1957 H-D Drag Bike
Leo Payne’s Legendary “Turnip Eater”
When an ordinary Harley-Davidson Sportster arrived at Mike Wilson’s Iowa dealership in 1957, there was no way of knowing it would become a legendary motorcycle.
Or that the man Wilson would sell it to, Leo Payne, would become a legendary racer.
But that’s what ultimately happened to that Sportster, which became this top-level drag-racing machine. In more than 20 years of fierce competition, it claimed everything from local wins to national records.
Of course, this Harley’s story started small, when Payne bought the machine to campaign in club drag races. To find the speed he’d need to win, he turned to Wilson, who massaged the cylinders and bored out the Linkert carb to create a powerful sleeper that quickly ruled the local drag strip.
Buoyed by his success, Payne kept improving his machine and his skills. By the mid-’60s, when he headed for California to take on national-caliber riders, the Sportster was a nitro-burning monster that could run quarter miles in the nines. It had also earned a nickname—Turnip Eater—for its appetite for Triumphs.
Eventually, even beating national riders wasn’t enough, so Payne aimed his Harley at a new challenge: land speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Because the machine had been built for drag racing and had only one gear, though, Payne had to make a few adjustments for this new type of competition.
To get under way, Payne would hold onto the door handle of a car that would tow him up to about 75 mph. Then he’d let go, engage the clutch, aim at the timing lights and accelerate up to cruising speed. The technique obviously worked, since Payne was able to set a record of 202.379 mph on the salt in 1970 to become the first non-streamliner to go more than 200 mph.
Payne continued racing the machine through the mid-’70s, when he retired it. But his motorcycle’s incredible journey wasn’t over.
The legendary Harley came full circle years later, when Wilson again acquired it—34 years after he first sold it—upon Payne’s death in 1991. And as a tribute to his longtime friend, Wilson restored the bike and donated it to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum. It is currently on loan to the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa.