The Drag Days of Sum­mer

insanity of West Vir­gina dirt drags. Blue jeans, red clay, and the white-hot

Motorcyclist - - Contents -

We visit the wild-roost­ing, ni­tromethanepow­ered dirt drags of West Vir­ginia.

video is mad­ness. Top Fuel mo­tor­cy­cles, the most vi­o­lent drag-rac­ing ma­chines on the planet, square off at a dirt strip, where they have no busi­ness be­ing. They rip passes, a mael­strom of noise and rooster tails, for nearly five min­utes. There’s no mu­sic, no an­nouncer, no story, no fancy in­tro or end cred­its. And then, just as un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously as it be­gins, it’s over.

In a lit­tle over two years, “Top Fuel Mo­tor­cy­cle Dirt Drag Rac­ing ” has be­come the most-watched mo­tor­cy­cle video ever up­loaded to Youtube. Search the web and you’ll find a few ba­sic de­tails. The video takes place some­where in West Vir­ginia. It was shot by a con­struc­tion worker named Jeff Tom­lin. Some of the bikes are push­ing crazy horse­power.

Still, ques­tions linger. What is dirt drag rac­ing? Where does the sport come from? Who are th­ese guys, and why are they scorch­ing earth on two-wheel widow-mak­ers? Has in­ter­net star­dom changed the scene? Look­ing for an­swers, I de­cided to go see Top Fuel dirt drag rac­ing for my­self. What I dis­cov­ered might be the weird­est, wildest sub­set of mo­tor­sport in Amer­ica to­day.

Del­ray, West Vir­ginia, is truly ru­ral. Tucked in the Al­legheny Moun­tains, the town’s pop­u­la­tion could fit in a Boe­ing 757. I ar­rived in the mid­dle of a rain shower, that en­emy of all drag rac­ers. Posted to a wooden fence on the side of a hilly twolane, a small black-and-white ban­ner read: “Moun­taineer Mo­tor­cross.”

The sign guided me to a 206-acre for­mer cat­tle farm. There, in a field, sat an 1,800-foot dirt strip with a thin sand bar me­dian. The first 500 feet held the ac­tion.

It was a sim­ple set­ting. No­body was spon­sored. The lo­cals wore shirts with slo­gans like “Hill­billy Proud” and “I ain’t scared.” Sleeves were op­tional.

Larry “Spi­der­man” Mcbride cut his teeth at venues like this. To­day, the drag-rac­ing le­gend counts 16 Top Fuel mo­tor­cy­cle cham­pi­onships in his tro­phy case. But in 1975, he was just an­other dirt drag­ger on a Suzuki T500, try­ing to stay up­right. Be­fore head­ing to Del­ray, I called Mcbride, hop­ing to learn more about the sport.

“Get hurt in the dirt, is my old say­ing,” he told me. “You’re out of con­trol all the way. You don’t put your feet on the pegs hardly. You just dan­gle and hold the hell on.”

Dur­ing the 1970s, Mcbride said, there were at least eight dirt strips within 100 miles of his home in Vir­ginia. It was typ­i­cal to hit four events in a week­end, in­clud­ing day and night races on Satur­days. He did not, how­ever, know the niche sport’s roots. Nei­ther did any­body else I spoke to. I can’t re­mem­ber a time when we didn’t go rac­ing. You hear that a lot in Del­ray.

One thing is clear: Mcbride’s ca­reer arc is an anom­aly. Dirt drags are a rit­ual, not a step­ping-stone to as­phalt rac­ing. While there are di­vi­sions of dis­place­ment and fuel type, this isn’t a feeder se­ries. There is no se­ries. There are no points. Even the rules seem ar­bi­trary. At the event I at­tended, one class was sim­ply “Har­ley Gas.” When asked what that meant, racer Jesse James erred on the side of brevity: “Run what ya brung and hope you brought enough.”

It’s not a lu­cra­tive sport. The stan­dard purse for Top Fuel win­ners is $1,000. This year, at­ten­dance has been low and rain­outs high, so pro­moter Greg Rig­gle­man ad­justed that to $400. He scales up­ward de­pend­ing on en­tries. Many of the bikes—500cc two-stroke mo­tocrossers, a Kawasaki

KZ1000, a Ban­shee ATV mo­tor stuffed into a mo­tor­cy­cle frame—are decades old and have been given a sec­ond, third, or pos­si­bly fourth, life. Even the Top Fuel bikes started out on as­phalt be­fore be­ing sold off for a frac­tion of their orig­i­nal build price.

That’s how Ge­orge Mel­lott got here. Mel­lott, a 42-year-old from Martins­burg, West Vir­ginia, bought his Top Fuel Har­ley-david­son sec­ond­hand in 2005. The beast is 10 feet long, drinks nitro­meth­ane, and churns out 800 hp. It’s ca­pa­ble of 120 mph in less than 4.5 sec­onds. Af­ter six years with the All Har­ley Drag Rac­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, he tried, un­suc­cess­fully, to sell his equip­ment for two years. Then he took it dirt drag rac­ing.

Mel­lott works three jobs to sup­port his rac­ing habit. Dur­ing the week he’s a blaster, us­ing am­mo­nium ni­trate, fuel oil, and emul­sion blends to de­mol­ish rocks. On Satur­days he works the counter at a lo­cal bike shop. Some Sun­days he runs a buddy’s hot-dog stand at flea mar­kets.

He es­ti­mates each pass costs him $100. It takes two peo­ple and three car bat­ter­ies just to fire the engine. The fuel alone costs $25 a gal­lon. The crank­case must be drained be­tween runs, and its con­tents come out in two col­ors: black and sea­sick green. Nitro­meth­ane causes the lat­ter when it mixes with oil. Res­tart­ing the bike with that com­bi­na­tion would cause an ex­plo­sion.

Mel­lott was the only rider burn­ing ni­tro that af­ter­noon and one of just two Top Fuel bikes.

THE FUMES STRIP MY THROAT RAW. I CAN’T DE­CIDE IF I SHOULD COVER MY MOUTH OR CON­TINUE PLUG­GING MY EARS.

BE­LOW A sim­ple set­ting means sim­ple rules at West Vir­ginia’s dirt drag strips.

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