By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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By 2010, Warner's reputation was platinum-grade; companies were eager to front the parts in order to get their stickers on what would be a history-making motorcycle. Although its final value was probably around $100,000, Warner paid nothing and assembled the pieces himself. "There were a lot of comments online [speculating] the bike took ten years to build," Forstall says. "The insiders just laugh, because it was just Bill."
Regular bikes were dangerous enough. In 2009, Bill and Jerry Gainey had been pulling weeds out of the bike's wheel after a washout when Dave Owen, one of the most well-liked and respected guys in land speed, was killed on the track at Maxton going just over 200 mph. But 300? No one had handled a bike at those speeds before. Basic physics dictates that the amount of kinetic energy you're pointing down the course increases exponentially the faster you ride. The problem was stopping. Most of the tracks hosting land speed events were on 9,000-foot runways; after accelerating, there were still thousands of feet left to slow down. But on some record runs, Bill's past bikes had burst past the end of the runways into the brush. Would the same amount of track be enough to slow down, even with more energy?
Sal Spatafora, a race mechanic who knew Warner well, warned his friend. "Some of the big bikes that I've built, I don't feel too comfortable on them," he counseled. "I love the speed, but they're just not factory smooth and reliable. Once you push the horsepower up, the reliability comes down."
The new Hayabusa looked unlike a usual road bike. The entire surface of the vehicle was wrapped tightly in a teardrop-shaped blue plastic covering. The aerodynamic streamlining cut both ways: It helped acceleration, but a good blast of wind was enough to topple the bike. The key was to carefully increase the bike's power strategically while avoiding bad weather.
On July 21, 2011, under a low blanket of gray clouds at Loring, Warner boarded his motorcycle. In two earlier passes, he'd clocked in the 290s over 1.5 miles. The few hundred spectators scattered around the course all expected the next run would crack the coveted mark.
The race bike growled out from the starting line, quickly knifing down the runway.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the PA system announced moments later, "we just had the first motorcycle in history go over 300 mph!"
Once the crowd cheers died down, after Bill embraced his friends, and once the racer learned he'd not only passed the 300 mark but screamed by on the way to 311.95 mph, the world's fastest motorcycle rider made a humble speech.
"There's no fame, there's no glory, and there's no money in this," Warner said as he stood with both hands touching the cooling bike. "My prize is hearing from you guys and getting my hand shaken by you. So I really appreciate everyone that's here and all your comments. Thank you all."
Warner was flying. Chipped runway paint zipped along under his wheels. The speedometer pushed past 200 mph. Slipping through wind, the edges of his vision started to melt while the Texas horizon dead-ahead went high-def. But then with sudden sea legs, the tunnel vision rocked to the right, then left. The bike slowed, skidded. The machine flopped over on its left side, slamming the rider to the ground.
The crash came in October 2011 in Goliad, Texas. His ribs were broken, a lung was punctured, and he'd severely mangled his left foot and knee after the 'Busa flipped on its side. He was stuck in a Houston-area hospital for 26 days.
Bill Warner was just becoming big-time. With 311 in the books, T-shirts and ball caps were printed up with the digits, tokens of his achievement. Tech journals and motorcycle mags featured stories on his racing, though the bike's simple blue paint job kept it off the covers. The back-and-forths on online forums about his bike and technique went on for pages and pages. Kids started asking for his photos and autographs. Warner always said yes.
"He was almost embarrassed by the success," Forstall says. "The publicity that he got was not something he looked for. But he knew he had to do certain things because of the sponsors."
But the Texas spill shook Warner. He decided to retire. Instead of racing, he'd put on his own event. A second act as a promoter would allow him to still capitalize on his record, but the calmer role fit where his life was headed. Easing into his early 40s, he'd met a Lakeland woman named Lori. They'd dated for the past couple of years. More than one friend told Bill he'd met a keeper.
Throughout 2012, Warner planned his event, dubbed the Houston Mile, a motorcycle and car land speed race scheduled for October 2013. Guessing he'd need income after he shelved racing, he also ramped back up Warner Aquatic Resources, his fish business in Wimauma.
But just when Warner seemed ready for the next step, he heard Guy Caputo had drummed up sponsors for his own monster Hayabusa. His goal: blitzing 300 mph in a single mile.
Warner's drive revved up again. He wanted to nail it first. Bill penciled in his swan song in July 2013, when Loring was holding a match. After that, he'd sell the bike.