Book Review: Flat Out! The Rollie Free Story and World’s Fastest Motorcycle

[This Review of Flat Out! The Rollie Free Story and World’s Fastest Motorcycle was originally published in the September 2008 issue of Rider magazine]
Flat Out! The Rollie Free Story and World’s Fastest Motorcycle Book Review
Flat Out! The Rollie Free Story and World’s Fastest Motorcycle

These are two very different books about the same subject, with the events taking place more than half a century apart. In Flat Out! The Rollie Free Story, Jerry Hatfield has written a superb biography of Roland Free, who made more than history in 1948 when he ripped across the Bonneville Salt Flats for an average two-way record of more than 150 mph on a stripped 998cc OHV Vincent V-twin…dressed in a bathing suit and sneakers. Fifty-eight years later John Stein, in World’s Fastest Motorcycle: The Day the Bonneville Salt Stood Still, chronicles the day in 2006 that Chris Carr, tucked into a fully enclosed streamliner powered by a turbocharged 2,997cc DOHC, 16-valve V-four, upped the motorcycle land speed record to 350 mph.

Rollie Free was a mid-western boy, born in 1900, who liked speed. He owned an Indian motorcycle shop in Indianapolis and liked to win on Sunday so he could sell on Monday. In 1937 he quit racing and concentrated on speed records, running an Indian Chief down the beach at Daytona in 1938 at 110 mph. He rose to the rank of major in the Army Air Corps in World War II. After the war he moved to California where he became familiar with the Vincent HRD marque. In 1948 he trucked a well-massaged Rapide, the predecessor to the Black Shadow, out to Bonneville, and with no loose clothing to hinder the speed turned a record 150.313 mph on September 13. He was fixated on surpassing that semi-mythical 150-mph mark, and was willing to risk a lot of skin in pursuit of that goal. Five years later, on a Black Lightning–this time more appropriately clothed–he upped that to 160.78 mph, but did suffer from heat exhaustion in the process.

That was when motorcycle speed records were relatively cheap to accomplish. Quite the opposite of 2006, Stein’s book describing the efforts of three teams to set a new record for two-wheelers, when spending hundreds of thousands of dollars is expected. Great photos accompany the story, and excellent text. This is the streamliner Bonneville, where the record seekers are as fixated as Rollie Free ever was, the only limit being the size of the engine to 3,000cc. While Carr in the BUB Seven gets the record after completing the mandatory back-to-back runs, it is Sam Wheeler in his ZX11-powered EZ-Hook who actually goes the fastest, over 355 mph one way…but tire problems prevented his doing the second run. Bummer!

No new land speed record was set in 2007 because the surface of the salt was in poor shape for high-speed runs, but just you wait for 2008! Flat Out! ($54.95) is a work of historical importance, and Hatfield has done a great job of bringing the bathing-suit man to life, illustrated with more than 200 photos from the Free family archives. Included is an audio CD of Hatfield’s 1980 interview with Free. World’s Fastest Motorcycle ($35) is a splendid telling, and showing in photographs, of one week in the pursuit of speed and a new record…which will assuredly be broken someday soon. Stein has also included a DVD with the book, with truly great video of the 2006 International Motorcycle Speed Trials.

For more information:
Flat Out! The Rollie Free Story is available from Jerry Hatfield, 605 Hinsdale Drive, Arlington, Texas 76006; (817) 861-2822;

John Stein’s World’s Fastest Motorcycle comes from Parker House Publishing, and can be found in your friendly local bookstore.


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