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Common Tread

Drag queen: Learning drag racing from a legend of the sport

May 23, 2018

I’d nervously anticipated this day for weeks. But now, awaiting that last amber light on the Christmas Tree, I feel calm. Maybe too calm.

I notice the soles of my boots sticking to the VHT freshly sprayed on the asphalt for traction and I shift a little to free myself. A green glow lights up my cheeks, and I snap out of it. Shit, you missed the light! So, I shut down my brain, slip the clutch and grab a handful of go-fast. Good, no hiccups. No red. Justin started well, but my speed is climbing quickly. And I’m hot on his tail…

Learning drag racing from the best

Rickey Gadson
Rickey Gadson. Photo by Nathan Slabaugh.
This story starts with a simple invitation from our friend and 11-time world champion motorcycle drag racer, Rickey Gadson, who suggested Justin and I join him for an event at the Atlanta Dragway. Hell, even drag race each other as part of the moto-travel series, Perpetual Motion, we are filming. We were onboard before he could finish his sentence.

I daydreamed about the crowd, officials keeping order on the track, the blazing Southern sun, deafening engine noises and the burnouts. Oh, how I dreamt of doing burnouts! But as this would be my second time ever at an event of its kind, I didn’t really know what to expect — especially as I approached the starting line for myself.

tech inspection
Taking the Indian Scouts through tech inspection. Photo by Nathan Slabaugh.

The day is nothing like I had imagined. Yes, in many ways, I suspect this is like any other hometown grudge match. Amateurs and pros parked on either side of the lanes aiming to prove their bikes, and themselves, worthy. Yet still, it was different. Energy buzzed from the crowd with such force it might knock you on your ass if you lingered too closely. Walking through it was visceral. I could feel the heat radiating off the pavement. Onlookers spilled onto the raceway, being shooed back by officials to allow the next competitors to smoke their tires and pull up to the line unobstructed. The fans bet on everything: Who got off the line first. Who reached the finish faster. If one of the riders sneezed halfway down the track, money was exchanged. (Literally, anything!)

We arrived in Atlanta just a night before. Rain was threatening to cut the event short, so every class ran through their brackets until a conclusion came. This put the less necessary classes, like Open Grudge, at the end of the line. According to Rickey, Justin, Nathan (our friend and filmmaker) and I would have the chance to compete against one another at around 5 p.m., and again around 8 p.m. So, we waited.

drag bike
Um, no, we won't be racing against this one. Photo by Nathan Slabaugh.

We’d been at the dragstrip since the early morning, cruising the paddock, chatting up Gadson’s team and even taking a nap. I did it more to keep my nerves at bay. I’m a “rip off the Band-Aid” sort. The more time I have to consider my moves, the process, the possible outcomes, the more easily I’ll psych myself out. The only thing I could rely on was my pending lesson with Rickey.

Yes, there are plenty of elements that make a successful drag race. But I made my goals attainable. I know my motorcycle. I know how fast I can take it. I know I’m light, a great advantage already. But I had no idea if I could break loose my back tire, giving it the appropriate degree of warmth, before an audience, who, as far as I’m concerned, shouldn’t give two shits if this is my first time.

Rickey Gadson demonstrates a burnout on the Indian Scout
Rickey Gadson demonstrates a burnout on the Scout as Kyra watches and learns. Photo by Nathan Slabaugh.

It was maybe an hour before we were supposed to race, but even CliffsNotes from Rickey Gadson were priceless. With encouragement from me, we decided to tackle the elusive burnout first. He sat on a spare bike and gave me the visuals. “Here’s what you do with the brake… Then, the throttle… And the clutch.” I did my best to keep my mouth shut and absorb. Jesus, I hope my little fingers can keep that lever in place.

Before dismounting, Rickey explained that I needed to trigger two lights when I approached the tree. He taught me how to read the Christmas Tree, stressing the need to wait until the last little amber light turned on  — because if you wait until the green, you’re already too late. And then he told me to relax. There’s nothing at stake. Just take off like I’m at a traffic light getting ahead of a line of cars – and then go as fast as you can!

My goal was to beat Justin, and though he had several advantages with his years of experience in motorsports, it was also his first drag race on a motorcycle. Plus, I’m about 40 pounds lighter and we’re on identical bikes, so all I needed to succeed was to leave the starting line and keep climbing through the gears. Simple, right?

We finally reached the part of Rickey’s tutorial I’d been waiting on for weeks: time for me to practice a burnout. I don’t know why it intimidated me so much, but it did. Even on a low bike like the Indian Scout, I still can’t flat foot. I’ve tipped the damn thing over and at my size, as much as I hate to admit it, it’s a feat to right it to its wheels. So, the idea of breaking free the back tire to spin and sway whatever way it pleased had me wondering how I could possibly keep it under control.

Rickey could tell I was a little concerned. Instead of having me stress on trying to break the rubber free on tarmac, he placed the rear of my bike onto a dry patch of grass. And there, magic happened. I didn’t have to think about giving enough gas to start spinning. I just followed the steps and basked in this momentous moment without overthinking it. I let myself get used to the process. And then, before I knew it, Rickey was guiding me and my motorbike around a curious pack of seasoned racers, to the front of the line (yikes!).

Racing each other on a drag strip, in front of an audience, coached by Rickey Gadson no less, was an unconventional treat that Justin and I took (sort of) seriously. We had picked up a sticker from Big D Speedshop in Dallas, resembling a patch champion hot-rodders would affix to the back of their jackets when they’d put their opponents to shame. It said, “You-Lose” under this taunting image of a skull. The winner of this race would slap that sticker to their bumper for the loser to gaze upon during our cross-country trip home. Expectedly, pre-race trash-talking ensued. Even Nathan, our lighthearted, soft-spoken videographer took part in giving me shit. Apparently, he also intended to kick my ass on the drag strip.

Rickey Gadson burnout
Rickey Gadson does a burnout on his drag bike. Photo by Nathan Slabaugh.

The pass

I sat on my bike, waiting for Rickey to call us forward. The smell of race gas filled my nostrils. Cash changed hands by the hundreds, if not thousands. But I didn’t stare long enough to count. We were engulfed by the commotion. Justin, maybe three yards to my left, was completely hidden in the next lane, likely having much of the same inner monologues. It was loud. So loud that I heard nothing but silence. At this point, I preferred it. This was the moment, and I did what I could to keep my nerves at bay. I felt a bit lethargic.

ready for the pass
Ready for the grudge match. Kyra on the black Scout and Justin on the red one. Photo by Nathan Slabaugh.

It all happened a lot sooner than I expected. In a flash, Rickey pulled me up to the wet spot on the pavement and had me attempt a burnout. I couldn’t remember to hold onto the brake. Shit. Try again. Not enough gas. Double shit. One more, where I rolled that throttle til I smelled rubber. Third time’s the charm.

I didn’t have time to feel embarrassed before I faced the tree. And again, I flub. Not pulling up enough to trigger the first, then second set of ambers. And when I do, I try to peel my toes of the pavement when the green light signals that I’m late.

I burst off the line. And it surprised me just how fast. Not bad for a mid-sized cruiser. I had never ridden on such perfect conditions: a smooth, straight road covered in what amounts to glue with no debris, no cars or people, not a thing in my way. I ride hard through each gear, feeling for the limit to signal the upshift. The world around me begins to stretch into strands of color forming hedgerows in my peripheral vision and narrowing my sights to the end of the lane. No matter. I don’t need to see anything but the finish. Now if I could only figure out where that is…

Spotting the turn-around, I hadn’t even realized the race was over. I’d have blown through the end of the dragstrip if there wasn’t a truck parked at the end, because not an ounce of me wanted to stop.

Justin and I recounted our own experiences with each other as we cruised towards the ticket booth (almost blew past that as well) to review our times and declare a winner. Close, but this time, I prevailed.

time slips
And the winner is: The little woman on the black Scout. Someone else has to look at a "You Lose" sticker all the way back to California. Photo by Nathan Slabaugh.

I was elated. Adrenaline coursed through my chest, my biceps, my thighs. There was a tension at the base of my neck which could only be relieved by another dose of speed. Rickey warned me during our lesson, “It’s like a drug.” A strong one, in fact. Because after only one hit, I was a goner.

“Hi, my name is Kyra. And, I’m hooked on drag racing.”