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30th Labor Day All-Harley Party Drags

By Robert Filla

ACADEMY, TEXAS, AUG 31-SEPT. 2—In 1957 the Texas Highway Department made the decision to construct a new bridge spanning Little River just south of Temple. In the process they eliminated a curve in the road, completely revising the original track of Highway 95. Jerry Tomastik was a local farmer who owned 30 acres along the river where he ran cattle and also operated a small bar that had been built in the 1940s. When the bridge was completed, Tomastik not only had his bar, but also the section of highway that had been abandoned. A country dragstrip was born.

The Sportsman Class waits for the green

The Sportsman Class waits for the green

Thirty years ago Red Roberts initiated his inaugural Labor Day All-Harley Party Drags at the Little River Dragway. It was the first motorcycle-racing event in Texas to feature only Harleys and set a precedent that would carry for three decades. Over the years they became commonly known as the Temple Party Drags. Red wasn’t just the promoter, but an active participant also, racing his Top Fuel Shovelhead up until just a few years ago. When asked why he was ending such a long-running event, Red was honest and to the point, “I’m 63 years old and, although I still consider myself young, I am somewhat an orthopedic wreck, having broken 19 bones in my life, 18 of ’em aboard motorcycles. And then, earlier this year, right before our April Fool All-Motorcycle Drags, I suffered a heart attack. Plus Labor Day is simply too damn hot for drag racing. Too hot for me and too hard on my people. So although I may be slowing down, I ain’t dead. Not yet! There will be more races in the future; different venues, different times. But this is the last Labor Day race at Little River. I’m done.”

News of the termination spread quickly with some “retired” competitors scrambling to get a suitable bike ready to tackle Temple’s 1/8-mile challenge. One story of note concerns Uncle Bob, owner of Southern Motorcycles out of Houston. Southern hadn’t fielded a Harley in at least five seasons, but Red had inside knowledge that Uncle Bob was busting his butt wrenching on a bike. Not wanting to disappoint the crowd in case the project didn’t come together, Red kept quiet until he received a call from Southern right before the race asking for a “close-up” pit space for the team since Bob’s knees couldn’t handle much walking.

On Saturday, Uncle Bob led the very qualified, but admittedly rusty, team into the warmup ritual. But in short order, a part let go deep inside the motor and it was soon realized that there was no way the repairs could be accomplished at the track. So the engine was pulled apart inside the shop’s trailer and the crew loaded the lower end of the motor into the silver Pontiac Firebird belonging to Uncle Bob’s wife. He then crawled behind the wheel and headed to Houston, 170 miles away. Once at the shop, Bob took less than three hours to rebuild the bottom end and then headed right back to Little River where his now-rested crew twisted the wrenches late into the night. The bike sounded strong when it was fired up Sunday morning, but (understandably) the team lost in the first round of Top Fuel since they hadn’t had a chance to conduct any tuning runs. But that didn’t last long.

NFT Nitro bike charging the 1/8-mile at Little River

NFT Nitro bike charging the 1/8-mile at Little River

Pilot Pat Coker, who’d never raced that particular bike, got the green light in the first round of Consolation Fuel and by the time the team had the bike serviced for the Consolation Fuel Finals against Jim Burgess, the words “They got their Mojo back” was heard coming from the grandstands. Burgess is a veteran racer from east Texas who is envied by most nitro racers as the man who has had more naked women draped across his fuel dragster posing for photos than any other in the Lone Star State. But today Pat Coker was not going to let that little bit of notoriety sway him in his quest for victory. Plus he simply could not let down his bleary-eyed buddy and the rest of the team that worked on the bike most of Saturday night. Coker won, the crowd went wild, and the party in the pits lasted well into the evening. And that’s what this particular drag race has always represented: friendly rivalry among talented gearheads dedicated to the Milwaukee V-Twins—just the way it should be.

Other classes included Vintage Fuel (with four antique Shovelheads battling for top honors) and the largest Sportsman Class ever offered at any track (more than 30). Red has always been one to allow any “run-what-ya-brung” machine to compete, which includes the likes of a trike and handshift category just to keep things interesting.

And speaking of interesting and “I ain’t dead yet,” by the time you read this, Red will have taken the frame from his old Top Fuel bike up to Trinity Frame Works in Dallas and cut it in half. No, he’s not hacking it up ‘cause he’s done with racing. He’s just making room for a second Shovelhead motor. That’s right; Red’s always wanted a double engine Shovelhead and is presently knee-deep in figuring out the details. We should all be so energetic when we’re 63 years old.

 

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