Dodge City Showdown
By Tony Blackstock
For more on the story on Tony’s ownership of the Black Lightning, look at “MPH” issue #709. There, commenting on what became more famously Bill Cottom’s BL, Tony let us know the bike had a successful racing history while he owned it. This was news to many of us, so I asked Tony if he would pen at least some of that adventure for us, and he quickly obliged, writing the entire tale while on vacation in Montana.
As Lone Star Section Organiser, I have a special interest in Vincent history, Texas style! While Tony no longer lives in the state, he grew up in Abilene, a town about 3 hours west of Dallas. His Lightning was maybe the last that came from Stevenage, in 1955. It was also the only one we know of that came to Texas to its original owner, although it was a bit convoluted how all that happened (again, see #709).
I have recently met numerous Texans who had a hand in Vincents in the ‘50s, and hope to get some picture and stories, eventually, to share with the VOC. I know this will be delightful for Lone Stars, and we’ll see if others enjoy it, too!
As for Dodge City, it’s a town in West Kansas. Back in the 1880s it was a bustling “cow town” and home to lots of Wild West people and stories. Even some non-USA folks will recall the long-running TV series, “Gunsmoke,” which used Dodge City as the main setting, with Marshall Matt Dillon opening each segment with a “showdown” quick draw on the main street. Well, Tony had his showdown, there, too! I think you’ll enjoy his story!
In 1955 I had ordered and received a last of its kind Vincent Black Lightning – a great motorcycle which lived up to every bit of the legend it had already become. Although it had originally been built at the factory for top speed runs, I was to use it for ¼ mile drag racing.
Drag racing was all the rage then, and in an effort to curtail it on the streets, the City of Abilene had donated use of the old Municipal Airport to a local car club for use as a drag strip. That summer of 1955 was the proving ground for the new Vincent which took on all challengers and won every time.
Then in the following year, 1956, there was new development. The City arbitrarily removed part of the old runway and put up a wire fence at the end, cutting off half of the runoff area. The car club hosting the drags decided there was still enough room and started off the new year holding weekend events, as usual. I surveyed this new, shorter strip and the ominous fence with some trepidation; but, valor being the better part of discretion, I entered the first race, anyway.
I cannot recall who I was pitted against, but I can recall that first run vividly! I got off the line too slowly, but soon passed my competitor. The finish line quickly materialized, and I shut off the throttle and hit the brakes. Still, I was almost immediately upon the new fence. In those pre-disc days the dual brakes on the Vincent were among the best available, but would this be enough?
The bike hit the fence with a sound somewhere between a “thud” and a “twang,” very nearly throwing me over the handlebars. But, I was OK! The brakes had done their job admirably; however, that was to be my last run, locally. The short runoff was sufficient to accommodate most of the competition, but nowhere near long enough to allow for the triple digit speed of the Vincent. Future runs would be at other (longer) strips around Texas (and at Dodge City).
During 1956, between races, I had become good friends with Larry Beall. Larry was an expert rider and had considerable experience in all types of motorcycle racing. Larry had ridden the Vincent a couple of times and was much impressed with its power and speed. It was he who first suggested that I take the Lightning to the Nationals at Dodge City and try to win the top fuel class. Up to that point I had only run the Lightning on pump gas; however, Larry had experience in running alcohol and nitro-methane and offered to help set up the bike to run fuel. I agreed to go ahead with this plan. It was, after all, time to step up to stiffer competition as the Vincent had easily beaten everything so far encountered. Dodge City was sure to draw the best of the best from all over the Midwest.
After burning the midnight oil with Larry a few times, it was decided we would make this a team effort. Larry and I would both go to Dodge City and race the bike in the open fuel class. Larry’s Dad, Sam Beall, at first voiced some objections to our going, but when he realized we were determined he did a 180 degree turnabout and volunteered to join the team. Sam was the local Triumph dealer, was also an excellent mechanic, and had always served as Larry’s pit crew in past races. We were glad to have him. Besides, he also offered to help with travel expense – which was even better!
We started by prepping the bike and making sure everything was in top condition. We altered the ignition timing several degrees. The main jets were drilled out to the maximum possible and both needles were reset to their highest position. The tank was filled with straight methanol and I made several satisfactory test runs. Due mainly to the expense of the nitro-methane, we decided to wait to add any nitro until we made further test runs at Dodge City.
The team responsibilities were split-up as follows: Sam was crew chief and head mechanic with my sharing any wrenching required. Larry was responsible for blending the fuel: methanol, several blending agents and a yet to be determined percentage of nitro-methane. After much discussion and soul searching on my part, we decided Larry – instead of me – would be the rider. I, of course, had done all the racing of the Vincent up until then and knew all the tricks to make it run best. Larry, on the other hand, had more overall racing experience than I. But the final deciding factor was size/weight. I was 6’2” and weighed in at 200 lbs. Larry, although stoutly built, was diminutive in size and weighed in around 120 lbs. Larry and I decided the best plan would to show him the proper way to ride the bike. (Note: the Vincent Black Lightning did have its own peculiarities and demanded a certain Vincent-unique method of riding to make it perform properly. This will be explained later). At the last minute Larry’s kid brother, Freddy, asked to go along and volunteered his motorcycle to be used as a chase bike, which was very helpful.
We loaded the Black Lightning and the chase bike onto a two-railed motorcycle trailer, which was hooked to my Ford Fairlane. The fuel was poured into one gallon vinegar jugs and set into a large wooden box to keep them from turning over, loaded into the trunk along with Sam’s toolbox. We had no spare parts. Bank credit cards had not yet been introduced in 1956, and we had just enough cash to get us to Dodge City and back. By today’s standards we were a woefully ill-prepared, rag-tag crew. But we were a fairly typical lot in the 1950’s.
We drove straight through to Dodge City arriving 3 days early to make some practice runs, familiarize Larry with the Vincent riding technique, try different nitro-alcohol blends and (time permitting) watch the flat-track races.
Upon arrival we checked into the cheapest motel we could find and went straight to the old airfield. We started our practice runs by mixing up a mild fuel blend of 90% methanol with 10% nitro. It was my first experience with running nitro, and I was amazed at the results. The Vincent had always been bullet-fast, but now it had become a rocket ship! Further, the more nitro we added the faster it went. We ended up with a mix of about 70% methanol and 30% nitro.
Then we encountered problems. The first problem we had was the seat. As equipped from the factory the Black Lightning had a flat seat somewhat resembling an ironing board … presumably to accommodate a “Rollie Free” style prone position. With the increased acceleration we now had, it quickly became obvious that this was not the right seat for our purposes. On gasoline the bike had always pulled hard, but I had compensated for this by pushing hard forward on the rear-mounted footpegs. Now the bike was pulling so hard that it would try to accelerate right out from under you! What was needed was a seat with a butt-stop in back, which we didn’t have.
The second problem was the tachometer. We had no sooner arrived than for some inexplicable reason the tach cable parted. We chalked it up to bad luck, removed the cable and went ahead without it. We felt that we could do well enough to win by shifting by ear.
A word about parts availability here. In the 1950’s motorcycle shops were few and far between, and in small to medium sized cities (like Dodge City) a bike shop was usually more of a gathering place for local riders than anything else. A typical small town bike shop might have 2 or 3 motorcycles on the showroom floor. The owner was probably the only employee, serving as salesman, mechanic, partsman and everything else. His stock of parts would largely consist of motor oil, spark plugs, master links, handlebar grips and not much else. Virtually all parts had to be ordered. We all knew this and made no effort to find a local source for a new tach cable or different seat.
The only other problem we had was that the tires seemed to be losing some air; but when we pumped them up and checked the tire pressure the next morning, they were both holding pressure.
The second day we also spent practicing at the airstrip. We started out by familiarizing Larry with the methods I had developed to get the best performance out of the Black Lightning.
First was shifting. It was impossible to shift a Vincent without letting up on the throttle at least momentarily. Shifting at full throttle would inevitably result in the bike jumping out of gear and potentially even result in a damaged transmission. If I recall correctly, this was called out quite clearly in the Vincent Owner’s Manual. However ... with practice proper gear shifts can be done more quickly than one might think …. ‘chop throttle – engage clutch – shift – release clutch – open throttle’ … all can be done in the blink of an eye without the loss of momentum.
Second was dealing with clutch slippage. The Black Lightning was not equipped with a conventional multiple disc clutch. Clutch slippage with conventional clutches could be a problem when dealing with gobs of horsepower at high speed where wind resistance can put a strain on the best of clutches. I was told that the Vincent centrifugal clutch was developed by the factory to deal with this. It was designed so that as speed and rpm increased, the centrifugal shoes would expand harder and harder against the outer drum eliminating clutch slippage at higher speeds.
To deal with low speed clutch slippage (before the centrifugal shoes had enough inertia to lock up), the factory added an outer single disc as a starter plate – just to get the bike going. Bearing in mind that this clutch was primarily designed for top end runs, the whole arrangement did its job quite satisfactorily.
In drag racing far more stress is put on the clutch at low speeds off the start line instead of high speeds. To compensate for the single disc being overstressed and slipping at the start, we did two things: First, in between runs we would dismantle the outer clutch and liberally coat the single disc with Copsiloy (the anti-slip paste). Second, and very unconventionally, at the start I advised Larry to stand up straddling the bike without putting any weight on the seat whatsoever, rev the engine to about 2000 rpm and, at the drop of the flag dump the clutch which would start the rear tire spinning, open the throttle and then sit down. The result was the rear tire would continue to spin (instead of the clutch slipping) and the Vincent would be off. Weird, but it worked … and in racing that’s all that counts. Third, and the last bit of Vincent-eze I gave Larry was to not over-rev. The black Lightning was built for torque, and (I suspect due to the camshaft grind) would peak out rather quickly. To be sure, it certainly had an enormous amount of power; however, when it peaked out, you immediately sensed it and knew it was time to shift or else the motor would flatten out and ground would be lost.
Larry was a very talented rider and a fast learner. He quickly mastered all that I had passed on and in short order he was equally proficient as I in Vincent-eze. With his 80 lb. weight advantage I felt we had a good chance of winning.
The second day of practice went very well until the end of the day. After many short runs Larry decided to make one last, longer run. The airfield runway had been for large aircraft and had plenty of room. Larry started off well, ran the bike through the gears and disappeared in the distance. A minute later I took the chase bike and rode down to retrieve Larry and the Lightning. He had indeed gone a long way and was at the very end of the asphalt. When I arrived, I immediately knew something was terribly wrong. Larry was sitting on the bike, white as a sheet and shaking like a leaf. Both tires were flat and there were giant weaving black streaks at the end of the asphalt leading to the bike.
Larry was barely able to speak, but after a few minutes he regained his composure and explained what had happened. At the end of his overly long run the bike started to feel funny. When he tried to shut down, the bike shook violently. In an effort to regain control, he re-opened the throttle and the bike straightened out. He again tried to slow down and the same thing happened again. At this point the end of the runway was coming into view. There was no option except to someway stop the bike before running out of asphalt. He eased off the throttle and tried to apply the brakes. The bike slewed sideways to the left, very nearly going down. At the last second the bike righted itself and slewed sideways to the right, again almost going down before repeating the same scenario several more times. Larry had taken quite a beating. His legs were off the pegs and flailing against the bike each time. This whole nightmare was, however, scrubbing off speed; and through an Herculean effort and his exceptional riding ability Larry somehow stayed on the bike and eventually brought it to a stop.
After tending to Larry’s bruised and bleeding legs, we all tried to figure out what went wrong. Both tires were completely flat, so Sam dismantled the tires to find out why. To our surprise the tires appeared to be OK and the tubes were both holding air! There were no nails or anything else to be found which would explain the loss of air. Sam reassembled the tires and put them back on the bike. Sam and I took the Black Lightning back to the airfield, leaving Larry at the motel. With a lot of trepidation I pushed the bike off. As usual it started right away and I carefully rode it down the airstrip. Nothing happened! The Vincent was running straight and true. I ran it through the gears several times without incident. I did not, however, push my luck to test its top speed as Larry had. We loaded up the bike and returned to the motel. The cause of the problem was a complete mystery. We all agreed that unless a positive solution to our problem was found, we would withdraw from the race and not risk a repeat of Larry’s near catastrophe.
As events turned out, by the next morning we had solved the mystery! Up until then we had assumed that the bike had some unknown flaw which had caused the shaking and sliding, and in so doing had flattened the tires. In truth, the exact opposite had happened. The tires had gone flat first which caused the bike – at speed – to go out of control.
The solution was simple … install valve caps! There were no valve caps on either the front or rear tires since none of us had considered them necessary. Someone (whose identity has been lost in time) the night before suggested that at a high enough speed the spring loaded valve cores could be depressed by the centrifugal force of the fast turning wheels. This explanation fit to a T what had transpired with us. The many previous races I had run were all slower on gasoline – no such problem had developed. Also I had, at that point, never previously run the Vincent to its top speed. The increased speeds it was now running with the alcohol/nitro mix had caused the faster spinning wheels to exceed the threshold required to simultaneously depress the valve cores, expel the air and quickly flatten both tires. This had caused the slewing and shaking that was experienced. With the addition of two new valve caps and a couple of uneventful test runs, we were back in business.
As it relates to the race, it should be noted here that many of the rules, regulations and safety standards for motorcycle racing we routinely practice today were, in the 1950’s, absent or ignored. In general such things as a barrier between the race track and spectators, on-site ambulances, tech inspections, etc., were not present or practiced. Specific to what next transpired for us at Dodge City, safe distances between drag race competitors were not required as they are today. In fact, the closer together the racers were the better. This aided the spectators and judges to more easily see who was ahead (and undoubtedly added to an element of excitement).
The day of the race, which dawned clear and windless, would feature both the drag races and roadraces. The drag races would be in the morning; the roadraces in the afternoon. Due to the heavy schedule the races started early. First, the Sportsman classes; finally, just before noon (ed.: High Noon in Dodge City!), the Open Fuel Class.
The first programs went off quickly, and before we knew it, we were up. There were to be two elimination runs – each leading to the final top eliminator run between the two finalists. The bikes we would be facing were all a definite step up from anything I had previously competed against … so the Vincent would have to perform at its very best in order to win.
From the outset it became clear that the two fastest bikes were my Vincent and a Triumph dragster ridden by Joe Minonno of the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Joe was a veteran drag racer and a consistent winner. He would be a fierce competitor. The eliminations proceeded more or less as expected. The Vincent won its first two rounds, likewise for Joe’s Triumph. The top eliminator would be between Joe and Larry.
We were allowed just enough time before the top eliminator race to dope the outer clutch plate and add fuel. We pushed the Vincent off and Larry headed for the start line where Joe was already waiting. The two competitors lined up side by side (and as mentioned before, with only a foot or two separating them). Joe’s Triumph was running 1.3/4” pipes with two enormous megaphones and was deafeningly loud. The Vincent, on the other hand, was running the factory equipped long, straight 1.5/8” pipes and was (comparatively) quiet.
The flagman was ready, and after the affirmative nod from both Joe and Larry, the flag was dropped. Both bikes got off with a perfect start. The entire ¼ mile was a neck-to-neck race with neither bike gaining more than a foot or two on the other. Larry would pull ahead, then Joe, then Larry. I did not know it at the time, but Larry was having trouble. Without the aid of the tachometer (due to its broken cable mentioned earlier) and with the fierce exhaust note of the Triumph at such close proximity completely drowning out the sound of the Vincent, Larry was having trouble shifting on time. The only indicator he could sense to time his gear shifts was Joe! Larry was out-accelerating Joe and with each gear shift the Vincent would surge ahead. When Joe caught up and edged ahead, Larry would know he had waited too long to shift. With each shift Larry surged ahead and then the scenario would repeat itself, continuing all the way to the finish. The finish was almost too close to call, but when the judges came down with the decision Joe was declared the winner and top eliminator. Larry later agreed that indeed Joe was slightly ahead at the finish.
Joe had run a perfect race and won. He and his bike deserved all the credit they received for their hard-won victory. Larry had been hampered in his effort by the lack of a functioning tachometer, but very nearly won despite this handicap.
The drag races were over, but we decided to stay and watch the roadraces. While the rest of the team watched, I drained the rest of the fuel from the tank, dismantled the two TT carbs and cleaned them to remove any residual alcohol/nitro mix, and finally drained the motor oil to remove any fuel which might have blown into the lower end.
On our way home we were all a bit disheartened to say the least to come away empty-handed, especially having come so close to winning. Once home I rejetted and retimed the Black Lightning back to its original settings for pump gas. Although I continued racing the Vincent on gasoline and it resumed its winning streak, I never raced it on fuel again.
In retrospect after these many years I realize what an astonishing performance the Vincent had turned in. We, the ill-prepared, had taken a box stock Vincent Black Lightning and very nearly won top honors at a National. There were no special modifications made to the Black Lightning other than gearing and switching from gas to fuel. I feel that it was a great tribute to the Vincent marque to have produced a motorcycle capable of such performance. In truth it would be decades before its speed and power would be matched and even today modified Vincents are used successfully in various competitive events.