Athol Williams has always had a passion for bikes. You can hear it in the way he speaks and assumes you know what he's talking about. From a Suzuki 125 Stinger, to a RD350 Yamaha, to a Honda 750k1 and up to a Kawasaki 900, Athol rattles off the street bikes he's owned and the mods he's made.
It's a blur of brand names and parts that are completely foreign to me. Luckily we steer the conversation back towards drag racing before he works out that I'm completely out of my depth.
Athol's first introduction to drag racing was watching Ray Peterson in the early 70s roar down New Zealand's Champion Dragway on his supercharged Triumph and later a Nitro Honda. That's when he decided he "wouldn't mind having a crack at this drag racing caper."
That decision made way back in the 70s would eventually culminate in Athol winning the 2009 ANDRA Top Bike Championship and setting numerous ET and speed records for good measure.
It's testament to his skill as a rider and tuner that Athol still holds the Top Bike speed record at 238.51 mph set at the Sydney Dragway Nitro Champs in 2009.
Skills to build the thrills
Not many people may know this but Athol was in the Royal New Zealand Navy for many years, retiring in 1980 as a Chief Petty Officer (Marine Engineering Artificer) and was the youngest Chief in the navy for about 15 months.
Why is this important? Because it's this type of experience and training that helped Athol build a Top Bike that could run in the low 6s at over 238mph.
But let's go back a step to where it all started. After racing his Kawasaki 900 in the 70s, Athol stepped up to an altered bike and continued to ride a 1200cc alcohol injected altered bike until it died in January 1981, when the head came off a valve and stuck itself into a piston. The stem went out through the exhaust; the exhaust cam was in three pieces, the cam chain broke, the cam shaft broke and the crank case broke.
So it was at about this time that Athol started crewing on Mike Gearing's Top Fuel Dragster. "I crewed on that until the end of the 80's when Mike retired from drag racing," said Athol.
"We ran a best of 6.30 at 220 mph with 60% in the tank and a three speed. Then we stepped down to a 2 speed and Garth Hogan gave us some figures on our last run with 80% in the tank and we ran a 6.30 at 180 mph after lifting the magneto off at a third track. That was given back to us as we came back down the return road, the complete magneto."
"The second two thirds of the track we ran 40 mph slower with the same elapsed time as our best elapsed time. No magneto, no spark plug leads. Whole lot went off onto the return road."
With a decade working on a Top Fuel Dragster, years of engineering experience and a passion for bikes Athol had almost all the ingredients to one day go Top Bike racing. All he needed now was time, a competitive bike and loads of cash.
Good things come to those who wait
Like the saying goes, "good things come to those who wait". Scuba diving and a bit of skydiving filled the gap between stints on the strip.
So after 13 years spent building up a successful business (Stud Welding NZ Ltd), the time was right to get back into drag racing, "and this time at the sharp end" said Athol.
"In 2003, Brett Stevens came across to New Zealand with Peter Kapiris on a tour and he brought across Troy McLean's new bike. Steve and Margie Paris had also come across from Darwin with their two bikes. I went to Champion Dragway to see the 2 nitro bikes and Margie fell off so ended up taking her bike back to my place to fix it."
"We started to organise a Trans-Tasman Challenge as a return trip. I started organising the trip and the bike I now own became available in the UK for what I felt was a very fair price."
So in 2005 Athol bought his current bike out of the UK. "Usually these bikes aren't for sale anywhere in the world ever. This one had only done 35 odd passes and I got it and tried to learn to ride it in New Zealand," explained Athol.
"We went to Australia for the first meeting which was the 2006 Winternationals. We tested prior to the Winternationals at the track and ran 70 mph and .9 of a second quicker than we ever did in New Zealand. That came down to having a track that was flat, with concrete barriers and a decent braking area."
Things that go bang
The original combination was a Puma engine with skullcap Suzuki four valve heads, rockers and Puma crankshaft, crankcases, MTC block, B&J two speed with an MTC clutch.
"At the 2006 Winternationals we found the clutch was absolutely miles out so we started improving it from there. We went up to Mackay for the Trans-Tasman Challenge and then across to Darwin. We got shut down on the start-line of the final against Brett in Darwin with a fuel problem."
"We went to Sydney after that and I red lighted in the first round so that was that. We actually found the problem that we got shut down for in Darwin. The o-ring out of the fuel cap had gone through the fuel pump and blocked everything up. That's the long and the short of it."
After having a less than successful first campaign, the trip came to an end with a bang when the engine exploded at the 1000ft mark at Willowbank Raceway. With two completely destroyed heads it was time to pack up and go home to re-group.
Spider Man to the rescue
Once the bike was back in New Zealand, Athol ditched everything except the frame, body work and wheelie bars. The team then set about creating their own barrels and crankcase out of billet aluminium. The crankshafts were also hand made from good quality steel.
"At the same time we we're making all our own parts we upgraded the heads to Vance and Hines," explained Athol. "Basically we came up with a combination very similar to what Larry McBride was running other than our frame."
"We got summonsed to the US when I put in a substantial order to make sure what we did was the same as his as compared to running away in a different direction. The difference between the two bikes was our wheel base was a bit shorter than his. My crew chief Rodger Bloor had already gone across there and spent 9 and a half weeks living with Larry and working in the shop."
From September 2006 through to the beginning of June 2007, the team worked non-stop to build a new engine and start on two more spare engines. "Larry was blown away with the speed which we did it all because usually this sort of build would take 18 months to do and we did it basically in about 5 ½ months. Then we had to ship the thing to Australia," said Athol.
You'd have to be committed
Maintaining a Top Fuel Bike and competing at all the rounds of an ANDRA Group 1 Championship is a significant challenge. Now imagine doing it from a 40ft container which is located in a different country!
Luckily for his Australian fans, Athol and his hard working crew of Roger Bloor, Bruce McGonnell, Mike Gearing, Daniel Booby, Trever Fellows and later on Steve and Margie Paris were crazy enough to do just that.
"We did all our maintenance at the track before or after a meeting, then we'd wrap it up and people kindly looked after that container for us between rounds. The first year we actually transported it around via swinglift and train until going to Perth for the March meeting and they dropped it. About $55,000 worth of damage was done and my insurance company and the rail company didn't want to know anything about it!" exclaimed Athol.
So for the 2008/2009 ANDRA Championship Athol towed the container around this wide brown land of ours on his three axle skeleton trailer behind a hired truck.
"For example, I'd get up at 2.30 on a Friday morning, go out to the airport, fly to Brisbane, get picked up and taken out to the truck. I'd drive to Sydney, pick up my trailer and drive to Perth. I would do 1,180 kilometres per day in a 12 hour driving day by myself. Get to Perth, set up, the crew would fly in, we'd qualify, we'd race, we'd service the bike and pack up."
"Tuesday the crew would fly home and I would drive back to Sydney, getting back to Sydney on Friday, dropping my container and trailer off there and driving up to Brisbane, arriving Saturday and fly home Sunday. 16 days later having driven 11,000 kilometres and raced at a championship meeting."
"The other issue we had racing in Australia is if we wanted to make a change it might take 5 or 6 meetings to make. Now you'd think 'What are you talking about?'"
"For example, if we wanted to fit a new rear wheel it arrived the day before the container left to go to Australia. It took us 6 meetings to fit that rear wheel because everything was so tight. We couldn't just take it down to an engineering shop, machine up the spacers and what have you. We would take some measurements, come home to New Zealand, make the pieces, take them back across, fit them, see what we had to change, bring them back, change them, take them back and fit them and so on. It was a long and slow process."
Things you need to know about Athol
Athol's career in Top bike has been relatively short to-date but it's been jammed packed with highlights.
Here are a few fast facts about Athol that you can use to impress your mates or that special someone:
- The very first meeting at the Winternationals we were runner-up to Brett Stevens in the final where we ran a PB of 6.62 @ 213 mph
- Stepping up 70 mph from what we had run in New Zealand. That was absolutely awesome
- Running 227 mph in Perth to claim the ANDRA record; that was the next high
- Winning the first gold ANDRA Christmas tree for a Kiwi at the 2008 Summernationals at Sydney Dragway
- We won our second gold ANDRA Christmas at the 2008 Winternationals
- The next year we won three gold ANDRA Christmas trees. There was only three available to us and we won the championship
- The best two passes in memory were both in Sydney where we ran 238 mph and 6.16. When we ran that 238 mph pass, that put us fourth fastest in the world but twelfth quickest in the world at the time
Breaking through walls on two wheels
Personally, I'm of the opinion that you'd have to be crazy to ride a Top Bike (no offense Athol).
The idea of hanging onto something with the wind rushing past you at over 200 mph, with only a few millimetres of leather between you and a long stay in hospital doesn't really float my boat. Sure I like to watch them in action but you couldn't pay me enough to get on one.
But if you talk to any Top Bike pilot they all appear to go into this Zen like state when they describe the experience of riding one of these monsters.
According to Athol, "There's a wall you go through at around 200 mph then another at 230 mph apparently. The first time I ran 213 mph it felt like, from half track onwards, you were hanging on to a water ski pole that's being pulled away from you. And then there's a triangle that's getting stretched that's in front of that pole and that's the sensation you have."
"Now I remember ringing Larry McBride after running our time at Sydney and the first thing he said was 'keep your f'ing head down and hang on tight'. That was the first thing he said because at 238 mph the likelihood that if you stick your head up you will be blown off. If you're not careful when you go for your brakes you can get your hands blown off the handle bars. Soon as one hand goes off, you're bailing off the back. You don't have a choice. I am on a High for 3 days after riding this Beast."
Will we see this Kiwi fly again?
I think it's fair to say that the state of play for Top Bike in Australia isn't the best at the moment. Glancing at the entry list I can see only 5 bikes entered for the 2012 Nationals, one of the premiere drag racing events on the calendar.
When I pose the question to Athol he responds with a single word; "Abysmal".
In a nutshell, the current economic climate hasn't been kind to the sport in general and Athol's of the opinion that the Harley's are not performing to their historical standards.
"Now whether that's because Brett Stevens is no longer there, he was actually helping a lot of them with the tunes, I'm not sure. Brett ran a 6.49 when we were racing over there to our 6.60 at the very first Winternationals. Kim Stevens was running 6.60's. Mark Ashelford, Ian Ashelford, Mark Drew and Craig Bonwick have all run Mid 6s and Troy McLean ran a 6.4 when we ran a 6.3," said Athol. "The economy and the show have to improve before you'll see a resurgence in numbers and fan appeal."
For Athol to make a return to Top Bike things have to improve in New Zealand first, to a point where he's happy with the state of his Stud Welding business. "We still have unfinished business and I will be back racing again. We've been making changes to help or slow 60ft times. Where we go will depend on the corporate dollar because I've shown what we can do. We finished with 700 points, Jay Upton had 400 points and the Parkers had 320 and 310 points. It depends on where the corporate dollar comes from whether we go to Australia, which I'd like to do, or whether we go to the US or whether we go to Europe."
Fingers crossed we'll see this Kiwi fly down Australian drag strips once again and rekindle that Trans-Tasman rivalry.