Black lightning

The Rollie Free Story.

About The Film.

It is arguably the most famous photograph in motorcycling. In 1948 a man, wearing only a bathing suit and shoes, stretched prone on a speeding motorcycle and set the world’s motorcycle land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States. While the photograph was snapped in less than one one-hundredth of a second, this achievement was the product of years of preparation. It was also the product of an unusual union of two very different men. One came from a world of privilege and the other from blue-collar middle-America. Their bond was their fierce determination, particularly a desire to beat the Harley Davidson motorcycle company. This is the story of Rollie Free, John Edgar, and the Vincent Black Lightning.

Meet Rollie Free.

Roland “Rollie” Free (November 18, 1900 – October 11, 1984) was a motorcycle racer best known for breaking the American motorcycle land speed record in 1948 on the Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah. The picture of Free, prone and wearing a bathing suit, has been described as the most famous picture in motorcycling.

After an early career in motorcycle retail, Free became a regional racer of the 1920s and 30’s on Indian motorcycles. In 1923, Free tried out for his first national motorcycle race, the 100-Mile National Championships on the board track in Kansas City, but did not qualify. He developed his career in longer-distance events, and raced in the very first Daytona 200 on the Daytona Beach Road Course in 1937. He also set several American Motorcyclist Association Class C speed records including a 111.55 mph run at Daytona in 1938 on an Indian Chief that he had tuned himself.

He joined the Army Air Force as an aircraft maintenance officer during the Second World War; during this time, he was stationed at Hill Field in Utah, where he first saw the Bonneville Salt Flats. In 1945, Free left the Air Force, and resumed racing the soon-to-be defunct Indian motorcycles in long-distance and sprint record attempts, as well as dirt track racing on Triumphs.

On the morning of September 13, 1948, Free raised the American motorcycle speed record by riding the very first Vincent Black Lightning HRD, owned by the California sportsman John Edgar and sponsored by Mobil Oil, to a speed of 150.313 mph (241.905 km/h). Special features included the first-ever Vincent use of a rear shock absorber, the first Mk II racing cams, and horizontally mounted racing carburetors. Free adopted a style used by others of lying flat prone along the machine’s back spine, thereby minimizing wind resistance and placing more weight over the rear wheel. It is generally believed that this bike is The First Lightning though, a custom order from the factory and was some 100 pounds lighter and 25 hp more powerful than the stock Black Shadow. In one of his books, Phil Irving (one of the designers) said that there were only about 16 of the model produced. The Black Lightning is the fastest Vincent ever produced.

To protect himself and allow comfort when in such a position, Free had developed special protective clothing. However, when his leathers tore from early runs at 147 mph (237 km/h), he discarded them and made a final attempt without jacket, pants, gloves, boots or helmet. Free lay flat on the motorcycle wearing only a bathing suit, a shower cap, and a pair of borrowed sneakers – inspired by friend Ed Kretz. This resulted not only in the record, but also one of the most famous photographs in motorcycling history, the “bathing suit bike” shot taken from a speeding car alongside his run on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

The Vincent used is sometimes mistaken for a Series B machine, having the stamp BB on its engine casing – but is actually a works-modified machine, and recognized as the first, or prototype of 30 Lightnings. The bike remained racing in the United States until the mid-1960s, and then resided virtually intact in the private collection of Herb Harris of Austin, Texas until acquired by the William E. Connor collection. Free later moved to California and, after his racing career faded, worked in the auto servicing industry. He died in 1984 and was posthumously inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.

Comments From The Director.

The Rollie Free story is one of perseverance, guts and revenge. It is the most famous picture in motorcycling, but the story of that photograph was lost for years. For me, the best thing about old vehicles are the stories of the people that owned and used them. At our old company we had an extensive library of vehicle related books. One of them was Jerry Hatfield’s book, “Flat Out” and it chronicled Rollie’s life beautifully. It was not a largely circulated title, but an amazing story, and we thought it would make a great documentary. When the bike popped back up at Pebble Beach and then changed hands, it was an opportunity to try to make it happen.

“I received the ultimate compliment from Jeff Decker. He is someone who knew Rollie’s story long before this documentary was made. He truly cares about the legacy of the story and has made some incredible artwork based on the photo. He said it was, “Thoughtful and thorough”. When you make these types of documentaries, the guys who have been the custodians of the story tend to judge them with a hypercritical eye, and rightly so. The fact that he liked it was validation enough for me.”

— Zach Siglow, filmmaker

Meet The Cast

William E. (Chip) Connor

William E. (Chip) Connor

Executive Producer

William E. (Chip) Connor, the owner of the Bathing Suit Bike, was born and raised in Japan and cut his teeth on motorcycles from a very early age. Chip has long been an avid vintage motorcycle and car enthusiast and one of the world’s leading collectors. He is a long-time competitor in both modern and vintage racing and is a regular exhibitor and judge at Concours d’Elegance’ around the world.

Chip is Chairman and CEO of William E. Connor & Associates, one of the world’s leading consumer product sourcing firms and Chairman of Omega Compliance, a supply chain compliance company. He is also a co-founder of the Best of the Best competition in association with the Peninsula Hotel Group, an annual award that recognizes the ‘Best of the Best’ winner of leading Concours d’Elegance worldwide. Chip is a member of the governing Senate of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).


Alain de Cadenet
Alain de Cadenet

Motorcycle Historian

Alain de Cadenet is a television presenter for the Speed Channel and ESPN. Alain’s main career was in Endurance racing along with Formula One. He has hosted numerous shows on Speed, including Legends of Motorsport, as well as the network’s coverage of the Goodwood Festival of Speed. He also hosted Victory By Design, in which he drove vintage racing cars and talked about their history. Currently, de Cadenet hosts the Velocity Channel show Renaissance Man, a history programme whose coverage includes cars, motorcycles, the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and racing at Monaco.

He made his reputation building and driving his own sports prototypes, taking on works teams and occasionally beating them. In  1976, he  finished  3rd  overall  at  the  Le  Mans. In 1980, with co-driver Desiré Wilson, he won two rounds of the World Sportscar Championship —the Monza 1000 kilometers and Silverstone 6 hour events.


William Edgar

William Edgar

Motorsports Journalist

William Edgar motorsport author/photographer and son of sports car legend John Edgar, maintains a large archive of sports car related photographs from the 1950s and contemporary times, in addition to writing articles for national and international motorsport related magazines, has contributed articles to Bimmer, Corvette, Excellence, Forza, Octane and Vintage Motorsport among others. He co-authored (with Michael T. Lynch and Ron Parravano) the Dean Batchelor Award-winning book “American Sports Car Racing in the 1950s” and has received Gold Medallion International Automotive Media Awards for profiles on Bill Krause and Pete Lovely.

Nearly 500 of his motorsport articles have appeared in publications such as, Rider, Sport Rider, Cycle News, Octane, MG Enthusiast, Vintage Motorsport, Forza, Bimmer, Excellence, Corvette, Sports Car Digest, Classic Driver, The Classic Motorcycle, Road & Track, and vintage motorsport event programs. In addition, his Edgar Motorsport Archive is a frequent provider of period photos for hardcopy and online publications.

Jerry Hatfield
Jerry Hatfield

Author - Flat-Out: The Rollie Free Story

Jerry Hatfield has strengthened the appreciation of American motorcycling history through his research, writing and television appearances.  He has written and had 14 books published on the subject.  Three of his books have also been published in England, Germany and the Netherlands (two in foreign languages, German and Dutch).

He was once congratulated by William Davidson on the accuracy of his detailed work in his book Inside Harley-Davidson.  The letter reads, “My son Willie G. delivered the new H-D book which you were kind enough to send.  In reading it I am simply amazed at the amount of detail you found and I congratulate you on the thoroughness of your research.  With warm thanks, Wm. Davidson.”

From 1974 through present, Jerry has written over 20 motorcycling history articles for The Antique Motorcycle, the official magazine of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America.  In fact, he is the all-time leading contributor to that journal.

Marty Dickerson
Marty Dickerson

Motorcycle Racer and Friend of Rollie Free

Marty Dickerson is best known for setting speed records on his own Vincent HRD Rapide during the 1950s. Dickerson set a Class C record of 129 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1951. When the record was broken a year later, Dickerson came back with an improved version of his Vincent in 1953 and turned in a run of 147 mph. That record held for 20 years.

Dickerson was also a top-notch West Coast road racer. He won the 250cc division in the famous Catalina Grand Prix in 1953 on a Jawa.

Dickerson was born in Inglewood, California, on November 3, 1926. He grew up on a family ranch on property that is now part of Los Angeles International Airport. He graduated from Inglewood High School and went to work for Northrop Aircraft, where he worked on the Northrop B 35 Flying Wing.


Glenn Bator
Glenn Bator

Motorcycle Historian

Glenn Bator worked for more than ten years as the curator at Otis Chandler’s “Vintage Museum” heading up the acquisition, restoration and maintenance of the museum’s motorcycles, classic automobiles and handling such projects as the restoration of a 1934 Packard Town Car belonging to Janette MacDonald. Glenn was also tasked with recreating two of the motorcycles from “Easy Rider” along with a number of award winning classic motorcycles dating back to the early 1900’s.

In 2000, Glenn & wife Deni went out on their own and started Bator International Inc, a premier classic motorcycle sales, brokering and restoration business. They also took on two of California’s best known motorcycle events, the Hanford and El Camino Motorcycle Show and Swaps. Eventually Bator International went into the “auction biz” holding events in Daytona, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama’s Barber Museum and Pasadena, CA.