Leslie Porterfield - Riding the Snot Out Of It!
On a recent trip to Dallas I had the chance to meet the fastest woman in the world on a motorbike! Leslie Porterfield from Dallas, Texas holds three world records as well as being 2008 American Motorcycle Association Female Rider of the Year and being the first and only female member of the Bonneville 200mph Club! She runs a motorcycle dealership called High Five which also hosts a bike night every Thursday a lot like the Borough Market organised by Londonbikers.com, although there are sometimes more bands and the occasional bikini bike wash - Jay@LB take note!
Meeting Leslie at her Bike dealership on a Saturday morning the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly and the guys behind the counter welcome me in and introduce me to a smiling Leslie who takes me over to her office which looks out onto the shop floor of the dealership she clearly loves. I start by asking her where all this started.
Leslie: The ridiculousness has been going on for quite a while ... I bought a motorcycle at 16 and I never would have imagined that motorcycles would be my hobby, my livelihood. My whole life revolves around them now. I bought an old piece of junk Yamaha off of a neighbour for two hundred bucks and just rode the snot out of it.
Iain: How many bikes do you have now?
"I sold a few this year to pay for my racing habit. I was up to 9 ... I have a few left. Let's see ... I've got a 450 motard, a 250 dirtbike, a CBR 1000 that's sorta my daily ride around, a Ducati 998 and the turbo Hayabusa so I'm down to 5. Only 5 ... I know it's kinda ridiculous ... but it's better than 9!"
Talking about her garage and dealership it's immediately clear how much she loves racing and riding. Her eyes light up as she lists her bikes and laughs at the silliness of owning so many.
Iain: So your racing habit, is that your passion?
"Oh yeah! It's a huge passion. Bonneville was a dream. I do some road racing and I race cars. I started out road racing motorcycles at 19 but I haven't raced in some time because owning my own shop I can't take off every weekend and go hit the courses. ... I read about [Bonneville] in books, saw it in magazines and thought "one day I'm gonna go out there ..." and of course in my usual crazy style I built the baddest, fastest, ridiculous, turbo charged Hayabusa and go out after big time records."
Iain: And there's only one choice isn't there? If you're going to go out there and do this. It's got to be a Hayabusa.
"For the records that I'm going for yeah, but I actually hold a record on a CBR1000. Honda loaned me one to set a production record on. It was a magazine review bike and I didn't expect to get the record. I went out there on it and ended up setting the record. MVAgusta had held it for years and they tried again this year but I still hold the record. It's an amazing bike and I was pleasantly surprised to take home that record."
Iain: How does it feel to know that people are having a go at your records?
"I'm at all the World Record events but it doesn't really get to me that much. I just do my best to get out there and break 'em. The one thing about Bonneville that I really really like is that the people are so friendly. It's extremely competative but my direct competitor from New Zealand was there and I needed a tool and I'd go over to their pits and they'd loan it and say "oh you're having trouble, do you want me to send my electronics guy over?" and they had an oil cooler bad so my engine builder and I went out to Salt Lake City to get them one. It's that comeradery that makes it just an amazing experience. It's unlike any other form of racing. It's very personal and very passionate, people are just great out there."
Iain: What do you think brings that out in people?
"I think it's such a passion driven sport and requires so much patience because most of the year the flats are under water so it's a huge test of patience. And you're not going to get rich running for records at Bonneville so I think everyone's just really excited to be there."
Iain: So how do you prepare then? Is there a season and you get to the end of one and you're in a bar with the team and start talking about the crazy ideas for next season?
"Yeah, the big record months are August, September and October. When we finish up we look at everything that happened and start to brainstorm about what we can do next time to make it better and faster. The biggest limitation out there is traction and I've been known to completely roast off tyres and I'm trying to get that under control. Last thing I want to do is blow out a rear tyre at 250. With all the shows I now have to balance out that with when to take the motorcycle apart. I have a great crew and they've been so helpful and we call each other all the time "what about this" or "let's try this". It's a constant project and you're never 100% good to go. And the surface changes too and can be so different from one event to the next, one day to the next! So what works one time won't work another time."
Iain: And you use the same frame but different engines to race in different classes?
"Yeah I swap engines on it and I've also run it with no body work. I set a record last year, it was the first record I ever set, was a naked record at 209mph and I never got out of 5th gear! I could not physically get my foot under the shifter and hang on. It was brutal. The bike would go much faster. My engine builder video taped the run and I came back to the pit and he goes "You're sitting up at over 200" and I said "No no no, I'm not sitting up, I'm hanging on for dear life!" The wind tried to rip me off the motorcycle. I'd get into the timed mile and just pin it because I knew the wind would mean so much pressure that I couldn't breathe so I tried to judge how long it would take me. You're aiming to be at top speed when you enter that timed mile.
I mean, it's probably pretty insane riding a 500 break horsepower motorcycle on salt ... but if I'm insane I'm fine with it. I love it. I won't stop any time soon. I've got salt fever!"
Iain: Any horror stories?
"Not really, I threw a rod through the cases on my record return run last year at 240 miles an hour. Coasted through the traps at the end of the mile and ended up with an average speed of 234 through the mile. I was really lucky, I pulled in the clutch immediately and it was fine."
At this point she brings over part of that engine to show me. It was from her big motor (see picture) and is a reminder of what happens when you over rev by about 1000rpm. Later she'll explain the rust on this piece is because any run ready bike only does one trip before it needs to be stripped and most of the parts thrown away because of the damage done by the salt! Honda must love getting that Blade back off her at the end of a run!
The piece she's holding had quite an adventurous life, however ...
"I'd made a qualifying pass at 221mph and it was a previous record of 212. I blew it away and I was on my return run and I knew it was going to let loose. I wanted to see if I could just get that last bit of speed out of it. Going into the mile I was 238 or so and was running at right about 240 and felt it come loose. I watched all my data on my dash and I just watched everything and grabbed the clutch at the big bang. Luckily nothing locked up. I took the world record and the national record with that run and it put me as fastest woman in the world on a motorcycle! I was ecstatic even though I had bits coming off all over the place!"
Iain: How does life change when you're the fastest woman in the world on a motorcycle?
"It's changed my life quite a bit. I never expected all the media attention. Bonneville has always been fairly obscure. I've had a lot of television things and been on the cover of magazines and I never really expected that. I get e-mails from people who say I'm an inspiration. As long as I can keep getting out there on my motorcycle I'm happy with it."
Being there and speaking to her I feel bad for adding to that media nonsense. It's not that she doesn't seem at ease chatting but by so obviously approving of her endeavours I tell her I feel bad because it's like encouraging a friend to smoke. She laughs and reminds me "I'm gonna do it anyway! ... I'm just not quite done yet. I know I can go faster".
Perhaps it's a male ego thing but if I were the fastest man in the world I'd exhibit far more pomp and swagger but there's none of that here. Just a person who's quite happy to chat for hours about bikes with British travelers, people coming into the shop to buy accessories for the bike they bought the other week and a massive grin accompanied by a cheeky glint in the eye when she talks about speed. She knows she can go faster and the modifications she makes this winter will be the making of those new records. We'll keep an eye out for her runs next year and let you know if she holds on to those records.