Bill Warner, King of Land Speed Racing, Was the Fastest Motorcycle Rider on Earth

Bill Warner, King of Land Speed Racing, Was the Fastest Motorcycle Rider on Earth

The grin was a dead giveaway. Bob Sellers spotted the smile on his friend's face as he pulled up to the end of the tarmac. Bill Warner was still straddling his race bike, a 'roided-up 1,000-horsepower Suzuki Hayabusa. The black Bell helmet was sitting on the gas tank. Warner's bathwater-blue eyes squinted merrily, teeth straight and bright as new piano ivories. The racer had just been clocked going 296.128 mph down the decommissioned airstrip.

"What are you so happy about?" teased Sellers, a thin Texan in his late 50s.

"Let me tell you something," Bill said as he twisted off the bike, his lean frame wrapped tight in a black leather protective suit. "When the front end stays down on this thing, it is a blast. When the front end comes up, it is not a fun motorcycle to ride."

Bill Warner holds more than 27 land speed records.
Photo courtesy of Don Smith
Bill Warner holds more than 27 land speed records.
When Warner switched to a Suzuki Hayabusa, he entered a new spectrum of faster speeds.
Photo by Trillium Muir
When Warner switched to a Suzuki Hayabusa, he entered a new spectrum of faster speeds.

All weekend here in Loring, Maine, Sellers and Warner had been gunning for a world record: push the Suzuki over 300 mph — in just a one-mile stretch. But since Friday, the bike had been unruly. With so much juice kicking in instantly, the front wheel was pulling up like the nose of a jetliner during takeoff. The men had been trying to straitjacket the bike's urges. That last successful shot, billiard-ball smooth, meant success.

"Bill, you've only got three and a half miles per hour to go," Sellers said as they drove back to the pits.

"Let's go get four," Bill answered.

By that Sunday this past July 14, at an event hosted by the East Coast Timing Association, it was no surprise that Bill Warner was knocking on the door of another world record. Back home in Central Florida, Bill was just a quiet country guy who ran a rural fish farm. But for a niche number of race fans, he was a phenom: the sitting king of a relatively new sport called land speed racing. Matches pit riders against the clock, gunning for record speeds over set distances. And no one had notched more than Warner: 27 records in less than a decade.

Physically and mentally, racing meant pushing the envelope, tapping the same "Right Stuff" Tom Wolfe celebrated when he wrote about test pilots and astronauts. Warner was overstocked with the requisite brains and balls.

Two summers earlier, here at this same mothballed B-52 airbase just a few clicks shy of the Canadian line, Warner had clocked 311.95 mph — over a distance of 1.5 miles. Riders had broken 300 mph in a mile on two wheels before — but only on streamliners, which are covered, rocket-shaped sleds, like luges. Warner was the first to blow through the 300 mph threshold on an upright bike, body exposed. His 311 was the fastest a regular motorcycle had ever gone. A sustained speed like that would cover a mile in less than ten seconds, almost half the velocity of a .45 caliber bullet.

That "big number," as Warner called it, meant attention. From fans looking for autographs. From sponsors waving contracts. And today, from the 500 or so riders and spectators at the airstrip in Maine.

People eyed Warner with something approaching awe. He was basically a grounded space explorer, bending physics to boldly go where no motorcycle had gone before. Topping Alps, touching ocean beds — Warner's feats sprang from that same itch to push what's possible. But you'd never, ever hear Warner talk about it like that. Truly humble, self-importance or arrogance never breached his nice-guy poker face. Warner made the seemingly impossible look like no biggie.

On that day in Maine, all eyes were aimed his way. Especially because this would be his last race before retiring. Break 300 in a mile, then bow out at the top.

Warner and Sellers wove through the rows of tents and trailers, then unloaded the Hayabusa. It gleamed with new silver and blue paint. Big, aerodynamic plastic coverings, called fairings, sheathed the machine. At his laptop, Bill chewed on data logged by the bike's computer from the last run. Sellers did his maintenance routine, hunting for tire damage, topping the fuel, draining the coolant. The men worked with the same silent care and countdown nerves as engineers prepping for a NASA moonshot.

Sellers followed his rider to the starting line for his third run of the day. Bill's eyes scanned the engine temperature. He flicked on the water pump. With his left hand on the clutch, his right put the bike in gear. The engine revved to 6,000 rpm, the bike's fat growl climbing to a high buzzy whine. As Bill let out the clutch, the bike rolled a few feet, as gently as if it had been pushed. Then, when he was ready, tires began screaming. He shot off into the distance.

In a little over a minute, the PA system barked out the results: 293 mph. When Sellers fetched Warner from the end of the track, the smile was scrubbed from his face. The rider barely spoke. Sellers could feel the disappointment radiating off his friend. Disappointment and the need to do it again.

Warner was usually so prepared he rarely made more than one or two runs. Almost never four. But Sellers could tell his friend wasn't going to turn in without hitting his mark.

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