Drag Artists

Head-to-head sprints are a highlight of custom and classic shows across Europe. This year’s Cafe Racer Festival had two very different approaches to going insanely fast.

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Both riders eyeball the flag girl and bring up the revs. The flag goes up, clutches are dumped as it comes down and the two bikes are gone in a riot of noise and smoke. Old skool drag racing: dontcha just love it?

Except this ain’t 1960. This is now, and old skool drags are where it’s at. The resurgence of cafe custom culture started with modified classic Jap bikes, then, in search of more power, builders turned to modern retros, testing them in head-to-head drag races.

 
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There’s nothing new about this kind of competition. Back in the 1930s Americans raced like this on dried-up salt lakes, then roads, then purpose-built drag strips. In the UK, we were late to the party – it wasn’t until the mid-Sixties that drag racing really took off and Santa Pod became the sport’s ancestral home.

The German festival Glemseck brought it to the forefront of the custom world, at first with run-what-you-brung street bikes and flag starts. But as things become more competitive, the bikes became more specialist. Enter the Sultans of Sprint in 2016 – a series for bikes built with a touch of custom, but typically long dragster-length chassis. Then comes Essenza, which is more production based – with stock wheelbases to differentiate it from the Sultans’ low-slung projectiles. Two series. Two ideals. But both great fun and this year’s Cafe Racer Festival at Montlhery featured both. Here’s what happened…

Sultans of Sprint is a European-based series that was established last year and ran for the first time at Wheels & Waves. ‘Speed is our religion’ is the hashtag on social media posts and they’re not kidding. Heading up the Sultans is Seb Lorentz, who builds Lucky Cat Garage’s bikes. His revamped dustbin-faired BMW ‘FurtherER’ won the Glemseck sprint in 2014 and was runner-up in the Retro Mod class of the AMA World Championship of custom bike building back in 2014.

“The Sultans of Sprint is for motorcycle freaks from all over Europe,” he tells Built. “The basic rules are for twin-cylinder, with a maximum of 1.4 litres for engines with two valves per cylinder and one litre for four-valve engines. We only allow air-cooled machines, which is a good way to limit the class. Beyond that the bikes can be fitted with superchargers or turbochargers and can run nitrous.

“But it’s not just about racing on the track, we reward contenders for their style, creativity and craziness,” adds Seb.

As you can see from the pictures, the Sultans have a good time in the paddock – horned, woolly sasquatches confronting black-clad ninja warriors is not your average drag racing interaction. But the racing is intense, with a huge range of bikes, from the nitrous-fed FCR Original Triumph, the Libner Racing ‘Blue Racer’ Sportster and Ducati, to the leading link BMW and wild Radical Guzzi.

 

In this second championship round, Tommy Thoring’s Yamaha TR1 ‘Skinny Beast’ just edges out this year’s first round Monza winner Amir Brajan on the ‘Frankenstein Ducati’ from Mellow Motorcycles.

“The racing was good,” says Seb. “The track had really good grip and we had 20 bikes in our competition, plus the guest race between the Triumph Bobber drag bike and the Red Ducati. And we had one heck of a party last night after the races so it was really good.”

The winner Tommy was a professional stunt rider for five years but his day job now is a custom builder under the Schlachtwerk banner, specialising in W650s. “My bike has TR1 cases with Yamaha Bulldog 1100 crank, rods, pistons, cylinders,” he says. “I got help from Sepp Koch, the guru for TR1 engines. He’s been in Battle of the Twins for 20 years and built a lot of cafe racer TR1s.

“My bike was originally built for the road. I raced it at Glemseck in 2014 and won. Then they asked me if I’d like to do the International Sultans race so that’s when I got in touch with Seb.”

The stock TR1 engine is only worth 70bhp but it’s now 1100cc and produces 95bhp with no nitrous. Nitrous, says Tommy, is worth another 60bhp. “That’s why I need that (M&H Racemaster) rear slick,” he grins.

 
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The gearbox is Bulldog 1100 roadster, with a modified clutch that has nine plates instead of eight. The clutch pull is shorter to get better lift. It’s got a 2004 TR1 front-end but Tommy has shortened the frame and the fuel now lives where the airbox was. The carbon fibre seat needs no subframe. The swingarm is 60mm longer than stock and it’s got forged aluminium wheels – the bike now weighs 147kg, 108kg lighter than the standard bike.

“This is my second time here,” he adds. “I won last year too. I love the track, but not the braking zone as the banking means I scrape my exhaust pipe!”

Essenza kicked off last year and we asked Katrin Oeding, the series’ marketing chief, what differentiates her event from the Sultans? “The Sultans are dragsters,” she says. “We don’t have drag bikes – all our bikes can be ridden on the road. Our bikes have a 1200cc, two-cylinder limit and we allow nitrous, turbos and superchargers. The big difference though is our bikes have to have the same wheelbase as the production motorcycle they are based on.”

Both series have a similar fun-loving spirit and Essenza also has a design award because, as Katrin says, “we love to see, and encourage, different styles. There’s a balance between technical development and design. It’s not all about retro for us. Why can’t it be about today – new technology, new ideas?”

Last year Essenza ran at Glemseck and Cologne Intermot. This was its Montlhery debut and just like the Sultans there’s a great mix of bikes. At one end of the sophistication scale there are full-on race bikes like the Young Guns’ Indian factory-backed Miracle Mike. Its high-tech electronics and nitrous contrasts with White Phantom R80 BMDubb by Kingston Motors – that looks retro, except its panelling hides a turbo!

For pure artistry, The Reunion deserves applause for its incredible fairing, tank and seat – and that fact that builders Elvis and Artigianeria Brunetti have grafted in a Aprilia swingarm.

At the other end of the scale there’s Eddie 21, a punch-in-the-face, bad-ass mother of an R1200R, built by VTR Customs (as a tribute to GP king Eddie Lawson), ridden by Amelie Mosseder. Mad.

But for all the wacky racers, the track action is just as hot as the previous day’s Sultans competition. But in Essenza there is only ever going to be one winner – and that’s the Young Guns Indian. But then it does have rather a special pilot in Katja Poensgen (she won the European Supermono Cup in 1998, the Daytona Grand Prix Singles Championship in 1999, scored points in the 2001 250cc World Championship and was runner-up in the 2012 E-Bike World Series.

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Katja says: “I rode it for the first time the night before the sprint, just to get a feel for the clutch, but obviously without the nitrous. They told me it would be easy to ride, just open the gas and see what it could do. It felt really good. I felt a little bit of pressure before the weekend and became nervous. It was almost like before the start of a GP when I really used to feel the tension.

“I always want to win so I was concentrating hard on the launch. Those first seconds are the most important part on a powerful bike like this. The nitrous was so smooth. I expected a big kick like a two-stroke but it wasn’t like that at all.”

Katja won all her qualifying races, then faced the Thruxton R built by Triumph Rouen and ridden by Jérome Savary. He seemed to get a better launch, but Katja’s Indian came on strong in the second half of the eighth-mile to claim victory.

“For me, it’s a very special win and the bike is great,” says the ex-GP racer. “I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Indian Scout, but I am really impressed. I’m certainly looking forward to riding it again at Glemseck for sure.”

We’re looking forward to Glemseck too, where the Sultans and Essenza again share top billing. The question is whether anyone can topple Tommy and Katja from their respective number one slots? Maybe they should race each other?