Valerie Thompson — America’s Queen of Speed
BEYOND THE HORIZON
Meet America’s Queen of Speed Valerie Thompson
Land speed racer and Bentley owner Valerie Thompson tells Tim Lappen about breaking records – and her plans to keep going faster
PHOTOGRAPHY / John Russo
The fastest female motorcycle racer in the world, Valerie Thompson, holds 10 land speed records and boasts membership of eight 200mph Clubs, one 300mph Club and the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame. The 54-year-old American – the only woman in the world’s fastest motorcycle racers rankings – became the world’s fastest female motorcycle racer in 2018 at Lake Gairdner in South Australia with a top speed of 328.467mph (528.616km/h) piloting the Denis Manning-designed BUB 7 Streamliner.
It’s almost too much to comprehend, and talking to her, you get little sense of the sheer steel it must take to travel at those sorts of speeds, to tackle drag racing tracks and vast salt ﬂats with barely a shrug. She’s bubbly, with a wide smile and easy laugh, but her competitive streak comes through in everything she does – when she’s not beating land speed records, she’s on the pickleball court: “I’m going to be a champ on the track and a champ on the pickleball court,” she laughs. “I had only played eight times when I decided to build a pickleball court in the backyard! I do things in extremes. My good friends say: ‘Everything you do and everything you touch you take it to the fullest.’ And I believe in that.”
THRILL OF SPEED
Thompson grew up in Tacoma, Washington, as a shy, socially awkward girl. Losing her mother, Carol, when Thompson was only 10 years old was difficult, but she found respite by playing sports with the boys in her neighborhood. Her conﬁdence grew and she metamorphosized in high school, becoming a cheerleader and discovering the gym. She worked at Burger King and a BMW dealer, before joining the local bank and going to teller school. But when layoffs came along, she found herself looking for a new direction at the age of 38.
She had always been a “garage nut”, hanging out with her mechanically minded father and grandfather and picking up engineering skills along the way. So, in 1999, Thompson decided to take the plunge into motorcycling and walked into her local Harley-Davidson showroom to purchase a new motorcycle. With no license, she had to leave it at the dealership while she took a motorcycle riding course, but once she was on the road the rest, as they say, is history. “It changed my life, that’s no exaggeration,” she says of the motorcycle. “However, I knew right away I wanted a bigger and faster bike so I could keep up with, and pass, my friends. So, three months later I traded in my Harley-Davidson 1200 Custom Sportster for my current bike, a 2000 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy.
“I took that bike to the racetrack and started making hot laps and I really fell in love with organized drag racing. Shortly after I had the opportunity to race a Harley-Davidson V-Rod Destroyer. In 2006, it was the bike to race. I didn’t know how I was going to get the bike around 14 states to compete in the All Harley Drag Racing Association series, so I sold my car, bought a truck and a sponsor provided a trailer until I bought my own six months later.”
Success on the drag racing scene led Thompson’s focus to shift to land speed records: “I loved drag racing, but I hated stopping after just a quarter-mile. I always want to test the true limits of any bike and land speed racing allows me to do that. It’s just like the early days of drag racing when determination, driving skill, ingenuity and bravery were more important than big budgets.”
But in March 2018, while Thompson was chasing a world’s fastest motorcycle title in the American-built BUB 7 motorcycle streamliner at Lake Gairdner in South Australia, she crashed. “I was going 343mph (552km/h) when I had the most horriﬁc crash,” she remembers. The accident saw the rear of the Streamliner become airborne and the bike ﬂipped and rolled repeatedly. “The bike saved my life – it was built for speed and safety. I came out with just cuts and bruises. It hit the salt so hard that it left a dent – and that salt is hard. As I slid for a mile, I carved pretty streaks of red paint down the salt racetrack.”
I loved drag racing, but I hated stopping after a quarter-mile
Despite the accident, Thompson continued her quest to break records straight away, climbing into the 43-foot long (13 meters) Treit & Davenport Target 550 Streamliner, a dual-engine four-wheeled 5,000 horsepower (5,069PS / 3728kW) vehicle that could potentially top 500mph (805km/h). On one of her early runs, she reached 291mph (468km/h) before the engines blew, but thankfully she kept control.
“We rebuilt the engines and had them shipped to Australia – they are still there,” she explains. “The day before I was due to ﬂy out in March 2020 to attempt to break the land speed record of 415.867mph (669.273km/h) we had the news about Covid-19. We were set to go back this year but couldn’t because of the travel restrictions.” There are plans for her to be reunited with the car in Australia soon, but the team are also considering returning it to the US so the official speed run can be done at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Handling that sort of speed takes extraordinary strength and bravery, qualities that Thompson has in abundance. But for her, the biggest battle is with the mind: “Two of the most important aspects of going fast are managing fear and understanding the limits of your machine. A pinch of insanity also helps.”
During the run, everything seems to happen in slow motion. “You’re very close to the ground and it’s very loud and bumpy, enough to blur your vision,” she says. “You don’t realize how fast you are traveling because there are no trees, fences, or guardrails for miles. You are 100 percent focused on the track. Believe it or not, it’s calming until the chutes deliver the negative G forces.”
LOVE OF LUXURY
Thompson’s need for speed is balanced by her love of luxury. Her chic home in Scottsdale, Arizona – complete with pickleball court – is her sanctuary, and she has three Bentleys, along with her three Maltese dogs – one of which is named Bentley. She and her husband Ray Garcia, a former Baja racer, now a commercial developer, spend a lot of time traveling to race tracks, but leisure trips are important too. “I have a Bentayga 2019 that I purchased pre-owned earlier this year – my very ﬁrst Bentley. And I’ve just taken delivery of a 2020 Mulsanne. It’s black and the interior is white leather with black trimmings, like a tuxedo.
“I really love the sassiness of a Bentley. The horsepower. The incredible handling. It’s smooth, it’s functional. I love how I can control the throttle and the brakes with the slightest touch. It’s just an incredible car.”
She’s had many memorable drives around the US, including a trip to California in 2016. “We took the Mulsanne to Santa Barbara, where we got married and did a photoshoot with us and the Bentley. We’ve done that trip a couple of times, and always take the dogs. They are tucked up in their little buckets in the back of the car and they just sleep.”
The next record she is seeking to break is the 376.363mph (605.698km/h) two-wheel record in the fastest class 3000cc Streamliner Blown Fuel, and she is hoping to do it in the US. “There are only three places you can set official land speed records: on the salt ﬂats in Bolivia, Australia, and Bonneville,” she says. “Our goal is to create racing history by capturing the world’s fastest motorcycle title in an American-built vehicle.”
Whether on two wheels or four, Thompson is always reaching for her next record and is grateful for the support of the sponsors, vehicle owners and mechanics that allow her to test her mettle, climbing into cockpits to reach truly jaw-dropping speeds. And she shows no sign of slowing down. “I’m going out with a bang,” she says with a wry smile.
“I want to retire at 400mph.”
Despite a serious high-speed crash in 2018, the former bank worker is focused on what she loves best – riding her bikes and continuing to break speed records