The first sanctioned drag race took place between two stripped-down Fords on a length of road near Goleta, California in 1949. Not long after, motorcycles were screaming down narrow strips of pavement in parking lots or on airport runways rented for the weekend’s races where cars raced cars, motorcycles raced motorcycles, and, more often than not, cars raced motorcycles.
Harley-Davidson® motorcycles, altered by ingenious young mechanics, made an early mark on the sport. On Sundays in 1950, people would gather at the only drag strip in California and watch the races. Run on a little used runway at the Santa Ana airport, the fastest car clocked in at 120 MPH. The fastest motorcycle, a modified 1947 Harley-Davidson EL nicknamed “the Beast,” topped 121 MPH.
While cars would quickly eclipse motorcycles in the sport, during the sport’s early days motorcycles had the edge. The quarter-mile distance cars and motorcycles raced meant that acceleration, not top-end speed was the key to winning. A lighter-weight motorcycle could produce more acceleration (especially when its gas tank was filled with a gasoline and nitromethane mixture) than a heavier car.
By 1958, drag racing had spread across the country. Drag strips could be found in cities and small towns alike, from east coast to west. That year Harley-Davidson released an engine that became one of the most important in the history of the sport. Sportster XLCH motorcycle engines became the go-to engine of choice for many aspiring and celebrated racers alike. In the hands of talented builders such as Leo Payne and Tom Reiser, dragsters powered by the high-compression engine were formidable machines. Elapsed times – the amount of time that passed between a bike leaving the starting line and crossing the finish line – tumbled to Harley-Davidson-powered machines with colorful sobriquets such as “Turnip Eater” and “Super Sportster.”
In 1971, Joe “Granddaddy” Smith’s Shovelhead-powered “King Rat” dragster posted a run under nine seconds. That decade, Smith also became possibly the first drag racer directly sponsored by Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Before then, Smith and many others had largely been supported by local dealers.
The fortunes of drag motorcycles powered with Harley-Davidson engines had their ups and downs over the next three decades, but that all changed with the introduction of the Harley-Davidson®Screamin’ Eagle / Vance & Hines team, but that’s a story for another day.