September 12, 2022
By Keaton Maisano
More than a century ago, AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer and September’s Hall of Famer Spotlight Ralph Berndt was born.
Berndt came into the world on Sept. 12, 1921, in Merrill, Wisc., and it was his upbringing that put him on a path toward greatness in the world of motorcycling. Exposed to the mechanical side of things through an auto garage owned by his father, Berndt went on to become a legendary builder and tuner for many racers, including four-time AMA Grand National Champion and fellow AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Carroll Resweber.
As his love for motorcycles grew, so did tensions across the Atlantic Ocean. Berndt was called off to fight in World War II, but he still got to scratch his two-wheel itch as his commander allowed him to keep a German bike they captured in Italy, which Berndt rode for the remainder of the tour.
Following the war, Berndt worked in the Harley-Davidson factory in Milwaukee, where he started working in the frame department. At night, Berndt worked tirelessly on improving Harley-Davidson’s KR racing motor; the Wisconsinite made his own cams, developed port and head configuration on his homemade flow bench and tinkered with frame geometry.
In the 1950s, Berndt started building bikes for Resweber, who was an up-and-coming rider at the time. The partnership proved dynamic as it resulted in four consecutive AMA Grand National Championships from 1958-1961.
While his greatest accomplishments came with Resweber, many other riders raced on bikes with engines built by Berndt in the 1960s.
Berndt’s success can be traced to his copious notetaking on each track. Through experience, Berndt learned to modify a motor’s power curve or what angle to cut a tire based on a specific track.
Berndt made his work a family activity. His wife, Carol, helped tear down motors and clean parts, and their five kids had various tasks that helped the efforts.
Beyond the track, Berndt played a role in setting a speed record. Powered by a Harley-Davidson 250cc Sprint motor, a streamliner prepared by Berndt was piloted by AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer George Roeder to a record speed of 177.225 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1965.
Berndt worked in Harley-Davidson’s racing department and then the company’s research and development department until 1978 when he retired. Throughout his career, Berndt made sure to pass along his knowledge to other engineers — one being AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Bill Werner.
In his retirement, Berndt won engineering awards for designing a new type of retractable landing gear for experimental aircraft.
Berndt passed away in 1992, but his career accomplishments live on in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum as a member of the Class of 2005.