Barker aboard Tom Reiser's
Sportster in 1968: the quickest
in the land.
Photo provided by Tom Reiser
In 1967, Reiser built a double-engine
dragster powered by on two Sportster motors. After he found
the bike much too expensive to maintain, he began to develop
the single-engine “Super Sportster,” a 1200cc
brute of an XL engine stuffed into a lean Yetman dragster
chassis, the whole affair weighing less than 300 pounds.
Then came an introduction
to Leo Payne, who began to teach Reiser the alchemy of nitromethane.
Payne showed him how to dial in his carburetor for nitro that
was gravity fed through a half-inch fuel line. Previously
having run 136 mph in 10.18 seconds on gasoline, the Super
Sportster promptly cranked off 145 mph in 9.55 seconds on
nitro. “Payne charged me $185 to set up that carburetor,”
Reiser says, “which we thought was a lot of money in
1967. Or at least my wife thought so, because that was money
she was saving for a couch. She says I still owe her a couch!”
By the time 1969
rolled around, Reiser had taken the Super Sportster about
as far as it would go. He and Bob Barker had earned a National
Drag Racing Association championship, an American Hot Rod
Association championship, and an NDRA world championship.
At the end of 1969, Barker hung up his leathers and never
Reiser took what
he had learned about nitro with his Super Sportster and applied
it to his return to professional hillclimbing. Adding to his
early success on a gas bike in 1964, he won the AMA’s
Top Fuel class in both 1992 and 1993. In addition, six hillclimbing
championships have been snagged by other riders on Reiser-built
machines: Randy Gabriel in 1974; Tom Jr., Reiser’s son,
in 1981; Steve Dresser in 1995, and James Large in 1997, 1998
With this kind of
record behind him, Reiser has become one of an elite group
of master engine builders, fuel handlers and chassis designers
within the professional hillclimbing community. Only two or
three other men can equal him for engine preparation, and
it is arguable that no one else comes close for innovative
chassis development. His tool of choice has always been Harley-Davidson,
and today he bases his hillclimbers on the alloy XR engine,
introduced over 25 years ago for AMA dirt track racing.
Now, understand that professional hillclimbing
machines are beastly creations. With eight feet of wheelbase,
an overall length of ten feet, over 18 inches of ground clearance,
and a truly vicious-looking chain wrapped around the rear
tire, they are menacing even at rest.
And when their unmuffled, high-compression
enginescome alive, get back! Nothing makes an ear-splitting
sound like a Big Twin burning nitromethane. Whereas an XR
engine prepared for dirt-track racing is considered competitive
with about 100 horsepower, Reiser pulls nearly twice that
out of his XRs. Compression is raised to over 13:1, and injectors
pump 92 percent nitromethane, cut with a little alcohol and
propylene oxide, into the combustion chambers. While XR dirt-trackers
are tuned to deliver smooth power out of the turns, Reiser’s
hillclimbers are designed to bring the power on instantaneously,
like a big hammer onto an anvil.
There are, in all probability, fewer
than a couple of dozen such machines in America, and Tom Reiser’s
are especially clean examples. Using C&J-built frames
of Reiser’s own design, they lack the backyard cobiness
that is characteristic of some hillclimbing equipment. This
style is carried over to his team members, who wear crisp
uniforms and are expected to behave with the self-discipline
Reiser has learned in the years since the dreaded V-Eight
released its hold on him.
Reiser with Tom’s Bomb, the V-Eight drag bike,
and his twin-engine Sportster dragster, circa 1967.
Photo provided by Tom Reiser
Reiser’s own hill climbing
career was interrupted in 1994 by a badly broken leg. Like
any veteran motorcycle racer, Tom is fond of ticking off his
fractures: two arms, four legs, six collar bones, ribs on
the average of once a year, and innumerable toes. He laughs,
“Beulah always said toes and ribs don’t count.
Then one day she fell off her own motorcycle and broke a rib.
Guess what? Now ribs count!”
Still fit and trim,
Reiser looks much younger than his 61 years. While he still
builds some of the most powerful Big Twins in America, his
motor madness is long behind him. He spends his days doing
overhauls and custom machining on Harley engines. He rides
his new Twin Cam FLH for enjoyment, and on summer weekends
attends professional hillclimbs, always ready and willing
to share his wisdom and experience with a younger generation
of hopeful riders. He refuses to speak of retirement but devotes
a lot of attention these days to furthering the careers of
hillclimbing’s young lions.
the infamous V-Eight-powered monster still sits in the front
window of Reiser’s Cycle Service, still looking like
a boulder rammed through a sheet of plywood. But today it
is no longer Tom’s addiction. It is kind of like an
old friend; a strange and quiet monument to an exciting era
that was understood and described by Tom Wolfe better than
any other writer in America.
A lot of nitro has flowed through the
ol’ Hilborn since Wolfe’s article appeared in
1965. If he were to walk into Reiser’s shop today, he
would probably no longer see Tom Reiser as a wild, underground
motorcycling hero, but find him rather a man in full.