The thrill of drag racing is unlike any other in motorsport. In the pursuit of getting down the quarter-mile as quickly as possible, a mixture of skill and bravery are required. Of course machinery plays an important part as well. For former MOron Pete Brissette, he got the chance to rocket Harley-Davidson’s VRXSE Screamin’ Eagle Destroyer down the drag strip en route to his NHRA license, which is required if you achieve a sub 10-second pass. However, the path to his NHRA license wasn’t a straight shot. He had to work his way up the ranks and progress through different stages of performance. Read his tale below about what it’s like to rocket oneself down the drag strip on a purpose-built drag racing motorcycle. And for more photos of Pete (and Sean) in all his glory, be sure to check out the photo gallery.
Ten Seconds: Destroyed
Fontana, CA — Take one part novice and one part professional instruction; mix together thoroughly with street bike and marinade for approximately two hours. Remove novice from street bike and add one turnkey drag bike. Bake rear tire for two to four seconds and then let mixture settle for 30 to 60 seconds. Set novice and turnkey drag bike at starting line. Turn on timing lights; apply full throttle then release clutch immediately to inject 165 horsepower. Hold full throttle for the length of a quarter mile or 9.96 seconds. Remove jubilant novice and garnish with NHRA license.
That’s a recipe that just about anyone with $31,249.00 and most of the above ingredients can use to accomplish the same results or better, thanks to the Harley-Davidson Motor Company and their CVO Division. Custom Vehicle Operations or CVO as it’s called back in Milwaukee, “creates low-volume, custom motorcycles produced by skilled technicians in special assembly areas at the Harley-Davidson plants in York, PA and Kansas City, MO.” A long winded way of saying that this division has a single focus of bringing customization inside of the giant that is Harley instead of letting customers walk away and into the ever burgeoning market segment that is customizing.
Earlier this year Harley unveiled the new for 2006, VRXSE Screamin’ Eagle Destroyer. A closed-course only motorcycle based on the 2006 VRSCA V-Rod chassis but designed specifically for drag racing. Even though Harley touts the Destroyer as a `Pro-Level Drag Bike’, they make the distinction that “the goal is to bring grass-roots racing to dealerships and riders alike”, according to Joe Nutt, CVO Project Leader for the Screamin’ Eagle Destroyer. As evidence of that, for 2006 there will be a dedicated AHDRA Pro class for the Destroyer.
As mentioned above, the drag bike for the `average guy’ is rooted in the ’06 V-Rod and has a color option of Electric Orange which isn’t too dissimilar from the VRSCSE Screamin’ Eagle V-Rod. But that’s where the similarities end. As one of the Destroyer engineers said, “It’s a different bike from the ground, up.” How long did it take to massage an out-of-the-box drag bike? Nine months from concept to completion. And final design was graced with input from Matt Hines, crew chief for the NHRA Pro Stock Bike champion Screamin’ Eagle/Vance and Hines team. Which, by the way clinched the 2005 NHRA POWERade Pro Stock Motorcycle championship on Nov. 6 at Pomona, California.
So, what really sets the Destroyer apart from the pack, or at least makes it a narrowly focused machine? For starters the heart of the beast is a 1,300cc (79cu.in.) liquid cooled, V-Twin Revolution engine with 105mm cylinders that are made of ultra-hard ductile iron and a stroked, 75mm crankshaft. Forged pistons help create a 14.0:1 compression ratio. Cylinder heads are CNC ported; the valves, valve seats, springs and keepers are all competition grade and designed to complement the high-lift, high-duration cams. The heavily modified motor inhales through 58mm throttle bodies that utilize tuned velocity stacks in lieu of an air cleaner.
An MTC multi-stage lock up clutch handles harnessing the power that this dragon produces and puts the ponies to a transmission that has a modified input, actuator and output shaft assembly which works with an electric-over-air shift system. Final drive is a 530 DRZ chain. It’s the same chain that the Vance and Hines drag racing team uses.
A combination of things that you can and can’t see further distinguishes this orange demon from its V-Rod relatives. Like the programmable, multi-mode shift light and a two-stage launch box (not lunch box) that’s linked to the shift lever. Speaking of being programmable and invisible, the Destroyer will be shipped with a Screamin’ Eagle Race Tuner that you can use to play with the ECM. A digital tach/LED shift light is about the only indication of what’s going on.
To really give it that `drag racer look’, Harley has adorned the bike with a wheelie bar, a special swingarm with custom rear-axle adjusters, solid rear struts and the mother of all drag distinguishing goodies: a big, square slick for the rear and a skinny slick up front. The rear tire is a 7-inch x 25-inch Dunlop Screamin’ Eagle, while the “other one” is a 3-inch x 18-inch slick that may last a lifetime because it hardly ever touches the tarmac. Both tires can be purchased from your local Harley dealer but more importantly they’re in stock, according to Joe Nutt. Finishing touches include forward race-position drag handlebar and risers, drag racing controls of which the most notable is the button that says SHIFT, an emergency shut-off tether, rear-set (as in so rear-set that they’re mounted on the swingarm) footpegs and a race seat with a high-rise cushion. One of the most enticing comments about this bike came from Gene Thomason, who said: “With proper care this bike can go a whole season without being torn down.”
All this stuff sounds neat-o but what would it be like to ride one? MO was invited to find out just what Harley means by a turn-key, non-street legal, sub 10-second drag racing motorcycle. A cool, rain threatened day greeted us at the California Speedway Drag Strip in Fontana, California for what would be to some in attendance, their first time ever down the quarter mile. I was one of those. Never having been less than 10 feet from a drag strip, let alone racing on one, some instruction would be necessary at least as far as Harley-Davidson was concerned. To fill the shoes of instructor Harley chose seasoned drag racer Gene Thomason who is more than qualified as he routinely blasts down the strip on 200 horsepower Pro Gas drag bikes.
The day would start with instruction on how to approach the burn out box, do a burn out, approach the staging box, stage one and stage two lights on a pro light tree, go down the strip straight and exit the strip once the run is over. It sounds simple in premise doesn’t it? Harley isn’t so eager to get the word out about the Destroyer that they would just plunk any old editor in the saddle of a purpose built, 165 hp motorcycle and let `em go. No sir, not at all. We had to prove to the Harley folk and Gene that we would be able to grasp the concept of drag racing before riding the real deal. And in order to do that Harley provided V-Rods, Screamin’ Eagle V-Rods, Screamin’ Eagle Fat Boys and of all things Screamin’ Eagle Ultra Classic Electra Glides. Scoff if you will at the idea of launching these street machines down the strip but one can and must learn the basics of what seems like such a simple form of racing.
For instance, approaching the burn out section or “box”, you should already be looking down the track and picking a point in the distance to begin lining yourself up, all the while being conscious of not moving the bike through the water that’s used to help initiate the burn out. After positioning the bike in front of the water my next step was to ease the bike backwards so the rear tire would be in the water. The entire time you’re backing up you never want to lose your gaze down the strip. Looking anywhere other than straight down at your feet will cause you to be crooked. Once I was certain that I had the rear tire in the water I then eased the bike forward approximately four feet to position for the burn out. Next in the process is getting the bike into second gear (not first as many would assume), holding the front brake with all four fingers, holding in the clutch and revving the engine to around 7,000rpm for the V-Rods and around 5,000rpm for the Electra Glides by using that fifth digit called the thumb. Now you’re ready to release the clutch, shove the front end into the ground and keep the revs up.
Again, this all sounds simple until you attempt to do it the right way, the right way being to never load the rear tire. You’d be surprised how few people can do it correctly. It’s a tiny symphony of actions that require practice. A burn out should be between two to four seconds. After completing the burn out, approaching the staging lights is the next order of business. Seemingly, this should be yet another simple act. On this day we would be using what is called a “pro tree.” The first action is completely in the racer’s control as the first staging light is lit. Nothing will happen until he or she causes the second staging light to go off by literally inching forward. At this point all bets are off and the racer is at the mercy of the starter. The starter can trigger the green light in as little as one second after the racer has activated the second staging light. Though typically the window is one to five seconds.
Just about everyone has seen the configuration of lights at a drag strip: three yellows and a green on the right and left and a single red light at the bottom. The typical countdown, so to speak, is yellow, yellow, yellow, green. In a pro tree scenario all the yellows will light at once and then the green. Gene’s instruction to us drag race hopefuls was to drop the clutch and go once you see all yellows light up. The bike and rider reaction time will be such that once the bike moves the green light should be up. It’s just one more thing to catalog in the “easier than it sounds” section. Should the rider do all this as planned the only thing to do after that is keep the throttle open, shift and go straight. Somewhere in the next nine to 14 seconds you can expect to reach the end of the quarter mile.
After completing 15 to 20 passes on various street bikes it was time to move onto the big dog. Gene needed to give additional instruction to us for riding the Destroyer. The general principles were the same but the Destroyer, being a true drag bike, has a variety of nuances. For example, the “stutter box”, as it’s commonly referred to, is the programmable rev limit depending on whether the clutch is disengaged or engaged. With the clutch lever pulled in the bike could only rev to 7,500rpm. Once the clutch is released the engine will go to full rev, somewhere around 10,000rpm. And again, this can be programmed to the racer’s liking.
While on the subject of the clutch one of Gene’s most important pointers was that we release the clutch immediately. No slipping of the clutch allowed. This serves a two-fold purpose: it prevents additional heat from being built into the clutch and is the only way to get a good launch from the line. Just a few more tidbits were covered before our first soft launch: lay across the “gas tank” in full drag racer mode, utilize the LED shift light, keep the throttle on and go straight. All other lessons learned were applied to these few new instructions and it was time to line up.
The first pass was what’s called a soft launch. In other words, the goal was to essentially roll away from the line and continue to build speed through first gear. After first gear at full throttle, we could hold the throttle open and shift when the shift light said it was time, with engine speed around 8,000rpm. Call it a soft launch if you want but there’s nothing soft about the way this liquid cooled, 1,300cc eagle screams. Since there really isn’t anyway to describe something like riding a dedicated drag bike for the first few times a lot of cliche have to be applied. One to start with is: “It was over before I knew it!”
Now that the initial jitters were over I was ready to saddle up to a full bore, hammer down, no holds barred run. One additional critical thing was thrown into the mix: positioning the throttle hand and arm with elbow up high allows you to fully twist the throttle to the stop when the second staging light comes on. At this point the engine is banging off of the rev limiter and all that’s left to do is rapidly dump the clutch, hold on and hit the shift button.
Hold on is indeed what I did on my first full pass. Time to apply another cliche “It was like being shot out of a cannon!” The shift light would come on so quickly that it seemed I was almost holding the shift button in the entire time. The full force of the exhaust blasted out just below my right knee while the front end skittered across the tarmac and I barely had time to contemplate what was happening before it was time to shut it down and brake for the strip exit. Not sure what to expect in terms of a time when I returned to the pit I was pleasantly surprised that my first ever run on a drag racing motorcycle was a respectable 10.42 seconds.
Unfortunately during the second pass I developed some kind of habit that caused the bike to drift left, almost to the point of crossing into the other lane. To compensate, I believed I needed to modulate the throttle and steer the bike back into my lane, which ultimately left me with a time somewhere in the 13-second range. Definitely not what I expected after such a good first run. Nevertheless, I cleared my head, relaxed and visualized a sub 10-second run, convinced that I could do it as a number of other journalists had already accomplished breaking the barrier.
Drag racing, like many things in life, is a sport of tiny adjustments be they physical or mental. With new determination and processed information from the previous runs I decided that I might have lined up too far left. So on my third run I decided to move just a little to the right. I was now more toward the center of the drag strip. With what was probably my best burn out of the day, I approached the staging box in my new position, laid across the tank, pinned the throttle when the time was right, dumped the clutch and blasted myself off the line. Almost instantly after I hit the shift button to go to second gear I knew this run was different. I attribute that to getting into second gear sooner than on the previous two runs. When I hit third gear I was going faster than at any other time and the bike rumbled and fluttered across the ground with the front end barely touching. Yet it was never uncontrollable and the bike did its job. The wide rear tire, wheelie bar and long and low set up of a drag bike will generally allow you to do your one duty: shift!
When I returned to the pit I still had the strong conviction that I should’ve gotten below 10 seconds. When Sean came to the pit he calmly told me he had captured the entire run on video and thusly had concrete evidence that in fact I had become a member of the nine-second club with my 9.96-second time. At that point my day of riding the Destroyer would be over until I received a medical exam and complete a NHRA license application. National Hot Rod Association rules require that anyone going below 10 seconds in the particular class that the Destroyer is slated in must do the above.
Is Harley’s claim that their new machine will go under 10 seconds as designed for the average guy, true? Apparently so, because at least eight journalists did as much. Director of CVO, Jim Hofmann stated that the VRXSE Screamin’ Eagle V-Rod Destroyer is “the bridge between Harley’s NHRA efforts and the V-Rod line.”
It’s difficult to do a traditional review of this kind of motorcycle because no one at Motorcycle.com is a drag racer; therefore it’s hard to sort out any idiosyncrasies that the bike may have. What we can say is that the Destroyer will do exactly what it is designed to do. With the right knowledge of all that drag racing entails, which can be a lot, someone with determination and this motorcycle can not only go under 10 seconds but they may start looking to break the nine second barrier. Many experienced racers have already come close on the Destroyer so it won’t be long now before the world of motorcycle drag racing changes forever.
Sean Makes a Pass
Our intrepid photog Fonzie Palaima is off playing in MOhab (that’d be Moab, Utah) with the Goddess of all things MO, Ms. Ashley Hamilton. He was supposed to be back about two weeks ago, but if you know Ashley, you know that her “scheduled return date” and actual calendar dates aren’t even distantly related. So, Pete needs to go to CA Speedway for the Harley CVO Destroyer launch and MO has no photo/videographer. Dull-flickering sparks ignite, as a plan forms in my head. “I’ll go shoot Pete’s adventure, don’t worry about making it back in time” I tell Da Fonz. And I meant it, I would indeed go with Pete and photo/video his time aboard the Destroyer. Of course, I’d also stash my leathers in the trunk “just in case.”
I thought I was so smart. Unfortunately, reality poked its ugly head into my plans, shortly after we arrived at the track, when Harley Media Coordinator Paul James told me “It’s a one journalist per publication event, so you’ll need to stay off the track and stick to the photos.” Great, I’ll just spend the day watching everyone else have fun.
Pete was doing a fine job adapting to his role as journo-racer and I did my best to play diligent photo guy, while stealing envious glances and eaves dropping on his coaching sessions with Gene.
As the sun was setting on a day which saw no fewer than seven journalists work there way down into the sub-ten second bracket, a few riders decided to leave-early and I took a shot at convincing Paul that it wouldn’t be a big deal if I rotated-into the group and made a few passes of my own. Paul must have a big heart, cause he took pity on my pitiful soul and told me to suit-up. He didn’t have to tell me twice.
I’d spent the first few hours of the day watching the other journalists work their way up to the Destroyer after a couple hours on the street bikes, followed by a classroom session for the Destroyer, then several “easy-roll-out” soft launches to get used to the race bike and its funky slick. After the soft runs, the journos went back for another class session, before hopping back on the Destroyer and making full-power drag race passes. Once those hot passes started, I saw plenty of wobbles, wiggles, lane departures and other hair-raising moments. Now it was my turn… without any classes, without all the practice, just “Hurry up it’s getting dark and you only have time for two passes.” So I’ll get one soft-launch followed by a full-power all or nothing single-pass. Gulp, I guess I asked for it. It’s probably best just to look cool and pretend that there’s no pressure on me, no nerves, act like I’ve been doing this stuff all my life.
I straddle the Destroyer and the mechanic clips me into the kill switch, while I start this beast using the normal V-Rod switch gear and onboard electric starter. Well, it’s all normal except for that left turn-signal button which happens to engage an air-ram to up-shift the bike at full throttle. I won’t need that button for a few more seconds though, because you need to shift the destroyer normally until you are actually making a run, lest you deplete the onboard air supply prematurely. Of course the gap from the footpeg to the shift lever is literally about 30″. This means you move your whole leg forward, while being careful not to scuff your boots on the ground. This requires a bit of flexibility, since you’re lying semi-prone with the footpeg way behind you and the shift lever roughly even with your shoulders. It would be comical if you had to shift this thing very often, fortunately, you only do it to engage neutral, or bump the bike up to 2nd for a burnout.
I blip the throttle, shake the earth, and creep the clutch out an inch to get the bike rolling towards the staging area. As I coast to the burnout pit my thighs are already burning, because I still haven’t found those damned foot pegs and my feet are cantilevered out behind me, hanging in mid-air. It’s ok though, because the Destroyer is a bit tippy with her crazy fork rake and wrinkle-walled square-sectioned drag slick, so I need my feet free to make quick dabs of paint preservation.
Okay, I’m at the burnout box and 1-2-3 the burnout is done. That wasn’t so hard. Now, I ease the Destroyer to the line and settle-in for my soft-launch. There’s no “medium-launch” because the rear slick would wrinkle its sidewall and squirm the bike all over the track. It’s either soft and easy, or hammer it all at once, there is no in-between, nothing else will work.
I ease the clutch out with about 2,500 rpm on the tach and the bike leaves the line just like a normal V-Rod. Then I gently roll-into the throttle so as not to wrinkle the tire. This is easy, just like the burnout. Gene said that once it’s rolling good, you can open the throttle the rest of the way and hit the shift button at 8,000 rpm. So I do.
Then the pace becomes decidedly urgent and the shift light blares red almost instantly, I press the shift button and *Bang* the bike lunges forward even harder while I keep the throttle pinned and start counter steering to correct for the wrinkling rear tire. The bike maintains its heading and all is well as I bang-off the next three shifts and giggle my way through the timing lights. That wasn’t so bad now was it?
Now I have to do it with full-power from a standstill. This is a whole new ball game, not just a normal launch with a gentle roll into the throttle to feel the motor and chassis. No, this is going to be a semi-controlled explosion from a standstill. Will the tire hook-up and shoot the bike straight down the lane like Gene promises? I don’t know. All I know is that if I wimp-out and make a half-assed launch, the bike is likely to wrinkle the tire and bite me, hard. I don’t want to scuff my pretty Alpinestars, so I know I must pin the throttle against the stutter box, then dump the clutch in one quick motion when the Christmas tree cycles, so the tire can hook-up and grow like a good drag tire should. I know this sounds simple, but let’s think about it for a second. 165 bhp and a veritable mountain of torque all set loose in under a tenth of a second. Sounds violent, doesn’t it?
Only one way to find out… I make my second burnout then roll up to the staging lights and take a few deep breaths before fastening my face shield and getting my body as flat as possible to prepare for launch. I let go of the throttle and re-position my hand so that I can hold the throttle to the stop with my arm and wrist level. I tip-toe forward until the bike trips the second beam and we’re staged. I open the throttle by dropping my right arm to level and the Destroyer screams up to 8,000 rpm, where the electronics hold it and won’t let it rev any higher until the clutch is released. When I dump the clutch, the bike will be free to rev all the way to its 11,000 rpm redline. My fillings rattle and my ear drums are throbbing while I think about that stutter box… Wait, what was that? yellow? Oh yeah, the Christmas tree just tripped and I guess I should open my left fingers and hang on. But seriously, would you? I mean this is really it, right? Nothing left to do but get shot out of this cannon and hey, why rush it, I mean it’s the very last run of the day, I’ve never done this before, nobody else is waiting to make a run, and there’s probably a good three or four minutes before it’s too dark to see. What’s the rush? Oh to hell with it! I let go of the clutch.
Pressure it’s building in the small of my back, as my ass shoves the rest of my 207-pound carcass forward through the first 60 feet in something like one second. My feet are flailing out behind me like stupid tassels from a RUB’s handlebar and the shift light is burning its red message into my retinas before my feet can get anywhere near the pegs. It’s a good thing I don’t need them. My left thumb detaches from the grip, works its way over to the turn signal switch and presses. Bam! Second gear engages and the bike continues to rocket straight and true, while I search for those damned pegs and try to keep my boots from dragging.
The ride is starting to get a little rough as the rigid chassis transmits everything larger than an electron from the track straigt to my breastbone via the gas tank (air box cover) but I can’t really worry about that now, because the damned shift light is on again and it’s time for another gear. I know this all sounds like a slow-motioned nightmare, but I assure you it is really… I mean seriously fun. The sounds are awesome, the feelings coming from everywhere on your body are new and exciting in a non-erotic manly-man sort of way and your mind is completely-blank while simultaneously processing several million lines of input. I really can’t do the feeling justice, but you get the picture. Steer, steer, steer, time for fourth gear, has it really been that long since the lights changed? Really, almost six seconds have passed by now and we’re already halfway down the strip. Seems like only yesterday; we were staring at those yellow Christmas tree lights while weighing the merits of clutch engagement.
Enough reminiscing, our speed is well over 100 mph now and any nanosecond that shift light is going to send another message. I think my feet are on the pegs now, but I’m not really sure, since all the weight is on my chest and my feet are useless. Fifth gear engages a bit softer than the others, but the acceleration is still strong enough to keep me awake until the 1000 foot mark flashes by. About a second later and the timed run is over at 140ish mph, 1320 feet traveled and I’m still breathing…
I roll out of the throttle and the rear tire starts moving around now that it’s not compressed by torque. The ride gets a bit busy for a moment and it feels like the bike just got taller. We skitter and dance for another hundred yards or so, until I start to sit-up and ease into the front brake. Things settle down nicely and I roll gently to the turn-out, but turning isn’t this bike’s forte. As soon as I lean the bike to the right, something scrapes and the steering goes all wonky. It’s ok, no crash or anything, just a completely “wrong” sensation as I weave and bob my way back to the pits.
Did I make it into the 9’s on my first and only run after being thrown into the deep end? Please this is a real drag bike; your grandma could make it into the 9’s on this thing. Gene Thomason has already turned a 9.18 on a stock Destroyer and fully expects to get it into the 8’s after he gets used to the bike and learns all its setup tricks. I mean hell; half the journalists got the bike into the 9’s after a bit of practice and by the end of the day, one or two were already into the 9.55 range. Seriously, anybody can run a stock Destroyer into the 9’s. A pro like me, do you really even need to ask? I’m so fast, I don’t even need to qualify. My pet fish could run 9’s on this bike.
I shut the bike off, remove my helmet and somebody pats me on the back. Wow, did I make it into the 8’s or something? Pete swaggers over with a sly grin on his face and I’m getting curious, did I smoke everyone else on my very first run? “What was it?” I ask Pete. He smiles for a second and says you were ‘this’ close to getting into the… (8’s?) he pauses for a second “You were this close from getting into the 9’s, it was a 10.071” Aggghhh! It’s dark now; there will be no second run, no practice, no error corrections, no chance to knock off the chip I could already see forming on Pete’s shoulder. He would always be “Faster than Sean” and he knew it. He’s a bonafide sub-10 second guy and I’m well… I’m not.
I’m calling Paul James on Monday, seems like there has to be a way to wrangle another run from him. That’s all I’ll need, “Honestly, I swear please Dr. James, just meet me at a dragstrip, any dragstrip… I need to beat Pete’s 9.96, maybe that other journo’s 9.55 and you’ve got the only cure in town.”