Top Fuel Drag Racing - Days Of Thunder

Vance & Hines Unleashes A Nitro-Breathing, V-Twin Monster Into The Top Fuel World. Suddenly, Your Nine-Second Hayabusa Seems Terribly Slow

"The thing about the titanium chest protector," Doug Vancil is telling me, "is that it spreads out the force of the explosion in case the engine grenades." The idea, obviously, is that a 2680cc, nitro-powered blast will do less bodily damage if distributed nicely over a Top Fuel racer's torso.

"Less" turns out to be a relative term, however, as Vancil begins to detail a fellow racer's post-engine-explosion injuries: a bruised heart and pancreas, busted-up ribs. A bruised heart? Vancil nods. "The strap over the engine holds in things pretty good," he adds, "but you're still sitting on a time bomb. These bikes are mean."

And so we enter the world of Top Fuel dragracing, where guys like Doug Vancil aim their 90-inch-wheelbase, 1000-horsepower "bikes" down a quarter-mile strip and pull the biggest of the big triggers; where the "top fuel" is actually nitromethane, a close relative of nitroglycerine and a propellant so powerful that an engine becomes just a container for a series of massive explosions. When Vancil admits his Vance & Hines/Drag Specialties-sponsored machine is "hard on parts," he actually means there's a good chance the spark plugs will melt after each run-or a rear wheel might snap in two, or a piston-top will develop a nice-sized dent from too much combustion pressure. Certainly, the 14-inch-wide rear slick will turn into molten rubber, especially since Vancil's biggest trouble these days is getting "hooked-up;" that is, the bike's current power output simply overcomes all available traction. "It goes about 50 feet and just smokes the tire," he says.

Yeah, you ask, but is it fast? Well, consider this: The current International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) Top Fuel Harley (the class for 45-degree, pushrod V-twins only remotely related to Harleys) quarter-mile record is 6.44 seconds. Consider also that, after just a handful of runs, Vancil piloted his new machine to a 6.68-second/210-mph pass, a run he considers "out of the throttle"-meaning that, because of the aforementioned traction problem, full throttle could only be achieved after about 300 feet. Vancil claims the bike will break the record "easily," and that it's just a matter of getting things figured out.

Fast? Well, you might finally consider that a stock ZX-12R streetbike will run the quarter-mile in a pokey 9.96 seconds at approximately 143 mph. But let's say that you and your 12R had a flying start, and you crossed the dragstrip starting line holding a steady 130 mph. At that 130 mph, you'd cover the quarter-mile in about 6.90 seconds, which means that if Doug Vancil-from a standing start-left at the moment you flew by the Christmas tree at a buck thirty, he'd still beat you to the finish line by almost a quarter of a second and 80 mph. That, friends, is bloody quick.

But how does Vance & Hines figure into all this? Isn't it the force behind the AMA Superbike Ducati team? Does it even have exhaust systems for cruisers? You'd be surprised. According to V&H; marketing vice president Ron Foster, the company will sell more than 100,000 exhaust systems this year and-incredibly-60 percent of those pipes will be for Harley-Davidsons. In the face of a seemingly limitless Big Twin aftermarket, V&H; signed an exclusive deal with H-D aftermarket distributor Drag Specialties and is now having trouble keeping pace with demand. Like a goldfish growing in proportion to its bowl, V&H;'s brand-new 110,000-square foot manufacturing facility in Santa Fe Springs, California, is already filling to the brim. Business, as they say, is booming.

And yet, there still lies the "problem" of being perceived as a sportbike-only company. "We wanted to let the world know that Vance & Hines is serious about the Harley-Davidson business," Foster says. So V&H; president Terry Vance-himself a legendary dragracer with 14 Pro Stock national championships to his credit-began prowling the dragracing scene looking for someone to sponsor. "Jim McClure [19-time National Champ] told Terry he should look me up," recalls Vancil, who was privateering-and setting records-on his own home-built H-D top-fueler at the time. "So he called. I didn't know who it was at first. But then he said 'from Vance & Hines,' and we went from there." Last March, Vancil and V&H; debuted at the Bike Week Nationals in Orlando, Florida, with their new bike, a V&H;/Drag Specialties-painted 18-wheel race transporter and a fourth-place qualifying run out of a 16-bike field. The reaction? "Most people just said 'nice bike,' " laughs Vancil. "They knew it was gonna be competitive."

Vancil is a man who laughs and smiles a lot, and his soft-spoken Albuquerque twang makes him sound like the guy next door with whom you wouldn't mind sharing a beer. At 33, he stands just under six feet tall, weighs around 150 pounds, and has a good-looking wife who works as a hairdresser. You only start to get suspicious when you learn that Julie Vancil is also, literally, half the team's crew, and spends her time on race weekends changing the bike's oil, swapping its plugs, and mixing its deadly brew of nitromethane. (Doug is the other half-head rider, head wrench-and has put most of the bike together himself.) Then it doesn't take long to realize that Doug's easy manner has lured you into a false sense of security, letting you think that any Nice Guy could ride a fast bike for a living. Because as Doug starts to wander around his bike, pointing out various go-fast bits, admitting that nitromethane "smells good" and telling stories about "the time I hit the timing lights at 175 mph and had to get stitched up right away so I could make my fourth pass and get paid," you begin to understand that only a madman could ever conceivably control (another relative term) one of these things.

Indeed, what sane motorcycle would ever need massive Hemi-Chrysler Brooks 88 rods? Or throttle bodies that-at a cat-swallowing two-and-five-eighths-of-an-inch across-are fed by air intakes that look like small trumpets? Or two-and-a-quarter-inch titanium intake valves? (The two-inch exhaust valves are stainless steel to cope with the nitro's hellfire flatulence.) The mile-wide Shumaker/Roland heads are billet, the bodywork is pure carbon fiber and, to be totally honest, any horsepower figures are pure estimations based on the bike's weight and quarter-mile performance. Vancil says the bike's power comes on "too violently" for any dyno to handle and provide an accurate reading. There are only two gears, and no tachometer. Vancil says he puts it into second right after the eighth-mile-around four seconds and 180 mph. He also says, "If you think about it, it's too late."

We could go on and on. We could tell you about the 2.6 Gs of force that crush Vancil's body when he launches, or about the time when somebody next to him threw a match into a pan of nitromethane to prove it wouldn't light (it didn't). We could tell you about how even though Vance & Hines accepts the fact that this is a "teething" year for the Vancil's family operation, Vancil himself wants to start kicking butt as soon as possible; and how two days after this interview, Doug and Julie will head down to Texas to try out a new multistage clutch design that Vancil hopes will give him his blessed traction once and for all. V&H; guru Byron Hines will be there-it will be the first time he and Vancil have ever met-and the two plan to put their heads together. "Byron's the kind of guy who can just stand there and watch the bike's front end and look at the ET and tell you that 'you need to put more clutch in it here,' " Vancil says with quiet reverence.

And for a second, despite the monster laying dormant before him, it sounds like it could be just that simple.