RocketFish Nitro Harley 2017 Season Recap “Rookie to Champ” In Less Than A Year!

What a year! 2017’s race season took an interesting twist in October of 2016. While the events of a particularly fateful day may be the subject of a future article, that day formed a championship season. My 2017 plans were to campaign a Top Fuel Harley, and there was an extraordinary one for sale. I flew to Romine Racing in Sturgis, MI to look at Jim Fagan’s TF Harley, and it was everything and more than I expected. I had a check in my pocket to do the deal, but a meeting I had earlier that morning put a wrinkle in my plans.

Fate intervened and delayed the purchase a few weeks. During that time, Billy Jackson approached Jim about the bike, and being the gentleman he is, Jim contacted me first to see where I was with the transaction. Still unable to pull the trigger, I told Jim he had to do what was best for him, and I appreciated the opportunity but I would have to pass.

Billy and I are racing pals and he immediately called to see if I was pissed at him for buying the bike out from under me. I assured him I wasn’t, there were issues I needed to resolve before making that commitment. Billy, being the gentleman he is, extended an extraordinary offer to sell me his Funny Bike program once I got my issues sorted out. And that’s how I ended up on a Nitro Funny Bike!

We tested in March and overcame lots of annoying glitches. Some bike, some support equipment, but when we finally got rolling, my third pass was the first full pull and we clocked a 7.03 at 193 MPH. It’s been a steady progression since then.

Keep in mind this is a new bike, new support equipment, new systems, new computers and most of all a NEW TEAM. We were all trying to figure who and what fit where. Before the season even started we had our haters. I was scolded on social media for pulling the plug on my Pro Fuel program when the championship was there for the taking. No, it wasn’t. The standings were about to flip because the team didn’t understand the NHRA point system (best 7 of 10 events). Even more critical was why the bike was two-tenths slower than the eventual champ. A post-mortem on the bike revealed a broken coil wire that ran half of the ignition. Regardless of what we did, runner-up was the best (and worst) we were going to be. The same social media rant said I wasn’t worthy of riding Harleys, that I was going to get hurt, that I should go ride metrics, blah, blah, blah…

If I listened to doubters and haters in my life I would have never achieved any goal I’ve set. And I’ve set plenty! Like my good friend Billy Jackson says, “Don’t let fear and common sense hold you back”! The first few races of the season saw us winning rounds, but having an unusual failure, usually in the finals. We were spitting out pushrods because we were melting the end of the pushrod at the rocker arm. Once we realized we had a lubrication issue, we were able to correct that. No further issues the rest of the year.

Another issue we had was premature ejection of the parachute (double entendre intended;-)). While a seemingly simple problem to fix, it took us a while to get it right. Throughout the year, and until the last race where we won the championship, we struggled with clutch management. To quote our Crew Chief, Mr. Fabulous, Steve Vickers – “we didn’t have a fully functioning bike until the last race”.

We took a misguided detour in June to participate in the Thunder Valley Nationals. We reconfigured the bike for Top Fuel, but clutch problems continued to plague us and we ended up with a rather spectacular blowup at the hit that Fox Sports highlighted on national television. After replaying my fireworks display, Fox announcer Dave Rieff asked Tony Pedregon if he still wanted to get on a Top Fuel Harley – to which Tony replied, “not even with my 7-layer fire suit”! Dave also asked me what I was looking down at after the explosion – to which I replied, “what do you think I was looking at”? Thankfully, all was intact!

We put the bike back together for the June AMRA event at Bowling Green and hit a low point in the season – another blow up at the hit. When a photographer came by and said he had a really cool shot of me on fire, I snapped and said “I’m really tired of these cool photos”! At that point I seriously thought about pulling the plug on the season. The prior 2 events were big hits to the wallet. After emotions calmed down, we evaluated where we were and what our chances were for the championship. Though we had given up precious points, we still had a shot. The team was encouraging me to hang in there. Salt was not done with being poured in the wound though. I learned after the Bowling Green debacle we had the parts in the trailer to fix the bike – and probably go rounds. I was pissed at myself for not having a better grasp of our spares inventory. Suck it up buttercup and move on. Lesson learned, that problem will never resurface.

The next few events saw us significantly close the gap to the points leader, and back at Bowling Green in September – where we achieved a milestone that made our season. During qualifying, we set a new 1/8 mile MPH record – shattering the prior record of 186 MPH – resetting it to 192.62 MPH. The resulting bonus points for the record closed the gap to the points leader to 15! The Championship was going to be decided during the Jim McClure Nitro Harley Nationals at “The Rock”.

This was a tense weekend with no shortage of drama. I knew all weekend we just had to go one more round than the points leader. I could not have imagined it would unfold the way it did. There were several entrants we hadn’t seen previously, and that sure could mix things up a bit. While we qualified better than the points leader, there was a bike or two quicker than us. Adding to the uncertainty, Kirby Apathy ran some good numbers on his new FB and he’s always a threat.

In round one we had one of the gas bikes entered (former pro stock) and though he did exactly what Johnny Vickers told me he would – get out in front of us early – we drove by him at 660’ and took the round. The points leader handled his opponent (Rocky Jackson) in round 1 which set him up for round 2 against the Browne Racing turbo Harley. I was beginning to get a picture of how this day would go. Just before the second round I learned the Browne entry couldn’t make the call due to tranny issues. My 2nd round opponent would be Kirby on his new FB. At this point I’m asking myself what it takes for us to get a break! I knew Kirby could be a challenge, even though we out-qualified him. Working off some nervous energy I was heading to the lanes and making my way around Kirby’s pit when they were getting ready to heat-cycle the bike. Something went wrong and the bike blew – scaring the crap out of me, not to mention Kirby and his crew. It lifted the heads and the crews’ ears were ringing for a while. Fortunately and thankfully, no serious injuries other than motor parts.

It was now clear what was going to take place. Me vs. the points leader in the final round. No stress there.

I offered to make the semifinal round the final as each of us would have a bye. Our opponent declined, insisting he needed the data for a final round tune-up. Understandable. Our decision was do we break the beams and save the equipment, or make a pass looking for lane choice. Mr. Fabulous (Crew Chief, Steve Vickers) made it clear he wanted lane choice, so the decision was made. The points leader went first, laid down a 6.82 if my memory is correct. Then we threw down the gauntlet with a 6.75. I was feeling pretty good about where we stood, but I also knew our opponent would be making some adjustments to his tune-up.

Round 3 comes, the sun is setting and is no longer a factor in lane choice. We take the right lane. Our opponent is trying to hurry us, but I’m not getting out of our well-practiced routine. He pre-stages first, I pre-stage. Not wasting any time, our opponent rolls into the beams and stages. I follow. Adrenaline, heart and respiration rates are on the rev limiter! We cut the best tree of the year at 0.040, our opponent had 0.089. With these bikes, anything with a “0” is considered a good light. I knew we got out in front at the hit, and it stayed that way throughout the pass. We were on a decent pass, straight as a string. The wheel touched down around 1,000’ and we went through the traps at 6.77 and 202 MPH. Our opponent – and now runner-up to the new champion – ran a 6.78 at 202. This was one heck of a drag race.

Back at the line my crew was going crazy – and the former champ’s crew was most gracious in their congratulations to us. It was an unbelievable end to an improbable season. Rookie to champ in less than a year! I owe this championship to this incredible crew – guys who stuck with me and took a chance on someone who had never been on a Funny Bike. It is an enormous boost to your confidence when the crew says you can ride on your first outing – all I can say is thanks, and I can’t thank them enough.

I also want to thank Johnny Vickers and Hawaya Racing. They built this bike originally, and though it’s been through a couple of different owners before me, they knew it well and knew what it needed to perform. We’re already looking forward to 2018 and excited about our prospects – we’re going to pick up right where we left off – and then some! We know our competition will be stepping it up, so we cannot stand still. Ryan Peery, Kirby Apathy, Randall Andras, Chris Smith, Rocky Jackson and Rich Vreeland are all formidable competitors. And we hear there’s a new Funny Bike being built. 2018 looks to be an exciting year for Nitro Funny Bike in the AMRA. And we may consider revisiting the Top Fuel configuration at a few events too. Keep an eye out for the RocketFish Nitro Harley race team coming to a track near you!

Dennis M. Fisher

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