Hand-shift Motorcycle Racers Dance to a Different Beat

Two AHRMA racers talk about their passion for hand-shift motorcycles.

| May/June 2010

Vintage racers tend to ride bikes they have a direct, personal connection to. Gary Nixon usually hits the track on a late 1960s or early 1970s Triumph, while Jay Springsteen shreds his vintage rubber on a mid-1970s Harley XR750 or similar.

It makes sense; Nixon won two championships riding Triumphs in the 1960s, and Springsteen three aboard an H-D in the 1970s. So what motivates Ralph Wessel and Ross “Rosco” Tuffli to ride late-1930s American V-twins, bikes built before they were even born? They’re cool, that’s what.

“The hand shift is just the coolest because it’s the oldest stuff you can race,” says Tuffli, who’s been active in American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) road racing for five years, the last two of them riding a 1939 45ci flathead V-twin Harley-Davidson WLDR in the hand-shift and pre-1940 classes. Tuffli, 49, also owns a 1933 74ci VL, a bike he’s had for 22 years. “I just think the old stuff is cool,” he says.

Wessel says he got into hand shift because of his passion for Indians. Wessel, 50, started racing in the AHRMA series in 2000 and moved to hand shift in 2004. He currently has five Indians, including a Chief and two 1937 Sport Scouts, affectionately nicknamed One Little, Two Little and Three Little. “Indians are the best American made motorcycle,” Wessel says flatly. “The Chief was my first, but the Sport Scouts are what you race, and I’ve got a 1927 in the making with a leaf-spring front end. I want to run a 1930s-era engine and trans because parts are easier to get.”

The same but different

Tuffli, who used to go drag racing, started racing in AHRMA on a little Honda CB350. “For years I told my friends I was going to get a racing license and race at Daytona,” Tuffli says. “When they started rolling their eyes, I figured I’d better do it or shut up.” Tuffli went to race school, and the month after he finished he was on the track, racing a garage sale Honda. “My buddy Craig Breckon helped me through the school, and when we were done he said, ‘Next year you can get a bike.’ I got a bike for the next race. I built that Honda and made it track legal in a month,” Tuffli recalls.

The itch to race in the hand-shift class was a little harder to satisfy. “I’m constantly sleeping in my truck,” Tuffli says by way of explaining that he’s always strapped for cash. Two years ago he almost quit racing, but then Harley specialist Tom Faber at Faber Cycle and his pals in the Road Weasels, an Indian-only club (Tuffli also owns a 1938 Indian Sport Scout) out of Grand Rapids, Mich., pooled their parts and skills to build Tuffli the Harley he’s racing now. “They built the bike for me,” Tuffli says. “It’s really been a group effort and it really makes me feel good.” For 2008, out of a field of 15 riders (about average for a given year with maybe half that number competing in a given race) Tuffli ended up third in class in hand shift and fourth in pre-1940; he rose to second in class for hand shift in 2009.

7/4/2010 7:13:33 PM

This is a cool story that I have looked at several times. I have even considered getting into vintage racing after reading about these guys.

Ride 'Em, Don't Hide 'Em Getaway

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