67-year-old biker breaks 300 mph on a 2003 Suzuki GSX-R1000
The engineering brains of Karl Benz. The aerodynamic skills of Wernher von Braun. And the nerves of Chuck Yeager. Meet motorcycle world land-speed record holder Ralph Hudson, who in July 2018 set a new world’s record of 297.970 mph in a two-way average on the Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, on a bike he developed himself.
No one in history has ever put down faster back-to-back runs sitting on a motorcycle. And at the same time, he became the first person to break the 300-mph mark in an FIM sanctioned meet, going 304.969 mph on one run. And oh yeah, Hudson is 67 years old. Just as incredible as Hudson’s achievements are that he did most of this alone, starting with a used 2003 Suzuki GSX-R1000 he bought on Craigslist.
Hudson’s penchant for building things that go started early, when at age 13 a friend and his friend’s dad turned a Schwinn Sting Ray into a minibike by adding a mower engine. It didn’t work all that well, but just having power under him was an epiphany for Hudson. “It was the most magical thing that it would actually move you!” he laughs.
Before high school, Hudson bought a used Puch trail bike to ride in a hiking area near his L.A. home. That led to a part-time job at a Kawasaki motorcycle shop, where the owner let him try one of the new 1969 Mach III 500cc two-stroke triples. “I came back with biggest grin on my face,” Hudson recalls.
The scorching performance of that bike opened Hudson’s eyes to the enjoyment that high-performance on two wheels uniquely provides, and he was soon drag racing a Mach III of his own at Irwindale Raceway. There, he met an unkempt sort of gent—think of the Columbo TV character—who was a race tuner. Following this man’s carburetor-jetting advice, Hudson’s bike got much quicker, and later in 1971, at just 20 years old, he made his first trip to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where he was fortunate to set three records on the Mach III. The hook was set for a lifetime of interest in the fringe sport of absolute straight-line speed.
After these early successes, however, with a business to build and, eventually, a family, Hudson shelved racing for the next 34 years, until 2009 when time and resources came together to make just the right cocktail and he returned to the salt. There, Hudson realized that his dream of going 200 mph and earning what LSR folks call the “red hat” (given to Bonneville riders and drivers who set a record at that speed or above) was fully alive. So was an innovative bodywork design—the sorcerer’s magic potion for speed. The genesis was a 1976 Cycle magazine article about motorcycle aerodynamics, which had inspired him to think about the rear of the motorcycle as well as the front. This led to around 100 napkin drawings, which ultimately defined his record-setting bodywork.
Equally important was Hudson’s attitude. “It struck me, ‘Am I going to be the guy who always talked about it or am I actually going to do it?’” he admits. “I decided that at 58 I’d better try it before I got too old.”
Hudson restarted with 200 mph as a goal. He achieved that in 2009, then slowly ramped up his speed to 220 in 2010, 225 in 2011, and then 239 in 2012. A supercharger added more speed for 2013. He is quick to credit fabricator Ted Silver, engine builder Bob Carpenter, and electronics tuner Shane Tecklenberg for their assistance as the pursuit intensified.
Although each run takes only about 90 seconds from start to finish, not all were completed without drama. At Bonneville in 2013, the machine began weaving at 200 mph and Hudson was unable to correct it. The telemetry shows he was pitched off at 218 mph, and flew, slid, and tumbled for a mile before coming to a rest. Although he was able to get up afterwards, a shoulder injury earned him a helicopter ride to the hospital. It deterred him not the least bit; rather, the crash only enhanced his interest in the aerodynamics, traction, and handling necessary to keep advancing in speed.
Hudson first got wind of the Top One-sponsored Bolivia meet in 2016. The event was the brainchild of streamliner builder Mike Akatiff and former LSR racer Mike Cook, and was hatched as successive years of poor weather and salt conditions at Bonneville curtailed meets there. In 2017, Hudson made the pilgrimage to Bolivia along with four other motorcycle teams. There, his two-way average of 284.361 mph set a new FIM world record for a “sit-on” motorcycle. (Fully encapsulated streamliners such as Akatiff’s Ack Attack are faster, but they are more like streamlined cars—or perhaps two-wheeled missiles—than they are motorcycles.) His reward, besides his own quiet satisfaction, was meeting Bolivian president Yvo Morales, and then in Fall 2017, traveling to Spain to receive honors as an FIM world champion. Also attending were such motorcycle racing heroes as MotoGP champion Marc Marquez, motocross star Ryan Dungey, and others. Hudson has ridden faster than all of them.
Fast forward to July 2018, and Hudson again travelled to Bolivia, this time aiming for a 300-mph two-way record. And he nearly got it. After 10 runs over three days, and thrice surpassing 300 mph for a time, he had to settle for the 297-mph two-way average. Whereas in 2017 the Bolivian salt was dry and the traction good, this year, wet salt and low grip made controlling the bike tough. “It was like wrestling a rodeo bull,” Hudson comments. At one point the wind blew him off course, where the bike destroyed a mile marker like a hurricane ripping apart a dandelion.
Poignantly, 297 mph vs. 300 mph was just 1-percent shy of Hudson’s 2018 goal. But more pointedly, it’s 15 mph shy of his eventual aim. In 2011, a gentleman named Bill Warner made a single pass at Loring Air Force Base in Maine at 311 mph. Although he achieved that speed for 132 feet, once, and not the back-to-back flying miles required for a world record, it still is the stimulus for Hudson wanting to average 312 mph.
And that, he says, will be enough.