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But Warner wasn't the same guy who'd popped 311 mph in 2011. The Texas crash had shaken something loose inside. Call it a burst of delayed doubt, common sense, or some whispery intuition of what might be waiting down the track, but Warner told more than one friend he was worried about the 'Busa's power, trying to get up to 300 in a short distance. "He had to maximize acceleration but not overdo it or the tire would spin like crazy and the front end would lift," Forstall says. "It's a very fine line, and it got even finer with the short distance. It's two-thirds the distance, but he's going the same speed."
In early summer of this year, Warner called up Sal Spatafora, who had warned him earlier.
"Last time you told me, I really didn't think about it," the racer said. "But as I'm getting older, I'm starting to think about it more."
"I think he started getting spooked," Spatafora recalls today.
Warner was more direct with others, right up through that weekend in Loring.
"Can I ask you something?" Bill said to his friend and crew chief, Bob Sellers, on the Friday of their final stay in Maine. "Have you ever played Russian roulette?"
"No, Bill," Sellers nervously replied. "Why would you ask me that?"
"Because that's what I feel like I'm doing here."
The paramedics were already surrounding Bill where he lay in the grass by the time Sellers rushed up from the starting line. Following the protocol of race accidents, Sellers kept his distance, waiting back on the tarmac where the 'Busa's tailpiece was abandoned. As they loaded the racer into an ambulance, a medic told Sellers that Bill was "alert, responsive, and conscious." Hanging tight to those words like a lucky mantra, Sellers followed to the hospital in nearby Caribou.
After being shuttled alone into a small waiting room, Sellers was joined by a surgeon. He assumed his buddy was banged up — Texas all over again — until she spoke. "I'm sorry, but we lost Bill."
"What do you mean, we lost Bill?"
"Let me ask you something," the doctor continued. "How fast was he going when this motorcycle accident occurred?"
"I don't know, probably around 300 mph."
Sellers caught a change in the doctor's eyes. "The human body cannot take trauma such as this from a 300 mph accident," she said.
Something had gone wrong about 4,000 feet down the track. At the time, Bill had still been accelerating, hovering somewhere around 286 mph. The rider and his bike were thrown in opposite directions, landing hundreds of feet apart. Local police are still investigating what exactly caused the crash. Bill's family and girlfriend were too upset to talk for this article.
But friends say Warner could not have been coaxed off his bike before the last run. "He wouldn't have been happy," explains Trillium Muir. "He wouldn't have been fulfilled."
Riders turned up in Little Falls for the funeral. Warner's casket was carried by six friends from racing — including Sellers, Gainey, Muir, and her husband. A group toasted the loss in a nearby pub, endless spinning "Cover of the Rolling Stone" from the jukebox while the regulars shot over puzzled looks. "We joked about playing it 311 times," Muir says, her voice still soggy with the memory.
The death sent a dark premonitory note whistling through the race world. The mourning seems both for the man and the achievements he embodied.
Warner's closest friends are taking hard looks at the sport. "I've got a few mixed feelings now about the pavement events," Bob Sellers says. "We've realized there's a potential danger in what we do. It makes me second-guess it." The crew chief has been out to the Bonneville salt flats since the crash, working with another rider. But the experience fell short of his time with Warner. With the racer gone, his Houston Mile event isn't likely to happen. Muir and her husband quit racing partly because of Warner's death.
Other riders are lining up behind his legacy. Warner's approach to statistics has yet to be replicated, and his friends are mum on exactly what Warner would look for in the data. Realistically, it's only a matter of time before someone else begins finding the same patterns.
Guy Caputo is still aiming to push his own bike over 300 mph in a mile. "I've got records; I've got accolades. I used to be the world's fastest nitro bike. But I'm still not really satisfied," he says. "If I go, I want to go like Bill, in a blaze of glory."
But Warner's final glory — a word he probably would have cringed at — won't be his death but all those big numbers he left standing. "It's going to be a long, long time before anyone goes 311 mph on an open-wheel motorcycle again," says racing journalist Smith. "Maybe never."