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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Rollers 1970

By Rich Gentili

There is a big difference in the world of racing between the guys that are really good and the rest of us "Sportsman" racers. As a prelude to the following story let me qualify it by saying many things are crystal clear and many things are fuzzy clear. Thirty years will do that and I don't expect things to improve. Also, to establish myself as a true fly by the seat of your pants amateur, I would say that the most used tool in my box in 1970 was duct tape. I have since graduated to cable ties. Mind you, I (we) took ourselves seriously in those days; it's just that we had very limited resources. Some things never change.

In the late '60s, early '70s, motorcycle drag racing was in its infancy. Before the first Hondas arrived, the Harleys and British bikes had started to evolve and with the search for horsepower, the kick-starter became less of an option. "Tow to start" was quite normal at my home track, Oswego, about 50 miles west of Chicago. It was a country track, very unsophisticated. The big important tracks, like Union Grove to the north, had amenities that were only dreams at Oswego. Union Grove had powered rollers, generally a V-8 motor and transmission attached to a drive roller and an idler roller. The car or bike would put one tire on the rollers, with the other wheel on the ground. The differential, pre- posi-traction, would allow the free wheel to spin on the rollers. The vehicle being started would generally be in second or third gear. When the rollers reached a sufficient speed, the driver would briefly drop the clutch and burp the motor.

At Oswego it was normal to "tow to start," I would hold onto the driver's side rear view mirror, as my wife or friend drove. I would start with the bike in second gear, clutch in, and the diver would slowly accelerate to about 30 MPH. I would then let go, grab the gas, and pop the clutch. Then I'd brake as quickly as possible and drive back to the ready line with motor running. The burnout was also different. My pit crew would pour Clorox in a small puddle by the back tire. It was common to have the front wheel of the tow vehicle serve as a front wheel chock. Brakes then were not what they are now. We also used guardrails as the immovable object to drive against while heating and cleaning the tire.

I acquired a set of used, rubber coated printing rollers, about five feet wide that were about 4" OD. Mounting the two rollers on a frame with pillow block bearings gave me a set of rollers that only needed a power source. No problem. My 1969 Corolla wagon with stick shift and about 80 HP would supply the power source. I would pull my wagon up until it touched a telephone pole, jack up one axle, and put the rollers under one wheel. I only started bikes because of the shortness of the rollers. It worked like a charm and worked week after week.

One Sunday a racer showed up with a fuel Harley. The bike was mounted, and the rollers began to spin with me at the wheel. When I felt there was sufficient RPM I would nod to the rider. I nodded. He popped the clutch, but the bike had substantially more HP than the Corolla. As the bike motor momentarily stopped the rollers, the car rammed the pole. It then bounced back, got a better grip on the rollers, and hit the pole even harder! All this happened in the blink of an eye before I could get my foot from the floor to the clutch. My wife never did understand the more horsepower, less horsepower part of it. I never did have a convincing story for the insurance company either.

One would think that enough was enough with the rollers. Right? Wrong. 

Later that year, I bought a motor from Gordon Jennings that he ran, or attempted to run, at Daytona. It was a Cycle magazine project motor, a 1969 Honda 450 that came from the factory with torsion bar valve springs. The valve springs, in conjunction with the ramp of the cam, were designed to float at about 12,000 RPM. Gordon felt the bike had much more potential at 14,000 RPM and replaced the torsion bars with inner and outer valve springs and a radical cam. The stock bike as I recall made 42 HP. The modified version ate up all the 60+ HP bikes. The carbs were Delorto and the motor idled at about 3500. Not the best situation for cooling or getting to the starting line cool enough to run.

One day while prepping the bike in my driveway at home, I decided I should briefly start it to make sure everything was ready for Sunday. My wife was in the house and didn't want to be bothered, so I put the Corolla on the rollers, put it in first gear, then used the chock lever built into the dash to bring the RPMs up to a good number. Everything seemed to work pretty automatically, so to speak. So, I put the bike on the rollers in neutral and tied it upright. I started the car and exited through the passenger door with the rollers spinning slowly. I climbed onto the bike, reached inside to the choke lever to rev the motor higher, pulled the clutch, and put the bike in second gear. When I popped the clutch, the rollers stopped. The car left, entering the front of the garage and exiting through the back wall where it jammed on a custom frame and wall debris.

NOW, my wife had time to come out of the house! I guess it was all her fault...

That Corolla sure was hard on grilles.

Rich Gentili
Just another guy in the pits...


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