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Drag Racing Stories

Mar 18, 2005
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Summer of 1969

Match Race between Leo Payne and Joe Smith

By Joe Smith

My family (wife Pat, daughter Patti and son Gene) and I were at Irwindale Raceway on a Wednesday night, making some test runs on the Knucklehead. One of the guys in the pits asks me, “Did you hear about the match race between Dave Campos and Leo Payne. It’s in a couple weeks in Albuquerque.” My wife and I had been wondering how we could go about getting a match race. Match racing was a car thing. I decided the best way to get started was to ask Irwindale’s manger if it was possible for a Top Fuel Bike to get into the match race game. Mel Rex, the manager at that time, laughed at the idea. But, if I could come up with something interesting, he would think about it.

So, I loaded the bike in this old open-air trailer and we all got in my 1959 Ford Ranchero (which was lettered with the “Worlds Quickest and fastest Knucklehead”) and headed for Albuquerque, with one idea. After the first round of the match race, I was going to the timing tower and say, “Joe Smith is here from California and I challenge the winner of this race, one round, one hundred dollars, winner take all.”

No one paid much attention to us when we pulled into the pits. We unloaded the bike and walked around looking for Leo Payne. (I had never met him and he was kind of my idol). The only thing wrong was, he rode a damn Sportster. We found him parked next to Dave Campos. Turned out they were good friends. No one, as of yet, paid us any attention. Not even them.

They were both getting ready to fire up their race bikes, both Sportsters. Back at this time, everyone either tow started by holding onto the door handle until you reached about 35 MPH, let go, let out the clutch and you were running. Some had a special set of rollers that you put under the rear wheels of your car or truck and you would back your bike on, facing to the rear, put the car in drive gear, run it up to about 35 MPH and do the same thing as towing. That’s how they both started their bikes.

Leo fired first. His Sportster really sounded powerful; you could tell he was running 100 %, probably with 2% PO. Leo was the first fuel bike racer that used all the instruments to test the air. He walked around with an air density gage hanging from his belt. Also, he worked with George Smith at S & S Cycle on the original fuel carburetor. So, he really knew what he was doing.

Dave was next, his bike sounded almost as powerful as Leo’s was. He cleared the engine with the throttle a couple times, let it go back to idle and BAM. There went the rear Cylinder. Dave was done.

Dave blowing an engine was bad; I came all that way for nothing. So I thought! They had noticed us coming into the pits. My truck told it all “Worlds Quickest and Fastest Knucklehead.” Who was I kidding?

How it turned out, I took Dave’s place to race against the great Leo Payne. I was really on my cloud nine and shaking like a leaf. Two out of three! Sportster versus Knucklehead. It turned out to be a big thing, race of the day. I was interviewed in the tower and I really hammed it up.

Our first round wasn’t until 1 PM. Waiting for that race for two hours was nerve-racking as hell. This was going to be my first match race, on a strange track and it looked pretty bumpy. This was right off the trailer, no practice runs. I found I would be doing a lot of that in the following years.

One PM, first round. We tow started down the fire up road. Both engines started with no trouble, approaching the starting line, ready to go. Wait a minute, this is new. Leo is standing astride his bike with his legs in front of the rear pegs, holding the bike back and doing a standing burnout. No one had ever done this yet. Kind of blew my mind. We stage, got the tree and the green, I thought we were out pretty even, I turned a 9:60 ET. Leo turns a 9:73 ET and wins the race.

Back to the pits, worked on the clutch, made a jet change because of the altitude, left the mix the same, 86%.

Three PM, second round, same thing, both start without a problem, stage, green and Leo wins again. My ET was still better than his, our speed was 155 MPH to his 153 MPH.

Four PM, third and last round, he already beat me two out of three. Again, ditto! I got the crap beat out of me again. Now it’s three in a row. So, this little game I was playing didn’t work out the way I thought it would. As we were loading up to leave, Dave Campos walked up and asked if we would like to come by his house for a swim and something to eat.

There were quite a few bike racers who showed up and of course, the bench racing started. There was a lot of laughter when talking about the day’s match race. I asked, “What’s so funny?” This one Sportster guys says, “Joe, you were the only one racing today that didn’t know the red light wasn’t working.” No one had told me; the Joke was on me. Pretty funny, huh?

But I had something to work with at Irwindale Raceway. Mel Rex, the manager, said “OK,” and put a $400.00 purse. Winner gets $300.00, runner up $100.00. They also gave Leo $100.00 to help cover his travel expenses.

Guess what, I won all three rounds!

It was the first of many fuel bike match races to come. It was a couple months later than our first match race in Albuquerque and the word got around. They had over 4,000 people that night in the stands. Mel Rex didn’t expect that and I made some points with Irwindale Raceway that night.

Joe Smith



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