Erin Hunter Sills is somewhere on a deserted highway in Nevada hitting speeds as far north of 170 as she can push her bike to go. This is how a world speed record holder in multiple categories prepares for her next run at Bonneville.
She readily admits that going fast sits somewhere in the chain that makes up her DNA…but it probably took her dad to give it a bit of a boost.
“We weren’t wealthy, but my dad always made sure he had the fastest car he could afford. When I was around six, he started taking me out on the back roads of Ohio and drive as fast he could. When he’d tell my mom he was ‘taking me to get cider,’ I knew that meant we were going for one of those fast rides.”
Who knows how long it took for Erin’s mother to catch on to the inside cider reference, but the raw feeling of speed clearly made an impression on young Erin Hunter. It just took awhile for it to fully manifest itself on two wheels.
Erin's first bike was something like this.
Erin wouldn’t buy her first motorcycle until around 2000 – a Honda VFR 800. Not particularly fast, but still considered one of the best bikes Honda has ever made. Besides, Erin was looking for a starter bike that would be fun, comfortable, and a good ergonomic fit. Going faster than hell would come later.
Within a year, the Honda was replaced by a Yamaha SV-1, something more in line with a propensity for speed. This was a bike that could do 0-60 in just under three seconds and had a top speed of 167 mph.
Erin's second bike was something like this.
Somewhere in this timeframe, Erin met Andy Sills – a man whom she would go on to marry and who had established himself as one of the leaders in the idea of getting on two-wheels and riding like a bat out of hell across a plain of salt.
The two of them fed off of their hunger for speed and a full throttle desire to live life on their own terms. So when BMW came out with the speed eating HP Sport in 2008, Erin promptly bought the first one that came to the U.S. and gave it to Andy as a present.
“I still have that bike and it has over 30,000 miles on it. What that bike did more than anything was to make me appreciate BMW and the way their bikes perform.”
A BMW is what Andy and Erin rode as the first two people to attempt a land speed record riding two-up at Bonneville. They hit a combined speed of 181 mph on a BMW S1000R in 2011, which gave them the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest two people on a motorcycle.
Andy and Erin on their way to a record speed run.
Andy was the pilot on the first pass with Erin on pillion, and they hit a top speed of 182.385 mph. Erin piloted on the return pass and managed 180.503 mph. Thus, the average of the two gave them the 181 mph for the record.
“Keeping a bike in a straight line as just the pilot is tough enough, but imagine having someone on the back. It’s an entirely new set of possibilities for margin of error that have to be taken into account.”
To give you some idea of what this entails, here’s a brief description Erin gave in another publication soon after she and Andy got the record:
“Elbows are tight to the body, toes are pointed, knees are slammed to the horizontal axis, and even the minor folds in the second-seat rider’s leathers pull like a freight train opposite the direction of travel. For the second-seat rider, it becomes an epic battle to remain tucked and motionless, relaxed yet vigilant. At 180 mph, one wrong move by the second-seat rider can become a back flip off the tail into the jaws of a fire-breathing dragon. If the second-seat rider moves their helmet ever so slightly, the pilot’s helmet responds like an uncontrolled bobble head. If the second-seat rider opens a knee while adjusting position, that appendage will not go back to center unless we scrub speed and slow it back down again.”
In other words, one false move and you’re either going to die or go horribly off course.
Anyone who thinks that the majority of the preparation to go this fast is focused on the bike and that the rider just has to open the throttle and sit still for a few seconds needs a serious rethink. Let’s start with getting into the mindset of hitting 180 to 200 mph.
Back in the day of the café racer scene, hitting a ton or 100 mph was the big goal. But when asked, Erin can’t remember the first time she hit 100. She said it was probably on that Honda VFR, but her speeds come in 10-mile increments that don’t really settle in until she’s over 120. At 120, most riders will probably want to back off, but Erin’s just getting started.
Since there is literally nowhere to really train for Bonneville, she has to find out-of-the-way the roads where she can get her bike up to speeds the average rider might find terrifying.
There’s also the idea that this kind of sport still requires physical conditioning. She said she’s always been fit so maintaining a weightlifting and cardio routine is easy for her. She also practices yoga, which reminds her she needs to breath during a run.
“I’ve done runs where I’m panting at the end of it, and I realized that I was holding my breath the entire way. Yoga helps me get over that, and meditation helps me visualize the run and what I need to be thinking about. I owe it to my team to be as prepared as they are to do the best we can possibly do. You don’t get a lot of chances out there.”
And contrary to what you might think, Erin says the last thing you want to do is look at the speedometer. Your head needs to be somewhere else – both physically and mentally. Depending on where the speedo is located on the bike, that change in helmet position could throw off your speed by a wide margin. And depending on your frame of mind, the idea of knowing how fast you’re going is similar to a tightrope walker looking down. (For anyone who’s seen the movie The Walk, you’ll understand the reference.)
Andy and Erin on their respective BMWs.
That level of preparation didn’t lead to just one speed record for Andy or Erin, it has led to well over 19 world and national records between the two of them; and it wasn’t always on big one-liter bikes. In 2003, they worked with Jack Costella (a world famous land speed record holder) to create a purpose built 100 cc streamliner that Andy went on to pilot to 141 mph. Erin broke that record a year later with an 80 cc engine, which gave her the distinction of being the fastest woman with a world record on a streamlined motorcycle. As for Erin’s fastest time ever – try 200 mph.
Unfortunately, a non-racing motorcycle accident cut short the couple’s mutual passion for going fast and their life together. It took Andy’s life and the person who Erin says was not only the love of her life, but also the main person she credits with being her biggest influence.
“I wouldn’t have gotten into this sport without him. I wouldn’t be successful without him. He’s still in my helmet – even on daily rides.”
While Erin and Andy were breaking land speed records, they also decided to help attract more women to the sport. Soon after they won their first BUB-sponsored event at Bonneville, they realized how few women were participating. There were only four at the time. So they started an organization called SheMoto that awards an annual thousand-dollar scholarship to a woman in the sport and another thousand-dollar award to the person who most encouraged their passion. It’s been going for ten years now.
“It’s about recognizing a woman who most embodies what it means to be a land speed racer. It can be an actual racer, someone just starting out or a woman involved in promoting the event. It’s about persevering as a woman in a very male-dominated sport.”
Every sport has its euphemisms and analogies relative to work and life. Team sports stress the concept of collaboration, knowing when to back off and give the “ball” to someone else. Individual sports focus on the concept of self-motivation. On the surface, you might wonder how does that apply to chasing land speed records. Considering, what’s involved, Erin’s response makes sense.
“You have to understand your own strengths – what you can or can’t do. I’m a phenomenal pilot and rider, but I’m not an engineer or tuner. I need the people who can do that. The same goes for work. I understand what I can do well, and I hire really smart people who can do what I can’t and be passionate about it.”
Erin on her BMW.
Then there’s the future. The passing of someone as close as Andy was to Erin might make some think twice about their chosen passion. Not Erin. If anything, it only seems to have made her even more focused.
“I have two goals – bring home the production 1000cc record for BMW by breaking 201 mph, and become a member of the SETA 200 mph club. They have strict rules for doing so, but I think I can get there.”
With Andy in her helmet and more than a few backroad ‘cider runs’, Erin will no doubt achieve both.