Front Line Soldiers: The Crew Chiefs

By Thomas McCarthy

In drag racing, it’s the driver that takes the winning machine across the finish line first and gets the lion’s share of the glory. Perhaps that’s as it should be. But it’s the team, the driver’s crew, that gets the machine ready and makes that winning run possible. Drag racing is far more of a team sport than the media often makes it out to be.

Each drag racing operation is really a team made up of typically a driver/owner and various crew members.  In NHRA Mickey Thompson Tires Top Fuel Harley motorcycle drag racing, no one person does it all alone. The days of a single racer servicing the bike, starting it and doing engine swaps is, for the most part, a thing of the past. Racers need to be able to make a turn-around call back into the staging lanes in less than ninety minutes or they can miss a run. That’s no way to lose a drag race, but it has happened. Teamwork makes the dream work, or at least gives racers a fighting chance to win. And the leader of the team on race day is the crew chief.

In today’s world of modern era drag racing, for the most part, one person calls all the tuning shots and is responsible for the mechanical integrity of the machine, as well as the safety of the driver – and that’s the crew chief. Someone with many years of experience. A person of vision who works best under pressure, if not thrives upon it. The crew chief and fellow teammates, they are the front line soldiers, the grunts, who do the bulk of the work and make things happen. The best crew chiefs set the pace and lead by example, every step of the way.

It has been said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So it is for teams working on racing machines, for one mistake, if anyone forgets to tighten anything, this can lead to a quick end to the race day, if not an outright disaster. There is little room for error in Top Fuel Harley motorcycle drag racing.

On average, a Top Fuel Harley will cost in the neighborhood of $80,000 to build and a race team will spend half that again in one season to race a TFH for ten races. The drag bikes are not only expensive to race but temperamental if not downright evil on occasions. 1,000 horsepower two cylinder machines that go from zero to over 230 MPH in barely six seconds are as serious as handling high explosives capable of producing similar results when things go wrong. Why else would Top Fuel Harley drag bike pilots be required to wear a ballistic vest when they suit up before each pass?

In NHRA, Mickey Thompson Tires Top Fuel Harley motorcycle drag racing, here’s a look at some of the best crew chiefs in the sport during the year 2019.

In the Jay Turner Racing pit area: There is such a strong collection of experienced veteran racers, Jay’s pit area functions a bit like an F-1 team. The experts give input as needed and the work gets done. There are at times four Top Fuel bikes or more being prepared for a round of racing. Jeremey Hoy, Rex Harris, and Mark Conner, working in concert with Jay Turner, see to it that all the bikes are attended to. Jay has been racing these bikes since 1989 and has achieved many championships with multiple sanctions as a TFH pilot and also as a team owner. Jeremy Hoy started racing nitro bikes in 2002 along with teammate Rex Harris, who started them in 2001. Mark Conner has been involved in racing TFH bikes since 1992 and gives valuable input as needed. Justin Heinle is the engine builder for the team and with four Top Fuel Harleys to look after, he’s a very busy man.

Vance & Hines Racing: Mike Romine is Doug Vancil’s crew chief. Mike has been burning nitromethane since 1985 and building and racing fuel Harleys ever since. His brother, Jack Romine, is the crew chief for Beau Layne. Jack picked up the nitro-bug shortly after Mike did, and together over the last 34 years they have won and set many records with various motorcycle drag racing sanctions. Mike and Jack Romine have raced Top Fuel Harley motorcycles for decades and won many championships before their current role as crew chiefs.

Rickey House Racing– “I started racing Nitro Harleys in 2006, I started off in the Pro Dragster class back then. I still call most of the shots on my own tune-up, but I never hesitate to confer with Mark Morgan.” Mark began racing with nitro Harleys in 1984. His many years of working with Ray Price Racing was an education new guys just can’t get today.

Bob Malloy Racing– Bobby started motorcycle drag racing involvement with nitromethane in 1981. He’s had the great grace to have wrenched and raced with Elmer Trett and Steve Stordeur, who used to work for Elmer. Yet despite his extensive CH3NO2 experience, he refers his tune-up to Wayne Morris, who is a blown-alcohol, car racer from the four-wheel side of the pit area. Wayne has worked with nitro as well as the supercharged alcohol cars since 2004. Considering Bobby Malloy has gone 6.14 @ 228 MPH, together they have made some great decisions in the tune-up of their direct drive Top Fuel Harley.

John “Red” Rhea, PTS Racing – John started motorcycle drag racing in the 1970’s and “After being at Bowling Green, 1978, that’s it, I was hooked, I started racing with nitromethane by 1980.” Johnny “Red” Rhea tuned old style, by reading spark plugs by the seat of the pants for decades. Only in the last few years has John moved into using a RacePak data logger system and he still tunes largely by ear and instinct. John has had great success with various drivers but is still looking for just the right nitro TFH pilot.

Tak Shigematsu – Don Johnson, AKA “DJ” the crew chief for Tak Shigematsu, has been burning nitro in drag bikes since 1985. His work with Tak has become legendary. In 2017 at the Man Cup World Finals, when Tak ran a 6.02 pass that had to be aborted at 1,000’ after his handlebars broke, they were on the pass of a lifetime with Tak’s bike, which DJ built from the frame rails up. The bike launched with a 1.04 short time and clocked in with a 3.88 @ 195 MPH in the eighth. The bike was on a 5.80-ish pass when the handlebars broke in two. DJ spent close to twenty years racing with his fellow NJ M/C drag racing Hall of Famer, Larry “Drums” Brancaccio. Together Drums and DJ barnstormed the east coast for two decades. DJ, also known as the “Nitro Santa” for his signature white beard, is one of the most respected TFH tuners in the sport today.