Thornley is ready for a new challenge as the first female in Top Fuel Harleys

By Anthony Caruso III | Publisher

Janette Thornley is a very successful drag racer. But she wanted a new challenge in her life.

She will now attempt to make it in the world of NHRA Top Fuel Harleys. Thornley will be the first female to attempt to qualify for an event in that class.

Nitro drag racer Janette Thornley making a pass on a drag strip
Janette Thornley making a pass on a drag strip (Photo by Gary Larsen/

That’s where her story will continue in the near future. However, it began with an opportunity nearly a decade ago in Hawai’i.

In 2011, she completed the Hawaya Racing Nitro Drag Racing School.

“Hawai’i Racing offered a school at the time in their pro drag class for Nitro Harleys,” Thornley said. “It’s about 450-horsepower and runs in the 7’s, as my quickest was a 7.20 at 185 mph. Ray Price was actually my mentor and helped me once I took the class to get going in this career path. He tried to teach me everything that I needed to learn.”

She is a four-time drag racing champion. Thornley won the NHRA Harley-Davidson Screamin’Eagle/Lucas Oil Series Class Championship in 2015 and 2016.

Then, in 2017, she won two Championships, in the AMRA and the ADRL.

“Yes, I have won four championships, but none of them have been in this new category,” she said. “It’ll be interesting to say the least in Top Fuel Harleys. The last Championships we’ve won in 2017 when we won two (in the AMRA and the ADRL). In ‘18 and ‘19, both years, for whatever reason, we runnered-up, we just didn’t bring in enough wins. Often times, you come off the high and you move into another category, it’s been a big learning curve for my husband and I. He’s been a NASCAR guy for many years, so that competitive nature truly exists with him. I, too, have the competitive nature, but it’s like retraining the brain.

“We’re both very good and positive about having a good presentation; I say that as a team, sponsor, and a performance standpoint. It’s frustrating if he makes a tuning mistake, or if I make a riding mistake and that leads us not to do well. It’s going to be rough not being towards the top. In this Top Fuel thing, I could be sitting outside of the qualifying ranks in an event or two, because of my development and where I am in the category. That’s going to be a new position for us. We will go into every event to qualify the best as possible and win the event, which we are trained to do.”

She was teammates with Rich Vreeland, who has competed in several NHRA Top Fuel Harley races, for a few races in 2019 and in 2020. But following the Phoenix event in February, the two sides have gone their separate ways.

“We worked with him and his wife Patty to have him mentor me on the Top Fuel bike,” Thornley said. “The agreement allowed him to ride it some — we did that the latter part of last season and a few races this season. At this point, though, I think he wants to focus on his bike and his deal and his program and I’m going to move forward with my bike and our program. I think it’s in the best interest of the both of us to work on each individual’s racing program. We’re going to work on them as our needs and our desires fit.”

Thornley was planning on making her debut at the Charlotte race in the spring. However, that is no longer on the calendar following the revised NHRA 2020 Top Fuel Harley schedule.

Due to the coronavirus, people are instructed to stay-at-home around the country. And this has caused drag racing to go on hold until June.

As a result of the infectious virus impacting the Unites States, she has not been able to go to Michigan to pick up her bike and make some passes. Once this virus passes, she will be able to get the bike and start preparing for her new adventure.

“I’ll be honest with you, I was really targeting the Charlotte Four-Wide event,” she said. “Again, until I can get out and get some laps under my belt, I don’t know if that’s going to come together for me. It’s really all about what feels right and what comes of my development on the bike. It’s one thing to run test passes, then you have to prepare for competition. And that’s the issue we’re having right now, as I am just not there yet.

“There are some fierce competitors out there in this class and I have to have a lot of development under me before I am even ready to get to that level to be consistent with 6.20 passes. I know running safe 6.40’s and 6.50’s at first will be competitive passes and then we’ll go from there, as we attempt to get closer to the 6.20’s with experience.”

Nitro drag racer Janette Thornley on a Top Fuel Harley at an event in the pit area
Janette Thornley on a Top Fuel Harley at an event in the pit area of a team (Photo by Janette Thornley/Facebook)

When Thornley does make her debut, wherever that may be this season, she will be the first female in the class.

“For current competition, there has been another gal that I know of for sure was licensed to ride a Top Fuel bike in the late 90s, early 2000s,” Thornley said. “But she hasn’t been racing for several years — and she never raced a six second pass. Right now, I am the only female licensed to compete in this current category with the NHRA.

“There’s a whole lot of crazy getting on one of these things. Not only can we not be on one of these things when it is started, we also have to wear a bullet proof vest. You have to be crazy to drive one of these things.”

She admitted that it will be special when she makes her debut. Thornley will break a barrier in doing so.

“People have compared me to some of the other firsts in drag racing, like Angelle [Sampey], Shirley [Muldowney],” she said. “It is kind of flattering as I am breaking through barriers in modern day racing. A lot of the time, we put the focus on being a female and what’s happening, but it is part of my make up. When we line up in the staging lanes and again at the Christmas tree, the bike, the track, and some people don’t know that I’m a female or not. It’s all about the passion and heart inside.

“I know there are a couple of ladies out there, who are talking about it. Hopefully, they will come and they will join us. It is already a small group of fellas as it is, as our current group of competitors. When things took a dive, long before I began racing, there used to be full fields with 30-something Top Fuel bikes out there. Now, we may have 10 or 12 show up, sometimes, very rarely, we’ll get a 16-bike field. Most NHRA events, we just have eight. The goal is to definitely get more in the class and bring more attention to the category. I want to let people know that we’re cool machines to watch. There’s a lot of people, who do not know anything about Top Fuel Harleys, let alone drag racing period.”

Thornley said that she has one sponsor that will be with her when she makes her debut. But she is seeking an additional funding.

She is also working with the Straightline Strategy Group, which clients include Top Fuel pilot Clay Millican, Funny Car pilot Paul Lee, and No Prep star Jeff Lutz.

“I have some folks working with me in the Straightline Strategy Group,” Thornley said. “We have been connected for the last year and approximately five months. I love their style and working with them. I think their biggest challenge is that I am kind of like a prototype. Here’s an idea, here’s an invention. We really need to test the waters, but until I’m actually on the race track in competition, I think the companies will then officially connect what I’m doing and who I am.

“There have been some solid conversations out there — and I believe there are some companies, who have their eye on me. I’m sure they have seen me riding the previous bike and of course the best passes that I have made, running a 6.93 and 6.90. They want to see me on the platform and in that category of competition. We have some testing lined up and we’ll see how that goes. From that, we’re going to make a decision on what event we’re going to target for our actual debut.”

She admitted that there are several ways that people can relate to her. Besides being a drag racer, she is also a street bike rider, which makes her relatable to that audience as well.

“In my previous career, I worked for Harley-Davidson Motor Company and one of the things that I think, when I worked with the dealers, I think falls true with this sport, especially in the category that we’re in, is getting in front of media, who are out in front of the common person,” she said. “Then, trying through the media, to make the rider/racer relatable to the common person. One thing I think about is people can relate to me being a grandma and some females can relate to me being a street bike rider. But if I’m in front of them in an audience in that particular media, then they may say, ‘Hey, she’s a drag racer, too! What do you mean she’s a drag racer? What is that! I have to go out and see her and meet her.’ I’ve had several of those conversations through social media outreach as I get new followers and meeting more and more people. Actually, I do have a sponsor, who is along for the ride, as we’re always looking for additional funding to support the program.

“Up until the Phoenix race this year, he had never been to a drag racing event period, let alone an NHRA event. How cool is that to introduce a company into the sport that thinks, ‘Wow, this is way cool! Not only am I at a cool event, but I am sponsoring a cool chick in a cool category.’ There’s a lot of opportunities if we keep our eyes wide open to the conversations that can be had with different people and different companies.”

Since she is going to be a newcomer in her new category, she just wants to develop this season. Then, next season, she wants to go full force into a championship run.

“This year, as I have talked to the sponsor, this year is really about my development,” Thornley said. “We would like to strengthen the program, as it is very different than the carbonated bike. My husband has a learning curve, as well — and it’s probably just as big as mine as a rider standpoint. Our expectations are to be present, professional, and hopefully, I’ll be able to bring additional eyes to the category through the media. I would then like to have a strong 2021 season from a competitors standpoint and maybe, just maybe, compete for the championship.”

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