If it wasn’t for bad luck…
… we’d have no luck at all… and then there’s ‘ the best laid plans of mice and men’… and lastly, ‘what could go wrong?’…we’ve all heard those sayings and for some of us they are all too true.
Building a Bonneville Streamliner is no easy task. First there is the design concept, then the engineering, “what do you mean you don’t fit in the cockpit?”… all the parts, replacing parts, re-engineering for the third time and all the while reading the rulebook…’the tilt sensor has to be set for what angle??’ When you finally think you’re ready, it’s off to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah with lofty goals of a Land Speed Record. Besides all the work you put into the bike, you also need a healthy dose of luck.
This year our team, Left Coast Racing, was mounting its third assault on ‘The Salt’. Past parachute and shifter problems had been dealt with, new electronics installed and a nose cone mounted…we were ready, what could go wrong?? Tempting fate is never a wise move.
It’s a long drive from Southern California to Bonneville, we decided to split it into two days. First stop Las Vegas…confusion at the hotel, room change and a really bad rollaway bed, not a good start…a portent of things to come?? Nah..just a no sleep night. Saturday morning , a really bad hotel breakfast…we should have hit one of the casinos for their $4.99 all you can eat breakfast buffet’s, it would have to have been better.
Interesting drive up what is known as the ‘extraterrestrial highway’; you know, I didn’t see any extraterrestrials or UFO’s… all those extra miles for nothing, sheesh. Finally we caught a glimpse of the Great Salt Lake, I have seen Salt Lake many times and it never ceases to amaze me. No matter how many times you go to a race track, when you see it from a distance and know you’re almost there and you’re going to be racing on it soon, your heart speeds up, your breathing steps up and mentally you are already racing.
Our first day was spent getting the bike tech inspected; a few minor adjustments here and there and we were ready to fly. Well, some tweaks were not quite so minor…re-engineering for the fourth time. Lets go racing…uh tomorrow.
The Bonneville Speed Trials are an interesting dichotomy. The long track (also known as the International track) is either eleven miles or eight miles long and the Mountain Track is either five or three miles long. We started our record quest on the long track. You get anywhere from two to five miles to build up speed and then speed through the measured mile, the whole run takes anywhere from five to seven minutes tops, but…you have been waiting in line for nearly two, maybe three hours. Bonneville is the epitome of ‘hurry up and wait’. The good thing about waiting, at least for a journalist like me, I get to meet and talk to a lot of interesting people. But, more about the luck of ‘Left Coast Racing’.
Monday morning dawned bright and beautiful and no wind!! Perfect for running a streamliner. After a good three hour wait at Mile Zero, the starting line, our Norton powered streamliner was green flagged. The moment Eric, launched the bike…our luck struck…the parachute popped out??!! WTH?? Right at the starting line?? One-quarter mile later Eric and the Norton were laying on it’s side. there went that day. The rest of the afternoon was spent figuring out why the chute popped out…by time we got the problem sorted, there was no way we could get another run in. “Anyone want a beer?” Nobody said no.
Tuesday morning, motto for the day..”we’re prepared , what can go wrong?” Again, tempting the gods is not a smart move when it comes to racing. Another loooooonnnggg wait and we’re back on the track. Eric launched the bike perfectly, the motor sounded great and off we went to catch him at the end of the track. One of the great things about the BUB Speed Trials is that they have a dedicated radio frequency to broadcast what is going on all day…so we’re listening to Eric’s time while he is still on the track…104mph. What??? This thing is geared for around 212mph..what happened?? The announcer said something about damage to the bike as it passed the timing lights. What happened?
The Salt Flats are sitting on top of parts of The Great Salt Lake and every now and then you get a ‘pothole’. Not a good thing on a race track. Track workers spotted it, put cones all around it, warned Eric at the start about the cones but for some reason Eric was determined to aim for those cones. Back to the pits with our crippled motorcycle. Clean up the damage and it’s back to the track. The next run would be great right? Right? A sputtering motor kept the ‘liner to a slow 105 mph.
When you tempt the racing gods, they send the ignition gremlins. Four hours of searching, changing, searching more and changing more; builder Ken and master mechanic Kevin think they have the problem solved. However, it was too late to make another run that day. “Anyone want a beer?” Again, nobody said no.
Welcome to Wednesday morning and high hopes for a good run. We get to the Salt Flats early so we can get a jump on the day. Right out to the staging area to take our place in line and visit with everyone else hanging around for their turn to run. Tom Mellor and his 195 mph Triumph Trident ( towed by a Rolls Royce ) is there, the worlds fastest 50cc streamliner is there as is the former Land Speed Racing record holder, the BUB #7. We’re all back to waiting, that’s part of Bonneville, we’re used to it. While waiting I had a moment to talk with Chris Carr, pilot of the BUBS#7, former Land Speed record holder, multi-time national flat track champion and all around good guy…I asked him about the Indy Mile a couple of days before and then we talked about the BUBS Streamliner, he told me they were having some issues ..fuel? ignition? They didn’t know…HA..even the big guys get caught by the gremlins.
Our turn finally comes up…ok, we’re ready, lets go. Eric launches perfectly, the bike sounds great, and off we go chasing him down. Over the radio comes his speed, 125mph…only 125 we thought? Something still has to be wrong…big sighs from the team. When we pick up Eric he tells us he never got out of third gear. What?? Now, always wanting to think positively, I looked on the bright side…”hey, 125mph in third gear!?. that’s great!! Imagine what it will be at the top of fifth!!” By the looks I got from the rest of the team, being Mr. Sunshine wasn’t going over so well.
If you want to set a Land Speed record at Bonneville, you have to make two runs…one up and one back within a certain period of time, making no modifications to the motorcycle. Even at 125mph we were on record pace so we set out for our return run. Again, a good launch but…it sounded like we hadn’t exorcized all the gremlins, Eric’s top speed 105mph. Back to the pits to start the process all over again. Another few hours of searching revealed…not much. It was getting late in the day, the track was closed and the restaurant was going to close soon. “Anyone want a beer?”
Now, its Thursday, the last day, we have until three o’clock to achieve our goals and set the record for our class. We have done everything we can so now it’s up to the ‘Salt Gods’. After waiting for what seems like an eternity… is this beginning to sound familiar??..we’re lined up, Eric is strapped in and………the Norton won’t start. Are we out of gas? Can’t be, but it won’t start and it won’t start. Our hearts sank, this was our last chance. I couldn’t muster up a Mr. Sunshine comment. We just went back to the pits in silence. “Anyone want a beer?”..no answer required, I just passed them out and cursed the ignition gremlins.
We packed up our home away from home and headed back to the hotel. Showers, another beer and off to dinner to start making plans for next year. That is one of the beauty’s of racing..there’s always the next race. There is only one problem with running a streamliner, you can’t just run it up and down your street to see if it’s running right…your neighbors won’t like you and neither will the local constables.
Friday morning we say good bye to Kevin as he heads home to Reno, Ken, Eric and I start the long trip back to Southern California. It’s an easy drive, long, but easy. Breakfast at the Silver Cafe in Pioche, Nevada, the best breakfast I have had all week. Next stop Las Vegas.
Like I started this tale with, if it wasn’t bad luck we’d have no luck at all. While leaving the gas station in Las Vegas, we discovered that someone had put concrete posts at the end of the gas pump islands right where we wanted to go…how inconsiderate…one of those posts took the fender right off our trailer and bent the axle. Didn’t we leave the gremlins behind in Utah? Fortunatley a trailer supply house was literally around the corner and three hours later we were back on the road to home.
The Bonneville Salt Flats is a very humbling place, not only for the fact that it can dash your hopes of being in the Land Speed Racing record books, but also for it’s stark beauty. Flat, white and seemingly endless. Mountains seem to float in the sky, motorcycles disappear into the distance followed only by the wail of the exhaust. Bonneville is so much more than seeing how fast your motorcycle will go. There is something about the salt thats brings you back year after year. Whether you are riding, wrenching or writing, the salt gets in your blood. I’ll be back next year, nothing could keep me away.