Story and photo by Alan Dockery
Y’all Harley drag racing fans know there are lots of nitromethane-fueled race teams based in the Carolinas and Virginia. Well, in 2016 the teams we cheer for won just about every national fuel bike championship in the country.
Jay Turner of Julian, NC, won both the International Hot Rod Association and National Hot Rod Association Top Fuel Harley championships. These are the two top American championships and to me the most significant worldwide. It is an incredible feat and Jay may be the only man to win both IHRA and NHRA championships in the same year other than Lee Shepard winning Pro Stock in 1972.
The story of all these fuel bike championships goes back almost 40 years. And Jay’s family was a key factor in why we have so many fuel bike teams in our area. They gave folks a track to race on and fans heroes to cheer for at Farmington Dragway.
“My Dad (Jim Turner) and Frankie Moore started motorcycle drag racing at Farmington Dragway in 1978,” Jay said. That was probably one of the first tracks in the Southeast to hold motorcycle races. The track had been closed for years. Dad and Jerry Joyce rented it and re-opened the track. They started doing motorcycle drags once a month to increase business.”
“I was 11 years old and thought that was cool. I thought they were cooler than the cars. I gravitated toward motorcycles, Harleys, and fuel bikes. I was working at the track, sweeping the bleach box, handing out time slips, whatever Dad needed me to do. Frankie built me a little 350 Honda that I raced for a couple years when I was 13 to 14.”
While serving a tour in the U.S. Army, Jay’s parents bought Piedmont Dragway near Greensboro, NC. When he got out, he wanted to get back on the strip and on a fuel bike. After all Jay grew up at the drag strip in the best possible environment and got to know the early greats of the sport, Elmer Trett, Ray Price, Jim McClure, Bill Furr, and more. Jay jumped on a fuel bike early in his career.
“It was like being the bat boy for Babe Ruth then going on to become a baseball player,” Jay said. “They all had a major influence on my start in racing and everything I’ve done. They all helped me out in one way, shape, or form to build a little Ironhead Sportster. I got on the track and wasn’t any good, didn’t really know what I was doing. They would tell me how I was screwing up and what to do better. They would come to the pit and see what I was doing and fix my mess.”
Jay got serious about fuel bike racing in 1989 when he entered a Pro Fuel machine in what is now called Nitro Funny Bike.
“I got a chassis from Bill Furr, heads from Jim McClure, engine parts from Elmer Trett and pieces and parts from other people,” he said. “Then Bill put the puzzle together into a fuel bike. I went out and tore it up about every time I raced.”
“Worked my way up and talked myself into riding other people’s bikes. I rode for Ray Price a little while. I hooked up with Bobby Buckley, who I still race with now and is one of my biggest supporters. He was the first one to get me on a good bike. We won the 1999 and 2000 IHRA championships,” Jay said.
By then Jay knew he wanted to race for a living but that’s something hard to figure out and do. When Johnny Mancuso decided to retire, Jay raced for him a couple years. I remember Johnny as a successful Harley-Davidson dealer running a very professional team. Jay learned a lot from him about the business side of racing. After that he decided to do it.
Success followed the focused effort and Jay started making a name for himself as one of the sport’s best. He won the All Harley Drag Racing Association Pro Fuel title in 2007 and Top Fuel in 2010 plus a few American Motorcycle Racing Association championships. In 2014 with Mike Scott on one of the team bikes they took the IHRA title and Jay won it in 2015 and 2016.
“I always worked with IHRA to bring back Top Fuel bikes,” Jay said. “Did exhibition races for a few years. Then they started running us as a class.”
“In the Winter before the 2016 season I was looking at all the schedules,” he said. “The NHRA thing was 10 races with your best seven counting for points. I started writing all the dates down and thinking. I don’t know if I can pull this off or get the opportunity again, but I’m gonna make a run for both of them.”
“Then Ray Price died and I ended up buying his inventory of race parts. That was a big deal for us, but it also cut me out of one of the races. I didn’t get to go to Pomona, California, for the first race of the year. That cut me back a race and meant I was only going to seven. When they count your best seven of 10, you are best to go to 10 races so you can throw three bad races away. That put us in a bind where we had to make the most of all our races.”
“We put a bike together and went out and did a bunch of driving and won a bunch of races and took two championships. I wasn’t arrogant to say it would be easy or was gonna happen, but I said I’m gonna give it my best shot. I don’t know if I, or anyone else, will ever get the opportunity to do it again. It was very satisfying when it all worked out like it did,” Jay said.
To accomplish this amazing feat of drag racing, Jay ran eight IHRA races last year. He won four. They made seven NHRA races. Winning four of those. And he’s already started the 2017 season off by winning the first race at Pomona.
“I never really take time to sit back and reflect because there is always something to do, more work to be done,” he said. “We just finished a monster around the clock build getting ready for the NHRA races. We started the first of December and built a whole new chassis. We’ve been steady at it, but then two weeks ago they announced the new NHRA program and we have to be in California this weekend. So, for the last 14 days I think I went home 3 or 4 nights. The rest of the time we just stayed at the shop.”
“The championship bike is named Maddy. Named after Mike Lehman’s daughter Madeline. I picked it up last year. It had been sitting for a few years down in Florida. We completely rebuilt the whole thing. It’s a really nice bike. She’s a winner. Finds its way to the winner’s circle.”
She has a Dixie Frame modified during the rebuild. Jay’s team builds the motors using the best parts from the best companies in the business. A B&J Two-Speed transmission helps put that 1,000 horse power to the dragstrip.
“We have some product sponsors, but I’ve been fortunate to have always been surrounded by good people who help me out along the way when I need it,” Jay said. “And good customers. Most of my business is not racing, it’s maintaining other peoples’ bikes or hauling them to the track or renting them a bike. Some people have time to race and some people have the money to race and not the time. I can mix the two together.”
I think that’s a win win for everyone. More people are able to race, more racers for the sanctions and the tracks. More racers for the fans to cheer down the strip. Customers are happy since they can show up at the track and have a good bike to race. Racers don’t have to maintain a shop, build a bike and deal with the logistics of racing.
“There are some people responsible for me being where I am today. Number one is my parents. Dorothy is real important. I handle the racing part of our life and she handles everything else. And she does quite a bit. I’m very fortunate to have her. Coming up on twenty years of racing with Bobby Buckley and Benny Knott. Now that the Ray Price racing team isn’t operating any more Jeremy Hoy and Justin Heinle are coming with me. Mark Conner helped in 2016.”
“I am proud to be from North Carolina and proud to be part of the history of North Carolina fuel bike racers and we are not stopping any time soon,” concluded future hall of famer Jay Turner.