Life’s a drag, Part II -- John Stein’s epic Motorcycle Drag Racing: A History
Like many niche authors, John Stein was dismayed to realize that while he was writing, the publishing industry had collapsed. His response was to create his own publishing company called, appropriately, Gearhead Publishing. Although he was advised to print his book in China, he insisted on North American production.
“Some people think drag racing is boring,” John Stein told me last year. “But to me it's like the blues. It's simple, but the beauty of it is in the nuance – and in the social scene around it; the characters who bring it to life.”
A few years ago, John traveled to the Bonneville Salt Flat where he wrote a book about the three-way battle between Mike Akatiff, Denis Manning, and Sam Wheeler to set a new motorcycle land speed record. After that book
was published, Sandy Kosman contacted him and said, “That’s great, but the book you really need to write is a history of motorcycle drag racing.”
Stein had long been a fan of drag bikes, and owned several cool vintage dragsters himself. He realized that most of the people who’d populated the colorful drag racing scene in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s were still alive but that time was of the essence because those guys weren’t getting any younger. He took up Kosman’s challenge; either he didn’t realize how much work would be involved, or perhaps the project just grew once he’d committed himself to it. Now though, his epic’s finally finished. Motorcycle Drag Racing: A History
- all 250 pages of it, is in print.
As John says, "They didn’t know what they couldn’t do." Several bikes were built with automotive V-8 motors. Here Joe Teresi (standing) and Mil Blair get ready to run their Buick-powered bike, nicknamed 'Italiano.'
The book covers the entire history of organized motorcycle drag racing, from its inception in the late ‘40s through the 2010 racing season. Stein spent hundreds of hours poring through his own massive magazine archive, and did hundreds more interviews with the guys who built and raced through the ‘60s and ‘70s – a golden era when, as John me, “They didn’t know what they couldn’t do.”
Like so many of us, he somehow fell in love with motorcycles despite the fact that he had no such family history.
“My first motorcycle was a 1948 Indian
Chief that a family friend gave me when I was about 12 or 14. It was a complete basket case. I put it together but I never got it to work,” he said, adding ruefully, “I traded it for a Honda CL350 that at least ran.”
He grew up in Saint Louis, on the Mississippi River. It might've been a hotbed of the blues, but there wasn't much going on there in terms of drag racing. So the only way he was exposed to it was in photo spreads of drag racers in Cycle Magazine in the '60s and early '70s.
Drag racing is not just the purest American motorsport. Thanks to John Stein’s history of the sport, it’s also a lens through which all of America’s pop culture can be examined. This is Tommy Smith on Saint, a bike built by Joe Fernandez in the early ‘50s.
“I loved all motorcycles, and besides my vintage drag racers I own road racers and other kinds of bikes now,” he told me. “But there was something raw about drag bikes.”
He was fascinated by the diversity of the machines being raced. There were bikes with one, two, and even three engines; four-strokes and two-strokes; superchargers and turbochargers; all kinds of fuel; V-8s... even jet engines.
The scene was diverse in every sense. In 1964 and '65, drag racing prefigured the Trans-Atlantic Match races when American drag racers came to England. Of the six U.S. bikes, two were owned by African-Americans.
Back home, it was all 'Hell no, we won't go,' and civil rights marches. With roots in illegal street racing, and a low barrier to entry, drag racing was an acid trip for gearheads. “In the early years, they just wore black leathers, if they wore leathers at all,” John told me. “I've got pictures of guys racing in jeans and t-shirts.”
Motorsports have always been 'second class' over here, and drag racing was probably third or fourth class. It's almost surprising that it was covered in magazines, like 'Cycle,' where John first saw those shocking bikes. The reason drag racing got as much coverage as it did was that Bob Greene, Cook Neilson, and Bob Braverman, influential editors at the time, were drag racers themselves.
John says he’s never, ever, thrown away a motorcycle magazine. His enormous magazine archive was a good place to begin the basic research that grew into his new book. Note that while the motorcycle media pays scant attention to drag racing nowadays, drag bikes were worthy of covers in ‘60s and ‘70s.
There’s something quintessentially American about drag racing; it’s not just an American invention, it gets to the very heart of the American experience. Short attention span? No problem. Early in his book, John quotes Professor Robert Post of Johns Hopkins University. “A big part of [drag] racing’s appeal lies in the very brevity of the encounter, the drama inherent in a sprint. At a track meet, after all, people go out for refreshments during the 8000-meter run but stand and cheer wildly during the dashes.”
I think that another big part of drag racing’s appeal is that it echoes the iconic image of a shoot-out on some dusty western Main Street. But while the races were over in seconds, the work of developing a winning motorcycle took years. And, as John points out, “There was no Webco catalog back then, so everyone who raced was also a machinist and mechanic.”
One of the heroes of the book is Clem Johnson, who was perhaps the greatest fabricator of them all. At one point, Johnson wanted a cam profile that cam suppliers didn’t think they could provide. So Johnson built his own cam grinding machine, then built his own cams.
“All the bikes had names,” John told me. “So Leo Payne built a Harley called 'Turnip Eater,' which was a dig at the Triumphs. Later on T.C. Christenson built a twin-engine Norton that he called 'Hogslayer.' They put so much of themselves into their creations that it's not surprising that a bike like 'Barn Job' was more famous than Clem Johnson, who built and rode it.”
The bike that had fascinated Stein the most was 'Stagefright.' It was owned by two African-Americans from L.A., Agnew “Scotty” Scott and Priness Perry. Stagefright began life as a supercharged, twin-engined gasser that had been built by an aerospace engineer named Max Kelly. Scotty bought it for $50, minus the engines. He shortened the frame and fit two pre-unit Triumph motors
Besides interviewing countless stars (and bit players) in the world of drag racing, John also sourced hundreds of photos from dozens of photographers. Here’s Sonny Scott’s photo of Priness Perry on Stagefright -- its 9.70 ET made it the quickest bike in its day (mid-‘60s).
that he ran on fuel. When they took it to England, it was the quickest and fastest drag bike in the world. The aluminum frame was prone to cracking around the headstock; Scotty openly admitted that he was afraid to ride it, which was why Perry handled that assignment.
“I searched for that bike for years,” John told me. “Every time a new phone book came out, I checked for listings that matched their names.” Finally, a friend of a friend told him that Scotty was looking for a good home for Stagefright.
“He gave me Scotty's number, but he was out of town. I called six times a day until he got back.” John told me. “When I finally saw the bike, I had goose-bumps. I'd seen it in my head for 40 years.”
Since then, Stein and Scotty have become good friends. There's a group that meets on the first Wednesday of the month in Arcadia (a suburb of L.A.) Sam Wheeler hosts it, Clem Johnson comes, Ed Iskanderian, of Isky Cams comes. John always picks up Scotty and brings him.
Stein’s book weighs three pounds.
It’s a ‘coffee table’ format,
combining a comprehensive text
with amazing pics. Since he’s
acting as his own publisher,
Stein gets to set the price, too.
It’s a bargain at $40 (price
includes postage.) To order it,
None of those old drag racers raced for money, and many of them ended their racing careers with nothing but memories. They’re all incredibly grateful that John’s taken so much trouble to preserve their history, and written it all down in a way that places it in a larger social context.
If you’re a fan of motorcycle drag racing, this is the one book you need more than any other, to get you through the winter. If you’re a gearhead of any kind, John Stein will give you an appreciation for a sport that’s the essence of simplicity in its performance -- but that performance comes only with mind-boggling attention to detail. As Cycle’s Gordon Jennings once wrote, “Drag racing is so simple that it’s really incredibly complex and difficult. To make a quick run, everything has to be almost perfect or just plain perfect. Being pretty close doesn’t get it; you won’t even qualify.”
John hasn’t just gotten pretty close to the sport while researching this book. He’s nailed it. But even after four years of research, he’s still as fascinated by the subject as he was when he pored over motorcycle magazines while growing up in St. Louis.
“The best thing about collecting these bikes and writing my history of drag racing,” he told me, “is that I've made friends of people that I read about as a kid. At my home, I've got an answering machine, and when those guys call me up, I save their messages. So I've got Russ Collins, who built 'Sorcerer,' on my answering machine. How cool is that?”