Rollie Free was a racer during the 1920s and '30s, but is best known for setting the American motorcycle one-mile speed record in 1948, when he rode a British-made Vincent HRD Black Shadow to a speed of 150.313 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. To make that record run, Free stripped down to tight-fitting swimming shorts and laid flat on the Vincent to cut down on every last bit of wind resistance. A photo of the swimsuit-clad Free racing across the salt flats at 150 mph became one of the most famous photos in the history of the sport.
Free straddled his first motorcycle at the age of 12, when his father gave him a secondhand NSU. In the early 1920s, he became a salesman first at O.K. Newby's Ace agency, then at Al Croker's Indian dealership, both in Kansas City. Free began record-setting attempts during this time period on the Ace four-cylinder touring machines. Later, while working for Crocker, Free 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 his first national, the 100-Mile National Championships on the board track in Kansas City. He qualified impressively, but finished out of the money. He continued to race through the late 1930s, specializing in long-distance road races such as the 200-mile events at Jacksonville, Florida, and Savannah, Georgia. Free was one of the riders who raced in the inaugural Daytona 200 on the beach course in 1937.
Free became an Indian dealer in Indianapolis in 1927. While living in Indianapolis, his reputation as an top-notch racer earned him a ride in the 1930 Indianapolis 500. His car blew a motor after 172 miles of racing. Free raced one more time in the May classic, again ending the race early with mechanical problems.
In the late 1930s, Free set several AMA Class C speed marks riding an Indian on Daytona Beach.
During World War II, Free entered the Air Force and was stationed at Hill Field in Utah. While in Utah, Free got his first chance to see the famous Bonneville Salt Flats. A few years after the war, a Hollywood sportsman named John Edgar asked Free to come to the Bonneville to make a motorcycle speed record attempt on a Vincent. The team was sponsored by Mobil Oil.
During the speed trials, Free was able to push the Vincent to an average of 148.6 mph. He decided to go for the 150 mph mark. Thinking that his racing leathers may be causing drag, Free decided to strip down to swimming shorts for the final run. He made the run lying flat, legs outstretched behind the Vincent, keeping his head low and guiding the bike by looking down and following a black stripe painted on the salt bed. The striptease act paid off for Free and he was able to cover the mile in 23.9 seconds, cracking the 150 mph barrier. On the return run, he went even faster, ending the day with an average speed of 150.313 mph. The mark broke an 11-year-old record (136.18 mph) held by Joe Petrali.
After the record run, Free joked about making the run in his swimming trunks.
"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 returned to the salt flats in 1950 and broke his own records, averaging 156.58 mph on the Vincent despite suffering a high-speed crash during that year's speed trials.
Free later moved to California and owned and operated an auto service station. He was a leading authority on the history of motorcycle racing and spoke frequently on the early days of racing at motorcycle gatherings. Free died in 1984.