the line much more than I was.

My reaction times on the starting lights were another bright spot of the evening. I never did have great reaction times like a few racers I know. Since retiring from the pro ranks with its accompanying "pro tree" I had blamed it on not being able to adapt to a sportsman tree. Of course that was not really the case since my reaction times on a pro tree had always left something to be desired. This night however my reaction times were better than they ever have been with my best being a .006! Seems unlikely that old age would bring better reaction times, so maybe it was the extra adrenaline from the whole foot clutch scenario.

Right: Crazy John with his traction challanged 145 inch was
runner up in the 7.0 class
Eliminations consisted of index racing with a class every .5 second starting with a 7.0 class, then a 7.50 class and so forth up to a 9.50 and slower class. Jason had hoped for enough bikes to break the classes down to every .25 second rather than .5 but the turnout just did not justify it. Since my bike was the slowest one there (I only beat one bike to the finish line all night, and that was because he bogged his engine at the starting line; I did however win a few by opponents red lighting) the eliminations were a bit anticlimactic for me. However, Ken Mlsna, the service manager from American Thunder (next door to my shop) took second in the 9.0 class with his Shovelhead, and Denny Perrier, one of our customers, won the 8.50 class on his hot Panhead.

Right: Denny on left and Ken on right

All in all, a great time was had by everyone, and for me personally it will be even harder to keep myself from doing something stupid for next year!

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