Salt Addiction Leo Hess

April 21, 2010
Rocky Robinson
Rocky Robinson
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Having raced everything from Flat Track to Trials, Rocky Robinson now pilots streamliners at the Bonneville Salt Flats and currently holds the ultimate land speed record at 376 mph aboard the Ack Attack streamliner.

The after shot shows the bike as it was after being loaded onto the trailer after Leos high speed crash. The bodywork was literally ripped from the machine during the accident.
The “after” shot shows the bike as it was after being loaded onto the trailer after Leo’s high speed crash. The bodywork was literally ripped from the machine during the accident.

The 2008 Top 1 Shootout was nearing an end. Sam Wheeler had run 352 mph against the current record of 350 set by Chris Carr in 2006. Leo Hess, piloting the Full Blast Engineering / Küryakyn streamliner was staged and ready. Myself and the Ack Attack crew had followed Leo’s team to the far end of the course preparing for our own attempt.

Seconds into the run something went horribly wrong. Leo’s streamliner tumbled hard, catapulting high into the air three or four times before coming to rest a mile down course. Most of the bodywork was literally ripped from the machine; what was left was a twisted heap of metal, rubber and nitromethane. The debris field stretched a quarter-mile. Everyone held their breath while medics rushed to his side hoping he would be okay…

Leo lights up the rear tire as fans look on. He set 4 AMRA records from 1990-92 and was the first Shovelhead in AMRA history to go over 180 mph.
Leo lights up the rear tire as fans look on. He set four AMRA records from 1990-92 and was the first Shovelhead in AMRA history to go over 180 mph.

Leo’s humble beginnings included a tri-state keg party circuit for bragging rights over who had the fastest bike. Airport runways in South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota were converted into drag strips drawing crowds reaching 600-800 spectators. Other race venues were incorporated: “We blocked off county highways and ran before the cops would come,” Leo bragged. “At Sturgis we would run for dollar bills signed by the loser… lots of beer involved.”

Leo’s professional drag racing career started on a dare. His buddies were saying, “If your bike’s so fast, why don’t you race the big boys?” Around 1982 Leo showed up at Louisville, Illinois. Elmer Trett, Jim McClure, and Pete Hill were competing. “I was the only one running a Big Twin Shovelhead with an injector. They looked at it and said it wouldn’t work. My first pass was over the national record.”

Leo excelled in drag racing, setting four records in AMRA (American Motorcycle Racing Association) during the early ‘90s. He also had the first Shovelhead in AMRA history to go over 180 mph. “I raced against the number one top fuel bike in the country (Happy Ring) at Sturgis in front of 10,000 people from the 16th spot on the ladder—and beat him… the crowd went wild!”

Taken from the parking lot outside Leos shop  Full Blast Engineering. Race bikes  performance engine work  v-twin service.
Taken from the parking lot outside Leo’s shop, Full Blast Engineering. Race bikes, performance engine work, V-Twin service.

In addition to racing, Leo opened a performance V-Twin shop in 1985. Before this, he would leave the local Harley-Davidson dealership where he worked in South Dakota for days at a time to hit the strips feeding his passion. After competing at a drag race in Sacramento, Leo returned to find he no longer had a job. That’s when Full Blast Engineering was born. He’s been there ever since.

I asked Leo how he got his start at Bonneville: “I was at a drag race in Sacramento. There was a bike show going on with Bob George’s old double engine bike. The last guy to ride it was Don Vesco. It needed to be rebuilt so I told him I could redo it. He looked at me like, “Who are you?” Bob called S&S Cycle and asked if they knew who I was. S&S told him I’d been drag racing for years and building motors. Long story short, when I went home the double engine bike came with me. I took it apart and rebuilt everything that winter.”

Mike Roland pushes Leo off on the double engine bike at the 92 World Finals. Partially streamlined  Leo ran over 236 mph!
Mike Roland pushes Leo off on the double engine bike at the ’92 World Finals. Partially streamlined, Leo ran over 236 mph!

Speed Week ’92 was Leo’s first time on the bike. He and Mike Roland finished putting it together in the motel parking lot. “My first ride at Bonneville it was real wet. I slung a rooster tail of salt, fishtailing at 175 mph down the track. I went 192.750 on a 196 record. Salt all over everything, I had to turn my helmet to the side just to see. The officials told us we were nuts and not allowed on the track any more that day. The fastest car that day was only 176!”

At the ’92 World Finals Leo ran 236.204 mph through the mile. The record at the time was held by Dave Campos at 231.597 in APS-F / 3000. A damaged piston kept him from making a return run. Leo’s now a member of four 200 MPH Clubs: El Mirage, East Coast Timing Assoc. (Maxton), Muroc, and Land Speed Authority (Bonneville).

A closer look at the beautifully restored J P streamliner.
A closer look at the beautifully restored J&P streamliner.

The J&P streamliner originally belonged to Bob George who intended to put Leo in the driver’s seat. Money problems sidelined the project until John Parham of J&P Cycles purchased the streamliner. At the 2006 BUB meet they had difficulty getting the bike to go straight. Leo showed them how to set the steering up and did a couple of tow tests until the handling issue was resolved. John Parham asked Leo if he would drive it. It was the start of bigger things to come…

In 2008 Leo teamed with drag racing buddy Mike Roland, Küryakyn’s Tom Rudd, and a host of others to compete at the Top 1 Shootout. Their entry, a 3000cc nitro burning V-Twin powered streamliner. After a few shakedown runs the team made an attempt on the record that resulted in a horrific high speed crash.

This is the before shot of the Full Blast Engineering Küryakyn streamliner at the 2008 Top 1 Shootout.
This is the “before” shot of the Full Blast Engineering/Küryakyn streamliner at the 2008 Top 1 Shootout.

Leo: “It seemed like the tow line wasn’t staying tight; motor rpm were up and down. Released tow… all of a sudden the steering jarred/flexed. The bike went right with the back tire spinning. It laid over and started to slide. I tried to raise the skids and deploy the chute. The skid must have hooked. I remember the first roll, then getting into the helicopter when the door hit my foot.”

The steering linkage broke, held on by fire and throttle cables. The bike tumbled on top of the steering mechanism, driving it into the rider’s compartment. Leo’s ankles were crushed. He received multiple compound fractures to both legs and a severely sprained/dislocated knee. After 36 days in a Utah hospital and enduring five surgeries, Leo finally came home.

More surgeries followed including bone graphs and an unexpected surgery to clean up a bone infection that slowed the healing process. I asked Leo if he was walking yet. “Right now I can get around on crutches. I put a shoe on my left foot the other day, first time in 17 months. I really hope to be walking by May with a cane.” Leo plans to continue riding motorcycles and even hinted to the possibility of rebuilding his streamliner if he can line up sponsorship.

Whatever the future holds for Leo Hess, I’m sure he’ll be jumping in Full Blast…

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