July 15, 2011
Nitro bike racers back, faster than ever
By JIM CRESSMAN, The London Free Press
GRAND BEND - Steve Dorn says he's just a normal guy.
Normal is not lying prone on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and then hitting the throttle so a huge quantity of lethal nitromethane fuel launches you down a quarter-mile racetrack at 230 m.p.h.
"I feel like I'm just normal so I can't really explain why someone would want to do that. But obviously I'm not," Dorn said Friday.
"But doing what we do is definitely a passion."
Dorn and his nitro Harley buddies will put that passion on full throttle Saturday and Sunday during the 11th annual Mopar IHRA Nitro Jam Nationals at Grand Bend Motorplex.
This is Dorn's 10th year on a nitro bike but his first trip to Grand Bend as the class was dropped by the IHRA after its 2002 season. But the bikes are back this year and are faster and crazier than ever than ever.
Dorn, from Milwaukie, Ore., said he never thinks twice that they don't have the traditional safety nets found in racing.
"We try to stay on," he said deadpanned.
But he has come off a couple of times -- hitting a wall at 208 mph in Dallas in 2006 and then just last year crashing in the sand at the end of track in San Antonio when his brakes failed.
"I didn't jump, which was pretty stupid, and I'm still trying to recover from that one. I've had a couple pretty good wrecks but when I hit the throttle I have no problem with it at all. There's no reluctancy. I don't think about it at all. All I think about is the next pass."
Dorn has instituted one safety measure on his bike, adopting the parachute seen on all the other pro class cars. And now everybody is beginning to follow his lead.
"I won't ride again without using it," he said. "That could have save me from having both those accidents. When we were going 200 it was no problem to stop. But now we're going 225 to 230 and the bikes are 200 pounds heavier and we don't have enough brakes."
Dorn said the fans have been flocking to the pits to see the bikes.
"We get two things when they come back there to see us. It's either it's so great to have you guys back or I didn't know you guys did anything like this. And if they haven't seen them, they're in for a treat. They'll be hooked."
And Dorn speaks from experience.
"I took my chopper to the drag strip back in '97 because the guy who built my motor wanted me to see how fast it would go. I didn't know anything about drag racing. But I made one pass and got hooked. The next thing you know I was on a pro modified bike and the year after I went right into nitro. Once you start one of these, you will never run a gas bike again."
They're basically a rocket ship on two wheels, a brutal beast with huge power and torque. And riding one is not for the faint-hearted. Nitromethane pushes an engine to its limits and beyond, sometimes resulting in spectacular explosions. The rider is prone with the pistons inches under the chest and head. A "bomb-proof" kevlar vest is worn over their leathers -- although they admit it's just for show.
The bikes go from idle to wide open instantly and riders fight the thing all the way down the track, using their bodies to steer since the front wheel is useless. And the bike wiggles all over the place with its monster slicks.
Just talk to IHRA top fuel dragster champion Bruce Litton of Indianapolis.
Every little detail of Oct. 9, 1982 remains etched in his memory -- and his body.
"High noon, left lane, Gulfport Dragway, Gulfport, Miss.," he said Friday. "I broke the timing beam at 159.80 miles an hour -- with my left hand. Sixteen hundred pounds of bike was riding on top of me."
Litton was thrown off his bike by a speed wobble and being left-handed, he instinctively threw out his left hand to break his fall.
"Mistake," he said.
Eight surgeries later, doctors had successfully rebuilt the hand to where he regained 100% use.
"I have 100% use in my right hand, except I can't hitchhike," he said, having lost the thumb in the accident.
"I never raced a bike again."
In top fuel he's doing 320 m.p.h., but feels much safer: "I've got a roll cage around me now."
Dorn said he's heard all the adjectives -- crazy, psychotic, suicidal -- to describe his sport. But he knows of nothing more exhilarating on two wheels.
"It sure is nice to be a part of bringing it back and to be able to put on a good show."
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Mopar IHRA Nitro Jam Nationals
When: Saturday and Sunday
Where: Grand Bend Motorplex
Saturday: Sportsman qualifying, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Pro mod qualifying, 4:30 p.m.; sportsman eliminations, 5 p.m.; FanFest, 5:30-6:30 p.m. (NitroThunder at 5:30 p.m.); Nitro Jam round 1 (top fuel, prostalgia funny car, nitro Harley, fuel altereds, pro mod, super stock, Grave Digger, jet truck, 7 p.m.); Nitro Jam Night of Fire, 8:30 p.m.
Sunday: Sportsman eliminations, 9 a.m.; FanFest 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. (NitroThunder at 11:30 a.m.); Nitro Jam round 1, 1 p.m.; Nitro Jam (including sportsman semifinals and finals), 2:30 p.m.
Information and tickets: www.grandbendmotorplex.com or call 519-238-7223