“FULL THROTTLE”- THE LADY IN RED – Valerie ThompsonFebruary 13, 2019
What’s it like going over 300 mph on a motorcycle, period, and then having it flop over and skidding on its side for another mile or so? We asked America’s Queen of Speed, Valerie Thompson, that very question because, like everyone else, well, we had to know. Her answer was remarkably low-key— she’s not one for dramatics, apparently—but we’ll get to that in a minute. First a little background.
Thompson grew up in Tacoma, Washington, where she went about life never even thinking about riding a motorcycle, much less becoming one of the fastest women on the planet. In fact, she didn’t start riding until she was 32, leaving her family completely baffled. With zero interest on their part, they just didn’t get it. When she had the opportunity dropped in her lap to become a racer, they were even more confused. That’s not to say once the opportunity arose she didn’t hustle her ass off to make it happen, but she kind of stumbled into her career.
It all started when a friend asked her out riding. She arrived at his place and he suggested they go to the local Harley dealership. After getting an eyeful in the showroom, and wanting something to flex her body-builder muscles on, she decided to buy a 1999 custom Sportster. Three months later, she bought a Fat Boy, which she still has today. Now, she’s one of the hottest racers on two wheels.
Here’s the rest of her surprising story:
MS: So, how did you get into racing?
VT: I moved to Arizona in 2004 seeking a career change coupled with a desire to extend my riding time due to better weather. One day, I was street racing down Scottsdale Rd. with a group of friends I’d recently started riding with that included Charlie Mitchel and Nick Trask, co-owners of Custom Performance aka Trask Performance. After a few 100-plus-mph runs, Nick scolded me in front of everyone and said he would no longer work on my bike unless I took it to a sanctioned racetrack. I felt like a little ant and decided then and there I would make a change for safer yet higher speeds. A couple months later, Charlie and I started racing at the local strip, despite not knowing anything about drag racing, the Christmas tree, the starting line, or performing a proper burnout. After a few successful runs, Charlie and Nick felt they should sponsor me in the AHDRA series in the V-Rod class, which was very hot at the time. Then the owner of Hacienda Harley, Rick Hatch, called me to say he’d buy the V-rod Destroyer so I could promote his dealership. That’s when my racing career got ‘kick-started.’ When the bike finally arrived at the dealership and he released it to me, I said, ‘Well, how am I going to get it from here to there? How am I going to go to 14 different states to race it in the All Harley Drag Race Association?’ I ended up selling my car, buying a truck, and gathering up a bunch of tools in order to chase my racing dreams.
MS: That’s great that you saw the opportunity for what it was and ran with it. Not everybody does.
VT: Back in those days, I didn’t know how to trust my gut instinct. I didn’t know if it was telling me to go or stay. I was in my late thirties before I became enthralled with the sport. I was a banker for 13 years, and that was my most favorite job ever. I was so successful, but when I got laid off it just opened up new opportunities. It gave me some confidence because I was so secure in my 8-to-5 job. When I got on that motorbike, everybody said, ‘Valerie, you have the pregnant glow,’ when I would just be riding. And I should have listened to it then, but I didn’t know how to yet. But when you listen to people and take chances—you know, not many people are given the opportunity to test themselves. The downside is you don’t want to test yourself. You don’t want to go into those kinds of territories where you don’t know if that’s where you belong. I was a misfit. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to get it. I went to drag racing school and guess what? Human nature took over.
MS: What year did that happen?
VT: In early 2006, right before drag racing season began. I went to the George Bryce Star Racing School in Florida. I’ve actually been to his class three times now and been fortunate enough to have one-on-one training, which was very productive. In my second year of drag racing in the V-Rod category, I placed No. 3 in the nation out of more than 40 experienced drag racers.
MS: Since deciding to become a racer, what’s been your biggest obstacle and how did you conquer it?
VT: I’ve had many obstacles that came into play throughout my career. It’s difficult to name them all.
The first was other racers not taking me seriously. My first real year in racing I had a Monster Energy Drink sponsor—and let me tell you I didn’t know anything about sponsorship packages. I didn’t know how I was going to get money. The dealership isn’t going to give me any money to drive all over the country, and I didn’t know how I was going to afford it.
But eventually I was at the right place at the right time and I was introduced to Monster and it happened—not overnight. It was a year contract. But then they went to Kawasaki, and I’m like, ‘I can’t ride a Kawasaki, I ride in a Harley-Davidson series and I’m getting good at it.’ Now Monster is all over the place. It was a great season, though.
Then I met Mr. Bob Parsons at the Harley dealership. We had a meeting and the next year I got sponsored by GoDaddy. Again, I was at the right place at the right time—but I’m getting off track. To answer your question, the sponsorship was my main obstacle. Actually, now it’s even more so. Fast-forward to Valerie’s fast-lane life and now it’s crucial. I had other obstacles that factored in. In the beginning, I was bullied by a competitor and I didn’t
know who that person was. When I finally found out my world changed, because who wants anybody to write to their sponsor and say this, that, and the other, you know? I’m trying to live my life. I’d found my passion and I was trying to live my dream. And I’ve made many sacrifices to do what I do, but that was the most amazing obstacle I went through. It stopped me from going out to get new sponsors for my next few years in racing, so I had to come up with my own money. It took me three years to find out who he was.
MS: That’s pretty weak that somebody would be so insecure as to do that, but not surprising.
VT: I kind of stopped and gave up a few times. And I was a nobody, just somebody trying to live their dream in the fast lane. I never dreamt of being the world’s fastest female until I started to get really good. But that was back in 2008, ’09, and ’10 and the economy had crunched, and I was trying to do this on my own, and I was scared. I had just bought a brand new pro stock motorcycle before all this—and they’re not cheap—and he would be at some of my appearances creepin’ on me and writing things behind closed doors trying to sabotage any sponsorships. It was terrible. I could never focus. I was always so focused on him, but I never gave up completely.
MS: Kind of like an obsessed stalker. So, would you say your biggest achievement has been overcoming this nut?
VT: I’d have to say getting over that. It took me a few years, but once I started doing really good and I had the opportunity to race a BMW for one of my friends, Kerry Alter—he put me on the map. He reached out to me. I didn’t know who he was. I met with him a few times and he asked me if I wanted to race his S1000RR at the Bonneville Salt Flats, and I did. So I kind of put my drag racing off to the side to do land-speed racing. And I already had two land-speed records with Keith Ball riding his Bikernet.com Panhead Harley and set a record in 2006 and 2007 with him. Then I went back in 2009 and 2011, and that’s where I went 201 mph with Kerry Alter on his BMW. That’s when I decided the quarter mile wasn’t fast enough. I wanted to go faster, so that’s what I did. Now I have to get up to five miles of speed, and then they clock me, and I need three to four miles to slow down. It’s just amazing. The adrenaline is just oh my God!
MS: So, how many titles and/or records do you hold?
VT: I hold eight land-speed records. My most recent accomplishment was in Australia setting the eighth record. You always remember your first and last record, but I don’t plan on this being my last.
MS: Now, in Australia this year you set a new record and suffered a mind-blowing crash at 360-plus mph in the streamliner and ended up skidding quite a ways; correct?
VT: Yes, (laughter) I had a high-speed crash and went airborne over 20 feet before rolling and tumbling for almost one mile over the rough salt of Australia’s outback.
MS: Okay. First off, what was it like getting to the speed you were traveling before you were catapulted skyward, and then what was going through your head when you were skidding like, what, another mile on your side? Tell me about that, ‘cause that must’ve been crazy.
VT: So, this year, March of 2018, we took the team to Australia to break the record of 376 mph. We’d been testing to see what the track would provide. I set a record through the Australian Dry Lakes Racing Association in my class of 3000cc at 328 mph, then over the next few days, we were going for the official FIA record. When I went 328 I was really in third gear running on three cylinders, the latch on the top of my canopy was coming off, and all of my controls went down. My shift light didn’t work. I thought I was already in fourth gear, but the computer system was saying I was in second gear—and I’m going 300 mph—then it’s saying I’m in fourth gear. So I was like, ‘Well, okay, if I hit the gear button one more time I’m going to throw it into neutral,’ because it’s called high neutral, and I didn’t want to do that. I knew the bike wasn’t sounding good and I was already on my way to enter the one mile because we had six miles to get up to speed and then a mile to clock me and then my exit speed. But I knew something was wrong. I could feel it. I could hear it. So that was that record. When I was going for my ultimate record on the day of my crash it was a hard stop because I get towed, and once I release the tow rope at 50 mph I put it in first gear and slowly enter the throttle, not like we do in drag racing. I did that and it was a slow start. I’m like, ‘Come on, come one, Big Red, let’s go,’ and I was about to abort the run because it wouldn’t go. So then it started to go a little faster and faster and I thought, ‘Okay, I got this.’ So, when it took off I went into second gear great, third gear great, fourth gear was great. And I had tried to always stay to the left of the racetrack because there was a tree root, which I was not even close to, so that had nothing to do with my crash, but as I was transitioning to go back into the middle of the track very, very slowly I said, ‘Oh my gosh the salt is amazing. This is going to be a good ride!’
Moments later, I felt, ‘Oh shit, oh shit,’ and that’s when the bike just—I couldn’t hear the tires spinning. It was like something just tipped me over. We later discovered it was a gust of wind. You know, everything was perfect. No latch was coming off. I was in fourth gear. I was going for the record. The last time I looked at the speedometer it was at 300 plus. All I cared about was staying straight, focused, and now I have to start stopping. Well, it wasn’t to that point yet, because I hadn’t reached the mile to enter the official time light. I crashed about a mile before that. I just remember laying it down sideways a very nice, ‘okay, we’re just going to lay down,’ and so when it did I don’t remember anything else after that. When I saw the video, that’s when I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I did that!’ When I went up in the air my canopy came off. When I came down I was upside down and I had left probably a six-inch hole in the salt. And let me tell you how hard that salt is: you can’t even take a hammer and nail to it. You need a drill to penetrate it. Me leaving a hole that big was tremendous. Anyways, I went upside down and I flopped again and then I went upside down again and I hit again and then that’s when I skidded.
MS: So, what was going through your mind throughout all of this?
VT: I only remember laying it down and skidding on one side of the bike and then thinking I couldn’t wait to get out and hoping it didn’t catch on fire. I just said to myself, ‘Okay, relax, keep calm,’ because everything happens in slow motion. When you race it’s all slow motion. And I just thought if I can wiggle my toes and my feet and my fingers I’m okay. When I tried to get out I couldn’t, I was stuck. I thought that since I didn’t smell any smoke or feel any danger being inside I’d just wait for the paramedics. Then I started thinking, ‘What just happened? How did that happen? It was such a good run. The salt felt really good.’
MS: That must have been insane. So, having gone through all of this, what’s your favorite part about racing, besides walking away alive?
VT: That’s easy, the fans. The fans and my race team, that’s my favorite.
MS: How long have you had your team?
VT: I’ve been racing with this streamliner team since 2006 when we first went 304 mph. I’ve been fortunate with all the teams I’ve worked with, but this group of individuals is easily the best so far.
MS: What drives you to do this? I get it, but other people reading this may not, especially after your crash. Need-for-speed adrenaline rush? Proving something to yourself?
VT: Because of my bullied days. What drove me and made me the Queen of Speed is really the emotions I felt when I was being bullied, and that was ‘I’m going to show you that, yes, I can do this. I am going to be a champion. I am going to conquer this.’ My journey has become my way of life. That way of life has become my lifestyle, and he can’t ever take that away from me. I’ve proven on my own, not having grown up with any form of racing, I can do this. Now I can say, ‘I was an adult. I was bullied in my sport, and now this is my story.’
MS: It’s great that you can share that now because it couldn’t have been easy at the time, and it may help others in their own journey. On the flipside, who has been your greatest support throughout your career?
VT: Well, we’ve only been married two years, but my husband, number one, and my dogs. They have meant so much to me. Life on the road when I was single was very lonely. Somebody told me, ‘You need to go get a dog.’ I didn’t want a man in my life at that point. I had a lot I wanted to do, but I needed the company. They changed my life and made road life much more bearable. My PR/Marketing rep for over eight years has also been one of my biggest cheerleaders during good times and bad.
MS: So, your favorite street bike is still your Fat Boy, but what’s your favorite mode of racing transportation?
VT: My BMW, first and foremost, and then my Denis Manning designed streamliner. But I don’t get a lot of time on the streamliner. It’s not like I can go out and just practice.
MS: Do you have a dream bike?
VT: Yes, I have always enjoyed putting bikes together. I want to design a new Harley-Davidson that exceeds my love for my 2000. Give me a check for $50,000 and I will deliver all the specs tomorrow!
MS: Any advice for women wanting to get into the sport?
VT: You have to have thick skin. If you really want it, don’t let anything stop you. You have to maintain self-confidence, be yourself, stay humble, enjoy every moment, and listen to people who know more than you do. You also have to be 100 percent certain that this is what you want to do.
MS: Any resources you would suggest for women either just starting riding motorcycles or those considering racing? Jody mentioned rider safety courses.
VT: I absolutely agree with rider courses. After I’d been racing and took my bike up to over 200 mph I went back to the riders’ course, which was very helpful. The other thing is going through YouTube and listening to new riders, older riders, and maybe just searching the Web for women riders, empowerment women, riding women, just listening to their stories about how it changes your life. It changed my whole life.
MS: So basically educate yourself?
VT: Educate, yes. I had to educate myself on a racing career. I didn’t know the first thing about it.
MS: What, in your opinion, is the biggest misconception about women in racing?
VT: That we shouldn’t be there, that we should be doing something else.
MS: In your opinion, what makes you a better racer or such a successful racer?
VT: It’s my confidence with my race team and the equipment they design and prepare for me. It takes away the scare factor. I’m in full control. The speed is intense, but it’s me that’s in control. It’s the team, however, that gives me confidence while I’m out there.
MS: Any regrets?
VT: Due to my lack of confidence and insecurities early on I missed out on a lot of opportunities because people were knocking me down and I chose to take their route and not my own. So I guess that would be my only regret.
MS: What don’t people know about you?
VT: I used to be claustrophobic. That’s the first thing I had to overcome when I began racing the streamliner. Just getting in it the first time was hard, being it’s the smallest office I’d ever worked in.
MS: What’s next for Valerie?
VT: We’re going to be a superstar on the big screen TV (laughter). We have our movie coming out called Rockets and Titans. It’s a documentary that is projected for worldwide distribution. It’s being finalized in Australia as we speak. My team’s in it, I’m in it, my husband’s in it, Dennis Manning’s in it. We’re all in it together. I’ve watched The World’s Fastest Indian 11 or 12 times. That movie gives me so much inspiration. I want to give people that same kind of inspiration, especially women. I want them to want to watch our movie as much as I’ve watched The World’s Fastest Indian and be inspired. We are also rebuilding our streamliner and we’re going to go out and test it in 2019 at Bonneville. Then, in 2020, we are going back to Australia with the entire team and we are going after that darn record again full throttle. The comeback is always stronger than the setback.
MS: Any last thoughts?
VT: I just want to say that this is only the second time in my career that I’ve opened up about my early struggles with bullying, the other time was just recently. And even though I’m over it, it still feels good to finally speak up about it. I think Valerie is really coming out of her cocoon and being a true racer because now I can tell my story. Now I don’t feel like I can get stepped on and have stones thrown at me. Now I can be Valerie.
Regardless of whether Valerie realizes it or not, she is already an inspiration to people all over the world. At the top of her game right now, you can keep tabs on Rockets and Titans and her racing progress on her Website. There’s no doubt she’s got the grit and determination to make it happen.
Photos courtesy of Valerie Thompson Racing Team