After the obligatory smoke-belching burnout, I roll slowly toward the dragstrip starting line with a peculiar type of nervousness that I suppose comes only when about to perform a full-throttle launch on what is the quickest accelerating production vehicle the world has ever seen.
The acceleration of Destroyer out of the hole is unlike anything you can experience on any production motorcycle, part of what is a well-executed and race-ready package out of the box.
I pull up tentatively to the pre-stage lights on the strip's Christmas tree, flip my visor down and take a deep breath before igniting the stage lights and holding the throttle to its stop. A cacophony of unmuffled explosions erupts beneath me, deflating my courage and making me ask myself: "Do I really want to do this?"
The scene was an autumn day at California Speedway's dragstrip, and the fear-inducing bike being tested was Harley-Davidson's deadly serious Destroyer, a competition-only machine based on a V-Rod that easily cracks the 9-second barrier in quarter-mile drag racing. This means that a Harley - yes, a Harley - is the quickest accelerating production vehicle ever built.
"Yeah but," I hear you say, "how many of the one-trick ponies are they going to sell - six, or a dozen?" Actually, more than 600 of the orange beasts have been ordered, resulting in a sales success even beyond what The Motor Company expected.
Of course, a bike that has the potential to knock on the 8-second door at the strip can't be cheap, and at $31,249, it ain't. However, that substantial investment gives you everything you need to knock down 9-second passes, including a multi-stage lock-up clutch and a launch control program. As such, its price is actually a bargain, and the All-Harley Drag Racing Association (AHDRA) will have a new class for this exciting machine in '06.
Harley claims it gets more than 165 horsepower out of the bored and stroked V-Rod motor, now up to 1300cc. Forged pistons squeeze the fuel-injected mixture to a lofty 14.0:1 compression ratio, as high-flow cylinder heads breathe through larger valves and a beefed up valvetrain with high-lift cams. A lightened crankshaft allows revs as high as you dare, and on this day the programmable limit was set to 11,250 rpm. A ceramic-coated 2-into1 stepped header allows spent gasses to exit quickly and does absolutely nothing to quiet this earth-shaking monster.
Incredibly violent launches are thanks to a 66.9-inch wheelbase, a square-shouldered 7-inch-wide drag slick and a long wheelie bar. Shifts are signaled by a programmable shift light, while power is transferred via a large 530 DRZ chain (the same as used by the record-setting Vance & Hines Pro Stock bike) and easy-change sprockets. Its transmission has been modified by Andrews Cam and Gear, cutting the number of cogs in half and undercutting the gears for quicker and easier shifting via a really cool push-button air shifter system.
The Destroyer arrives from the factory as a complete package ready to go upper-level dragracing. Low-9s in the quarter-mile have already been posted, and it's only a matter of time until it scorches into the 8s.
You'd have to be a fool to let a journalist make some passes on the Destroyer without warming up on something a bit slower, and Harley didn't raise no fools. The assembled scribblers were first sent out on several stock and CVO Harleys, masterfully coached by Top Fuel Harley dragracer Gene Thomason.
For those who've never taken an angry trip down a dragstrip, you're missing out on one of two-wheeling's best thrill rides. The 'strip is a crucible of sorts, one in which lean angles and long-haul comfort don't exist. Making a quick acceleration run on the street is not nearly as interesting as doing it under the watchful eyes of the Chrondeks. There's no denying a slow reaction time, and your ETs are posted for the rest of your buddies to critique. If you're good at the tree, you can post a reaction time of less than a tenth of a second. If you're good the rest of the way down the track, your runs should vary by less than 2 tenths.
The pressure to be perfect can be highly addicting, even when running a relatively slow bike. Early in the day I ran high-13s on an H-D Fat Boy CVO, and I reveled in lowering my reaction time and extracting the maximum out of the Big Twin. Later I took out the V-Rod-based 2006 Night Rod for four consecutive passes. After becoming the first journo of the day to break into the 11-second range, I ran an 11.75 before blowing my next run with wheelspin. I then backed down my aggressiveness during launch and pulled off an 11.71 with a brief 0.09-second RT. Hey, this is cool! Later in the day, after several more passes, I ran a best ET of 11.63. Not bad considering Thomason said the cool track temperature and moderate headwind were holding back our times.
This was all good fun, of course, but we were there for something much more serious. If you're ever near a Destroyer when it barks to life, you'll probably be frightened. Imagine the sound of a dozen Superbikes at full chat, then lower the pitch several octaves and make it angrier, and you'd have something like the racket pouring out of the Destroyer. It'll make your innards shake and small children cry.
Okay, so I'm even intimidated by its sound. What the hell am I going to feel like when I sit on the god-forsaken thing?
Thankfully, Thomason was there to get us up to speed - literally. After showing us the burnout procedure, what to do when staging and how the air-shifter works, Mean Gene gave us a demo run. "Okay," I thought to myself, "Maybe I can do this." To break us in gently, Thomason prescribed two easy familiarity runs, with a gentle launch and revs limited to 8000 rpm.
Duke roasts the back tire of a stock Night Rod before blasting down the track in a best time of 11.63 seconds at 112 mph. He would later go more than 2 seconds quicker on the Destroyer before the day was done.
Prior to climbing on board, the Harley pit crew refilled the air-shifter bottle and ensured tire pressures were spot-on. Thomason, the 1999-2000 AHDRA Super Gas champ, says the front should be between 35-45 psi, while 10.5-11.5 psi in the rear is the range he believes is optimal.
Despite handling like a truck without a suspension (indeed, the Destroyer has no shocks in back, just steel struts), Harley has developed its race-only bike to be as easy to operate as possible. A simple push of the standard starter button is all it takes to incite a racket worthy of calling the cops. Its handlebar is very low and forward while the footpegs are located way back by the rear wheel, the idea being to keep the rider's weight as low as possible. First gear is engaged by a foot-shifter about three feet in front of the pegs!
Here we go. I pull toward the strip, mindful to not slip the clutch like a streetbike but let it out in brief spurts - despite an incredibly durable clutch, which endured two full days at the strip in the hands of motojournalists, it's not designed for trolling down Main Street in Daytona. I motor around the burnout area then back the stretched machine into the water box before pulling forward several feet. After engaging second gear (not first), I dump the clutch and let that fat tire come up to roasting temperature at 7000 rpm. Waves of concussive force blasts between my legs, and this exercise in itself was mildly frightening - some of the more timid journos had a tough time executing this procedure.
I tentatively bring this cackling contraption toward the start line and into the pre-stage zone. This is it. I flick down my helmet visor and hope the Destroyer's name doesn't apply to my riding career as I illuminate the staged lights.
No worries about reaction times on this run, I gently let out the clutch and get rolling before really twisting the loud handle. I am simultaneously overwhelmed by the hand-of-god power and the concussive force threatening to explode my eardrums. With a radical machine such as this, things happen fast - I quickly forgot about shift rpm as double-digit mph gains happen in the blink of an eye. Bam!
, second gear, Bam!
It seemed like the run was over before I could even process my thoughts, and I suddenly could imagine what going a round with Sugar Ray Leonard might feel like. It took 11.2 seconds to cut the timing lights, even with the prescribed super-gentle launch.
Now that I had a pass under my belt and a set of earplugs in my cranium, my next run wasn't quite so intimidating. I got off the line a bit harder this time, feeling the beastly power catapulting me forward and then banging it into second. It was only then I realized that I hadn't even fully pinned it yet! It was max throttle from there out, the push-button air-shifting thankfully giving a mind that is already reeling from the intense acceleration a bit less to think about. My 10.7-second run was the quickest up till that point, but it was a pale shadow of what would come when we performed our upcoming full-throttle launches.
Upon hearing how fast the Destroyer can accelerate, Duke politely asks if he could go to the bathroom.
Soon it was time to again straddle the rip-snorting monster, and although I was now somewhat familiar with it, I found it difficult to prepare for the seemingly insane proposition of holding the throttle of a 170-horse engine to its stop and then simply dumping the clutch to unleash the unbridled fury all at once. It just seems plain wrong
. The anticipation I felt was similar to the time I jumped out of an airplane, putting my cognitive trust in science even in the face of something that seems irrational.
against the rev limiter, lights go green, clutch gets thrown to oblivion against my strongest self-preservation instincts. The first second of the run is as vicious as a car bomb, and it truly feels like something drastically horrible is happening.
I'm grateful for the huge seat hump on the Destroyer, otherwise the bike would be flailing down the track with its motojournalist pilot on his ass where no thesaurus would be able to save him. The shift light blares in my eyes and I'm somewhat startled that it's all happening so fast. I punch the air shifter and regain my senses, getting clean shifts the rest of the way down the track. The Destroyer squirms under the intense acceleration in the lower three gears, though other than gentle body positioning the rider is basically just along for the ride - my feet never even found the way-rear-set pegs during several of my runs. Once out of second gear, it's almost like a video game, stabbing the shift button and holding on while blasting past 135 mph.
The run's over in a tick more than 10 seconds, and as the suspension-less rear end bounces around in the shut-off area, I wonder if I even took a breath during the entire run. The intense initial acceleration had me a bit frazzled, but I vowed that my next run would be in the 9s.
I hadn't had my chance for a balls-to-the-wall launch before we were dealt some bad news: What Harley didn't find out during a previous day of testing by European journos is that anyone running quicker than 10-second quarter-miles must have an NHRA drag racing license. The first anyone heard of it was when the guys in the control tower shut down Cycle World
's Mark Hoyer after he posted a 9.9-second run.
All of a sudden there was incentive not to post a really quick time: The plug would be pulled if I went into the 9s. Rationally, I'd be smart to just knock off low 10-second runs and do it all afternoon. Rationally, I'd choose a Honda Civic over a Honda CBR.
The Destroyer launches so furiously that its large seat hump is the only thing keeping the rider on board.
I moseyed up to the starting line emboldened that I was mentally better prepared for the violence of what was about to happen. Bam!
I got a more controlled launch this time, and was quicker on the first shift. I was now piling on speed like nothing else I've ever experienced in eight years of acceleration testing streetbikes. I felt smooth and believed I wasn't nervous, but my fogged visor when I finally exhaled at the end of the quarter-mile said otherwise. The Destroyer literally takes your breath away.
There were plenty of smiling faces when I returned from my run, happily informing me that I had busted my 9-second cherry! However, that run also became my Scarlet Letter, as my 9.74-second pace had cost me the chance to make any more runs without that pesky NHRA license. The sad part was that, with Thomason providing instruction, we already had half the licensing requirements met. But we also needed to pass a physician's examination.
Cell phones and Palm Pilots were whipped out, scurrying in attempts to find a doctor that wouldn't mind taking a half-day off so we could pass our physicals. Luckily for us, plenty of doctors can afford Harleys and we were able to track down a Fat Boy owner from Anaheim who would do us the favor. A big shout-out goes to Dr. David Asher from Asher Family Care
who came to get us out of our speed-induced exile.
Physicals passed (even the urine test!) and NHRA licenses in hand, the 9-second gang again set out to tame the wild brute that is the Destroyer.
I'd get five more runs on this day. Although the game seems simple - pin it and hang on - getting everything perfect in the compressed amount of time proves to be highly elusive. There are so many small details that have to be executed faultlessly to comprise an excellent pass. Drag racing is actually a little like the quiet game of golf, despite the seemingly incongruous nature of the two sports, as there's always something you could've done a little bit better. Several journalists in attendance never did break into the 9s.
The basis of any serious run happens in the first 60 feet after the starting line. A tenth of a second here translates into several tenths after the 1320-foot course. On the Destroyer, a decent 60-foot time is under 1.6 second - anything slower and you'd be lucky to bust into the 9s. Items critical to success in this regard are your burnout, line selection, body positioning, and, of course, cojones
. It also helps if you're not gravitationally challenged, even with all this power beneath you.
Part of getting an NHRA dragracing license involved being given a physical by a certified doctor. We'll spare you the photos of the urine test.
If this were a normal bike test, I'd have to tell you about the Destroyer's pitiable low-speed handling characteristics, the relatively meek power from its single front disc brake, its uncomfortable riding position, and its wretched carburetion at anything less than full throttle, regardless of rpm. But these things concern a dragracer as much as Ruben Xaus worries Valentino Rossi on the GP circuit.
More important are all the choice bits baked into the Destroyer. Its race-program ECU comes set up at the factory, but it also is highly tunable for accommodating a rider's weight and style. That MTC lock-up clutch was consistent throughout the day, a feat made more impressive when knowing the bikes were running the same clutches as they had during the Euro motojournalists session two days prior. The Harley crew did fit new rear slicks to the bikes for our day, though the old tires still showed plenty of life according to Thomason. He adds that a rider should be able to get at least 30 passes out the stock tire. Other tunable devices include the kill delay for the air shifter (that can be adjusted from 40ms to 100ms) and the height of the wheelie bar. A friction-type steering damper located at the bottom of steering stem keeps a 9-second run as sane as possible.
At the end of the day I had clicked off several more runs in the 9s, a testament to the well-developed nature of the Destroyer despite taking less than one year to bring this bike to market. My best run of 9.55 at 138.24 mph (with a 1.417 60-ft time) was backed up by a 9.59, both of which I'm proud to say were quicker than any journalist has gone on this undomesticated cannonball. Thomason says that further tuning for my weight and style would've brought my times into the 9.3-second zone, which is still a fair way off the 9.18-second run he's pulled off as the quickest Destroyer run to date. He predicts the 8-second barrier will fall in the coming months.
According to Harley brass, the Destroyer's mission is to bring grass-roots racing to H-D dealers and riders and to "connect the dots" to H-D's championship-winning NHRA race team. With 625 of the Screaminest Eagles already sold and ready to rumble in a special AHDRA spec class in 2006, and having proved that it's easily capable of 9-second quarter-miles in the hands of mere mortals, the Destroyer can only be judged as being a bit hit. Literally.
An experienced Harley Super Gas dragracer in attendance told me it would cost something like $100K to make an air-cooled Harley run low 9s, and it would likely be breaking parts constantly. In start contrast, the Destroyer is delivered to riders as a turn-key racebike, ready to blitz off 9s all day long without breaking a sweat.
"It's going to revolutionize Harley Sportsman drag racing," he underlined.
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