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Lowbrow Spotlight: Tom Foley's 1955 Harley-Davidson FL Panhead Land Speed Racer

General: Owner: Tom Foley Year/Make/Model: 1955 FL Harley-Davidson Panhead Fabrication: Sidecar designed and fabricated by owner. Build Time:  6 months

Engine:
Year/Type/Size:  55 / FL/ 93CI (running in the 1650 SC-VG class)
Carburetor: S&S Super B Exhaust: Drag pipes into a cut down collector
Air Cleaner:  None / velocity stack
Cam: Andrews C grind
Compression: 15:1 with Ross pistons built to builder’s specifications
Dual spark plugs
Dynatek Ignition with duel coils
Daytona O2 sensors
Alternator to provide 14 volts to ignition

Frame: Year/Type: Year unknown / HD wishbone Rake/Stretch: None Fairing: Formerly on the Broken Spoke Saloon Bike, donated by Wink Eller & Jay Allen

Front End: Type / Brand:  1974 Sportster (stolen from my wife’s Ironhead Sportster)

Wheels: Front Size: Spoke with MT 2.50/2.75–18 Side car: HD mag with Avon 90/90-19 Rear Size: HD mag with Pirelli 130/90-16

Finish/Paint: Paint by: Tom Foley Plating/Polishing: OEM / None Powder coating: None

Accessories: Front Fender: Mfg. unknown, donated by Wink Eller Rear Fender: 6 inch flat steel Gas Tank: 1951 3.5 fat bobs, (purchased at the Easyrider swap meet in 1976) Handlebars: clip on, Fabricated by owner Grips: Stock Mirrors: None Hand Controls: Swap meet throttle (aluminum not plastic) Foot Controls: Shifter / brake fabricated by owner Headlight: None Taillight: None Turn Signals: we only run in a straight line License Mount: None Seat: 0.060 sheet aluminum

The SCTA Sidecar class has only a couple requirements 12” by 32” plate capable of holding a rider (none are allowed). The rest is up to the fabricator. I have set the side car up to provide stability at speed. The bike has to be man handled off the course at speed s below 80 MPH, she wants and is designed to go straight.

Stories of a Racing Addict.

I rode my first motorcycle when I was around 11.  My dad bought a worn out Cushman with the entire body stripped off, he called it a tote goat, and it would go anywhere, and I rode it at every opportunity. I was hooked on 2 wheels and a motor from that day on! At 15 years old, I bought my first dirt bike.  That bike was my only source of transportation until I bought my dad’s ‘63 Corvair Greenbrier at age 16. That’s where the real problem started. At a party one night a kid told me they were going to El Mirage because his dad was planning to race Sunday morning. He asked me if I was interested in tagging along, Hell Yes!!! I was on a mission. He drew me a map on a napkin. Back then there was no Interstate 15. The directions went something like Rte. 66 to 395 to Adelanto to the market, turn left, then right, then…. we were totally lost, and it was getting dark. Right about then, a roadster on a trailer came rumbling down the road, race markings on the car, we were saved. We followed him to Murphy’s bar on El Mirage road. He said we has headed to the lakebed, and we could follow him in. We parked way off in the brush, we had no intentions of getting caught drinking the couple of warm beers we snuck in with us.  All through the night there were parties going on down on the lakebed. None of which, we were sure, were interested in a couple of kids hanging out drinking beer. In the morning the engines came to life and the most incredible cars on the planet started to race. The day was a blur but I knew I was hooked. I knew right then and there this racing was something I HAD to do.

Later on, after I was discharged from the Navy in 1975, after working on airplanes for 4 years, I went to school at Chaffee College in Cucamonga California to get my A&P license.  My education allowed me to work on commercial aircraft for a living as a civilian as well. I had a little bit of money saved, so I built a 750 Honda I planned to sell so that it would finance my long awaited Panhead. At school I met John, who ended up being my best friend, and ultimately also ended up being my brother in law. He located a basket Pan… 10 over narrow glide, peanut tank, drag bars. OMG. Not exactly my vision of the perfect ride. We hit every swap meet over the next year and rounded up a wide glide front end and a set of 3.5 gallon fat bob tanks. Basically, exactly what everyone else did NOT want, I was buying up. Finally, 10 inch ape hangers and a Bates headlight finished her off. We rode the wheels off our bikes, every day, every weekend, year round. The bike has remained virtually unchanged for the last 40+ years.

Photo by John Glover

In 2009 I hijacked the 1350 ci Pan out of my second bike and started building a race bike. I put the Pan in a wishbone frame, stole my wife’s front end off her Iron head sportster, and went to town mixing and matching what was around the shop until it started to look like a race bike. After a review of the records and classes, I found out the Vintage Side car record was 76 MPH. I thought, I could peddle that fast! So, I reached out to my buddy Wink Eller, a superstar on sidecars, and asked him advice on what worked and what did not and built a sidecar that would be race ready.

Photo by John Glover

I joined the High Desert Racers in 2007, my goal was to learn as much as I could before racing before finally heading to ELMO in 2010. The 1350 cc pan would not get out of its own way; it ran under 90 MPH in 1.3 miles. Running fast on the street is definitely not the same as racing at El Mirage or Bonneville.  Back to Wink’s I went. He showed me the error of my ways. I had a lot of little things that were costing me RPM’s and speed. I began fixing them prior to going to Bonneville the first time. After my Rookie run on the salt, I set the 1350 Vintage Gas record at 107.234, then bumped it to 108,066. Seemed every time I went to impound I ran into the Lowbrow crew, having just as much fun as I was having.  Returning to Bonneville in 2011 I bumped my existing record to 110.558, then 112.455, then 114.432. I was finally starting to find the sweet spot. In 2012 bumped the Gas record to 121.585!!!

Timing, Fuel jetting, gearing it’s all a learning curve on every engine. ELMO is a drag race, Bonneville is a long pull. So back to ELMO I went hoping to break the minimum open record of 119. I finally broke that minimum at the November meet of 2012. Pretty much spanked the Vintage Gas minimum, achieving 129.939! In 2013 The Vintage Fuel record minimum was 125 mph at ELMO, I broke the 1350 minimum with  128.496. All good things come to an end, I finally blew the 1350 rear cylinder completely off the bike, pulling 6k RPM going into third gear. The bike was pulling like a freight train when a crack opened up along the oil passage in the rear cylinder. The explosion was so violent that the impact from the head departing separated the top bar from the seat post. The piston was visible at the bottom of the stroke, the head was being supported by the push rod tubes, with nothing but air in between! The intake manifold was now completely ovalized. Fortunately, I did not catch on fire from the raw fuel poring onto the hot exhaust pipe. Guess that meant it was time for the 1650 Pan! It was originally built in 1995 as an S&S Sidewinder, 93 ci stroker Pan, by Bob Howard here in Phelan. 

The ELMO Minimum for a 1650 Vintage Gas record was 125 at the time. At the June meet in 2015 I broke that record racing 125.756, just enough to skate by.  In September of 2016 I had a nice tail wind and was able to bump the Vintage Gas to 130.438. The ELMO 1650 Fuel record minimum is 132. That is the target for this 2019 season.

Upon looking into my old records, I discovered I also have 2 AMA records still in the book. Wink and I went to the BUB meet in 2011, 12 and 13. What a trip. I love the AMA meets, you can ride to the start line and impound, plus the return run is in the opposite direction.  At other races, the SCTA sets the rules, and they require a tow vehicle. The BUB meet has a test and tune area and is nothing but motorcycles! I was in heaven. In 2012 the bore measured 1354 so I had to change classes and run the 1350 as a 1650, I was definitely pushing my luck. But, I still managed to pick up that 1650 Side Car Vintage Gas record anyway with a 116.433. On the backup run though, I ran out of gas and could not hold speed on the return run. I did not have any more available time to make another couple passes. OOPS! Then, the following year, In 2013, I picked up the 1350 Side Car Vintage Gas record with a 124.412.

The bottom line: Land speed racing is the last place on the planet where you can still build something in your barn, shed, or garage and then go out and compete with the big boys and girls. If you are fast enough, you get a record. If not, you go back and try something else. Simple as that! You get to know what you can do on your own, and what you need help on. I could not have picked up a records without Wink Eller and Bob Howard. Innovation in land speed racing is a must. My wife is my crew, she starts me down the track, and runs the chase truck. Over the years we have both become fast friends with the racing community. I have had guys from Denmark camp out in my driveway and helped them run as guest at ELMO. Friends from Minnesota we met at the BUB meets still keep in touch and we exchange trade secrets. On any given race weekend at ELMO you can see bikes going 266 MPH or 50 MPH. When I was 25 no one thought to ask me if I would be racing my Panhead at 68 years old, well I’m here to tell you I am still riding, building, and racing. Anyone interested should go for it. Land speed racing is a family of racers, with like-minded friends and family, unlike any other sport I have been associated with.  If you have ever seen the world’s fastest Indian or dreamt of running the salt definitely visit http://www.scta-bni.org for race dates and further information about the Southern California Timing Association. Plus, please visit https://bonnevillespeedtrials.com for the AMA sanctioned Bonneville motorcycle speed trials. I guarantee you won’t regret it, even if just for a trip to watch the racers hustle to break records. I am sure I will see you there.

Words by: Tom Foley Photos by: Twila Knight

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