THE WILD WORLD OF TOP FUEL HARLEY AS TOLD BY THE TWO-WHEEL JOCKEYS
It’s not unreasonable for the majority of people to watch a Top Fuel Harley rider make a quarter-mile blast and think, “Are you crazy?”
Hanging on to the handlebars of a two-wheeled missile -- one that covers the distance in a blink over six seconds and as much as 240 miles an hour -- simply isn’t for everyone.
So what makes these dudes tick? Do these beasts they ride truly scare them at times or their pilots immune to fear? Are there moments riders wished they were anywhere other than on the seat of that bike?
CompetitionPlus.com picked the brains of four such competitors on those topics last weekend at the AHDRA’s Nitro Summer Nationals at Rockingham (N.C.) Dragway.
Vreeland was 26 and his brother Ray was 24 when they opened Vreeland’s Harley-Davidson in Bloomsburg, Pa., in 1990. Rich’s trail to Top Fuel was a linear one, starting with a gasoline-burning V-Rod with a goal of making a 10-second quarter-mile pass. After that, the target was the nines, which he accomplished that, then the eights, which he didn’t attain.
Then he met a veteran nitro competitor named Bill Purvis who “pretty much just mocked me” into getting more serious about racing, Vreeland said: “He kept leaving notes on my trailer and stuff. Finally, I was out in Kansas and he let me ride his bike once. I tried, and then just worked my way up.”
That led to Vreeland fielding a Pro Dragster entry, followed by “a coupla championships” in Nitro Funny Bike. He said he’s been dabbling with Top Fuel for about six years, but in 2020 he got serious about that endeavor and captured AHDRA’s championship. He called the breadth of his experience, from the V-Rod to Top Fuel, “like going from a golf cart to the space shuttle.
“It’s really not as hard as it looks, it’s just overcoming your fear,” he added. “When your whole body is telling you, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this,’ you’ve gotta keep doing it. You kinda just break through, and then you go.”
Freakiest incident: “Two winters ago I was racing somebody else’s motorcycle (at South Georgia Motorsports Park), and the starter procedure was a little different from mine. We went to start it, I hit the wrong switch at the wrong time, and the whole thing blew up. There’s actually a picture and we’re all just engulfed in flames, but it only lasted a millisecond.”
Scariest incident: “The toughest thing was on my V-Rods. Once we started sub-9.50s the bike would go into ‘tank slap,’ where the front end starts shimmying so bad you can barely hang on to it. Had it happen here at Rockingham and once at Norwalk. … We joked about it because I was new to the nitro thing, I was still riding the V-Rod and had that incident. I came back and said, ‘I never thought I’d feel safer on my nitro bike.’
“I don’t know if I’m a fool or what, but I try not to re-live those things. I’ve seen people blown off and I’ve seen people crash, and as the (AHDRA) chaplain, I’m always there. I’ve seen a lot of stuff. I have people all the time who say, ‘You BETTER know Jesus if you’re gonna race one of those things,’ and I tell them, ‘You’re crazy if you get in your car and DON’T know Jesus.’ We don’t know what could happen when we get in our cars every day.”
The flip side of Vreeland’s path to Top Fuel is that of Milford, Ohio, rider Ryan Peery. He grew up riding dirt bikes for fun and never drag raced anything until he jumped on the chance to purchase a Nitro Funny Bike. He spent three years “learning how every nut and bolt on it worked,” and had fellow Ohioan Jake Stordeur ride it in competition.
In late 2016 or early ’17, Peery “first put my leg over it to figure out if I could do it or not. Peery took the bike to West Palm Beach, Fla., for winter testing, made some hits and was hooked. “Everybody says it’s like getting shot out of a cannon, and it is. Your adrenaline is pumping like no other,” he said.
In late 2017, Peery began his competitive drag racing career. The following season, he finished second in AMRA’s Funny Bike standings, and he captured the class championship the following year. The 2019 season was the one in which he bought a Top Fuel chassis, and he converted it to a Funny Bike for Chris Smith to ride. That bike was involved in a testing crash and needed to be front-halved, and Peery ended up converting it into the Top Fuel Harley he currently pilots.
The 2020 season was Peery’s first as a Top Fuel competitor, and in his first outing, at Rockingham, he qualified No. 1 and went to the finals. Then this year, he won the AHDRA season opener at Commerce, Ga., when Jay Turner broke a camshaft and wasn’t able to mount up for the finals. Perry returned to Rockingham last weekend (June 5-6) to again qualify No. 1, he notched the quickest elapsed time of all three rounds of eliminations, and he secured the winner’s trophy.
Freakiest incident: “This has happened twice. You’re leaning hard on the bike if it’s pulling one way or the other, and you’re leaning the opposite way and you’ve got the wheel cocked, that thing will instantly go in the opposite direction. It did it in the first round of eliminations at Charlotte, and there’s video of it. The bike took off and was immediately pointed at the 1,000-foot cone as soon as I hit the throttle, and I was just leaning hard left on that thing. I was leaning so hard that I started pulling the handlebar over, and when the thing came down, it just pulled hard right. The whole bike and frame touched at the same time on the right side, and it scraped and ripped an exhaust clamp off. I was out of the throttle and back in it in a millisecond. I think I ran a 6.51 or something (he did, and won the round), and as soon as you’re out of it and the bike straightens back up, you just hammer on it and it goes wherever it’s pointed.
“It did that last year against Randal (Andras). We were both side by side, and we were both veering toward the center. He can see me, I can see him, and all of a sudden, the bike did the same thing. I got out of it, and he went on by and got the win. …
“That’s just a freaky thing. It’s a little scary the first time you do it. The second time, ‘Aw, I did it again, dang it.’ It’s hard to fight your instincts, and that’s why it takes a year to learn how to ride these things. You get on these things and hit that throttle for the first time, your brain is going to tell your hand to get out of it before you can even think about what happens. You’ve got to train yourself that what your hand is doing -- hitting that throttle and moving you a coupla Gs off the line -- is OK and to stay in it. It’s hard.”
Scariest incident: “On the Funny Bike, it had to be 2018 or ’19 at Martin (Mich.), third round of qualifying and we were No. 1 qualifier. We had laid down a pretty good number, but we went up there and put a little more in it to rotate the earth if we could. I hit that throttle and it stood the tire up so quick and smoked it. The rev limiter did not shut off the ignition, and it blew both heads completely off the cylinders. Literally ripped and snapped all the bolts off the heads. You feel it. That concussion hits you. You’re laying on top of this thing, and, yeah, you’ve got a bulletproof vest on to keep the shrapnel and stuff from hitting you, but that concussion just moves your whole body.”
After a time spent racing in the Pro Dragster ranks, the Pfafftown, N.C., rider got a crack at wheeling a Pro Fuel injected motorcycle that “was so much more fun. After that, I decided I definitely wanted to race Top Fuel.”
That led him to the small town of Mineola, Texas, home of John Storace and his Weekend Frame Works, and Tharpe took the chassis and assorted pieces to legendary Harley racer/innovator Jim McClure to assemble. The construction took longer than an anxious Tharpe expected, but one day McClure called and said, “Alright, boys, bring your starter cart and be up here tomorrow.”
The following morning, on the ride to McClure’s Williamsburg, Va., shop, Tharpe recalls thinking, “Hmmm. It’s real now. I’m actually going to have to ride this thing.”
Fast-forward to 2015, when Tharpe aligned with Jay Turner Racing. Tharpe won his first Top Fuel event at an IHRA meet in Cordova, Ill. In 2018, Tharpe captured the NHRA Top Fuel Harley crown -- one year after Turner had done likewise -- and he defended his crown in 2019.
Freakiest incident: “I got electrocuted. Autolite, when they quit manufacturing (spark plugs) here and moved out of the country, the plugs would start leaking. Gas would build up. You couldn’t pull the (spark plug wire) boot off of it in the pits, but it would make enough gas it would seep through the plug and push the boot off. At Epping (New Hampshire) in 2019, man, I was going across the finish line and I thought that a tube in the chassis had broken. I heard, ‘Pow!’ and ‘Pow!’ and it knocked my hand off the handlebar -- this is at the finish line. Luckily, with the fairing, it afforded me time to get ahold of the motorcycle again, but that (deleted) hit me so, so hard. ... It dawned on me to hit the ignition switch: ‘Turn that off and that’s gonna help you.’
“I finally got it turned off, but if I had gotten shocked about two more times, I was gonna get off of it. I was contemplating jumping off of that damn motorcycle.”
Scariest incident: “The wind got me at Memphis in 2015 and I came off the bike at, like, 217 miles an hour. It was just rider error. I was going for the brake, and I don’t know if it was a bump, it was the parachute or whatever, but whatever it was, it was bad timing. I didn’t have hold of the motorcycle good, and my hand just came off the bar. As soon as the wind got under it, it was going up and I was looking at it and there was nothing I could do. Just, wham, like getting hit by a big wave in the ocean, you’ve just got to hold your breath ’cause you’re gonna be down there for a little bit.
“I was real fortunate. Thanks to my safety equipment, I just had a little bit of road rash and was sore. Ruined my stuff from head to toe. I had to get a new helmet, new leathers, new gloves, new boots, but I raced the next week in Rockingham.”
Motorcycles have long been a part of Chris Smith’s life, going back to age 5. His background includes flat-track action on two wheels, after which he moved into junior drag bikes. Eventually, he abandoned the 11.50-index motorcycle he was toying with for to a carbureted, nitromethane-burning drag bike.
The Murfreesboro, Tenn., racer was introduced to nitro machines by Nashville’s John “Red” Rhea, and to say that they clicked is an understatement. In 2009-10, Smith rode Rhea’s bikes to national runner-up points showings in AMRA Pro Fuel. In 2012, the Funny Bike crown belonged to Smith and Rhea, and in 2018, they combined to earn AMRA’s Top Fuel crown. The 2019 season ended after one race, and Smith spent the season helping Peery win the AMRA Funny Bike crown.
In 2020, multi-time Top Fuel titleist Jay Turner called Smith, now 37, and offered him a part-time ride on one of the bikes built in his Julian, N.C., shop. Turner has captured multiple Top Fuel Harley crowns with a variety of sanctioning bodies, including that of NHRA’s inaugural season in 2017. Bikes prepped by Turner’s team also produced NHRA titles in 2018-19 for Tharpe, and again in 2020 for Louisiana rider Randal Andras.
The Turner-Smith combo worked well from the get-go. In his four outings for Turner, Smith qualified No. 1 three times and was No. 2 in the other. He reached the semifinals in Dallas and was the runner-up to Andras in September at the Gatornationals, where Andras’ 6.27-second shot edged Smith’s 6.31.
“Jay gave me an opportunity. He’s just a good dude,” Smith said. “I think he wants to continue to see the sport grow, and he knows that we need some younger blood in the sport. What he did for me last year was amazing, I could never repay him.”
For now, Smith doesn’t have a Top Fuel ride, but he wheeled Peery’s Nitro Funny Bike to a convincing victory at Rockingham.
Freakiest incident: “I had the front end come up and the forks broke off at Bowling Green, Kentucky -- but I kept it up.”
Scariest incident: ”It was on Ryan’s bike. I was testing it at West Palm after he just built it, and the throttle hung. I had to jump off and went off in the sand trap, hit the catch net. It really didn’t hurt me that bad; cracked three vertebrae in my back, and I was back at the track about five hours later.
“I’ve always loved speed, it’s never really scared me. My wife just says I’m dumber than most. I think she’d prefer me in a boat, sitting in a cove on a lake somewhere.”