From a wacko V-Eight to championship-winning V-Twins, Tom Reiser builds bikes like no other.

Bob Barker aboard Tom Reiser's

Super Sportster in 1968: the quickest

Harley 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 raced again.

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 and 1999.

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.

Tom 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.

Tom’s Bomb, 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.

Postscript:
Big Twin, the magazine in which this article first appeared in January, 2000, is no longer in publication. It was published by Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, Inc., the parent company of Cycle World. We are grateful to the publisher for allowing Motohistory to republish the story, and for the use of the photographs by Brian Blades. For information about Cycle World, click here. For more information about Tom Reiser and Reiser’s Cycle Service, click here.

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Posted July 24, 2007

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