Tii Tharpe is hardly a rookie when it comes to racing a Harley Davidson motorbike at more than 200 miles an hour.
This weekend, the rider of the No. 1 SPEVCO/Samson Exhaust Harley Davidson is defending his title in the Mickey Thompson Top Fuel Harley Series as part of the NHRA U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. While this is last week of the regular season for the drivers in the NHRA’s Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle classes, it’s the season finale for the Harleys.
Tharpe leads the Top Fuel Harley class by a scant 27 points over Doug Vancil. The two finished 1-2 a year ago.
Ahead of this year’s finale, Autoweek had to ask, “So, Tii, what’s it like to strap yourself to a bomb, open up the throttle all the way and rocket down the drag strip at 200 mph?”
“At first, when you’re brand new, there’s people that the first couple of times they hit it, it pulls the blood out of your eyeballs,” he said on a recent “Autoweek Podcast.” “They lose vision. You get used to that real quick.”
That’s just for starters.
“Once you get there, it’s just overwhelming the amount of power they make,” Tharpe said. “You get on a real fast bike, and the first eighth of a mile, it’s really just haulin’ ass. And, then, it will kind of level off and you can tuck in and really concentrate on being little and getting to the other end. These bikes, they just don’t stop pulling.”
And you have the throttle open for the whole run?
“Ideally it’s the whole run,” Tharpe said. “I won’t lie and tell you that every pass is a full throttle, but the successful and superfast ones are. But from time to time you have to lift because you’re going to get in the other lane, you’re going to go to the wall or hit the center line. Sometimes, you get scared or uncomfortable, and that will cause you to lift, too.”
Of course, it doesn’t always go right out there. Case in point: an early August run at the Northwest Nationals at Seattle. Tharpe was in one lane. Rival Beau Layne was in the other.
Only one ended the run on his bike, as Layne took a 200-mph tumble into the wall.
“That was unfortunate,” Tharpe said. “I was actually right next to him on that pass when that occurred. It looked like the bike got just a little upset, and I believe that his left hand lost the grip of the handlebar. About that time, the wind pushes you up.
“He was able to grab the backbone of the motorcycle, but then all he had was the backbone and right side of the bar. At that point, you’re just along for the ride. Unfortunately, he hit the wall really hard.”
Tharpe, who has also been on that end of things, was concerned about his fellow competitor.
“I just tried to make sure I wasn’t going to hit him,” Tharpe said. “I just tried to follow him to a stop. Luckily, he bounced right up. He was very aware, pretty agitated and full of adrenalin. Fortunately, Beau is doing really good, all things considered. His arm was pretty messed up. It definitely could have been worse.”
Layne suffered tendon and ligament trauma and is recovering, but he will not be competing in Indy.
Tharpe said that safety equipment makes crashes like Layne’s survivable.
“We run with a big FFI Restraint strap around the engine (Editor’s note: FFI is same company that makes those cool straightjackets you see in the movies but could never foil Harry Houdini) for when it explodes,” Tharpe said. “And we definitely wear a ballistic vest made up of titanium, impact foam and Kevlar — just in the event that the shrapnel heads your way. For years, they didn’t have any of that stuff.
“Jim McClure had a nasty explosion at Atlanta in 1997 and pioneered the vest and the strap, and we’re really glad that he did.”