Motorbike Speed Attempts and Records

To claim a land speed record on two wheels, it will have to be attempted twice over a fixed length of a mile or a kilometre in opposite directions on the same day. These are the requirements of AMA National Land Speed Records. The FIM Land Speed World Records requires the same as the AMA, but both attempts must be within two hours of each other. These bikes are specially designed or modified motorbikes – not production bikes.

First Attempt

The first motorcycle speed attempt was in 1903 when Glenn Curtis, using aircraft engines, attained the top speed of 103kph. In 1907 he reached 219 kph riding a tubular frame fitted with a V8 engine. The drive shaft driving the rear wheel came adrift in his second attempt and nearly ended in disaster. At this time the air-speed record by the Wright brothers was the only 61kph.

FIM’s first adjudged speed attempt was in 1920 at Daytona Beach. Riding an Indian, Gene Walker achieved 168kph. Various other efforts were made, and records were broken until 1937 when Ernst Henne on a BMW set a record of 270kph. After the Second World War, many companies entered their motorbikes, from Triumph to Harley-Davidson and in 2006 Suzuki achieved 552 kph. In 2010 Suzuki has the unbeaten record of 605kph.

Iconic Endeavours

In 1967 the quiet, unassuming, bike-loving Burt Munroe, a New Zealander, shipped his 47-year-old Indian to the States to attempt the under 1000cc land speed record. His 1920 Indian, which was hardly recognisable as one, had taken twenty years to modify to his demanding standards. Changing whatever he could to improve on, including homemade pistons, he attempted and achieved New Zealand speed records, but his aim was always Bonneville. His first trial nearly didn’t take place as he had not registered in advance. After convincing the organisers, he broke the records with an astounding speed of 296kph, won with a painful burn on his leg from the exhaust, and without a visor which had blown off! He was 67 years old!

Fifty years after Burt’s first speed attempt at Bonneville, his great-nephew, Lee Munro, modified an Indian Scout and Burt’s record was broken, but in a different category – his bike being an MPS-G and the speed achieved was 301kph. The engine was 1350cc V-Twin with a streamlined body. Corey Bertelsen, another New Zealander, (inspired, perhaps by Burt Munro) has also broken a speed record. Confirmed by FIM, he achieved 435kph on his GSXR 750.

Female Speedsters

The fastest ever female motorcyclist is Valerie Thompson. With eight land-speed records to her name, she is in the Sturgis Motorcyclist Hall of Fame, and she is a member of 7 200mph Clubs and one 300mph Club and is the only woman to compete with men for the fastest motorcycle title, and in 2018 she rode the BUB7 Streamliner to a speed of 529kph!

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