Track Time: NHRA Pro Stock Psych

Learning to ride an NHRA Pro Stock bike is an exhilarating-and occasionally humiliating-experience

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Scott O'Dell

We've all had the same thought: How hard can drag racing be? Point the bike straight, whack open the throttle, hold on for a few seconds and you're done. Especially an NHRA Pro Stock bike-the wheelie bar won't let you loop, the slick tire won't spin and there's even an air-shifter. The bike all but rides itself. So why does a clean pass at the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School feel like the most difficult thing I've ever done on two wheels?

If you want to master the delicate art of controlling 300 horsepower, you couldn't find a better coach than Frank Hawley's lead motorcycle instructor, George Bryce, a multi-time drag-racing champion and president of Star Racing/G2 Motorsports.

Roadracing, Bryce explains, is mostly a physical endeavor, a careful choreography of braking, turning, shifting and accelerating. Aside from twisting the throttle, drag racing is mostly a mental sport. The Pro Stock Bike Course course, then, focuses as much on mental processes as actual riding techniques. Those who find Keith Code too cerebral might find Bryce-and Hawley-maddening. I found both fascinating, and their suggestions for controlling fear, thinking decisively and acting confidently are applicable beyond drag racing.

Hawley says a rigid-framed Pro Stock bike is the quickest-reacting machine in drag racing, which makes it about the quickest-reacting vehicle on the planet. A Pro Stock bikes pulls 2.5 Gs at launch and accelerates to 100 mph in barely 2 seconds. Dump the clutch and things happen waaay faster than an unprepared mind can process.

Bryce prepares that mind with a series of carefully designed drills and mental exercises. The first skill is "ramming," the physical act of throwing your body weight forward a millisecond before releasing the clutch. A proper ram improves weight transfer, enhances traction and puts your mental focus slightly ahead of the bike.

The ram technique, so simple in the classroom, is somewhat more challenging when there's an open-piped drag-beast pinned hard against its two-step rev-limiter between your legs. Video of my first launch is telling: My ram is weak and I whiplash backward like I've been rear-ended. Bryce downloads the Racepak data afterward and points at three telltale spikes on the G-force line, representing the bike bouncing off its wheelie bar. Ram correctly and the G-force trace rises straight up.

I'm humiliated, but Bryce remains supportive as I continue to butcher passes. A small breakthrough comes after a semantic argument over Bryce's references to "driving" the bike. Everyone knows you "drive" a car and "ride" a bike. Bryce remains adamant: Driving is active-you control the machine. Riding is passive-a submissive act. You can't be passive on a Pro Stock bike. Launching demands complete confidence and decisive inputs. Drag the clutch or chop the throttle and the bike responds with tooth-loosening tire-shake.

Bryce believes in visualization and positive self-talk to enhance confidence. You'll never train your brain by telling it what not to do, he says, urging students to think positively. Focus your thoughts on doing things correctly and your brain will be filled with images of success.

My second day is more successful. I can actually sit at the line with the throttle wide-open, engine screaming, and not slip into a terror coma. I learn to trust the wheelie bar, and throw the clutch without cutting the throttle at the same time. On my final run I manage a passable ram, and for once don't feel like the bike is rocketing out from underneath me. I even remember the first 60 feet-another first!

My reward is an almost-respectable 8.10-second/162-mph pass-though Bryce chastises me for even mentioning numbers. "E.T. and speed are just a byproduct of the process," he says. "Focus on mastering the process and the numbers will follow." More experienced students go much quicker, running 7.60s at 165 mph on the same bike. A few even earn an official NHRA Pro Stock competition license, having sufficiently impressed Bryce with their abilities.

"Riding a Pro Stock bike is simple," Bryce says. "Just don't confuse simple with easy!"

The Frank Hawley Drag Racing School's (www.frankhawley.com) two-day, all-inclusive Pro Stock Bike Course costs $2495, and is offered December through March at Gainesville Raceway in Florida.

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