Janette Thornley loves going fast.
But one thing the “Nitro Granny” isn’t about to rush is her entrance into NHRA Top Fuel Harley racing. Her approach is a well-thought-out, patient process that will see her make the jump only when she’s good and ready.
Thornley, 52, earned her license in the category Nov. 21 at South Georgia Motorsports Park. A four-time national champion in Pro Fuel competition, in which nitromethane is also used as the primary fuel, Thornley said she “hopes” to make her Top Fuel debut in late April at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte.
Her team, Dream Chaser Racin’, based in Salisbury, N.C., will compete in all 10 NHRA Top Fuel races, including the Feb. 6-9 season opener at Pomona, Calif., and the Feb. 24-26 follow-up outside Phoenix. A full-fledged Top Fuel Harley she owns will be ridden by Rich Vreeland of Bloomsburg, Pa., at all events.
Thornley, in the meantime, will prep for her Top Fuel debut with some testing at West Palm Beach, Fla., and elsewhere as needed to get her acclimated.
Her best licensing run of 6.90 seconds came on a high-gear-only, injected bike equipped with a 13-inch tire and a 150 cubic-inch engine. That’s quite similar to her Pro Fuel bike, which is capable of running in the 6.50s. The current NHRA Top Fuel record is 6.10.
“I’ll probably continue to ride on this high-gear-only, injected bike because (Top Fuel is) quite different. … I think it’s imperative for my safety and everyone else’s, to ride and get some seat time on that 13-inch tire and the true feel on the injected bike,” she said.
“You will likely see me in competition with that high-gear, injected bike, and we will end up putting a bigger top end on it so it’ll be like 170 cubic inches when I go to competition.”
Thornley, a native of McMinnville, Ore., now resides in Statesville, N.C., with her husband/crew chief, Buddy Foss. She was lured into racing after meeting Top Fuel Harley pioneer Ray Price, and he helped her launch her career.
She’s spent the past eight seasons in the Pro Fuel ranks, and in 2015 won four races to capture the NHRA Harley-Davidson Drag Racing Series title in that category. She successfully defended her crown in 2016. In 2017, Thornley seized the Pro Fuel crowns in both AMRA and ADRL action.
“After I purchased my first fuel Harley, Ray moved it around for me. I was living on the West Coast at that time. He not only coached me, his team helped get the bike ready and prepped and stuff,” Thornley said. “My husband and I met that first year of my racing, and he quickly became my crew chief and main man. We got a motorhome and started small and built our own little empire — or whatever you wanna call it — and here we are.”
Issues involving the stiffness and pain with frozen shoulder hampered Thornley’s racing in 2018, and in ‘19, she was the AMRA Pro Fuel runner-up to Dennis Waldron with a pair of victories at Beech Bend Raceway in Bowling Green, Ky.
“I got serious about pursuing the Top Fuel dream and have physically had to get myself in shape,” she said. “Although I’m healthy, I knew that I really needed some body strength, so I’ve been going to the gym for a year now. Thankfully, that has proved to be beneficial and will help me being able to ride and handle the Top Fuel bike.”
The bike on which Vreeland will saddle up is a former Mike Romine piece. She’ll join him in competition “when we feel comfortable and confident enough to move into the next phase.”
NHRA’s Top Fuel Harley rules limit engine displacement to 200 cubic inches naturally aspirated and 170 with a blower combination. It’s a set-up that’ll produce a nearly 1:1 ratio of horsepower to weight. They’re a handful, to say the least, especially given the fact that much of a run is spent speeding down the quarter-mile on only the rear tire.
“I know those guys have a lot of concern for me coming into the sport, not because I can’t handle it, but — as with the cars — things happen quickly,” Thornley said. “You make a wrong move, things can happen quickly, and they’re very violent.
“The one-second difference (from Pro Fuel to Top Fuel) is a huge deal. The current motorcycle I’m on doesn’t pull the entire quarter-mile. About the eighth-mile, it’ll be steady, but it’s not really pulling. This injected bike that I rode is significantly different; it’s pulling the entire run.
“That’s the biggest difference everyone has told me and that I’ve experienced, is that it never stops pulling. Training your mind and only seat time gives you that experience for your mind to catch up with what’s happening on the track. Eventually, it will be become slow motion, per se, but those couple of runs that I made, things were happening real fast.”