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They repeated the prep. Around 10 a.m., Bill's engine again revved at the starting line. With a nod to his crew chief, he threw the bike forward. Sellers watched as Warner quickly disappeared down the tarmac. Far ahead, where the runway rubbed against the treeline, Sellers spotted a small puff of smoke.
Any kid dead-sprinting to an imaginary finish line alone in the backyard knows the urge: Go fast. Go faster. Put the same kid on wheels, same story.
Land speed racing officially began in the late 1940s, when racers found their hot rods — mostly Fords tricked out with V8 engines — were too much for the cities and suburbs of Southern California. In 1949, they stumbled on the Bonneville Salt Flats, 30,000 pancaked acres of dried-up lake bottom in northwest Utah. The public land became the perfect running ground for racers testing Cadillac and Oldsmobile V8s of the early 1950s at top speeds and, later, motorcycles.
Unlike drag racing, where two vehicles try to outgas each other, land speed racing is more about pushing the machinery to the max. "You don't have to worry about the guy next to you smashing into you. You have to worry about yourself," says Guy Caputo, a 57-year-old land speed racer from Ohio. "I always say land speed racing is where old drag racers go to die."
Technical advances propelled the sport. In the 1970s, turbo systems were introduced; by pressurizing the engine, the upgrade doubled the amount of horsepower flowing in a bike's veins. But the real breakthrough for land speed racing was the Suzuki Hayabusa. Introduced in 1999, the $12,000 computer-controlled bike could punch 180 mph right out of the showroom without any upgrades.
"It changed everything," explains Larry Forstall, a longtime racer and mechanic from the Philadelphia area. "The guys now had these big powerful motorcycles, and what are they going to do with them? You can't go 190 mph on a United States highway."
Up until the mid-'90s, racers had to haul west to Bonneville to ride. But in 1995, the newly formed East Coast Timing Association started holding land speed runs on abandoned airstrips, pieces of land that were long, empty, and safe enough for the matches. Local governments were more than willing to rent out the space. First in Moultrie, Georgia, and a year later at a shuttered 1.9-mile World War II airstrip in Maxton, North Carolina, riders began gathering. Today there are only five sites in the U.S. holding land speed events.
Still, land speed racing remained an outer isle in the auto junkie's world. NASCAR and Indy racing, with their celeb drivers and six-figure jackpots, got the attention. There was zero prize money in land speed; sponsorships were nil. And the risks were undeniable. The fiercest tornados, which spin near 130 mph, rip down entire towns. Land speed racers regularly flirt with 200 mph. A crash means serious injury — at least.
The sport drew a small following of speed freaks and techies. Scattered across the country, enthusiasts communed on online forums like suzukihayabusa.org, later cementing friendships at matches. Some guys, like Scott Guthrie, built their own success into a brand. Dubbed the "Sultan of Speed," the Tallahassee-based racer logged hundreds of 200 mph runs on his own, then began sponsoring young riders on his own bikes. Other riders, like Toledo's Guy Caputo, are essentially one-man operations.
"When I break a record, I get a nifty certificate, a T-shirt, and a hat," says Caputo. "Who wants to spend $60,000 on a motorcycle to get a certificate and a hat? Well, along with that goes bragging rights. What can you tell me about you that you are the only one in the world? For nine years, I was the only one in the world with the fastest nitrous-injected motorcycle on the planet. For nine years."
Bill Warner began knocking off standing records in the mid-2000s. By accomplishing so much in a small blip of time, he was like the Tiger Woods or Tony Hawk of land speed, the one guy who excelled so completely at the sport that he became synonymous with it. Until Warner racked up his big number, the sitting record had been stuck in the 260s.
"When the rest of the world was trying to go 260 or 270, he went 311," says Don Smith, a Chattanooga-based freelance journalist who covers racing. "Usually records are broken in tenths of a mile per hour. Bill just obliterated these speeds and jumped it 53 mph. There hadn't been a 10 or 15 mph increase in 20 years before that."
By becoming the sport's biggest name — its great exemplar — he inched it toward mainstream. "It was just a confluence," says Forstall. "The bikes came along, the racetracks came along, and Bill came along."
Adds Guthrie: "What he accomplished was the equivalent of when there was nobody in the NBA over six feet tall."
You couldn't have picked a more unlikely guy to be the sport's Michael Jordan.
Bill Warner was born in Little Falls, a dot of about 5,000 people straddling the Mohawk River where it carves a sharp valley through the hills of upstate New York. He was the youngest of three kids born to a former dairy farmer and a Ukrainian immigrant.