Motorcycle drag racing is the definition of narrow focus. While many forms of racing call for 30-minutes or more of concentration, drag racing distills all of that intensity into an explosive few seconds that some of the best say plays out like slow-motion virtual reality. Among the legend of the quarter-mile, the late-great Dave Schultz stood out as one of the true masters, who harnessed the skills to turn those highly-concentrated microseconds and into a Matrix-like realty, at times making the specialized talent of his sport look almost routine.
Schultz, who passed way from cancer in 2001, was a leading motorcycle drag racer of the 1980s and ‘90s. He won a record six NHRA Pro Stock Bike Championships (1987-88, ’91, ’93-94, ’96) during a spectacular 10-year stretch. His 45-career NHRA National event wins made him the winningest motorcycle racer in NHRA history.
He was the first to turn an elapsed time quicker than 7.60 seconds and faster than 180 mph. He finished in the top five of the NHRA Pro Stock Bike series standings for 14 consecutive seasons.
Over a 23-year career, Schultz won fifteen series championships and had more than 140 victories including the U.S. Nationals six times. And captured championships in NHRA, Prostar and IDBA.
Perhaps the most memorable victory of Schultz’s illustrious career was his last. It came in October of 2000 at the Matco Tools SuperNationals in Houston, Texas. Schultz had already been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy, yet he still mustered the strength to score victory.
When Schultz entered the world of pro motorcycle drag racing the scene was owned by Terry Vance. Vance was the first racer to garner major big-time factory support for his racing efforts and Schultz knew if he was to compete with Vance he would have to take a path all his own. Schultz built his racing career by beating down the doors of corporate America and securing outside sponsorships. Indeed, besides his outstanding career on the track, Schultz’s biggest legacy was being one of the first to consistently bring non-motorcycling sponsors to his program such as Eagle One, National Car Rental and Sunoco.
“I’m drawn to sponsors who can advertise my presence as well as my performance,” Schultz said in a 1988 interview in Cycle World. “That way my value goes beyond what I do on the track and my livelihood doesn’t depend on winning a particular race. I want to market drag racing outside of the sport. I want it to be more than a large club race.”
Schultz always went the extra mile to make his sponsors happy. For example, when Eagle One, a manufacturer of car-care products, backed him, Schultz had a full calendar of attending auto shows and expos throughout the year.
Schultz was an innovator as well. A lifelong mechanic, he built and maintained his own machines and was one of the first to incorporate an on-board computer, lowered steering head, vacuum pump, and air-in-frame technology. He also was a pioneer in wind-tunnel testing his drag-racing bikes.
Schultz grew up learning to work on motors from his older brother. There was a drag racing track not far from Dave’s childhood home. Once Dave’s mother saw her young son just sitting on the porch taking in the sounds of the races. She knew he would be thrilled when she finally took him to see one of the drags in person.
Schultz first began drag racing cars, but he worked on automobiles for a living as an owner of a successful repair shop, so he decided to switch over to racing motorcycles, that way he felt like he wasn’t mixing work and pleasure. He began his motorcycle racing on a Kawasaki two-stroke triple before switching to Kawasaki inline fours.
Like nearly all motorcycle drag racers of his era, Schultz looked up to Terry Vance and it was one of the happiest moments of his career when, after several years of trying, he finally beat Vance. It gave him a great sense of confidence and helped spur him on to even greater heights in the sport.
Their NHRA championship showdown came down to the final event in 1987. It was more than Vance vs. Schultz, it was also Suzuki vs. Kawasaki. It marked the first time that Vance was dethroned and it marked a changing of the guard. Ironically, it was Vance & Hines’s own Byron Hines who built the winning motors for Schultz during that season when they were both going for the title.
Motorcycle drag racing was still a sport with many branches when Schultz came into it. There were multiple sanctioning bodies and championships and Schultz won them all. He pulled off motorcycle drag racing’s “Triple Crown” by winning the championship in NHRA, IDBA and Prostar all in the same year, not once, but two times – 1991 and 1994.
Besides being a fierce competitor, Schultz also had a great sense of humor, said Prostar co-founder Keith Kizer. Kizer told a story of racer Paul Gast, knowing Schultz lived in Florida, telling Dave how much he liked alligators. Dave brought a baby alligator to the next race and conspired with Paul’s crew to give him a big surprise. They put the baby gator under the sheets of Paul hotel bed. Naturally Paul jumped to the ceiling after feeling the little creature crawling on his leg. Gast and crew took home the alligator and kept it as a mascot at their shop.
One of biggest rivalries of the 1990s in all of motorcycle racing was Schultz versus John Myers. Those two became the face of the sport after Terry Vance retired.
Schultz’s passing left a big hole in the sport for years, but his legacy lived on through his numerous records and the path he showed to other teams on how to bring national sponsors to their programs.
In a 2001 interview in Cycle News Terry Vance, who after competing against him later sponsored Schultz, summed up Dave by saying, “He was the best guy who ever rode a Pro Stock motorcycle and I don’t think anybody would argue with that. He was the most dedicated person to that sport that there has ever been.”