Nortons in drag

Published: 16 March 2016

In the 1970s, drag meets on both sides of  the Atlantic saw British double-engined bikes ripping up the strips

very welcome sight at this year’s Dragstalgia festival at Santa Pod was the appearance of two of the most memorable bikes of the ’70s. Hogslayer and Pegasus are two of the finest examples of British-powered drag racing history from the era. They typified a very different approach to the business of trying to cover the standing quarter in the quickest possible time on opposite sides of the Atlantic at that particular time.
The common thread was that both machines were powered by a pair of Norton twin-cylinder engines but, in common with their compatriots, the American entry was normally aspirated on extremely high nitro loads, while the British bike was supercharged and ran a more conservative fuel load.
Quite apart from the fact that both bikes now reside in the National Motorcycle Museum, they also offer some shared history. Hogslayer provided inspiration for the British team when they were deciding on what type of motor to use – and the Pegasus guys did get to tear apart the mean black machine on the last visit to Santa Pod by Tom Christenson.


Hogslayer
From Kenosha in Wisconsin, the all-conquering Hogslayer was the product of John Gregory and Tom ‘TC’ Christenson. The pair had raced together for a few years before they emphatically stamped their mark in a classic period for the sport.
Their racing partnership dates back to 1963, when the older Gregory became aware of the young tearaway who came up against him in the local races. Most of the racing then was on the streets, and John himself was a hard rider to beat on his Triumph: “I was pretty quick off the line, and won a lot of races, but TC was hungry to win – and he weighed a lot less than me!” Action soon moved to the drag strips, where TC honed his skills further.
John had developed a small bike dealership in Kenosha, called Sunset Motors. He sold Nortons, so it was not too surprising that the pair ended up using the British motors to set the strips alight. At the end of the decade the business was taken over by the younger team-mate, as John himself had moved into the bike distribution business. Sunset Motors itself still resides in the same location to this day, and still under TC’s ownership.
The first of their Nortons to make a mark on the US National scene, back in 1969, was a single-engined machine which set the National class record. Despite being classified as a Junior Fuel bike, they pitched in against the all-out Top Fuel machines of the day. Performance was helped by the adaption of a car-based Hilborn fuel injection set-up, which was unheard of on a bike. Come 1970, and the Norton claimed an AMDRA Top Fuel victory, and the Junior Fuel Championship win.
Watching the likes of Boris Murray thrilling the fans on his double Triumph, the pair set to work on joining the big boys, with a double Norton. This was a single-speed bike, and used the standard four-inch-wide slick of the era. That meant smoky starts and a whopping best-ever terminal speed of 180mph. Though spectacular, it meant that time was being lost as the slick over-sped away from the line; this started the thought process that would lead to a revolution in transmissions for drag bikes. Having experience of overdrive units during his time in the automotive business, John searched for a suitable unit which he could adapt for bike use. The result was a donor box from an AMC Rambler, repackaged to do the business.
This was only one part of the equation, however; the masterpiece was the slider clutch to transmit the power with minimal loss of drive: “It is probably the thing I am most proud of – and I sold a number of them to other racers.”
Adding to the combination was a bold move to an eight-inch slick, when the norm was six inches or less. This was fitted into a considerably lengthened chassis, compared to the previous double. The well sorted fuel injection meant that they were not chasing an unknown set-up, making for a very consistent package.
The new Hogslayer began to stamp its authority in the premier class, quickly setting a new elapsed time record in winning the major Supernationals event at Ontario in 1972, at 8.52s. That was lowered further to 8.45s the following year. The crowing glory for the bike was in 1975, the year when it proved virtually unbeatable.
Out of 15 races, they won 11.
Putting out an estimated 300 horses, with a capacity of 1620cc using Dunstall barrels, the seemingly unstoppable black bike was just so reliable it was almost like running a street bike. This was a good thing, as the team liked nothing better than to party at the races. A fast and robust motorcycle requiring minimal maintenance is a drag racer’s dream – and they were living it. There was one major upset at the US Nationals, where TC had a real shot at running the first-ever seven-second bike pass.
After clocking 8.09s, and then 8.02s, the bike was tweaked for a full-tilt crack at a seven in the final round. Pushing back after the burnout, the starter noticed a few drops of oil from a low-pressure oil line – and ordered the bike to be shut off. TC and John could only stand and watch Harley rider Joe Smith solo for the win.
Just a few weeks later at Ontario they hit the magic sevens, but suffered the frustration of Honda-mounted Russ Collins just beating them to it in qualifying to claim bragging rights. TC took revenge in the eliminations by clocking seven-second passes in every round of the Supernationals event to claim another major win to top off a super season for the seemingly unbeatable Hogslayer.
TC did have one big off, when he suffered a massive wheel wobble in 1974 at Ohio, which saw him bailing out and going through the finish line at 150mph sliding on his back!
This was only a few weeks before the Hogslayer was due to make a debut appearance in England, at Silverstone. Both rider and machine were patched up, and made their mark by turning in the first eight-second run in this country at the weather-hit event.
It would be impossible to better the 1975 season, although Hogslayer again racked up a good number of wins in 1976, including the US Nationals – partially making up for the previous year’s disappointment. Japanese engines were starting to become more of a threat, as were the double Harleys. John comments: “We looked at supercharging, but I’m not sure how much more power those motors could handle.”
A Drouin unit was checked out, but was not promising from testing on a street bike. A triple-engined frame was built, but was never completed. Meanwhile, the Norton factory, which supported the team, was in big trouble; John was also becoming busy in his bike distribution business, which ultimately led to the breakup of the most successful team of its era.
The bike continued to run, with TC fitting a ten-inch rear slick, but it did not improve on the previous times. Looking back, John wishes he had been able to fully finish a three-speed unit he had been working on: “That and a longer chassis, with the engines further forward, would have made that tyre work well.”
The three-speed even had a reverser for after the burnouts!
The finished unit did actually appear, fitted to a Kawasaki.

Hogslayer: The Unapproachable Legend, is a documentary made about the highly successful Norton, and it serves as a lasting testament to the team from Wisconsin, who took on and beat all-comers in a hugely competitive era of motorcycle drags.

Pegasus
In the UK, Ian Messenger and Derek Chinn began work on what would become the second bike to bear the Pegasus name, early in 1973. This was in between building engines and bikes for other riders to help raise money for the build. They had followed news of a certain double-Norton which was turning heads in America. Ian says : “We knew all about Hogslayer, and we wanted an engine with readily available spares, so we went for 750 Nortons.”
Mike Nicks helped arrange some much-needed sponsorship via Bike magazine, which led to Norton supplying engine parts. “The problem with this was that we started the build for 750 engines, using a pair of Shorrock C75 blowers, but the motor parts were 850cc. That meant the blowers were a bit on the small side,” commented Derek. Initially they ran a Norton ’box and clutch,
but this was never going to be there for long, given the loads.
A reliable transmission was needed, and there was limited choice. A new Miller-Baskerville slipper clutch unit was obtained, and they bought a used Lenco overdrive two-speed ’box from John Hobbs to mate to it. This meant staying with the original six-inch slick due to balance constraints: “To be fair, it didn’t do us a lot of harm,” Ian observes. “If you look at a lot of pictures, the tyre footprint is good, and we picked the front up on the wheelie bars.”
The biggest issue was the primary chain, requiring replacement after every run. Belt drive would have improved the situation, but this involved a new chassis and transmission arrangement.
A broken chain inevitably led to a lot of motor damage as the engines over-revved, so preventative maintenance was a must. 
Pegasus and Hogslayer only ran together once, on a qualifying run during one of the American bike’s visits. “I think the oil pressure was reading zero,” remembers Derek, “but we were not going to shut off, so I was hoping it was just a faulty gauge!”
Ian and Derek got to see a lot more than most of Hogslayer on its final visit to Santa Pod in 1978, as TC was visiting on his own this time and the bike went sick on the first day. So the pair worked on the bike overnight to try to sort the engines out – which did indeed reveal it was the sum of all the parts rather than trick items that made the machine fly!
During its years on the track, Pegasus sported a number of paint schemes. The guys didn’t set out to build a true show-and-go bike, although Ian did admit they went over the top on the final version – mainly his doing: “From our early biking days, we always liked our bikes to look smart, and drag racing is a show-and go sport.”
The final version was certainly the most striking, with the superb airbrushed mural applied by the talented Ray Mumford. Not surprisingly, the bike picked up a whole host of Best Engineered and Best Appearance awards over its lifetime, thanks to Derek’s engineering skills coupled with Ian’s critical eye for aesthetics.
In terms of outright performance, Ian and Derek were a pretty good match for each other in the hot seat. The best times recorded by the winged beast were very competitive numbers of 8.39s/170mph. It takes a lot of effort to keep a bike like this running, with many nights of toil between events and plenty to do between runs, including tightening all the bolts after every pass! The pair were helped along the way by old friend Eddie Keightley, who was always willing to lend a hand.
The Pegasus team dates back to 1967, when three friends in the Bedford area put together an old sloper Panther to have a go at sprinting and drag racing. It may not have been a strip-burner, but it did lead Ian Messenger, Derek Chinn and Mick Butler to build and race the first Pegasus, with V-twin Vincent power. All three rode the Vinnie, and even entered the premier US race in 1970, the NHRA Nationals event at Indianapolis. That bike came to the end of the road in 1972, having increased in capacity and power over the years, which resulted in high nine-second/150mph times.
At this point Mick Butler went his own way, because he wanted to ride at every meeting. His choice of power was also a brace of Nortons, but in his case the smaller 500cc motors. Interestingly, looking back on their Norton years, both Ian and Derek acknowledge that if only one of them had been the sole rider, then they probably would have run quicker times. “It was never something we discussed, as we both enjoyed riding, but it did mean you could be a bit rusty at times!”
A constant source of concern was the fuel system: “I don’t think we really had a handle on that,” said Derek, who originally built his own fuel injectors. This was later changed to a pair of SU carbs fed by a fuel pump.
A blown double-engined bike was never an easy option for anyone to race, but they were quite something to watch in action.
Ian and Derek won their share of trophies along the way, and always enjoyed their battles against John Hobbs over the years. There was lots of good-natured banter between the teams whenever they met on track – often relating to the Pegasus unicorn really being a donkey and the Hobbit being a furry little creature!
A new decade saw Pegasus’ final season in competition as the pair struggled with time and financial constraints. The bike ended up in the National Motorcycle Museum in the mid-’80s, where it was a showpiece exhibit on a rotating display in the foyer. Ian still has a picture of the bike being closely studied by the Duke of Edinburgh on a Royal visit.
Hogslayer last ran down a track in Nova Scotia in 2000, where TC smoked the 10in slick for the full quarter mile. In 2005 it was sold and shipped over to join Pegasus in England – a permanent reminder of a great era for the sport, when British twin-engined power was the combination for all others to beat.

Words Keith Lee Photos Keith Lee & Gary Margerum