It was like a bad dream.
Sunday of the IDBL U.S. Nationals from Atco, N.J., Sept. 13, 2015 is a day that will forever stand out in the careers of 37-year Top Fuel Motorcycle veteran Larry “Spiderman” McBride and his talented match race partner Dave Vantine.
It’s likely a day no one in attendance will ever forget either.
McBride and Vantine’s goal was simple; put on a show. After losing traction, McBride knew a tire-smoking, “pedal fest” would be quite crowd pleasing.
After coming on-and-off the throttle several times, McBride’s bike violently exploded and burst into flames at a high speed.
The Spiderman was able to get the motorcycle stopped, right in front of the ambulance no less. It’s an incident the 15-time champion knows he was lucky to walk away from.
No one had a better view of the scary blaze than Vantine.
“He spun the tire first so I was out on him when mine started to spin. He did not go flying by me so I pedaled mine twice and then found a RPM where I was spinning at a comfortable pace,” Vantine said. “I got on the brakes and Larry put a wheel up on me. I looked over to the right and saw him totally engulfed in flames. It was pretty scary. I slammed on the brakes and tried to pace him. When we stopped I went running back to him.”
Perhaps Vantine understood the severity of the situation better than anyone. Vanitne was lucky to walk away from a similar incident at Virginia Motorsports Park in 2006.
Vantine was the first to make it over to McBride as medics were preparing to treat him.
“He was hoping around pretty good and trying to get his coat off. That’s when the guy with the fire extinguisher showed up. Larry was up and seemed OK, but I think he was running on pure adrenaline,” Vantine said.
The medics were about to cut off McBride’s beloved Elmer Trett t-shirt, something the Spiderman wears as a good luck charm and a tribute to his friend who died in an on-track incident in 1996.
“Don’t cut that shirt,” Vantine frantically yelled.
The third-year nitro racer knew that would be a tough one to replace.
“I didn’t see any reason to cut the shirt. I knew it was just standard operating procedure,” Vantine said.
Vantine, along with team McBride, were ultra-relieved to see the Spiderman upright and alert.
Afterwards McBride was airlifted to a nearby hospital.
After realizing McBride would be alright, the hardest part for Vantine, and others, was seeing the anguish of Larry’s brother Steve McBride, who spent much of his life building and maintaining a motorcycle that now looked to be totaled.
“”Blue is gone, Blue is gone” is what he was saying,” Vantine said. “It was pretty emotional and we all felt really bad.”
Vantine also knew he had to be tough and had to stay in the proper state of mind to prepare to make his next run.
“I think as riders we are positioned to block those things out. Years ago in Gainesville (Fla.) Terry Kizer came off his bike right before me. I was next up. I just didn’t let it register. You have to block that stuff out. Once it sinks back in later, it’s tough,” Vantine said.
Vantine knew what he was getting into with this daunting, two-wheel venture. He understood and accepted the incredible risks of Top Fuel Motorcycle racing before he started.
“At the end of the day if everyone is OK, it’s just the price of doing business,” Vantine said. “That’s nitro.”
Just like there was a price to be paid at VMP in 2006.
The former Pro Mod standout torched a Steve Sanders-owned, Orient Express-backed nitrous bike.
“It started out as a regular pass, a qualifying run. Just about half-track the thing banged hard and I looked down and there were flames coming out at least a foot wide and a foot long. I switched my leg position to try to stay cool. Then I hit the brakes and the flames just totally engulfed me. I said to myself, “that was a bad idea,”” Vantine said. “I just took a deep breath and got stopped as quickly as I could. It was so hot the zippers burned out of my leathers and I ended up with second-degree burns.”
It was just another day at the races for Vantine.
“It’s really a day in the life (of a racer). The fire was equally as bad as Larry’s, as indicated by the body. We found out what a Pro Mod bike looks like when you knock the carbs off at speed,” Vantine said. “It was so hot it burnt through the float bowls and the intakes.”
What is even more amazing is the comeback story that ensued.
“My crewman came up to me and said, “Do you want to race tomorrow?” “I said, “Race what?”” Vantine said.
It was time for a thrash for the ages, and a whole lot of duct tape.
“They said they could get it back together and by the time the sun came up we had a running motorcycle,” Vantine said. “It was unreal.”
The next morning Vantine was still in shock over the incident.
“It blew the carbs and the header off. Flames were all around the motor and the body,” Vantine said. “We never found out what the cause was.”
It took all night to get the machine back in working order.
“It burnt all the wires and it burned the Schnitz box. The carbs were melted. The body needed to be supported. We ran duct tape all up and down it. We even duct taped my leathers back together,” Vantine said. “We put in a new motor and put on new carbs. We had to rewire the whole bike. They were up all night. I had gauze on and I was really tired so I went to bed around midnight. I was amazed they got it all done.”
“I woke up, and we fired it up and put it on the two-step like we normally do,” Vantine said. “I was just amazed.”
Fans and on-lookers were stunned Vantine would make eliminations.
“There was no way I could not ride after my crew spent all night getting the bike ready,” Vantine said. “If you are not willing to go through some adversity, or catch on fire, you are in the wrong sport. When you start messing with power-adders this stuff is going to happen.”
Vantine took the tree, but unfortunately lost power shortly thereafter.
It was a moral victory.
The real victory came when Vantine returned to the track a year later and won the event.
“We owed that track one. It got me so I figured it was time to get it,” Vantine said. “It meant a lot to me that my son Cole was there (pictured on the bike). He’s now 11. It was a good day and a good way to put the prior year behind me.”
Vantine hopes McBride and “Blue” get the same redemption.
Vantine recognized some factors that made McBride’s scare more severe than his.
“We didn’t grenade a motor and we did not have hot oil and nitro to deal with,” Vantine said. “It’s like Larry said, just the sheer volume of fuel being put into a nitro motor is a lot to deal with. Mine was only fire. I think most of Larry’s injuries came from the hot oil. His leathers looked better than mine after. That tells me what really got him was not the fire. We were very glad he was OK.”
Hours after McBride’s incident, Vantine dedicated his next run to the Spiderman.
“Racing at the highest levels, these things can happen. Being prepared for them is the key,” Vantine said. “I was super impressed Larry was so aware that he stopped as close to ambulance as he could (when many would have panicked). It’s situational awareness. I’d like to think I’m very aware.”
It’s hard to accurately describe the way a skilled and astute Top Fuel Motorcycle racer feels about his bike. It’s a grey area and a paradox that perhaps only a nitro pilot can understand.
“I would not say I’m scared, but I would also not say that I’m not scared,” Vantine said. “Prepared, but don’t say not scared. You can’t be scared, but you have to respect. Being scared will get you hurt, but not being scared will get you hurt too. ”
Vanitne’s philosophy must be working.
He has enjoyed three very trouble-free seasons in Top Fuel, and in Nov. 2015 he became the sport’s third quickest rider with an awe-inspiring run of 5.77 at the ManCup World Finals from Valdosta, Ga.
Vantine’s fierce competitive spirit has him wanting even more.
“I have a video (of the 5.77 run) that clearly shows the bike being shut off about 150 feet short of the finish line. There has been debate, but the reality is the bike has more in it,” Vantine said. “The speed would have been more in-line with what it should have been; maybe 244-245 mph. The 239 mph is way short.”
Watch Vantine’s 5.77 in slow motion and keep an eye on the flames coming out of the pipes in relation to where the finish line is.
Vantine has some huge goals in 2016.
“In my mind I still have not beaten Larry fair and square where we are both under power,” Vantine said. “He has beaten himself.”
How about unprecedented 5.60s? Does the talented racer want to become the quickest motorcycle racer on the planet in just his fourth season of nitro racing?
“I just assume everyone in Top Fuel wants to be the quickest and fastest, I know I do,” Vantine said. “If not, what’s the point?”