St. Paul enthusiast aims for record-setting speedsby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Steve Hamel's garage off University Avenue in St. Paul is the Mayo Clinic for vintage motorcycles. Engines line a high shelf running the length of the garage.
"We've got BSAs, and Triumphs and Vincents, and Velocettes, and there's a Matchless, and a Moto Guzzi and a Ducati. They're kind of my friends; they sit up there and watch over the shop for me, wait for me to spend some time with them," says Hamel.
People ship Hamel vintage engines from all over the country to restore. The garage is crammed with a metal lathe and cabinets of neatly stowed tools.
Hamel's obsession is his own bike. It's the centerpiece of the garage. "It's a 1950 Vincent, and that bike's gone 155 miles an hour with me on it," says Hamel.
In 2006, he set a national record in the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah. He broke his hero Rollie Free's record set in 1948.
Hamel reaches for a three-ring binder with a carefully protected black-and-white autographed photograph inside.
It's a man in a bathing suit lying face-down on top of a motorcycle.
Rollie Free had removed the seat from his Vincent and lies prone on the rear fender. Hamel thinks Free probably had to squeeze a lump of duct tape on the fender between his thighs in order to stay on the bike.
Hamel doesn't squeeze duct tape with his thighs. Racers nowadays have to sit in seats and wear full leather and helmets.
But Hamel says motorcycle racing on the salt flats is pretty safe.
"You got lots of room, it's a good sport for old guys," he says.
Hamel is 57.
When asked what his wife thinks about his potentially dangerous hobby, Hamel says she's supportive. He describes his wife, Wendy Hamel, as his biggest sponsor and fan. She goes out to Bonneville with him and even runs the starter for his bike.
"She's going to be OK up until about 200 mph," Hamel guesses.
I call Wendy Hamel at her office just to check.
"As long as all the parts are working, he can go as fast as he wants," she says. Wendy says she doesn't worry about him. "I've never had any feeling of dread, and I don't know why that is, probably because Steve is so experienced."
Hamel does all his precision mechanics in his garage, but to put the bike through its paces, he can't rely on city streets. He would get arrested. Instead, he loads the bike on the back of his pick-up truck and takes it to his buddies at Silverback Racing in downtown St. Paul. They've got something called a "Dyno." It's sort of a treadmill for motorcycles.
In a small, windowless chamber with ventilation fans and two computer screens showing speed and rpms, Hamel hooks up the bike. It starts up with a rip, and Hamel smiles.
"I guess it thrills me every time I hear it run." He hovers near the riderless bike as it begins to warm up.
"I can't wait to get on again, and just wring its neck, let it go!" says Hamel.
The room begins to fill with the smell of racing fuel. "This is quite a wonderful smell," says Hamel with a chuckle. "It's the smell of power and speed."
As the bike idles at low-speed, it sounds a little snaggle-toothed, or "lumpy" as Hamel calls it.
As the bike warms up and goes faster, and the sound changes dramatically. It becomes smooth and beautiful.
Hamel says he gets a thrill from riding a machine that he's built and custom-engineered. When he's on the bike, he listens carefully to every sound the engine makes.
"You know exactly what everything is doing. And you're listening for changes in the sound, and as the power rises, as the speed rises, the tone changes. It gets a little angry." He describes being out on the salt flats, pushing the throttle harder although it's already against the stops. He tucks down tighter against the bike.
"Hoping against hope that the thing stays together and on a good day, you beat your record."
The bike hits 135 miles per hour on the Dyno conveyer belt, and our intern flees the room. The power and decibel level in the room is overwhelming. It's like being in a room with a rocket taking off. It rattles our teeth and thunders through industrial-strength ear plugs.
Hamel grins. It's back to the garage for him. He's got a lot of work to do. His dream is to get the Vincent up to 200 miles per hour.
- All Things Considered, 01/01/2009, 5:54 p.m.