Ralph Hudson aboard his modified Suzuki. Photo: Jean Turner
Meet Ralph Hudson: The World’s Fastest Biker! By Tom Stahler
As a recreational sport, motorcycle riding is a great way to “blow out the cobwebs.” The thrill and tranquility mix makes conventional psychotherapy almost unnecessary. There is, however, a rider who probably could use some counseling… His name is Ralph Hudson, and he holds the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) World Land Speed Record (LSR) on a “rider exposed” motorcycle — pushing the 300 mile per hour mark.
In 2018, at a far-away salt flat called Salar de Uyuni, at 12,000 feet above sea level, in the Andes Mountains, Bolivia, Hudson and his crew took a crack at the the LSR and came away with the FIM title. Hudson has been at it awhile. At age 67, you would expect him to be more of a weekend warrior, going on casual rides to places like Sturgis with his buddies…But alas, racing, engineering and ambition has been pumping in his veins for a very long time. He was climbing the AMA road racing ladder behind the great Kenny Roberts.
“In the Seventies, I was road-racing motorcycles,” recalls Ralph, who by day, creates sets in Hollywood for the advertising industry. “In a motorcycle magazine, I read about aerodynamics.I realized you can go faster with less power. Over the next decades I would draw designs on cocktail napkins. Ultimately, in my shop I built a body for a Suzuki street bike and went out and set a record — first try — of 211 miles per hour. Over the next nine years we did a number of modifications to the bike and in 2017, in Bolivia, we set a World Record of 284 miles per hour.”
So on his first attempt, Hudson joined the famed 200 MPH Club at Bonneville. A very special award. At Bonneville to be in the 200 mph club you not only have to go over 200, you have to set a record. The reward for making it into the 200 mph Club is a red hat that the bearers wear proudly of their accomplishment. At numerous events around Southern California, you see numerous examples of the famed red hat — that may as well be glued to their head.
He has continued to work towards the 300 mph barrier. Surpassing it in 2018 at 307 in the first pass. But of course, the official record requires two passes, back and forth on the 8 mile straightaway graded into the Bolivian salt flat. Ralph did 291 coming back, which made for an average of 297.7 miles per hour — a new world record. But Hudson wanted 300-plus…He came pretty damn close!
Sunset over Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Photo: Curiosity.com
But why travel to such a far away land when Bonneville Speed Weeks beckon daredevils with a far shorter commute? The unmolested Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, as it turns out, is a very special place. It has only been used for this purpose in the last few years — yet it offers so much. Consider the Bonneville Salt Flats in Tooele County Utah — the byproduct of the Pleistocene Lake Bonneville — the largest of many salt flats located west of the Great Salt Lake. For LSR purposes, Bonneville has 40 Square miles and a five mile course. Salar de Uyuni has 4086 Square miles and a 16 mile course.
It also is home to a hotel — completely constructed of salt — and South America’s largest “Train Graveyard” that recalls 19th and early 20th Century salt mining operations.
An early locomotive rots away in Salar de Uyuni's Train Graveyard. Photo: SkareMedia
“The Bonneville Salt flats have not been very good for the last eight to ten years,” commented Hudson. “But oddly enough, they were really good last year.”
The annual Bonneville Speed Week was cancelled during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Deteriorating track conditions caused by heavy rains that drew mud from the surrounding mountains and covered roughly 6 miles of the original track, and left the legendary land of speed unusable. Another section of the flats would normally be used. However, nearby salt mining operations has compressed the size of the alternative track too.
The current state of the Bonneville Salt Flats has precluded LSR attempts and has inspired a group to "Save The Salt." Photo: Land Speed Productions
Further, the depth of the salt crust at Bonneville has been severely reduced. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the salt crust measured 3 feet. It has become very thin at just over two inches in 2015. But in the interest not only of the historical significance of Bonneville, but the perpetual ability to run SpeedWeek, an organization called “Save The Salt” was formed.
According to “LandSpeed Louise” Noeth, founder of LandSpeed Productions and leader of the Save the Salt Coalition, “Bonneville is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and deemed an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Until 1997, salt removed from Bonneville for potash processing under leases issued by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was not replaced.
Since that time, the mining company has pumped salt brine onto Bonneville. The racing community represented by the Save the Salt Coalition, the Utah Alliance and the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) have worked with Utah lawmakers and regulators, including the U.S. Congressional delegation, along with the BLM and Intrepid Potash, Inc. to create the Restore Bonneville program. The program will dramatically increase the volume of salt being pumped onto the Bonneville Salt Flats by Intrepid from the current levels of 0.6 million tons per year or less to about 1.5 million tons per year.”
A request made by Rep. Steve Handy that Utah fund $5 million for a state “Restore Bonneville” program. The money would leverage an additional $45 million from the federal government and approximately $2.5 million from the racing community.
With those risky conditions at Bonneville, an alternative would prove beneficial. Hudson then heard about Mike Akatiff, who holds the world record on a twin engine streamliner motorcycle at 376.363 mph back in 2010. This is not a “rider exposed” bike, but a land-based rocket, that the rider sits inside. Ralph recalls, “I heard rumors there were salt flats in Bolivia and Mike was going to attempt 400 there. I called him, having gotten his number through a network of friends. At first he told me ‘No, I think it’s just going to be us.’ But then he called back a little while later and said ‘If you would like to go we are going to open it up.’ We were only four competitors that first year.”
It proved to be a Godsend for the LSR competitors, but also a hindrance. “The first year we went, the salt was so good,” said Hudson. “It was just like white asphalt. It was very dry.If you see pictures of support vehicles at Bonneville, the wheels are caked in salt. We drove the same types of SUVs for a week and there was no salt. But in 2018 when we went back, it was wet.”
Mike Aikiff came to the Andes Mountains with a goal of 400 mph in 2017, but mechanical failures hampered his attempt. That didn’t hinder Hudson though. Despite a competitor, a Honda dealer from Dallas, Texas named Al Lamb, clocked 265.849 for a new world record.The last record was 262, achieved by a rider named Bill Warner — and it had stood for 5 years. In Hudson’s attempt, despite a number of setbacks including his bike and equipment arriving two days late, was able to clinch the record in 2017 with a speed of 285.852.
In 2018, Hudson was hell-bent on achieving 300 mph. But as mentioned, the salt was wet. The conditions had changed year over year and our hero was at the mercy of a different set of circumstances. Ralph Hudson’s first run was 284.391
“We brought the bike and I was fully expecting to go 300 in the first run. But we only did 290,” recalls Hudson. “So we went back and looked at the data logger and found that the wheel speed was 320, but we had about 10% wheel slip. The wheel was turning thirty miles per hour faster than the bike was.”
A major conundrum was tires for the bike. “Tires are not engineered to go this fast. No one really makes a tire that can go this speed.Goodyear makes one but that is for cars. Dunlop is nice enough to provide our tires and we talked about what can be done for a land speed tire, but they really don’t want that type of publicity. We just ended up changing the tires every run,” observed Ralph.
By the end of the first day, Hudson clocked an average speed of 291 miles per hour.Beating his world record from 2017. But needless to say, he was not satisfied.
Ralph Hudson with his LSR challenger, sans bodywork. Photo: Jean Turner
There was another rider who achieved the 300 mph mark on a rider exposed bike. “Bill Warner actually clocked 311 for 132 feet on asphalt at an event in Loring (Air Force Base), Maine. To get a record you have to hold that speed for two miles. You need to hold that speed for 80 times as long. But that is my goal to surpass his speed.”
Sadly, on July 14, 2013, while attempting to break 300 mph in a single mile at the Loring Timing Association land speed meet, Bill Warner lost control of his motorcycle at 285 miles per hour. His motorcycle shot off the course and hit a six inch concrete landing light pedestal and was thrown a long way. Warner was conscious after the crash, but was pronounced dead at Cary Medical Center in Caribou, Maine. He had managed 296 mph in a mile at the meet, in less than optimal conditions. The cause of the accident is still unknown — though investigators suspect mechanical or tire failure.
Going these kinds of speeds certainly would give anyone a moment of pause to think about the Warner tragedy.However Ralph is focused on the goal. “What I’m really doing is talking to the engine saying, ‘please don’t blow up. Please don’t blow up.’ Its really windy and the wind is really loud. The first year when the salt was really good, it was easy. It was like riding your bike for groceries. In 2018 it was like riding in a rodeo. Its very difficult to see as I have my head down and I am looking through a sliver of my helmet visor through the windscreen.”
The second day of attempts would be both triumphant, disappointing — and dramatic. “To do 300 the bike only needs about 325 horsepower. The bike originally dynoed at 500 horsepower, but we dialed it back to about 375.”
Hudson discusses the bike with officials during FIM inspection. Photo: Jean Turner
On the first leg of the back and forth run, during Hudson’s second attempt was a moment that would give even the most hardened tough guy sweaty palms. Traveling at over 300, Hudson hit a mile marker. The Eight-mile marker, as he went through it, took out the sign and the timing sensor.
“The wind changed,” recalls Hudson. “I was leaning hard to the left to deal with the wind coming from the left, then suddenly the wind is coming from the right. So it’s pushing me to the edge of the track, so no I am trying to power steer to keep the wheel underneath me. This was the most important run of my life and i can see the mile marker coming up really fast — it’s like 450 feet per second — so that’s on and a half football field every ‘on-one thousand.’ So I am trying to steer back to the right and I think I aim going to miss it, but i don’t. It cracked the gelcoat on the left side of the bike and put a dent in the exhaust pipe.”
By running over the sensor, that stopped the clock. It also caused body damage to the bike. Like in the late laps of a NASCAR Cup race, Duct Tape was used for repairs as there were no spares for damaged body work. Add to that, the record attempt must be completed within two hours. So the team thrashed to get everything functional again.
As that went on, an FIM official radioed to the team that the first pass was in fact recorded, despite the sensor being wiped out and Hudson had reached a two-mile sustained speed of 307! All were elated, but with the damage and another run to complete, anxiety ran high.
Hudson's crew pushes him up to grinding gear speed. Photo: Jean Turner
Repairs completed, the team pushed Hudson and the bike into the course.Because of the tall gearing, it it not unlike how teams pushed IndyCars onto the ovals from out of the pits. Hudson ran 291 mph coming back, for an average of 297.7 miles per hour — a new world record. Needless to say, the day left Hudson wanting for the bigger number next to his name in the record books.
“Sometimes (the LSR) leaves you very satisfied and sometimes leaves you wanting to do a little bit more,” observed Hudson. He would be eager to return to Bolivia in 2018 to break the 300 mph barrier. “The record run was an average of 297, so I feel I still have some unfinished business.”