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Garageland: 150 Miles Per Hour

Sasha Aslanian

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Steve Hamel in his garage
(Ariel Kitch)
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We've been doing a series of stories called "Garageland" about the things Americans like to do in their garages. Garages are places where we tinker, dream and create. Today's story is about a guy who does all that, plus he goes 150 miles per hour. Weekend America's Sasha Aslanian explains.

100hp Vincent Dyno Run
(SilverbackRacing)

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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.

Comments

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  • By cindy rutherford dmn

    From San Pedro, CA, 11/25/2008

    I have lots of Vincent parts if you need one you can't find. I sure would like to race my Dads' bike.

    By Marshall Hagy

    From Chicago, IL, 11/24/2008

    I've known Steve for years, a real straight ahead enthusiast with a feel for machinery, and a great guy as well.

    By cindy rutherford dmn

    From San Pedro, CA, 11/23/2008

    I loved this story..Of course I am a little one sided I have my Dads' Lightning in my bedroom. What a great wife he has a true pit tootsie indeed. Your pics were as great as your story. I know what he means about his parts, some of them are so neat I can't even sell them or put them on a motorcycle. Great story thank you for the grinnnns.

    By Orin Koeckeritz

    From Afton, MN, 11/23/2008

    Steve amazes me in his memory for names and his always personable smile.
    His memory on names not only but on the bikes you have or what you have or are riding now.
    His father a him sold me my 76 Norton Commando and over the years I have meet him at many motorcycle events where "Old Brit Bikes" were around.
    From the races and swap meet in the old Mpls Armory to flat track in St Paul Civic Center. Steve always seemed to be there somewhere in the crowd to say hello.
    His shop seems to hold the treasures of the past for anyone who is into old cycles, information as well a some obscure part one needs to finish a project.

    By Paul Lynn

    From Southington, OH, 11/22/2008

    Thanks for the beautiful story! Steve is a gearhead artist in the true sense of the word and is part of a tightly knit salt flats origins of speed family. We run a 1929 bright yellow Ford Model A with a hemi engine and there is nothing like the high lonesome sound of a purpose built engine doing what it is supposed to do on the salt. At idle it is choppy and rough but at speed it is the sound of fine linen being rended. --Paul Lynn, Hochkraeusen Racing Team.

    By tim woodward

    From CA, 11/22/2008

    I raced at b'ville for 25 years. I remember a guy on a vincent, it always sounded sweet. I'm working on a ariel
    square four as I listen to this piece,
    Its the best of all worlds

    By Brian Alderton

    From Lake Villa, IL, 11/22/2008

    This story touched my heart. I have a late sixtys BSA Spitfire Special Mark III. I would love to hook up with another english bike gear head to help me restore my bike. That Vincent sound on the dyno was music to my ears.

    By Penny Kelly

    From Lancaster, PA, 11/22/2008

    Oh my gosh what a beautiful motorcycle it sounded really sweet when it was going ereally fast!

    By John Twiehaus

    From St louis, 11/22/2008

    I really enjoyed your story on the vincent, There are not alot of people who ever have ever heard of them. It is interesting to note that they when new were more expensive than a car.

    By mark vegors

    From west seattle, WA, 11/22/2008

    Thank you for a story about the non sensational world of motorcycling. We are not all wheelie popping smokey burnouts on sport bikes or Harly Davidson riding black leather clad posers.

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