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