Photography by Bert Shepard
Russ Collins, one of the leading motorcycle drag racers and drag bike builders of the 1960s and ‘70s, passed away last night in Hawaii. He was 74.
His dual- and triple-engine monster motorcycles, such as the Assassin, the Sorcerer and others, marked the apex of outrageous drag racing motorcycle designs of the 1970s. Collins rode those incredibly powerful machines to the fastest quarter-mile times turned on motorcycles during that time. He was the first motorcyclist to break the seven-second barrier and a run he made in 1977 set a record that would stand for 11 years.
Collins was born in Somerville, New Jersey, on August 27, 1939. He grew up with a love of all things mechanical. His first interest was in cars and he became quite accomplished as a car mechanic and body man. In 1957, he bought a dilapidated, basket-case 500cc Triumph. Collins rebuilt the bike and started riding on the street. A hot-rodder at heart, Collins gradually hopped up the engine of the Triumph and drag raced on a local strip, Highland Dragway, near his home.
In 1969 Collins first saw the bike that would change his life.
“When Honda came out with its four-cylinder (CB750) it just blew my mind,” said Collins, who, in 1969 when the CB750 was introduced, was (in addition to building motorcycle racing engines at night in his garage) working as a sales manager at Honda of Torrance (California). “I had a partner who was a parts manager, he bought the motorcycle, I did all the mechanical work on it and we went out and set the first ever drag-strip record with a Honda. That was I believe in November of ’69.”
His garage tinkering led to a four-into-one exhaust design for the Honda that a lot of riders wanted. So popular was his performance pipe, that he quit his job and formally opened RC Engineering. “It was on April Fool’s Day of all days,” Collins said with a laugh. “April 1st, 1970, is when I started RC Engineering.”
Collins was a bit of a radical in drag racing circles at the time. First of all, he was going against the grain of the normal British or American-made drag bike of the time and was racing the new Japanese machines. And instead of wearing the standard all-black leathers, Collins showed up sporting colorful red, white and blue leathers.
He also pushed the boundaries of motorcycle drag racing design. In 1973, Collins built the revolutionary, three-engine, Honda-based drag bike he dubbed Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe – named in honor of the famous railroad line of the late 1800s. The monstrous three-engine Honda was featured in numerous motorcycle and drag racing publications and was perhaps the most famous drag bike of the 1970s. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe set numerous records and Collins rode it to the first seven-second quarter-mile turned on a motorcycle in Ontario, California, in 1973. It even became the first motorcycle to win NHRA’s coveted "Best Engineered Car" award at the Springnationals in 1973. The bike was so powerful and heavy that it proved to be very hard to control and in 1976 the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe was destroyed in a horrendous accident in Akron, Ohio. The crash landed Collins in the hospital, and while recuperating he dreamed up his next monster creation – The Sorcerer.
The Sorcerer came together in 1977 and it featured dual Honda 1,000cc engines. This bike won a second “Best Engineered” award for RC Engineering and proved to be the fastest motorcycle ever built by the company. Collins ran a record-setting 7.30 second/199.55 mph run on the Sorcerer. That record stood for an astonishing 11 years.
Collins also happened to find some of the most talented builders and riders to work for his company. Terry Vance and Byron Hines both worked and raced under the RC Engineering banner before branching out and forming their own company, Vance & Hines.
Collins continued to race motorcycles until the early 1980s when he turned to drag racing Top-Fuel cars. RC Engineering eventually became a leading maker of racing fuel-injection systems for Japanese-made sports cars.
Collins was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999.