On the Bonneville Salt Flats in September 2016, motorcycle racer Valerie Thompson claimed a fantastic title: The World’s Fastest Female Motorcycle Rider. Riding the famous Bub Seven streamliner, Valerie officially eclipsed 300 miles per hour through the three-mile course. The record was nothing particularly new for her; she has set a number of land-speed records at Bonneville and also in standing-mile events like the Texas Mile and Ohio Mile to say nothing of her time spent racing Pro Stock Motorcycles. We caught up with Valerie at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) show, where we chatted about the challenges of riding a streamliner, coming late to racing, and leaving behind a legacy.
Roadkill: Earlier this year, you went 300 miles per hour on a motorcycle. Tell us about Bonneville.
Valerie Thompson: I’ve been going to Bonneville since 2005. I just got addicted to being out there and that addiction has carried me on through to being the fastest woman on two wheels. When I saw Rocky Robinson and Sam Wheeler go super fast along with Chris Carr, I was like, “Oh, I want to ride one of those.”
The opportunity came up and I jumped on it really quick. I already had my Pro Stock Motorcycle program in the works and I asked my husband, “What if I don’t do Pro Stock Motorcycle and what if I go do the streamliner?” He said, “Is that something you really want to do?” And I’ve always dreamed about it. The Pro Stock deal will always be around; Bonneville might not. So I grabbed that opportunity and had so much fun with the team, who were so great.
RK: How great does it feel to say “Fastest woman on two wheels” about yourself?
VT: It feels weird, just like it feels weird to say “my husband” because I just got married.
VT: Thank you. It feels weird and every time I say it…I know I am, but it’s hard to believe things that you do that are so incredible like “Keep pinching me.”
RK: Do you have time during a run to think about the scope of what you’re doing or are you so busy and focused that can’t appreciate it?
VT: We have plenty of time to appreciate it and to go over it with the team. It sinks all in while you’re there, but you’re caught up in the moment during a record run. You have to do things really fast and it’s all business.
RK: What’s the sensation like of going 300 miles per hour at Bonneville? It’s such an expanse, can you even really feel the speed?
VT: You don’t feel like you’re that fast. The only way you have to judge speed is by watching the markers. Everything else just really slows down, although it’s kinda hard to just take a deep breath.
You don’t feel that air at 300 miles per hour. I’m in an enclosed capsule and I don’t really feel or hear the wind like I do on my sit-on bike, which is a BMW1000RR. That’s my other land-speed bike and I’ve been 272 miles per hour. It’s tough to hang on for a mile going that fast.
RK: Tell me about the [BUB Seven] Streamliner. It’s a custom chassis, obviously.
VT: Yes, everything is custom and everything is made by three guys: Denis Manning, Joe Harralson, and John Jans. They’ve been working on it since the early 2000s, I think. They’ve already set two records in it with Chris Carr as the rider. Our goal for next year is to attempt the record of 376 mph.
RK: So this was kind of a learning year for you?
VT: This was pure learning. They’re not a team that’s going to rush me on anything or feed me to the wolves of 400 miles per hour. They’ve nurtured me and educated me on stuff from how to pack the ‘chutes to what they’re doing. I usually stay away from the technical stuff, but it’s nice to learn a little bit more than what I know.
Everything is hand-made. The engine is all hand-built and it’s just amazing. There are two engines in the world that fit that chassis. They even made my cool suit where you put the ice in. All I do is buy the shirt, plug it in, and it’s cold. It’s my best friend.
RK: When you’re in the streamliner, how long are you in there, start to finish?
VT: Start to finish? It’s really weird at Bonneville with racing the streamliner because we don’t necessarily know when we race. If it’s more than three miles per hour of wind in any direction, we don’t race unless it’s maybe a tail wind, but the wind shifts. I could be in it for an hour. I don’t think they’d let me be in there for two hours, but it depends on how I’m feeling. Sometimes, when we’re marking our first run at 7:30 in the morning, it’s cold outside and I’m right there.
RK: How hard is it ride a streamliner?
VT: This was totally different. I had to throw out everything I knew to do on a motorcycle because with this streamliner, you’re tied down so tight. It’s like NASCAR; you’re in there. I’m so used to using my body to lean around where I want to. In the streamliner, I’m using two joysticks to operate the front wheel.
RK: Obviously, it’s well balanced.
VT: Yeah, even before they take it out there, they put it on a flat surface and they check everything. The engine right now is apart; they’re going through it tooth and nail. It’s all about preparation and getting ready for that big run.
RK: To that end, what’s your preparation like? Do you take a moment to just envision the run?
VT: The preparation with me starts physically with working out and eating foods and staying hydrated. The visual part is you go through mind about things like “second gear, 200 miles per hour.” You visually go through the flags [markers], starting at Mile 0.
RK: So going just a little bit further back in time, what was your first motorcycle?
VT: My first motorcycle was in 1999 and it was a custom 1200 Sportster. About three minutes later, I sold it and bought a Fat Boy because I wanted a bigger bike and I wanted to go faster. At that time, I didn’t know I had the need for speed.
RK: How did you get into racing then?
VT: I moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, and I met some friends that I would hang out with on the weekends and they were really fast. I was right there with them on their fenders and I started racing with them once I found they liked to race: You know, you’re at a stoplight and you rev up your engine a little bit and you leave the stoplight like you’re taking off from the dragstrip.
One of the guys said, “Hey Valerie, you’re a bit out of control. Take it to the racetrack.” I was a bit embarrassed because, you know, it felt good to go fast. I didn’t want to go the racetrack, but several months later, we went to the track with some friends and I haven’t left.
RK: So you were a bit of a latecomer?
VT: Yeah, I didn’t start riding until my early 30s. I never knew I had that two-wheel sensation, to be honest. Everything just kind of gelled.
RK: There’s a sense right now that Bonneville might be in trouble, at least in terms of its long existence. What is it that makes Bonneville important and special?
VT: You can go as fast as you want and you just don’t have to worry about anything but going fast in a straight line. It’s not easy to race at Bonneville, though. You’re always trying to find traction.
RK: So what’s the ultimate goal? What do you want to be “Valerie Thompson’s legacy?”
VT: I want to be the fastest woman on two wheels with a world record. Maybe in 20, 30, 40 years later, someone will break it, but I want to be in the record books as long as I can. But I first, I have to break the record and it’s going very, very tough. I’ve got some huge competition, but I’m up for it, right? Who said a woman can’t race against men? The bike doesn’t know if it’s a man or a woman on board.