Rolland "Rollie" Free


(November 11, 1900 - October 11, 1984)

rollie free
Roland Free breaking world's speed record on Bonneville Salt Flats while laying on his bike --September, 1948.

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Roland Free breaking world's speed record on Bonneville Salt Flats while photographers try to snap pictures --September, 1948.

rollie free
Roland Free breaking world's speed record on Bonneville Salt Flats --September, 1948.

rollie free
Roland Free chatting with photographer at Bonneville Salt Flat --September, 1948.

rollie free

Rollie Free made made history aboard a 1948 Vincent HRD V-Twin motorcycle, often referred to as the “Bathing Suit Bike” due to the scant attire of its rider, Roland “Rollie” Free.  John Edgar hired Free to make the attempt at the Bonneville Salt Flats on Sept. 13, 1948.

Free initially removed the bike seat and laid flat out on his stomach to minimize wind resistance, and when the stitching on his leathers failed and they began flapping in the breeze, he discarded them too, opting instead for a simple pair of tight bathing trunks, a swim cap, and a pair of tennis shoes. Tragedy could have been the result, but Free averaged a smoldering 150.313 mph, smashing the previous American speed record and establishing a new world record for unstreamlined and unsupercharged bikes.

On the morning of September 13, 1948, Free raised the American motorcycle speed record by riding the very first Vincent HRD (it is debated as to whether it was a Black Lightning or Black Shadow), owned by the California sportsman John Edgar and sponsored by Mobil Oil, to a speed of 150.313 mph (241.905 km/h). Special features included the first-ever Vincent use of a rear shock absorber, the first Mk II racing cams, and horizontally-mounted racing carbs. Free had already developed a style of removing the seat from his mount, and lying flat prone along the back spine – thereby minimizing wind resistance, and placing most weight over the rear wheel.

To protect himself and allow comfort when in such a position, Free had developed special protective clothing. However, when his leathers tore from early runs at 147 mph (237 km/h), he discarded them and made a final attempt without jacket, pants, gloves, boots or helmet. Free lay flat on the motorcycle wearing only a Speedo bathing suit, a shower cap, and a pair of borrowed sneakers – inspired by friend Ed Kretz. This resulted not only in the record, but also one of the most famous photographs in motorcycling history, the "bathing suit bike" shot taken from a speeding car alongside his run on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

The Vincent used is sometimes mistaken for a SeriesB machine, having the stamp BB on its engine casing – but is actually a works modified machine, and recognized as the first, or prototype of 30 Lightnings. The bike remained racing in the United States until the mid 1960s, and now resides virtually intact in Texas.


Born on November 18, 1900 in Chicago, Illinois, USA. After an early career in motorcycle retail, Free became a regional racer of the 1920’s and 30’s on Indian Motorcycles. In 1923, Free tried out for his first national motorcycle race, the 100-Mile National Championships on the board track in Kansas City, but did not qualify. He developed his career in longer-distance events, and raced in the very first Daytona 200 on the Daytona Beach Road Course in 1937.

He joined the Army Air Force as an aircraft maintenance officer during the Second World War; during this time, he was stationed at Hill Field in Utah, where he first saw the Bonneville Salt Flats. In 1945, Free left the Air Force, and resumed racing the soon-to-be defunct Indian motorcycles in long-distance and sprint record attempts, as well as dirt track racing on Triumphs.

Free later moved to California and, after his racing career faded, worked in the auto servicing industry. He died in October 11, 1984 (aged 83) Los Angeles, California, USA and was posthumously inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.

In 1950, 2 years after his more-famous-than-Jesus swim-suit speed run at Bonneville, Rollie Free returned to the salt to reclaim his record. This time he arrived with a fully enclosed Vincent Black Lightning, a first attempt at streamlining by Rollie and on day 2 he made his first full-speed run.

Things did not go well. As he approached his 155 mph target speed the motorcycle became skittish, almost certainly due to aerodynamic issues, before Rollie could come off the throttle the bike entered a severe tank slapper, lost control and flipped onto it’s side.

Once the faired bike was sideways there was nothing Rollie could do but hold on tight and pray that the coarse salt surface of the dried lake didn’t wear through the thin fibreglass shell. By the time he came to a stop he had slid almost a full mile on his side, despite this he stepped out of the fairing unharmed and went on to set a new world record the next day at a speed of 156.58 mph.

rollie free

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