Tuesday, March 18, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: 'Flat Out - The Rollie Free Story'

I mentioned this book in an earlier post, before I had even ordered it. Now that I've read it, it has to rank as one of my all-time favorite motorcycle books. Written by Jerry Hatfield (author of several books on Indian Motocycles), the book is very well researched, and delves into the heart of the man immortalized in the most famous motorcycle photo of all, Rollie Free stretched out flat on his Vincent Black Shadow at 150mph (top pic).

Hatfield has written a great biography by filling in the history and character of Free, including all the events in his life which led to that famous photo; his fiercely competitive nature (to the point of being considered borderline insane), his desire for vengeance against Harley-Davidson (which reneged on a promise of factory support), and his persistence, especially in the years spent developing his engine tuning skills. He engendered loyalty among his friends, and an incredulous admiration of his enemies. He was a real nut-job, just the sort of guy who would strip down to his swimming trunks to squeeze an extra mile per hour on his speed attempt, regardless of the highly abrasive salt bed just below his wheels.

The book is stuffed with fascinating photos of a well-documented life. That stretched-out riding pose was developed by Free in the 1920's, when he was racing Indians. When Indian no longer developed motorcycles capable of trouncing Harleys, he turned to Vincents as the next likely candidate. His goal was to beat Joe Petrali's record (on a streamlined Knucklehead - 137mph) by a sizeable margin, so he began discussions with Philip Vincent on delivering a specially tuned Black Shadow which would do 150mph. Rollie Free had a benefactor, John Edgar, who was the actual owner of the motorcycle, but Free was given carte blanche to make a successful speed record. The infamous motorcycle was afterwards converted to a road machine, albeit in slightly de-tuned form, as Edgar wanted to be seen riding 'the world's fastest standard motorcycle'.

I found Free's decades as a racer, tuner, and dealer of Indians as interesting as his most famous interlude with the Vincent - there was so much more to the man than that photograph, and whether you ever gave it a thought, you will be glad you know who he was when you've read this book.
You can buy the book direct from Jerry Hatfield from his blog, in the US or in Europe. Motorcycle books always have a short print run, so I encourage you to send him a check before it sells out, and goes out of print. The book also includes a cd recording of a long interview with Free, just a few months before he died.

Second photo shows a lineup ca 1925, of 30.50cubic inch (500cc) racing Indian single cylinder ohv flat-track machines. Rollie free can be seen at the back of the lineup, chomping a cigar.

Third pic shows Rollie 'flat out' on Daytona Beach, riding his '37 Indian Chief at 110.15mph, gaining a speed record for a standard production motorcycle (which had been 'breathed on' by Free).

Last pic shows Free 'flat out' (although posed) in 1947, on a JAP two-of-everything engine (8-50 model, though, not an 8-80; it doesn't have the deeply spigotted barrels) slotted into a Royal Enfield Bullet rolling chassis. He rode at 136.62mph at Rosamond Dry Lake, CA. The bike belonged to Fred Stammer; Free was often called upon to tune, then ride (or drive - he raced the Indy 500 three times!) a machine, as he could always extract an extra few mph.

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