Ralph Berndt went largely unnoticed throughout much of his career and that was by design. Berndt didn’t seek the spotlight, in fact he mostly tried to avoid it, but there was no denying his accomplishments. Berndt was one of the all-time legendary tuners in American motorcycle racing history.
Berndt was undoubtedly the 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 on his own without backing from Milwaukee.
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 configurations 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 temporarily moved in with the Berndts until he got settled 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 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.
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