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DRAG NIGHT | Other | Tested

When’s the last time you held a bike full throttle of ten seconds? Here’s the scratch to the itch you’ve been feeling!

There are many ways to enjoy riding a bike – some of those ways are illegal, let’s be honest. Then there are ways that just feel illegal. The nagging feeling you are doing something wrong just adds to the fun, depending on who you are.

Punching out a third gear burnout, just as I had been instructed to do during one of the most hilarious safety briefings I have ever been a part of, I felt every bit of illegal – especially as a mate was in the adjacent lane, doing like-wise. This kind of carry-on on the public street would have earned me a scornful rebuke on A Current Affair, but at Sydney Dragway, it’s just how you roll.

The occasion was Bike Night at Sydney Dragway, one summery night earlier this year. The place was full of bikes, from Hayabusas using ladders as swingarms, to a young bloke on his non-descript and very, very LAMS-spec 125. It’s old-school heads-up, run what you brung drag racing, albeit it being held on one of the best drag venues in the country: proper lights, burnout pads and VHT traction compound – you just can’t launch this hard on the street.

I have drag raced bikes before at this venue, including a turbocharged Honda CB1300, but it was the Wednesday night off street drags back then and I had to share the pad with cars (not at the same time, obviously). I got five runs all night. It was fun, but frustrating.

Now, the whole thing is aimed at maximum runs, maximum education on how it all works and a heap of fun. Except for wheelies – none of those are allowed, briefing maestro Mick Withers was saying, looking at me and the KTM 1290 R Superduke I was riding.

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“Only professional riders are ok to do wheelies,” he explained, referring to the stunt guys that provide the entertainment at many Sydney Dragway events.

“We just don’t like wheelies”. I gave up trying to work out if I qualified as a “professional” as Mick’s presentation ploughed on hilariously.

“When the light goes green, bugger off in that direction very quickly,” he was saying, pointing down a strip that looks a lot longer than 400m and isn’t, to many people’s surprise, flat. It’s flat for a while, then right about where you are hoping your brakes work and are being surprised at how close the end of the strip suddenly is, it rises slightly. This helps those brakes stop you.

The briefing being held on the pad itself is for those who hadn’t been anywhere near a drag strip before, including on this occasion my two mates, Hammo and Reece. Convincing them to come wasn’t that hard a few weeks out, but as the day drew closer, the realization they had no idea what was going to happen to them kicked in and so did the nerves.

Bike Night is a pretty relaxed place to be, though. If you have been around race meetings before, you’d know the stiff safety Nazis that like to frequent such places, and the awkwardness that imposes on new-comers. Bike Night isn’t like that. At all.

The new riders had gathered at 5:30pm – the racing itself starts at 6pm – and comfortably made up 1/5th of the field. As the night wore on, it’s clear a few who didn’t bother to come to the briefing, probably should have.

It’s less of a safety briefing and more of a How To Leave The Lights Very Quickly lesson.  Mick has seen it all before after years of taking off expeditiously, and offers numerous gems to those listening: ride around and then reverse into the water to do your burnout – you don’t want a wet front tyre; stop the bike before hitting the staging lights to let any excess water drip off; do the burnouts in second or third, easier to manage and more wheelspeed means more tyre heat, etc.

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All this stuff is gold, and mostly forgotten until you eventually take off in one big cluster-stuff-up of wheelspin, and say “oh yeah…” in your helmet. Only then have you have learned it.

I could see Hammo and Reece were spacing out a bit at all the info, but the sheer numbers of fellow newbies was comforting. Knowing you get to race whoever is in the lane next to you can be daunting, but once they knew they wouldn’t explode in a ball of fire, they were relaxed noticeably.

All the newbies line up in the same lane – this allows the officials to advise them when necessary, then set off two at a time, pairing off as you go to either race a mate, or avoid them. You are briefly out of sight of each other as you filter through your respective tunnels – that’s the place to usher the guy behind in front if you don’t want your mate to hand you your arse again…

The whole process of getting to the Christmas tree is pretty exciting. When in your lanes, an official – who is always up for a chat – marks your bike’s scrutineering sticker, then you fire up and head for lane one or two. Watching the various burnout styles of the bikes in front as each pair fires off down the strip is mesmerizing, until you realize you are next.

An official ushers you into a start box – and also records your issued number so they can time the right person. Now’s the time to try and out-psyche your opponent, who may be your mate, or someone you wouldn’t recognize with their helmet off. I chose to hit the rev limiter and my own chest at the same time…

Two pairs of bikes up the line, the lights go green and they take off, so it’s your cue to do a burnout. Many people baulk here and decide not to do burnouts, then wish they had when their bike wheelspins on cold tyres in third gear.

Just do a burnout – it works, it’s a must.

Burnout done and the clear track in front of you, you are ushered up to “stage” – essentially priming the two consecutive staging lights, indicating you are ready to go. This can be done craftily, to mess with your opponent’s head, or just roll in and light up both staging lights at once – just remember this means you are saying “I’m ready”!

With both bikes staged, the lights count down to the green. When the final amber goes out, nail it! Don’t wait for the green, it’s too late by then. And therein lies the real challenge in drag racing – timing the launch to perfection without red lighting (leaving too early), then executing full throttle and perfect gear changes over the 400m.

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Harder than it sounds…

My novice mate’s first launches, like every novice’s including my own first five another time, were average. On that start line, everybody is looking, your heart rate is knocking 200bpm and the fear of the unknown is attacking your very human ego and defence reflexes. “Run!” your brain is saying.

“Help!” your ego is screaming.

“Go!” your sense of adventure is urging. It’s wonderful, that first time, especially when the revs finally drop at the timing lights and the startline seems like a stilted dream sequence that all happened at once.

My mates did exactly what I did the first time – no burnout, tried to dump the clutch too quickly with too many revs and blew the whole thing before they got to second gear. Everyone does it. And everyone wants to improve, which is where the hook sets in.

“I did it all wrong,” Hammo laughs on the way back down the return road. “I know what to do next time.”

Having done it before, I have a new set of challenges. I am on the grunty, short wheelbase KTM SuperDuke 1290R, so took off in second gear rather than first to try and keep that front wheel down, yet still launch hard.

A 10.9sec pass off the bat was ok but I knew the KTM has more in it than that. As the night wore on, I remembered how hard it is to gain those tenths once you pass a certain point.

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I tried first gear launches, I tried longer burnouts, I tried everything but actually getting more agro off the start line – that was my last resort. It was hard enough keeping it straight and the front wheel a reasonable distance off the ground, without adding to that angst.

Reece and Hammo, meanwhile, were improving out of sight. Lopping half second chunks out of their times – Hammo on a Honda Blackbird, Reece riding a GSX-R750 – they were both finally convinced to do a burnout first. They immediately went another half second faster with more grip and suddenly Hammo was issuing challenges and Reece was neck and neck with the same guy he had been racing all night.

Drag racing is a very social sport, because in between runs, there’s nought to do but stand in your lane with the guys you are racing against, talking shit about bikes, about how you reckon there’s another three tenths of time in reduced tyre pressures and how the next race will be closer.

You spend the whole night thinking about how to make that time slip, you are handed through a small window after returning, the time you want it to be.

Peer pressure was the answer for me to improve.

A rejuvenated Hammo was next to me, bunging on a confident third gear burnout and yelling something about a PB and pasting my butt to the sticky surface – walking on it is like treading the carpet at a live music venue.

I definitely had an on-paper advantage with the 1290R, but the dragstrip cares not for technical advantages – whoever launches the best can upset the more powerful bike. And his long wheelbase meant using the power was easier, though I had more of it. Being beaten by a first timer simply wasn’t to be on. Or was it..?

We had done ten runs each, with around two to go before the track shut shop. I tried to zen out as I staged, hard to do with Hammo’s agro glances in my direction and the fear of failure riding pillion. I was dead-set crapping myself.

Then the ambers lit up and I finally launched like I meant it, though I could hear that Blackbird on my shoulder. The Superduke reached the end of first a bit quicker than before, a sure sign I had done it better, but I was worried aerodynamics would come into play and I buried myself into the naked bike’s tank, praying that Blackbird ringing in my ears wouldn’t overpower me.

Then it’s over, Hammo right there, but the newer bike and my fear of losing was enough. “Again!” shouted Hammo. Crap.

In the end, that peer pressure earned me my best run of the night, a 10.6sec pass, short of what I know it could ultimately do, but I was happy enough to have not flipped it.

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He too was stoked, a PB of 11-flat on the big girl is a very good novice time – Reece joined us for a post race burger and his last slip displayed a PB as well. This is the problem… We all want to return and do it better. We nattered for hours in the carpark, discussing strategy, bike set up and wondering what one of those long swing-arms cost.

This is a great night – I bumped into various people I knew, talked more “bike” than I had in months and only saw one crash, when a bike spat a load of coolant onto its rear tyre. No one was hurt, and crashes are rare.

I saw mates racing each other, a boyfriend and girlfriend squaring off, P-plates flapping in the wind, and a lot of good-natured banter. There were also the serious riders, with turbocharged marvels of engineering smashing out eight second passes – that’s worth the price of admission alone.

Looking for another way to challenge yourself and your bike, and be guaranteed the only ticket you get is your time slip? Then set aside a Bike Night date when the event re-starts as it gets warmer. It’s a blast and so much fun, it doesn’t seem legal.

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

The best tip to remember – though no one does – is Mick Wither’s advice on your first take off: do it like you are moving off from the traffic lights. A clutch-dropping, violent throttle opening take off is slower and riskier until you get used to it. Build up gently, you get more runs than you need in Bike Night format and each launch you get better at it. Just watch the addiction side of things – it can take a fierce hold.

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BIKE NIGHT

You can get all the information you need at www.sydneydragway.com.au, including new season ricing, dates etc. It’s generally held one Thursday a month in the warmer months and is fun to do, either by yourself or with a group of mates. If you turn up solo, guaranteed you’ll have a made a mate or two by the end of the night.

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WILL MY BIKE DO IT?

I don’t know what your bike is, but yes… As long as it’s not leaking oil and is in good nick, you can drag race it. Sportsbikes are good, but nakedbikes are too, so are LAMS bikes, cruisers, commuters – the whole lot! The fun is chasing a time, whether that time be mid-eight seconds or trying to get below an 18sec pass with a 0.1sec reaction time.

Just have a go!

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BURNOUTS – DO THEM

Many newcomers avoid doing burnouts the first few runs and I understand why – everyone is watching, it feels like a good opportunity to make a squid of yourself and it’s otherwise something society frowns upon. Not at Sydney Dragway..!

Third gear is a good starting point, the idea being the bike is less aggressive when you get it going and warms the tyre more effectively than first gear. That sounds a bit extreme, but remember you can back the tyre into a puddle of water  to wet it, then roll out and burn out – it’s easier with a wet hoop, for obvious reasons.

So don’t decide to do a burnout after a few runs – just do one, because cold tyres have a habit of spinning, especially when you leave the grippy VHT compound half track, in about third gear. That usually gets people doing a burnout, quicksmart…

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GOING STRAIGHT IS EASY, RIGHT?

It is to a certain level, then it really, really isn’t. A basic roll off the line an L-plater can do. But to launch a bike hard, when a light tells you too takes a special kind of determination, patience, fast-twitch muscle and reaction time.

Then there’s the bravery required, those concrete walls look pretty narrow at 190km/h and the track changes conditions as the night goes on, even in summer. A run 20mins after your last one (it was rarely that long between rides that night) can feel very different to the run before.

It’s a worthy challenge to spend a Thursday night pursuing: racing mates and strangers, marveling at the variety of machinery and people there and even taking a breather and just watching a bunch of riders having the time of their lives from the grandstand.

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WORDS SAM MACLACHLAN PHOTOS JOSH EVANS