Flat Out, Face Down: Land Speed Racing’s Early Years

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Bud Hare on his horizontally set Triumph.
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Bud's reversed-cylinder Triumph.

When hot rodders from the SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) organized the first Bonneville Nationals speed trials on Utah’s fabled Bonneville Salt Flats in August of 1949, a new era of speed racing was born. Motorcyclists weren’t part of the show until 1951, however, when the four-wheelers invited 10 select bikers, among them a young man from Westminster, California, named Bud Hare.

Hare was an innovative genius for his time, creating new and unique ways to squeeze top speed from his Triumph-powered motorcycles. Among his early endeavors were two bikes that allowed the rider to lay prone over the engine to minimize wind resistance. No doubt, Hare was inspired by Rollie Free’s fabled 1948 land speed record at Bonneville, wearing only a swimsuit and helmet for the 150mph record run aboard John Edgar’s Vincent Black Shadow. Edgar had reserved the Salt Flats exclusively for this private speed venture, and the Vincent was modified so Free could lay prone to minimize drag.

According to Louise Ann Noeth in her book Bonneville Salt Flats, Free wore the usual leather racing attire for his initial pass. It was only when the suit’s seams ripped during the 20-minute turnaround period before his second back-up run to secure the record that Free replaced the cowhide with, of all things, a swimsuit. No doubt, Free’s performance validated the principles of streamlining, leading to what became known as land speed record racing’s swimsuit era, with countless other bike racers emulating Free’s antics at Bonneville.

It’s unclear today whether Hare joined the swimsuit sect, but there’s evidence that he clearly subscribed to the lay-down theory of streamlining, which led to a pair of his Triumph land speed record bikes. At the 1951 Bonneville speed meet he showed up with what Popular Science magazine described as a “belly whopper style” racer. Hare fabricated a special frame so that his Triumph twin engine laid horizontally, its cylinders facing forward, with a special two-barrel downdraft carburetor up top and the exhaust ports facing downward. He used a chain primary drive, with final drive also using a conventional chain. Hare rode in a prone position atop a low, flat platform that stretched the length of the frame. The bike set a 500cc class record, posting a speed of 125.678mph.

Hare built another belly whopper-style bike, this one based on a modified Triumph frame. In pursuit of using ram-air induction, he reversed the cylinders so the carbs and their bell-shaped velocity stacks faced forward, the exhaust emptying directly to the rear. This bike was officially known as the Flying Ironing Board, and according to sources, this also happened to be the bike that led to the demise of the swimsuit era at Bonneville. While racing Hare’s bike at the 1952 Bonneville Nationals, Tommy Smith, suited in Rollie Free fashion, crashed at about 140mph. He survived, but his injuries required numerous, and rather painful, skin grafts during subsequent months. No surprise, the SCTA rules committee banned bathing suits for motorcycle racers.

As LSR bike-builder Denis Manning reminds us to this day, “There are no guidelines for building an LSR bike. That book is full of blank pages.” Those pages most certainly were blank during LSR racing’s early years. — Dain Gingerelli

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