At the Finish Line - Russ Collins

On May 12th, 2014, motorcycle drag racing legend Russ Collins passed away at age 74.  His health had been in decline for years due to lung cancer. “The cigarettes finally got to him,” his son Russell Jr. mentioned in an interview recently. While Russ has passed on to the great beyond, his son, R.C. Jr., carries on his father’s legacy with pride and great effort as he is currently many months into the process of restoring two of his father’s very famous drag bikes.

Russell Jr., beginning in 2012, began the painstaking process of taking apart the triple engine Honda known as the Aitcheson, Topeka, Santa Fe AND the double engine Sorcerer to restore the world famous Top Fuel drag bikes to their full former glory. It’s his tribute to his dad’s legendary legacy. It’s not easy to be the son of such a great and powerful figure. There’s a lot of love and effort involved at every level to keep things going forward.

Russell Jr. is no slouch in the motorcycle drag bike racing department. He’s built and raced drag bikes for close to 30 years now. The 56 year old son of Russ Collins is precisely the right man to restore his dad’s drag bikes, after all, he watched his dad race those motorcycles for close to a decade.

It’s well known that Russ Sr. opened up R.C. Engineering in 1971, on April Fool’s Day, with a lathe, $100 in his pocket and a tool box - according to a September, 1974 story in Cycle magazine by Cook Neilson. During his drag bike racing years Russ was many things to many people. It’s a matter of record Russ was a business man, a pioneer, an innovator and a showman first class. He was also a concerned father to his son that did his best to protect him, even if it hurt not a little, but a lot.

When Russ Collins Sr. raced and crashed, he dusted himself off and  raced again and crashed again. That’s part of racing. But Russ refused to support his son’s efforts in motorcycle drag racing. He let his son race for close to three decades, yet never spent a penny to help him. He didn’t want to contribute to anything that would bring harm to his son. Russ became a rather well to do man from his years involved in racing, yet withheld that fortune from his own flesh and blood. Fame and fortune or not, this caused no small measure of discomfort to their relationship. Yet love conquers all, they say, and in the later years of life, the two men mended fences and it was Russ who chose Russ Jr. to restore the famous drag bikes.

One day old R.C. knocked on his son’s door, “Hey it’s time, I don’t want anyone else but you to do this.” And Russ gave his son two of the most famous drag bikes in the world, the Sorcerer and the triple engine Honda known as the Aitcheson, Topeka, Santa Fe. Russ Collins Jr. opened up his own shop at home, built just to restore the two drag bikes and for close to a year, father and son were on the phone as often as needed to get the bikes apart and into the rebuilding phase. So the men began the building process of rebuilding the bikes and the legacy of Russ Collins, the man behind the two famous drag bikes.

It all started in earnest in the year 1971.

That was a very pivotal year for Top Fuel motorcycle drag racing history. Danny Johnson brought out his double engine nitro Harley that started dominating every race he entered with it.  The magazine story on that bike inspired Elmer Trett to build his first double.  Danny’s bike also was also the catalyst that triggered Russ Collins to build not a double, but a triple engine Honda nitromethane powered drag bike.  In the summer of 1971, as Russ started to think about how he would undertake the project a young guy fresh out if the Army walked into his shop one day at the parts counter looking to buy spark plugs for his Honda that he just hopped up.  His name was Byron Hines.

“I walked in to buy some spark plugs for my bike,” remembers Byron.  “Russ was behind the counter, we got to talking and he offered to take a look at my bike.  I had just put a big bore kit in it.  Russ looked at it and said, “Who built this?”   Byron replied, “I did.”  Russ came back with “Hey if you want to make a few bucks and learn a few things come see me if you’re ever looking for work.”  Byron was fresh out of the Army after serving in Viet Nam on helicopters and was looking for work.  He became R.C. Engineering’s first full time on-the-clock employee.

So in the summer of 1971 they started building and racing drag bikes together.  Russ’s first serious drag bike, “The Assassin,” was already created and in service when Byron arrived.  He recalls, “It had a blower and dual Webber carbs on it.  Russ even tried nitrous with it at one point.  He kept me busy in the shop repairing it.”  That summer two more very historic events came to pass.

At a one race in southern California, a former high school friend of Byron’s showed up racing his own bike at the track, so Byron introduced him to Russ.  His buddy’s name was Terry Vance.  Before long Terry was also employed at R.C. Engineering.  The other event of historical significance that summer was not so joyous.

A local dirt track racer named Loyal Penn, who raced for R.C. Engineering with the latest Russ Collins go fast hop-ups, was killed during an AMA sanctioned event on July 31, 1971.  Russell Jr. remembered, “That really tore my dad up.  My dad and I used to go to his graveside and place flowers there.  That really hurt my dad more than anyone will ever know.  That’s a big reason why my dad wouldn’t sponsor my racing.”  Yet they forged ahead and history was hammered out by the team from R.C. Engineering.

In 1973, Russ, with help from Byron and Terry, created the Aitcheson, Topeka, Santa Fe, drag bike.  Ultimately that motorcycle went on to become the first 7 second drag bike in NHRA drag racing history.  The bike almost killed Russ Collins in the summer of 1976 when Russ came off the bike after a pass at Dragway 42 in Dayton, Ohio.  The bike was severely damaged in top-end high speed crash that had Russ in a wheel chair for many months.  While convalescing, Russ and Byron began creating their next project: a twin engine, blown, injected nitro Honda for Top Fuel bike racing Russ called “The Sorcerer.”

The bike was built from concept to race track ready in about 9 months, just long enough for Russ to heal up from his crash.  They started racing the Sorcerer during the 1977 season and before season’s end they had an NHRA “Best Engineered” award which incidentally was not the teams first: the Aitcheson, Topeka, Santa Fe, garnered that award it’s first year in service.

In January of 1980, Russ stunned the drag racing world with a 199.55 mph run in competition that became a new world record at a time when few Top Fuel drag bikes could crest 190 mph.  This became bittersweet for Russ Collins, as his son recalls: “It was really frustrating for my dad, to be so close yet so far.  He ran high 190 mile-per-hour runs more than once, but that last little bit just didn’t happen.”  Byron Hines shared that sentiment. “We knew that bike was capable of more, much more, but in order to win races we had to set it soft all the time.  If we hurt something inside the motor, the bike was such a complex machine to work on, there was no way we could make repairs between rounds and be out on the track on time.”

The legacy of Russ Collins is a solid one.  The Sorcerer proved before all other Top Fuel bikes that 200 mph was not only attainable, but was inevitable.  The ATF triple made the first seven second elapsed time pass by a drag bike.  Russ Collins not only helped create two of the most devastating drag bikes ever to thunder down the quarter mile, but he cultivated two of the most influential figures in motorcycle drag bike racing history when he welcomed Byron Hines and Terry Vance into his shop and first taught them his drag bike racing secrets.

The founder and front man for the National Motorcycle Racing Association, Mr. Jim Harris remembers Russ Collins this way: “Russ was not only a great racer but he was a sponsor of the sport, and as such he understood how everything worked.  He did more for the sport of drag racing than most people will ever know.  People who had no interest in the sport would meet him, be drawn in, and that helped grown the fan base.  Russ would always put on a show that everyone remembered.”

Russ was inducted into the American Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999.  In his wake his son carries on proudly recreating two of the greatest motorcycles ever built.  Like father, like son, the tradition carries on within this proud legacy.