Matt Capri AND HIS TRIUMPH STREET DRAGSTER RACING HIS WAY THROUGH COLLEGE
Bike SA|October 2021
Full inside story of the illegal Street Drags on uncompleted Interstate freeways in 1960s America, countenanced by the police as safer than doing it on active highways!
Alan Cathcart

American Triumph tuner Matt Capri, now 80 years young and finally retired from the drag strip and Salt Flats, has been a serious speed-hound all his life. For two decades from 1995 to 2015, his South Bay Triumph dealership on the Pacific Coast Highway just north of Long Beach was a mecca for imaginatively engineered go-faster updates of various Triumph models, in between being Triumph USA’s Dealer of the Year in 2005. These bikes included the street-legal turbocharged Daytona 1200 four on which Matt Capri personally set Bonneville records at over 200 mph or the stock then-new Triumph Daytona T595 triple that set a 1000cc AMA Production record at 173.735 mph in 1998, again with him aboard.’ “It took Yamaha three years to beat that speed with an R1,” says Matt proudly. “It was the first absolute speed record Triumph ever held with a stock motorcycle, and we prepared and raced it out of our shop.” South Bay Triumph Bonneville motorcycles also presently hold four FIM World Land Speed Records in the 1000cc twin-cylinder categories.

A native New Yorker born and raised in Long Island, Matt Capri transplanted himself to California in 1973 to become BMW’s Western Sales Manager, wrenched the R90S Superbike that Steve McLaughlin won the first-ever Daytona Superbike race on in 1976, beating their favoured Udo Geitl/Reg Pridmore teammates, and then in 1980 was a co-founder of Luftmeister, the BMW tuning house which over the next 15 years set so many speed records with Capri-concocted Boxers and four-cylinder Flying Brick K-models, both normally-aspirated and turbocharged. Establishing South Bay Triumph in 1995 saw Capri switch his allegiance to the British brand at the outset of its Bloor-era ride down the comeback trail in the USA - though he already had history with Triumph, and BSA, too, in his college days back in the 1960s.

After trying unsuccessfully to breathe new life into a dead 1947 Harley-Davidson scrapper, Matt Capri’s somewhat improbable two-wheeled epiphany took place in his senior year of high school, when his Dad bought him a new $400 Cushman scooter to get about on! By now the Capri family were living in Rye, NY, a coastal town near Connecticut state line, where Matt worked as a golf caddy and gardened for neighbours to earn money to pay his Dad back for the scooter. He was a year-round rider, even in the snow, though he managed to burn up the transmission five times in trying to make the Cushman go faster! “The first three replacement transmissions were all under warranty, the fourth one my Dad paid for, and the last one was paid for by me,” says Matt. “Cruelty to Cushmans was expensive, so in 1962 I persuaded my Dad to trade it in for a proper motorcycle.” At Frank Russo’s dealership half an hour away in the Bronx, his father spotted a bright red brand-new 650cc BSA Super Rocket twin, and said, “That’s the bike for you, son.” Truly a dream Dad! The BSA cost $950, but Russo took the Cushman on trade-in for $250, leaving a balance of $700 Matt owed his father. Before leaving the dealership the younger Capri had never ridden a motorcycle on which you had to shift gears, but he figured it all out on the way home…..

Eager to show off his new BSA, Matt Capri borrowed another $25 from his Dad and that same summer evening rode it to Playland, a local Rye hangout, for a burger, fries and Coke. “I’m waiting for my meal when a large guy on a Harley comes up and asks who owns ‘the sissy red bike with the small tires’,” recalls Matt with a grin. “I said, it’s mine, and I’ll bet you $20 it can beat your Harley-Davidson – it was all I had left after ordering dinner! The I-95 New England Freeway was under construction but not open yet, and the police would let you race there illegally, instead of somewhere else where there was any traffic. The car guys already had a quarter-mile all marked up with white paint on the four-lane concrete freeway, so Mr. Harley and me line up, we nod our heads and the race begins. I had a perfect start and luckily didn’t miss any shifts – remember, it was my first day on a motorcycle! – so I crossed the finish line first. I rode back to Playland to collect my $40 which we’d given to the chef for safekeeping. Mr. Harley couldn’t believe he’d lost the race, so he wanted a rematch next week. I said I’d be back, rode home and told my Dad what had happened!”

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