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Roland "Rollie" Free, the little recognized icon

1948, the iconic photograph that immortalizes "Rollie" Free


The photo: "Bathing Suit Bike"

The photograph, presented here, possibly, one of the most iconic in the history of motorcycling, is one of the most seen in the world. What is not so public is the moment it represents. On the morning of September 13, 1948 at Bonneville Salt Flats, Roland "Rollie" Free (1900-1984), in these preparations, broke the American speed record: 241,905 km/h!... He achieved the feat at the controls of a VINCENT HRD sponsored by MOBIL OIL. The bike was owned by John Edgar, a Californian sportsman, as special features it had: for the first time on VINCENT HRD, the use of a rear shock absorber, Mk II racing camshaft and horizontally mounted racing carburetors. It is believed that, originally, it was a Black Lightning, at the time, the fastest production motorcycle in the world, however, the result of a special order, about 45 kg lighter and with 25 hp more than the Black Shadow of series (207.7 kg and 55 hp). Phil Irving, one of the designers, says that only 16 units of this model were produced. The Black Lightning is the fastest model VINCENT HRD has ever produced. The bike continued to be used in competition until the mid-60s, after which it was integrated into the private collection of Herb Harris (Austin/Texas). Later (2010) it was sold for USD 1,100,000.00, the highest amount paid for a motorcycle belonging to a private collection. On the occasion in question, Free adopted a style that others, at the time, also used, without the safety equipment and lying on his stomach in order to minimize aerodynamic resistance and maximize the load on the rear wheel. In the initial attempts, Free was fully equipped, having reached 237 km/h. It was then that he decided to do without the jacket, pants, gloves, boots and helmet. So, inspired by his friend Ed Kretz, he made one last successful attempt at the position that the photo documents and using only a pair of shorts, a shower cap and borrowed sneakers.

Roland "Rollie" Free

Roland "Rollie" Free started his regional racing career in the 1920s riding INDIAN motorcycles. At the national level, he never achieved noteworthy achievements, although he specialized in long-distance events, having participated in 1937 in the 1st edition of the 200 Miles of Daytona. He dedicated himself to the hunt for speed records with more success, in addition to the episode reported above, he has other previous attempts that follow him. He set several American Motorcyclist Association records, including the Class C where he reached 179.52 km/h at Daytona in 1938 riding an INDIAN Chief prepared by himself! He died in 1984 and was posthumously inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.

The movie: BLACK LIGHTNING (The Rollie Free Story)

In 2017, a documentary film was released that won several awards. It was produced by William E. (Chip) Connor, owner of Bathing Suit Bike and lover of motorsports, with Alain de Cadenet (former car racer, he participated in F1 and having also participated in the Vila Real International Circuit) in historian and by William Edgar (son of John Edgar and eminent motorsports journalist). The short film, tells the life of Rollie and, among others, the curious fact that he was passed over, as a pilot, by HARLEY DAVIDSON, this episode turned out to be crucial in his desire to beat the mark and that ended up resulting in the results achieved in speed records at the service of INDIAN and VINCENT HRD.

Click on the image above to see the trailer



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