Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bonneville Salt Flats during record week….my unexpected visit….

As a motorcyclist now in his 60s, I often think what might be the three things I would like to accomplish, motorcycle wise in my life?….you may not agree, but all of them are an activity that has been involved with motorcycling for over 60 years….
The IOM TT races….I was fortunate to go there in 1974 and 1975,
The races at Daytona Beach….I’ve yet to get there ….
The Bonneville Salt Flats during record week…as it turned out, not being able to attend the US Velo Clubs annual rally in 2004, friends Mick Felder and Paul Adams both Californian’s suggested I went with them in the August that year for three days of speed week, August 14th -20th 2004.
An added softener was that Mick did paint work on the streamliners of the Ferguson family, famous at Bonneville with the younger sons now driving and Don senior in charge and chief mechanic, so we would know a team running…they even provided a room for us in Wendover…difficult to refuse.
We flew into Salt Lake City from LAX and rented a car for the 160 mile drive to Wendover, just across the border in Nevada, convenient as there were casinos with plenty of accommodation, although all were full at record week.
The salt flats are in Utah, a Mormon State with strict liquor laws etc.
Wendover’s other claim to fame was that the airstrip on the outskirts of town was where the training for the atom bomb attack on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that effectively ended WW2 took place. The “Enola Gay” of course springs to mind….
The entrance onto the salt flat is about 6 miles out of town and a hive of activity. Salt mining at the other edge of the lake has reduced the viable area for the strip to run on to around 14 miles.
Record breaking is slowly moving to Lake Gairdner in South Australia, where runs of 25 to 50 miles are available.
The restriction means a shorter run up and slow down length.
There are two strips set out, at about 10 degrees from each other.
The main strip, with its black line in the salt stretching over the horizon…and yes the curvature of the earth can be seen on salt flats…has about a 3-4 mile run up, then four, timed one mile sections. The idea is to have your speed increase through the first few mile markers then the exit speed out of the last to be close to the average speed in this last timed mile. This means you are no longer accelerating and close to your maximum speed.
The times are given out over a radio station, so you can tune in with your car radio or a portable radio and follow the speed.
Interestingly you could be looking at a car etc yet be conscious of vehicles passing through the timed sections, which are near the designated pit area…it itself is over a mile in length.. when a fast run is occurring you can tell somehow by the sound of the engine and people invariable look up, sure enough when the times come across the radio it was a fast one.
A clean. crisp revving motor sure is indicative of a good attempt.
Security is quite laid back…you can walk virtually anywhere, except onto the timed strip…stand at the start with the vehicle staging, eyes watering from the nitro/methanol fumes around vehicles…. Staged at the “0”, when the all clear is received by the starter he calls “your salt” or words to that effect and the vehicle starts its run.
Because of the high speeds and quite a few were over 300mph, the gearing must be high and getting off the line to maximise the short run-up means many cars use a pusher truck,,, often a big pickup/ute with some enormous engine itself that pushes the record breaker to over 90mph then falls back.
Streamliners are often towed and release the tow rope with the pulling car peeling off to the left, much like a glider.
Solo motorcycles just take off and I was impressed by a Suzuki 1300cc ( well it could have been bored bigger…) Hyabusa, running on nitro with an aluminium box section lengthened swing-arm and a great big block of lead bolted to the side of the swing arm to assist with traction…see the photo.. he did some 245mph.
As well a long thin cigar shaped streamliner, which looked heavy due to the structural tubing fitted with a 125cc Aprilia engine… I cautiously questioned one of the crew over the weight… “not a problem here.. as long as you’ve a good run-up and a real slippery streamliner shape you’ll make speed..” was his reply…it did 143mph, phew!
Not being able to do runs in either direction, records are not internationally recognised, however if a record is broken, the vehicle is impounded for about 4 hours in an impound area, where you can work on it and then another run taken. The mean of the two runs is your speed. People try to jockey for a run early when the air is cool and denser, usually with a good run, however you then are in impound and then in a queue to run again, which is likely in the afternoon and in the heat…it was over 40°C from midday on, and the air is then hotter and less dense with a likely slower run.
I mentioned there are two strips, going out at 10° to each other…the strip to the right is for first timers and vehicles not expected to top 175mph…. so to run on the main strip you have to be capable of exceeding 175mph or else be a streamliner.
Looking at the several pages from the program for 2004 with existing Bonneville records, you can see Bert Munro listed on his Indian in 1967 still holding a record at 183.586mph, down on the speed indicated in the film starring Anthony Hopkins.
Another well known was Don Vesco still holding a record on a streamlined Yamaha done in 1975 at 303.812mph and the fastest I could find for a motorcycle was D. Campos on a Harley streamliner in 1990 at 322.149mph.
As well trucks run there…what I hear you say.. check out the multiple turbochargers in the pic… the truck record with a modified diesel is 272.685mph in “The Phoenix”…the speedo out of the last mile was reputed to be about 293mph…they were after 300+mph…phew…
My feelings when I first went were ambivalent, but it soon changed…it really is a once in a lifetime experience…..
I urge you to go……
Left click on photos to enlarge.

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