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larry laurent | November 20, 2022
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Vance & Hines Suzuki, Top Fuel’s Legendary Beast
Racer Terry Vance had plenty of experience on super-fast drag racing bikes, he had just completed several racing seasons with a twin-engine Honda that dominated the Top Gas class. But nothing prepared him for the rush of sensory overload when he first twisted the throttle on the supercharged, nitromethane-burning Suzuki Top Fuel machine his racing partner Byron Hines built.
Although Vance scored victories, championships and records, including the first motorcycle to break the 200 mph barrier and run in all six, riding the massive supercharged V&H Suzuki was no walk in the park. He now admits, despite its success and the huge fan attention it garnered, the famous wedge-shaped drag bike intimidated him every time he threw a leg over it. In the end, Vance & Hines sold their famed Top Fuel to fellow drag racing legend, Larry McBride. The reasons weren’t just that Vance never felt comfortable piloting the machine, but because their business was growing so fast that they no longer had time to focus on what was small. -to be the longest and most expensive motorcycle the company has ever built. But while it lasted, the Vance & Hines Suzuki Top Fuel bike was one of the true marvels of all drag racing and an experience Vance says he will never forget.
If you’ve seen the documentary about the extensive testing the Air Force underwent before test pilot Chuck Yeager finally broke the sound barrier, you’ve got an idea of the methodical testing Vance and Hines underwent even before they left. compete with their Suzuki Top Fuel machine. The idea of the best tanker started before Vance & Hines when Terry and Byron worked for Russ Collins and his company RC Engineering.
“We had a twin-motor Top Gas bike that won 22 out of 23 races in two years,” Vance recalled. “We kind of demoralized the competition in the class. We really didn’t like the fact that we were doing all that gain and not getting any exposure. With Fuel bikes, all they had to do was show up and that was a big deal. So we decided to build a Top Fuel bike.
In 1977, Hines began building the Top Fuel machine. It was originally supposed to be powered by a Kawasaki KZ900 engine, but then Suzuki stepped in with the sponsorship, so Bryon went ahead with the build using a Suzuki GS1000-based engine. At the end of the year, Vance took his first runs on the bike and found it almost completely unusable. Since he had so much experience riding mega-powered drag racers, including the twin-engine Honda Top Gas, one might wonder why the Top Fuel Suzuki was such a big step. Vance just laughed when asked.
“Comparing this twin-engine Honda to the Suzuki Top Fuel bike is like comparing a lamb to a lion,” Vance said. “It was so drastically different that I had trouble understanding. It was like you were going at lightning speed.
“The Fuel bike would shake the [rear] the tires were so bad you couldn’t see the track, everything was blurry,” Vance recalled. “You’d get to the middle of the track and the front wheel wouldn’t touch the ground and you’d just be on the wheel bar on the rear wheel, and you’d think, ‘Man, I’m really haulin’ ass.’ When the [rear] the tire would stop shaking and everything would become crystal clear and you could look over the bar and use it as a visual gauge. It was almost as if a camera went out of focus and then went into focus. You would know when you were on a really good run how quickly that clarity would come to your vision.
All of this building and testing coincided with Terry and Byron’s decision to leave RC Engineering and strike out on their own to start Vance & Hines, so there was a lot going on.
On top of that, Hines was trying new concepts on the Fueler, including a fixed rear axle and a rear fender. The unexpected result was a bike that wouldn’t go straight to the track. It took a year of testing, tweaking and re-testing before the boys had a bike they believed would confidently reach the end of the quarter mile without hitting the wall. The key was getting the Tracy body shape, weight and width, to allow the aerodynamics to guide the bike right through the center of the drag lane. Hines also modified the fixed axle to be adjustable so the bike steers better. In 1980 Suzuki released their GS1100 and the team switched to this engine with its four-valve heads. The bike was constantly losing cranks due to weak aluminum crankcases. Suzuki provided the answer with cast iron cases.
“They [iron cases] were 45 pounds heavier than what we had before,” Hines recalled. “But they were bulletproof, so in late 1980 or early 1981 we started using them.”
After Russ Collins set the top speed bar in 1978 with his 199.55 mph run, the holy grail of Top Fuel motorcycle racing in the early 1980s broke the 200 mph barrier and entered the elapsed time of six seconds. All the big names were trying to make it happen, including living legends like Russ Collins, Elmer Trett and Bo O’Brochta to name a few.
Vance, on the Vance & Hines Suzuki Top Fueler, became the first to hit the targets, but it’s not without controversy. It happened on a Wednesday night, August 4, 1982, at Orange County International Raceway. During testing, Vance had an impressive run and fired the lights with a pass in 6.98 seconds at 203.61 mph. They accomplished the feat even though the crankshaft broke during the passage. The controversy was whether the race should even have been considered legitimate. It didn’t happen at a national event, but at a regular weekly Orange County Wednesday meet, which primarily drew locals to race their street machines. Locals would sometimes get a big treat when some of Top Fuel’s teams showed up and used the weekly meet as a low-cost proving ground. But since Vance’s 200+ mph run was not in a nationally sanctioned competition, the record was largely ignored.
“There’s always been a debate about who ran the first 200 mph race in six seconds, and I’m not even interested in that,” Vance said. “It was a national track with top notch timing equipment, a regular weekly meet and everyone saw it so no one could deny that. All I can say is it was a real man machine; I don’t know any other way to say it. If you didn’t have experience on other race bikes, you could never handle it. You couldn’t just put someone “One on a Fuel bike, it would kill itself. It was the top of the food chain in terms of power. You had to have a few screws loose to mount one in the first place.
A year after Vance’s 200-plus run, Elmer Trett was officially recognized as the first to break the legendary 200 mph barrier when he did so at the 1983 NHRA US Nationals in Indianapolis, in the half- final against O’Brochta. Trett and Vance met in the finals at Indy, setting up the perfect scenario between the two top guns. Vance made it light and got off to a great start and had a lead, but blew his engine during the shift, giving Trett the win.
Vance finally decided to quit riding the top fuel V&H Suzuki when Vance found he couldn’t control the direction of the bike in crosswinds.
“The problem was that we were pushing the limits without the benefit of a wind tunnel,” Vance said. “Today would have been the first place we would have tested.
“At that time, I was ready to work on making Pro Stock more popular, and I was afraid that the Fuel bike would continue to present challenges that we might not be able to meet. So, I finally told Byron that I wasn’t going to ride him anymore.
Today Vance looks back and can now smile both at the fame this machine gave him, and at the aspect of riding such a powerful, impressive and difficult-to-handle machine and living to tell the tale. .
“Even though we only rode the Fuel bike for about four years, it got us as much or more notoriety than the Pro Stock thing,” Vance said. “People really liked the bike. They liked its somewhat futuristic appearance, and it was a great ambassador for the Suzuki brand. If I walk into a room or someone introduces me, the first thing people say is, “Oh man, I saw you riding that Fuel bike.” It was great!’ They always remember this bike, and it always had a special place in my heart.
Larry McBride bought the Vance & Hines Top Fuel Suzuki, rebranded it and campaigned it for several years before crashing the bike heavily in the early 90s and being seriously injured in the process. The bike was damaged in the crash, but McBride still has it.
“Hopefully the bike will be restored at some point,” McBride said. “But I’m still running actively and it takes up all my time. But one day we will bring it back.
Vance would like to see the machine restored.
“I should just call Larry and give him a lot of money to rebuild it,” Vance said. “It would be great to reunite with one of the most recognizable machines in drag racing history.” NC
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