Words by Brett Smith



The origin of the tired phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words” is convoluted—and actually pre-dates photography—but it might be the first thing that comes to mind when seeing what is, arguably, the most famous motorcycle photo ever taken.


You know the one: In black and white, a faceless white male is stretched out prone on a dark, exotic-looking motorcycle with minimalist form-fitting bathing trunks as his only article of clothing. The absence of visible spokes in the wheels suggests he’s traveling at speed, and a straight black line under the tires with stark white surroundings gives away the location as the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah. The distant Silver Island Mountains look as if they’re drawn in charcoal under the hazy, off-white sky. 

He’s not naked, but he’s also, relatively, wearing nothing. The brain bucket makes his ride legal and the size-12 plimsolls on his feet only make his sojourn from the mounting studs, where foot pegs used to be, to extended beyond the fender, just slightly more comfortable than if he’d been barefoot. The canvas coverings might also prevent the tops of his feet from being shredded by the tiny but jagged pieces of salt kicked up by the tire of the motorcycle. The sliver of white space between the gas tank and his face draws attention to the fact that he can’t actually see where he’s going and that the only indicator keeping him from drifting off course is the black line he must keep directly below. His rib cage points to the unique rear-suspension system and his gut follows the curvature of the rear fender. Not visible is the block of wood attached to the fender and squeezed between his bare thighs. His lower legs are extended beyond the end of the fender and his knees hover above the rear wheel, which is receiving a request from the transmission, via the 998cc twin engine, to spin faster. Faster! The goal: 150 miles per hour. For perspective, the wind speed of a Category 5 hurricane is 157 mph, a force that has touched the United States only three times since 1851. On the fuel tank, the Mobilgas Pegasus logo flies in the rider’s direction and the H.R.D. insignia indicates that the motorcycle is a Vincent, an innovative English marque.

What we can’t see is the reason, the motive that drove a 47-year-old Midwestern-bred man—a former racer, dealer, Army Air Forces major, gas-station manager—to shed his protective gear in hopes of extending a motorcycle land-speed record that he, technically, had already earned earlier that same morning. “This is more than a motorcycle picture. It’s a picture of a man’s life,” said Jerry Hatfield, author of the 2007 book Flat Out! The Rollie Free Story, in his prologue. So it’s fallacious to consider that a photo—this photo—could be worth only a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand words. This photo is an existence, a being, and a representation of one man’s life ambition. You would never know Roland R. Free just by looking at this photo, yet, simultaneously, without this photo you would never know Roland “Rollie” Free...