Ralph Berndt was a preeminent race tuner of the 1950s and ‘60s. Carroll Resweber won four consecutive AMA Grand National Championships riding Berndt-tuned Harley-Davidsons. In all, Berndt machines won 28 AMA nationals with riders Resweber and George Roeder. Berndt worked at the Harley-Davidson factory, but most of his racing activity was done independently of the factory.
Berndt was born on September 12, 1921 in Merrill, Wisconsin. His father owned an auto garage and that started Berndt’s interest in all things mechanical. His love of motorcycles began in the 1930s after he saw a local man riding a bike through his hometown’s streets. Against his mother’s wishes, Berndt bought his first motorcycle just before being called off to the military during World War II. Showing great patriotic fervor, Berndt’s mother donated his motorcycle to the war effort (unbeknownst to Ralph) while Ralph was serving in Italy. Berndt was greatly distressed when he heard that his bike had been given away, but his agony was somewhat relieved when his unit captured some German motorcycles in Italy. His commander had heard of Berndt’s mom’s patriotic act and allowed Ralph to keep one of the German bikes during the remainder of his tour.
After the war, Berndt went to work in the Harley-Davidson factory in Milwaukee. He and his wife, Carol, lived in an upper flat of a duplex just blocks from the Harley factory. Berndt worked early on in the frame department and at night he spent countless hours improving on Harley-Davidson’s KR racing motor. He made his own cams, developed port and head configuration on his homemade flow bench and tinkered with frame geometry.
In the mid-1950s, Berndt began building bikes for an up-and-coming Texan novice rider named Carroll Resweber. The Resweber/Berndt pairing resulted in a remarkable four AMA Grand National Championships in a row for Resweber from 1958 through 1961. Resweber’s four titles was a record in AMA Grand National racing that would last for nearly 40 years.
Resweber and his wife left Texas and moved in with the Berndts so he could be more centrally located to the AMA Grand National circuit. Racing was a family affair for the Berndts. Ralph’s wife was very involved, helping to tear down motors and clean parts. She also sewed together torn racing leathers. Their five children all had tasks to perform as well, gathering bike stands, rolling out tires and finding oil filter covers so everything could be readied to pack into the motorcycle trailer. Berndt’s daughter, Heidi, even learned the fine art of painting number plates from NASCAR legend Red Vogt, whose home was on the back straight of Daytona International Speedway.
Resweber was Berndt’s winningest rider, but he also helped George Roeder come within a single point of winning the AMA Grand National Championship in 1963. Tony Murguia also won an AMA National Road Race in Indianapolis on a Ralph Berndt-tuned Harley-Davidson in 1962. Many other riders raced bikes with engines built by Berndt during the 1960s.
Berndt was one of the first mechanics to keep extensive notes on each track. Over the years, he learned to customize a motor’s power curve, or exactly what angle to cut a tire specifically for a track, based on his pages of notes. He also learned to build frames that could maximize aerodynamics for individual riders based on their height and weight.
Berndt’s philosophy in racing wasn’t based so much on beating other competitors, but finding perfection in his own machines.
His bikes were successful in dirt track racing as well as road racing. He even had a major hand in preparing a world speed record Harley-Davidson ridden by George Roeder at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Powered by a Harley-Davidson 250cc Sprint motor, a streamliner prepared by Berndt was piloted to a record speed of 177.225 mph by Roeder at the Salt Flats in 1965.
Berndt worked in Harley-Davidson’s racing department and later in the company's research and development department until 1978 when he retired and turned his focus to his hobby of experimental aircraft. During his 30-plus years at the company, he passed on to many other engineers at Harley-Davidson his self-taught craft. One of the tuners he mentored was a young Bill Werner, who tuned for Scott Parker, the rider to break Carroll Resweber’s AMA Grand National record of four straight titles.
In retirement Berndt won engineering awards for designing a new type of retractable landing gear for experimental aircraft.
Berndt was modest about his success in building championship-winning motorcycles. He quietly worked behind the scenes while his riders garnered the praise. Still, the people inside racing knew how significant Berndt’s contributions to the sport were.
Berndt died in September of 1992. Several of his motorcycles and some of his machining equipment live on and have been preserved at the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina.
Inducted in 2005