The Insane Dirt Drags of West Virginia

Grass-roots drag racing puts nitromethane heat in a Southern summer.

T

his 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.

West Virginia dirt drags
A simple setting means simple rules at West Virginia's dirt drag strips.Mike Calabro

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 two-lane, 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.”

West Virginia dirt drags
“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.”Mike Calabro

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.

West Virginia dirt drags
After decades of obscurity the sport now has 65 million new fans.Mike Calabro

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.

West Virginia dirt drags
“The more tonnage of dirt you throw behind you the faster you’re going to accelerate forward.”Mike Calabro

The other was Randy Williamson Jr. Now 31 years old, he’s been racing since he was in middle school. He inherited a Top Fuel Kawasaki, which his father purchased used from an asphalt racer. Williamson Sr., 67, still races occasionally. Pulling out a pack of Marlboro Reds from his shirt pocket, he reminisced about his days battling McBride. Back then, some tracks didn’t even have starting lights; they used rubber tubing instead. He once jumped the start and a piece of rubber somehow got sucked into a carburetor slide.

Kneeling beside his 1978 Kawasaki KZ1000, the younger Williamson made his pre-race adjustments. He was trying out a new homemade intake manifold, and he proudly showed off the grooves he carved around the ports to accomodate O-rings instead of gaskets. He fabricated many of the parts on the bike, including the exhaust and boost control. There are a few shops around that sell aftermarket parts, but Williamson gets satisfaction from saying he made them himself. Friends call him “Gizmo.”

Of all Williamson’s custom work, the rear tire is the real eye-opener. It’s a $360 off-road mudder intended for a Jeep. For a bigger dig off the start, Williamson cuts out every other lug on each side. When he’s done, the 68-pound tire ends up being closer to 50. The result is an ozone-scraping rooster tail.

“That tire throwing dirt is like a boat motor propeller moving water,” Williamson said. “The more tonnage of dirt you throw behind you the faster you’re going to accelerate forward.”

A self-employed landscaper from nearby Keyser, West Virginia, Williamson carries a handgun on his hip everywhere he goes. He’s polite and laid back. He has long limbs and thick deltoids, all useful in this gritty type of racing. At 6-foot-4 he towers over his 5-foot-7 father; yet, in the 14 years he’s been riding Dad’s old bike, he’s never bothered to reposition the footpegs. Watching him ride later, I see why: He wrestles the bike for the entire 500 feet like he’s trying to pin a crocodile. He doesn’t get his feet to the pegs until he slows down. He once won so many consecutive Top Fuel races that the competition raised a $1,000 bounty against him.

West Virginia dirt drags
The command center is where timekeeping happens and lane winners are announced. It's also the only spot to find air conditioning.Mike Calabro

"The fumes stripped my throat raw. I couldn’t decide if I should cover my mouth or continue plugging my ears."

The rain moved out and track prep began. Workers rolled discs along the strip, churning up soil that’s 60 percent clay with just enough loam to soak up the water. Then they dragged each lane and rolled it flat. Fewer than two dozen competitors showed up. Many apologized as if it were their fault. “This field is usually packed!” they said. Because of the low turnout, the event was reclassified as a “test and tune,” which enabled the promoter to recall the ambulance and save $1,000. When Mellott fired up his bike, the ground vibrated. When he cracked the throttle, I was the only one who shoved his fingers in his ears. It’s a primal response, a reflex. Onlookers leaned in for a sniff of the burned nitro, as if collectively taking whip-it hits. The fumes stripped my throat raw. I couldn’t decide if I should cover my mouth or continue plugging my ears. The cackle of two Top Fuel bikes sent every person on the property rushing toward the wire fence, their smartphones in front of them. Mellott and Williamson maneuvered their elongated bikes to their preferred lines. Each rider gave the starter a signal. They were ready. Williamson’s Kawasaki sounded mean, but its pitch was higher than Mellott’s throaty H-D. Then the staging lights came on. Both riders snapped their throttles to panic revs and dumped clutch. In a blink, their bogger-cut tires spun up, sending a wave of dirt behind them. The spectators scattered to avoid the spraying soil.

There’s a beauty in chaos on two wheels. Five hundred feet is slightly more than a tenth of a mile, and the riders roared past in a neck-snapping blur. It was all over in less than five seconds. Even at that speed, the difference in riding styles shines through. Williamson’s legs flailed while he adjusted to keep the front end down. Mellott, a barrel-chested man about 9 inches shorter, appeared motionless on his orange-and-black Harley. Both approaches worked; the racers split wins in two passes.

The Top Fuel bikes are the main draw here, but there aren’t any slouches on the undercard. These people might just be the most passionate collective of competitors I’ve seen, a tight-knit group that makes, borrows, and repurposes more parts than it buys. And they start young.

West Virginia dirt drags
Leg Swag is common on takeoff. Gloves, oddly, are not.Mike Calabro

Jayden Miner is easy to spot on the strip. He’s 10 years old and entering the fifth grade. Riding a borrowed 1986 Kawasaki KX125 on worn tires, he can’t touch the ground. His dad holds him up on the start. He wore jeans, a motocross jersey, work boots, and no gloves. When the tree lit up, he dumped the clutch and shifted, rolling the throttle forward with every gear, the excitement apparent from my place on the sidelines. He wasn’t goon riding. He was just trying to hold on and having the time of his life doing it.

His grandfather still races. “It’s a generational thing,” Jayden’s father, Jeremy, said. When I asked Jayden what the kids at school think about what he does for fun, he quickly replied: “They say, ‘What’s the point?’” If that bothers him, he doesn’t show it. He’s proud and has dreams of someday getting a Kawasaki 1000. “A crotch rocket!”

West Virginia dirt drags
No series, no points, no celebration, and no trophies, just a little cash back to the riders and some bragging rights. This is West Virginia drag racing.Mike Calabro

The event, at least in its official capacity, was over before dusk. There was no celebration, no trophies. Just a little cash back to the riders and some bragging rights. Someone asked if they could make untimed runs. Soon, seven or eight riders were making pass after pass, getting their kicks in as the daylight waned. Once it was too dark to see, somone flipped on the track lights. The dirt glowed under the hazy blue light. Many events go past midnight. In Delray, time and racing have a funny relationship.

As I drove off into the darkness, beyond the floodlit strip, the free-for-all faded away. I couldn’t help but think about how I ended up there, how I was lured in by a video showcasing a riding genre I didn’t know existed. These guys may have gone viral, but if that exposure has changed the sport at all, the racers hide it well. Dirt drags isn’t a growing sport, but it isn’t dying. After decades of obscurity, it now has 65 million new fans. Rest assured, these guys will still be pounding dirt tomorrow.