18/11/1900 - 11/10/1980
Record updated 16-Jun-07
Rollie Free was a motorcycle racer best known for breaking the motorcycle land speed record in 1948 on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, dressed only in a pair of swimming trunks. He raced in the Indy 500 twice, in 1930 and 1947, and holds another record, that of the longest gap between appearances in Indy history.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Free first rode a motorcycle at the age of 12, when his father gave him a secondhand NSU.
Free nurtured a grudge against Harley Davidson after one of their dealers had stiched him up with a dodgy bike in the early 1920s and, when he went to work for O.K. Newby's Ace dealership in Kansas City as a salesman, he began making record attempts on the Ace four-cylinder touring machine. Devoted to breaking Harley's various speed records on other bikes, he joined Al Croker's Indian dealership also in Kansas City. He also earned a reputation as the fastest street racer in the Kansas City area, much to the chagrin of the local Harley-Davidson camp.
In 1923 Free competed in the 100-Mile National Championships on the board track in Kansas City. He qualified well but finished unplaced.
Free opened an Indian dealership in Indianapolis in 1927 and while living in Indianapolis, his reputation earned him a drive in the 1930 Indianapolis 500. Free passed his test and qualified in 37th, however his clutch failed on the 69th lap. It would be 17 years before he ran at the Brickyard again.
During the Depression of the early 1930s, Free worked with other stunt riders in a carnival, riding Indian V twins around a Wall of Death containing a bad-tempered lion.
He continued to race through the late 1930s, specialising in long distance road races such as the 200-mile events at Jacksonville, Florida, and Savannah, Georgia. Free also raced in the very first Daytona 200 on the beach course in 1937.
Too old to serve overseas during World War Two, he joined the United States Air Force as a mechanic stationed at Hill Field in Utah. There he first saw the Bonneville Salt Flats.
After World War II, Free continued riding Indian motorcycles in long distance and sprint record attempts, as well as racing on dirt track with Triumphs.
In 1947 he tried his hand at four wheel racing again, setting the record for the longest gap between appearances at Indy. A record he holds with Cy Marshall, who also raced in 1930 and 1947. After qualifying in 12th, Free spun off into the wall on lap 87.
On the morning of September 13, 1948, Free raised the AMA motorcycle speed record to 150.313 mph riding a Vincent HRD Black Lightning owned by the California sportsman John Edgar and sponsored by Mobil Oil. Free had already developed a style of removing the seat and lying prone along the frame to minimise wind resistance and place his weight over the rear wheel.
Free normally wore leathers but after problems with them on early runs he discarded them for his final attempt. Thus clad in only a pair of swimming trunks, a shower cap and a pair of borrowed trainers he set the record.
He also became responsible for one of the most famous photographs in motorcycling history, the "bathing suit bike" shot taken from a car running alongside him during a run in 1950 when he pushed his record to 152 mph. Free said that "I stole the swimming trunks idea from Ed Kretz, who used to do the same on Southern California dry lakes. Incidentally, Ed looks much nicer in a swim suit than I do."
Free continued on his mission to beat Harley-Davidson, raising his record to 160.78 mph in 1953 before falling off and deciding to quit.
He continued to live hard and fast and moved to California where he had a garage. A leading authority on the history of motorcycle, he died in 1984 and was posthumously inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.