Hand-shift motorcycle racers dance to a different beat

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Ralph Wessel (left) on his 1937 Indian Sport Scout and Ross “Rosco” Tuffli on his 1939 Harley WLDR at the 2009 Bonneville Vintage GP.
Photo by Stephen Clark
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Vintage racers tend to ride bikes they have a direct, personal connection to. Gary Nixon usually hits the track on a late 1960s or early 1970s Triumph, while Jay Springsteen shreds his vintage rubber on a mid-1970s Harley XR750 or similar.


It makes sense; Nixon won two championships riding Triumphs in the 1960s, and Springsteen three aboard an H-D in the 1970s. So what motivates Ralph Wessel and Ross “Rosco” Tuffli to ride late-1930s American V-twins, bikes built before they were even born? They’re cool, that’s what.

“The hand shift is just the coolest because it’s the oldest stuff you can race,” says Tuffli, who’s been active in American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) road racing for five years, the last two of them riding a 1939 45ci flathead V-twin Harley-Davidson WLDR in the hand-shift and pre-1940 classes. Tuffli, 49, also owns a 1933 74ci VL, a bike he’s had for 22 years. “I just think the old stuff is cool,” he says.

Wessel says he got into hand shift because of his passion for Indians. Wessel, 50, started racing in the AHRMA series in 2000 and moved to hand shift in 2004. He currently has five Indians, including a Chief and two 1937 Sport Scouts, affectionately nicknamed One Little, Two Little and Three Little. “Indians are the best American made motorcycle,” Wessel says flatly. “The Chief was my first, but the Sport Scouts are what you race, and I’ve got a 1927 in the making with a leaf-spring front end. I want to run a 1930s-era engine and trans because parts are easier to get.”

The same but different
Tuffli, who used to go drag racing, started racing in AHRMA on a little Honda CB350. “For years I told my friends I was going to get a racing license and race at Daytona,” Tuffli says. “When they started rolling their eyes, I figured I’d better do it or shut up.” Tuffli went to race school, and the month after he finished he was on the track, racing a garage sale Honda. “My buddy Craig Breckon helped me through the school, and when we were done he said, ‘Next year you can get a bike.’ I got a bike for the next race. I built that Honda and made it track legal in a month,” Tuffli recalls.

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