Worth its salt
Land speed record racers beeline to Bonneville
Wendover, Utah, Sept. 2–7—I came prepared for a lunar landing, having never been to the legendary Salt Flats of Bonneville before. I’m not sure anything can totally prepare a western Pennsylvania boy for the oddities of driving on something white when it’s 95 degrees outside. The overwhelming sense of openness and disorienting sense of distance is difficult to overcome.
I drove straight to the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials after my plane landed at Salt Lake, not even stopping to check into my hotel. My first venture onto the salt was a tentative one. I drove cautiously, having the sense that I would get lost in the sheer openness of Bonneville, or somehow fall through the surface, like it was ice. But by week’s end, I was among the first to head out just before dawn, with a full complement of BUB volunteers hitching a ride.
The Bonneville Salt Flats is what’s left of ancient Lake Bonneville, which has retreated to the Great Salt Lake. The nearest town is Wendover. It sits on the border of Utah and Nevada, and is divided into Wendover and West Wendover, depending on which side of the state line you’re on. Until just a few years ago the two towns were even in different time zones, Mountain and Pacific respectively.
Motorcycles used to share Speed Week with hot rods until Denis “BUB” Manning developed a separate event specifically for motorcycles in 2004. Today, motorcyclists enjoy a week of having the salt all to themselves, thanks to Manning and his crew. Manning also owns the BUB SEVEN, which became the World’s Fastest Motorcycle at last year’s event, with Chris Carr at the controls.
Basically there are three courses at the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials. The most basic is the Run Wat Cha Brung Class, that allows almost anyone with 100 bucks to see how fast they can ride their bike through a measured mile on a three-mile course.
The next level, sometimes called the Short Course, typically starts at mile two of the 10-Mile International Course on the other side of the pits. This is where AMA-sanctioned national speed records are set, with times measured between miles 4 and 5.
The Fédération International De Motocyclisme (FIM) typically oversees World Record speeds on the Long Course, which begins at Mile Zero and is still measured between miles 4 and 5 for flying mile and flying kilometer speeds. To run this course, you’re required to have a bike that has hit 175 mph on the short course. Mile Zero is streamliner territory. When salt conditions and wind conditions are right, it’s where you find the likes of Chris Carr, the pilot of the World’s Fastest Motorcycle, or Rocky Robinson, who was the first to break Dave Campos’ 16-year-old record last year in Top-1 Ack Attack.
The Ack Attack team, led by owner Mike Akatiff, wasted little time in going after the record this year as they took to the salt on Monday, even though conditions were less than perfect. The salt was reportedly wet compared to last year’s “perfect” conditions. Ack Attack’s down run registered a speed of 299.772 mph. On the return run, things got wobbly and Ack Attack rolled onto its roof near the measured mile. Pilot Rocky Robinson emerged unharmed, but Ack Attack suffered event-ending damages. The Ack Attack team did collect the $5,000 cash prize for Top Time (Speed) of the meet, sponsored by Drag Specialties.
The business of streamliner racing takes some patience. Wind, or lack thereof, is very critical to a successful run. Chris Carr and others carry portable wind measurement devices and are very keen at sensing when the winds have gone. One volunteer put it like this: If you can feel the wind blowing the hair on your arm, BUB Seven isn’t going to run. And who can blame them? The risk to riders and very expensive equipment isn’t worth the gamble, particularly if conditions are marginal. So, be prepared to wait and wait some more. It’s all part of the experience. At least I got to hear the World’s Fastest Motorcycle when the BUB crew warmed up Seven.
Other prize-winning streamliners included California Fritz’s Salt Shaker. The 118″ shovelhead won the Top Time Antique Motorcycle award of $500 from BUB Enterprises with a speed of 228.716. The BuddFab streamliner took home the $2,500 award by BUB for Top mph/cc ratio with a speed of 137.262 in their 50cc streamliner.
As the speed of the motorcycle goes down, the risk of racing in the wind does too. So spectators see some very interesting rides even if the streamliners are on standby. I even saw some stunning jet fighter flyovers on at least two of the four days I was there.
Assalt Weapan, 5-Ball Racing’s Accurate Engineering-powered racer, looked fast just sitting in the pits. The monster 120″ Panhead motorcycle was ridden by Go Daddy Girl Valerie Thompson to a speed of 161.736 mph. Assalt Weapan is considered partially streamlined in Bonneville terms and is “on the bottle.” The entire Assalt Weapan package also won $1,000 from BUB Enterprises for Best Engineered. This was a team after my own heart as they pegged Assalt Weapan around the pits and access roads of Bonneville with a little Honda dirt bike. And just for those of you who don’t know, peggin’ is the art of pushing an idle bike with another bike. My hat’s off to the 5-Ball crew, led by Bandit of Biker Net.com, Barry Wardlaw of Accurate Engineering and a bunch of others. Thunder Press alumna Gypsy was even pitching in.
The award for Enthusiast of the Year is sponsored by Buell Brothers Racing. To appreciate the award, you need to know a little about Buell Brothers. They first came to the salt in 1995 for Speed Week and are, for the most part, Vietnam-era veterans. That’s where the “brother” part comes from. They enjoyed success from the start, setting a record in ’95 with their ’95 S2 Buell for Production Push Rod 1350cc. But the real vibe here is that they came up the old-fashioned way—listening to and learning from their elders. If there’s anyone on the salt who doesn’t know and like Buell Brothers Racing, I couldn’t find them. Buell Brother Tom “Santa Claus” Anderson helped me find the people and things I was looking for, and I enjoyed hearing his stories while we walked as much as I enjoyed finding what it was I was looking for. Anyhow, the team selected by Buell Brothers as Enthusiast of the Year was FRCP Racing. The team runs a blown Sporty that was originally built as a street bike in ’72 by Ken Zetterquist—Z Man—for the late Rat Man. Rat Man had dreamed of the Sportster setting a national speed record and that’s how they ended up at the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials. I give Z Man credit for hovering over the supercharger on the Sporty and I’m sure the team will put the $1,000 prize money to good use.
Everyone you meet at Bonneville has a great story. I met 71-year-old racer Gerald Jessup while he was talking to Wildman from Cycle Source magazine. As I talked with Gerald and his sponsor, Billy Hibbs, Jr. of Heartland Insurance, I began to see that the team was the stuff dreams are made of. I’m a sucker for an old Triumph and Gerald was campaigning a ’51, T100, 500cc Triumph, that he’d bought at an Indiana junkyard, in hopes of breaking a record. Gerald lost an eye in an industrial accident and a finger on a practice lap at Daytona years ago, but he still knows his way around a racetrack and a Triumph twin. The Texas team of Jessup and Hibbs, along with Dicky and Jason Davenport turning wrenches, went after a 500cc record, previously 78.163 mph, and according to Hibbs’ office staff they got it. I know on one run he posted a speed of 101.894.
Another amazing story is that of 80-year-old Robert “Bud” Schmitt of Chalmers, Indiana. Bud is no stranger to the salt, having recorded a time in 1955 faster than Rollie Free’s record. Back then Schmitt rode his twin 80 Knuckleheaded machine named “the Monster.” It was the first of its kind back in the day and Schmitt took it for a 157 mph ride down the salt. This year, he took another high-speed tour of the salt on an Eagle Harley-Davidson 1650cc V-Rod. He clocked a 147 mph run. Schmitt pulled a camper with an older Ford pickup all the way from Indiana and camped in the area known as “bend in the road.” I’m not sure when it happened, but they quit making guys like this.
The Ancient Lady, a streamlined flathead, was another interesting story. Built by Thunder Roads of Canada, the engine began as a ServiCar engine and now has twin Amal carbs and a TRW transmission. The Ancient Lady’s fairing was based on a B-25 belly tank, which was used as a mold for the carbon fiber version it sports today. The name Ancient Lady comes from the name of a vintage military plane. Ted Hector rides the bike at speeds over 130 mph.
Then there’s the Scootster (www.scootster. com), a 1200cc Sportster-powered scooter, capable of carrying two passengers and a pilot. You can’t help but look at the Scootster; it’s just so unusual. I spoke with Tom Wollny, the owner, and he introduced me to Dave Pette, who eventually took the Scootster for a ride at almost 114 mph.
There are so many stories on the salt that it’s hard to get them all in. Klock Werks Kustom Cycles had a very full and rewarding week. For starters, Laura Ellifson, record holder for the World’s Fastest Bagger, and Brian Klock were married Sunday evening. Though they weren’t able to break their WFB record, daughter Erika Cobb did pretty well on her Buell Blast posting a top speed of 107 mph in fourth gear! I was unable to confirm if that is a record by press time, but I can confirm that 16-year-old Erika and mom Laura can ride PDQ on their WFBs and that Brian, the Klock Werks crew and their friends at Crossroads Performance in Somerset, Wisconsin, can tune a bike. Erika was also awarded the Woman’s Spirit Award, presented to the woman who embodies the camaraderie, determination and spirit that is Bonneville Salt Flats Racing. The trophy and $1,000 in cash were presented by Erin Hunter of Potter Lumber. Also a salt racer, Erin was to be the first woman in a streamlined motorcycle this year, save for two broken chains. Erika was also able to present a check for $1,000 to her inspiration, which was mom Laura and the Klock Werks team. How do you top that week? Wait till next year.
Eighty year-old Marty Dickerson took a high-speed ride on a vintage Vincent while the husband and wife team of Aaron and Susan Wilson enjoyed the salt on two racers. Aaron won the Top Time USA V-Twin Award of $1,000 sponsored by Bennett’s Performance with an AMA National Record of 213.193 mph reported on the NRHS website.
Speaking of Bennett’s Performance, these guys are everywhere on the flats. I mentioned a bike must top 175 mph before heading to Mile Zero. The Bennetts, rider Eric, his father Bob and Uncle Fred, had their partially streamlined bike at the Zero Mile, while the Scootster benefited from their engine work back at the Run Wat Cha Brung track and there were plenty of people who borrowed parts from them as well. Such is the beauty of Bonneville.
Typical of the ups and downs are the trials of the Gates Performance team. They struggled for speed all week and finally had a pass of 172 mph on the last day. According to Greg Gates, that’s with one gear left over because they found that keeping the rpms up helped their speed due to air flow that was disturbed by the lack of an air box. I’m sure they’ll be back next year with some fine tuning to their gigantic over-200 mph mill.
Roger Goldammer had a busy week too. He ran not one, but two bikes. How’s this for different: a 1000cc, supercharged, injected, single? I saw him post speeds of 140 mph on Thursday. Roger rode his two-stroke ExperiMenta, too. Both bikes were very cool, very fast and very Goldammer. Unfortunately, ExperiMental blew up Thursday afternoon.
Jason Reddick was representing Confederate Motor Company and was riding a Confederate Wraith in memory of Chris Roberts, who died in June. I saw Reddick make passes of at least 154.8 mph and he may have gone faster by the time the event was over.
If you’ve always wanted to see the salt flats and you love motorcycles, the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials are a must do. Spectator prices are $15 a day, or $60 for the entire event, which includes access to the pits. The pits are almost five miles from the hard road, so amenities are a bit sparse. Porta-johns mark the road through the otherwise nondescript salt and once you’ve arrived at the pits there is a decent concession stand with reasonable prices. It’s a good idea to pack some extra water for the day and take a portable FM radio. BUB broadcasts the event on 89.7 FM and The Waz, official voice of BUB radio, helps you to know what’s going on. The pits are also the place to pick up official souvenirs of your trip to the salt.
The event came to a close with last year’s absolute World’s Speed Record for a motorcycle still safe at 350.884 mph, but several teams will be working hard over the next 12 months in preparation to break that record and call it their own.
This is as good a place as any to thank BUB event staffers Delvene, Linnea, Ramsay, Whispers, Ron, Bob and Steve for making things even more fun and keeping me on track. I’m no “old salt” yet, but I’ve been there once and as most racers will tell you, there’s always next year.
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