It might be the most famous motorcycle photograph ever; Rollie Free stretched out over his Vincent Black Shadow at on the Bonneville Salt Flats, clad only in a bathing suit and tennis shoes,  squeezing an extra 1mph out of his machine, and recording 150mph.  The situation pictured is outrageous, incredibly dangerous, and impossible to repeat today.  It was a time when a man might struggle with the forces of Nature and Time utterly naked, and achieve eternal glory.  It was also not long after WW2, when hundreds of thousands died horribly; the antics of a veteran speedman giving 110% to reach his goal probably seemed sensible, when the notion of personal sacrifice in the name of a cause still hung in the air.  Today, it’s the ‘suits’ who control the game; the lawyers, insurance adjusters, and bureaucrats, who seek to deny the darkness in our hearts, the crazy erotism of speed, and the invigorating vitality of a little chaos now and then.

The infamous ‘bathing suit’ photo of Rollie Free doing 150mph on a Vincent Black Shadow in 1948. He claimed stripping to his trunks gave him 2.3mph, enough to reach the magic 150.

That’s the poetry of the epic ‘bathing suit’ photo, but there was a man aboard that Vincent, who had a very long relationship with motorcycles, speed, and even that fully prone riding position.  Jerry Hatfield delves into the heart of Rollie Free in his biography ‘Flat Out!  The Rollie Free Story’, filling in the history and character of Free, and the buildup of life events that led to that black streak on the Bonneville salt.  Rollie Free had several unique qualities; a fiercely competitive nature (considered ‘borderline insane’), a burning desire for vengeance against Harley-Davidson (which reneged on a promise of factory support), and his dogged persistence, especially in the years he spent developing his engine tuning skills.  Rollie Free engendered loyalty among his friends, and an incredulous admiration from his enemies. He was the perfect nut-job, just the sort of guy who would strip down to his swimming trunks to squeeze an extra mile per hour on his speed attempt, regardless of the highly abrasive salt bed just below his wheels.

Rollie Free working on the Vincent Black Shadow at Bonneville in 1948

‘Flat Out!’ is stuffed with fascinating photos from a well-documented life. That stretched-out riding pose was developed by Free in the 1920’s, when he was racing Indians. When Indian no longer developed motorcycles capable of trouncing Harleys, he turned to Vincents as the next likely candidate. His goal was to beat Joe Petrali’s record (on a streamlined Knucklehead – 137mph) by a sizable margin, so he began discussions with Philip Vincent on delivering a specially tuned Black Shadow which would do 150mph. Rollie Free had a benefactor, John Edgar, who was the actual owner of the motorcycle, but Free was given carte blanche to make a successful speed record. The infamous motorcycle was afterwards converted to a road machine, albeit in slightly de-tuned form, as Edgar wanted to ride ‘the world’s fastest standard motorcycle’.  Who wouldn’t?

John Edgar owned the Vincent Black Shadow which Rollie Free tuned with the help of the Vincent factory. It was essentially the prototype of the Black Lightning model, although Edgar had it de-tuned for road work after the record was taken. [William Edgar Photo, Edgar Motorsport Archive]
That 1948 session on the Bonneville Salt Flats may have been Free’s most famous escapade, but his decades as a racer, tuner, and dealer of Indians is every bit as compelling as a life story.  The ‘bathing suit’ Vincent is the hook, but there’s so much more in ‘Flat Out!’ worth reading.  The Harley vs Indian story is a strong thread; Indian’s successes are rarely discussed today, but Free had a lot to do with giving the Motor Co a spanking now and then.   The book is packed with great photos you’ve never seen, and includes an interview with Rollie Free taken 2 months before he died.  I first reviewed this book back in 2008, and the book is out of print now, selling for a whopping $500+ on Amazon, but let’s hope a little extra attention might bring a second edition from the publisher, Herb Harris.  Herb, are you listening?

Free lying prone in 1922 aboard an Indian Scout
In 1930, Free talked his way into the Indy 500 race by loaning the motor from his family Chrysler! The Depression shrank the entry field, and race organizers refunded the $100 entry fee if the car qualified. After tuning the car motor through the night (milling the cylinder head and placing washers under the valve springs), Free qualified the car at 89.369mph, and placed 20th in a field of 38 cars, winning $370. He had zero experience racing on four wheels, but he raced at Indy again in 1947.
A 15-year old William Edgar, son of the Vincent’s owner John Edgar, and now well-known motorsport journalist, aboard the HRD in Hollywood the day before it went to Bonneville. [John Edgar Photo, Edgar Motorsport Archive]
Rollie Free as cigar-chomping engine tuner and racer at the Daytona Beach 200 mile race
Stylish! Rollie and Margaret Free with their 1939 Indian 4-cylinder.
The 1947 Rosamond Dry Lake speed trials, and Fred Stammer’s Royal Enfield -JAP special with Mustang tank and a special system for holding down the cylinders!
Rollie Free ‘flat out’ (although posed) in 1947, aboard a JAP ‘two-of-everything’ 8-50 engine slotted into a Royal Enfield Bullet rolling chassis. He rode this beast at 136.62mph at Rosamond Dry Lake, CA. The bike belonged to Fred Stammer; Free was often called upon to tune, then ride (or drive – he raced the Indy 500 three times!) a machine, as he could always extract an extra few mph.
Rollie Free set 2 national Class C (production motorcycle) speed records at Daytona Beach on March 17, 1938, at 111.55mph on a Scout, and 109.65 mph on a Chief.
Rollie Free in 1922 with an ACE four-cylinder machine, the fastest motorcycle in America at the time. “A prone Rollie could coax a good ACE up to 88mph.”
Free at top speed on the Vincent – stylishly irresponsible!
Free still wearing his leathers in the 1947 record session at Bonneville…and a helmet.
The title page gives some idea of the epic scope of the Bonneville landscape. The salt is nearly gone today, and will likely be unrideable in the near future, so escapades like this will recede further into memory…
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