Six-second ETs and near-200-mph trap speeds might match the performance, but there’s simply no comparison between modern NHRA Pro Stock motorcycles and the spectacle that was Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing during that sport’s heyday in the 1970s. And no one better represented that flamboyant era than Russ Collins and his succession of ever more insane, nitro-burning, tire-melting, two- and even three-engine drag bikes with names like “Sorcerer” and “Assassin.”
Collins, born in 1939 in Somerville, New Jersey, was a hot-rodder who discovered both bikes and drag racing in 1957, when he purchased a 500cc Triumph basket case. A short stint as an over-the-road trucker took Collins across America, and he fell in love with California. He relocated to Los Angeles in 1964 with plans to pursue a career in acting. He ended up working as a motorcycle mechanic instead.
Collins bought one of the first CB750s delivered in 1969 to Honda of Torrance, where he worked. A gifted tuner and self-taught engineer, he designed his own custom exhaust for the CB750. His solution proved so successful he soon quit his day job to open RC Engineering, on April 1, 1970. A young Byron Hines and Terry Vance were among his first employees, foreshadowing Collins’ eventual impact on the sport. Collins loved a challenge, so naturally he was the first to build a Japanese-powered dragbike to take on the dominant Harley-Davidson and Triumph machines. The bike he debuted in 1971, a supercharged, fuel-injected, alcohol-burning CB750 dubbed “The Assassin,” showcased his considerable talent as an engineer, designer, and fabricator. The fact that he often lined up against Top Fuel Harleys with more than twice the displacement—and frequently won—showcased his considerable talent and nerve as a racer.
To combat the other guys’ displacement advantage, Collins started experimenting with multi-engine, Honda-based machines. This soon led to the mind-blowing “Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe” racer he debuted in 1973, named for the famous rail line. Featuring three nitro-burning CB750 engines mounted in tandem, the AT&SF was the first motorcycle to make a seven-second quarter-mile pass (7.80 seconds at 179 mph) at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1973. Ironically, it was also the first motorcycle to ever win NHRA’s coveted “Best Engineered Car” award that same year.
Not surprisingly, the AT&SF was extraordinarily difficult to ride. A horrendous crash in Akron, Ohio, in 1976 destroyed the motorcycle and left Collins in a wheelchair for months, giving him plenty of free time to contemplate its replacement. It was during this long recuperation he dreamed up “The Sorcerer,” powered by a pair of 1,000cc Honda Fours tied together and tuned to fire like a V-8 then topped with a GMC 3-71 supercharger. The NHRA Top Fuel record that Collins set on the Sorcerer in 1977—7.30 seconds at 199.55 mph—stood unchallenged for more than 11 years. Collins was more than a decade ahead of his time.
Collins made his last professional Top Fuel motorcycle pass in the early ’80s then defected to the relative safety of the Top Fuel dragsters, where he continued to compete until the early ’90s. RC Engineering remains in operation today, the self-proclaimed “world’s leading supplier” of custom fuel-injection solutions, with a stellar reputation in the auto-racing world. Collins’ two most famous machines, the AT&SF and Sorcerer, are currently being restored by Russ Collins Jr.—himself a successful amateur dragracer—who hopes to make exhibition passes someday soon.
Russ Collins Sr., gifted engineer, steel-nerved racer, and consummate showman, passed away on May 12, 2014, in Hawaii at the age of 74.