I'm posting this a day earlier than usual because I'm leaving in the morning for rustic Cedar Vale, Kansas... Hope to see you there!
Rollie’s Bike and Your Bike
I’m reading Jerry Hatfield’s book Flat Out, The Rollie Free Story. Free, of course, is famous for his 150 mph, unfaired standard motorcycle record set in 1948 at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
As you surely know, he rode belly-down after changing into top gear: Prone on the tank and rear fender, the bike’s seat removed, his nose a foot behind the gas cap, his feet stretched out beyond the back end of a 1,000cc Vincent twin. He wore (at 150 mph on a surface of rough salt) a bathing suit and borrowed, too big, low-top sneakers. No socks. No shirt. A joke crashhat.
He didn’t even look ahead. His face pressed onto the tank, he watched a black line on the salt alongside the bike, steering with stubs of handlebar sawn off just hand-width, no more.
That “bathing-suit bike” image is probably the most recognized in motorcycling. My friend Steve has it tattooed on his forearm. Maybe you do too.
Hatfield, a Texan, has written extensively about Indian motorcycles. The first half of Flat Out focuses on Free’s Indian years, riding, selling, tuning and racing Iron Redskins, primarily the 45 cubic inch flathead Scouts. The second half looks at the bathing suit ride and Free’s later years.
I couldn’t say which half of the book I enjoy more, but I do love reading about and seeing photos of the old days here in the US, the Harley and Indian hostilities before and after WWII. What fun those guys had on their 35hp motorcycles! Whatever they did on bikes, they did on rigid-framed flathead vee-twins from Harley or Indian.
According to Hatfield, the Indians were generally faster than the Harleys. A 45ci (750cc) Scout was faster and more agile than a 61ci Chief, the bigger brave from the Wigwam, the Indian factory in Massachusetts. Especially if Rollie Free had worked his magic on that Scout.
In the early 1920s, in his riding youth, Rollie (short for Roland, thus Roh-lee, not Rah-lee) Free felt he’d been treated unfairly by Harley-Davidson racers and staff. Any subsequent damage he could do to Harley’s reputation or a Harley rider’s pride, he did. He never forgot and never let up.
Free would look for opportunities to defeat and/or insult Harley riders. He liked to race for money and said he’d never had a “gentleman’s bet” with a Harley rider. If some third party didn’t hold the stakes, beaten Harley guys wouldn’t pay, he’d say. They simply could not be trusted.
Free arguably tuned the fastest Scouts in the US from his Indian shop in Indianapolis. He could work on a Scout that would run 107 mph, already a damned fast one, and turn it into a 114 mph rocket in a few days. Among street racers and track racers, he was a legend, a tuning wizard.
I feel sure that Free would work his magic cheaply or free of charge on any Indian in Indianapolis or towns nearby. The owner could then rub Harley riders’ noses in Wigwam and Rollie Free superiority. Harley made a terrible enemy when they pissed off the wizard.
A wizard, you will note, renowned for his power to raise a Scout’s top speed about six percent. You suspect that every rider back then knew precisely how fast his bike would run and was keen to increase that number. Even a few mph was significant.
That’s gone, isn’t it? Top speed today is a road test value, not relevant in real life. And a six percent boost, 180 mph to 190 mph? Who cares. But seven extra miles per hour on the quieter roads of the 1930s, when the fastest road-going bikes would barely crack 100? And all those cocky Harley riders so easy to humiliate?
When you see the photos in Flat Out of guys sitting on their Scout street bikes and racing bikes, and you see the grins and smirks and confident 1,000-yard gazes, you see men proud of their cast-iron 750s. You see the rulers of rural highways, club runs, field meets and dirt and board oval tracks.
Those guys seem to be having so much fun. You stare at the photos: Rollie Free’s ever-present cigar, collared shirt, necktie and Tam o’ Shanter (like a beret with a puff in the center). You see racers sponsored by Diamond Chain, by Valvoline Motor Oil, by the Indianapolis Indian Shop.
I love the photos of those guys on their Scouts. Some are posed in front of Roland R. Free’s Indian store. You imagine wives with square cornered Kodaks unknowingly preserving the proud moment for Jerry Hatfield’s lucky readers 80 years later.
Some photos are racetrack shots made maybe by professionals showing Indian-mounted winners flanked by crews and excited friends, dusty winners in leather helmets, sweaters or something like rugby jerseys, goggles up on their helmets, faces clean around their eyes.
A few are shots from club runs, reminiscent of the opening moments of The Wild One shot 30 years later, still a long time ago, a bunch of antique-looking motorcycles strung out on a dusty, country two-lane road. Horse-riding pants, wide bars, hand shift levers and footboards.
You realize with a start that a new Ninja 300 “beginner” bike will outrun any or all of them. You wonder what we’ve gained. The Harley-Indian wars are long over. We don’t need tuning gurus like Rollie Free. We’re liberated also from the community of the old clubs, of brand-based clans. The world is faster, our bikes are faster. Are we having as much fun?
You read about Rollie Free post-war and his meetings with the men who would set him up to eclipse Joe Petrali’s long-standing (Harley-held) record. You read about men awestruck at the sound and sensation of brutal Vincent H.R.D. 1,000cc overhead valve twin-cylinder stomp.
You read of Free and the bike’s owner, wealthy southern Cal motorsports heavy John Edgar, rolling the Vincent’s throttle on and off in first gear in an alley, fearful of the power, unprecedented power, under their feeble control. Fearful and thrilled in the same moment.
It occurs to you that your own bike has twice the power of Rollie Free’s fierce Vincent. But It doesn’t take three guys pushing to start your bike. It runs quiet as a car. You don’t have to replace your spark plugs after each top speed run. Your bike has a comfy seat and bright lights and footrests for you and for your passenger.
And you realize you could ride your bike to Wendover, Utah. If you change your gearing just a bit, even if you do not replace your front wheel with a brakeless one or remove your front fender and seat, even if you wear leathers, boots and a quality helmet, your bike may well be faster across the salt than Rollie Free’s fearsome, iconic Black Shadow. Imagine that.
Flat Out The Rollie Free Story Jerry H. Hatfield Copyright 2007 One-Track Publications