Tuesday, 27 August 2013

A great day on the Bonneville Salt Flats.


A few months ago, I met motorcycle TV presenter Henry Cole at a motorcycle event in London.

“It is your fault I stayed at the Madonna Inn in California” were my opening words to him. A broad smile appeared on his face, as he clearly understood what I meant. Sort of kindred spirits, we seemed to hit it off, as we share a passion for long-distance motorcycle touring on custom motorcycles.

When I was planning my long motorcycle tour of the USA, I bought a series of videos of one of the TV series’ that Henry had made. Called ‘The World’s Greatest Motorcycle Rides’ these showed him riding some terrific roads in the USA on a motorcycle. I used one or two for ideas about where to ride for my own trip and this included staying at the Madonna Inn in California, hence my introductory words to Henry.

At that bike event in London when I met him, Henry mentioned he was going to go to the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats in August to ride a Brough Superior and to make a television programme about the racing. We compared dates and it soon became clear I would be nearby, at the end of a road trip around Colorado with Jackie and her family. “Why not come and join us on the salt?” asked Henry. Why not indeed. I had wanted to go to Bonneville for a long time, so flights were changed and a plan was hatched.

Having completed that Colorado road trip, a few days ago, Jackie and I caught a plane to Salt Lake City and we drove out to the town of Wendover, on the Utah / Nevada state line close to the Bonneville Speedway, and checked into a tacky hotel in this very strange town.

It wasn’t long before we headed out onto the salt flats and past the sign to the legendary place where so many land speed records have been set.


Driving on the salt immediately made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. There is something about the place that evokes a feeling that great things had happened here. In 1960, Donald Campbell ran (and crashed) at over 360mph here. Three years later, American Craig Breedlove drove jet thrust car ‘Spirit of America’ to a speed of 407mph here. Of course, in August 1967, almost exactly 46 years before I first stood on the salt, a chap called Burt Munro set an under 1,000cc world speed record on his modified 1920 Indian motorcycle. All stirring stuff and images flashed through my mind as I drove the 5 miles across the salt to the main pits.

I found Henry waiting in the pre-stage area. That big smile greeted me once again as we shook hands and Henry introduced me to the team. The motorcycle he was about to ride for the very first time on the salt stood there looking magnificent.



















Driven by a need provide safe conditions in which to ride, the organisation of the running of the speed trials is very well organised, but it does take a considerable time while waiting your turn to run. For a first-time rider like Henry, the anticipation grows and I could tell he was eager to get his first run accomplished. The bike he was riding is a combination of parts from the original 1952 750cc Brough Superior and more modern additions. With plenty of time to think about what lay ahead, Henry went from his normal jovial self to periods of quiet thought. I wouldn't say he was nervous, but he was certainly full of anticipation of what would be a tremendously exciting thing to do.






















After a considerable period of time, during which racers flashed past on the nearby salt tracks, the time had come for the group of riders to move from the pre-stage assembly area out to the main start point. Henry donned his helmet and quickly rode away for his first ever ride on salt. The rest of the team, including mechanics, his film crew and this by now unofficial team photographer, jumped into the support vehicles and followed in Henry’s tracks a couple of miles to the start area.




Bonneville Speedway has two parallel tracks. The shorter is the Mountain Course and is 5 miles long, comprising 2 miles for acceleration, the one measured speed mile and 2 miles for slowing down. The International Course is a total of 11 miles long, with 5 miles to accelerate, one measured speed mile and 4 miles to slow down. Henry was to run on the shorter Mountain course. Riders run in both directions and it is the average of the two runs that determines the overall speed. Henry was running in a brand new class for particular vintage machines (the class system seems very complex) and so was certain to set a new record time. The team were anticipating a speed of around 105mph for this first run.

Another longish wait ensued while other racers were on track, doing their out and return runs.

Anticipation levels grew as we waited in the surreal environment of the densely-packed salt pan. Keeping cool under the blazing sun is almost impossible. It soon became clear that there was a risk that Henry might not complete both of his runs before the course closed at 6pm. The delays between different groups of riders being out on the course, safety sweeps of the track to ensure no parts had fallen from machines running at speed, and the switching of track direction for return runs had all taken their time, and had taken their toll on the amount of available time left in the day.























Henry and the bikes mechanic, Sam, discussed some last minute thoughts and eventually, Henry’s time to make his first run grew nearer.



Finally, Henry was called forward and rode over to the start line.
























I don’t know what was going through Henry’s mind, but it must have been excitement mixed with some nerves. He was about to ride down one of the most famous speed tracks in the world on a vintage-class (and very expensive) motorcycle. Not only that, but he was being filmed doing so as well, so was under considerable pressure!























In a flash, that was it, Henry was gone. He set off across the salt with just a series of flags and a rev counter to guide him. We wouldn't know how he did for a few minutes until we drove back to the impound area where the riders gave to wait until their return run. Henry was there waiting for us, hands shaking as he described the run and how he felt. He had experienced a “tank-slapper” or speed wobble during that first run but being an experienced biker, he had slowly eased back on the throttle to regain control. His speed was 103.941 for the measured mile which was quite an accomplishment for a Bonneville first-timer.





















Just a few minutes later, Henry was instructed to ride down to the other end of the course again for his return run.



















No doubt slightly shaken by the tank-slapper and needing to keep the motorcycle in good shape for later runs during the week, Henry ran a slightly slower speed on the return, resulting in an average speed of just under 100mph for both legs.

It was quite a day. I need to say thanks to the Brough Superior team, especially owner Mark Upham for letting me share on a memorable experience for my first day at the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats. Of course, congratulations must go to Henry, who is now a world speed record holder. How cool is that!

43 comments:

Charlie6 said...

Great write up Gary! Great photographs as well, Henry Cole must have been boiling in his riding gear!

dom

Gary France said...

Thanks Dom. He certainly was hot. although thankfully, it wasn't a scorching hot day. It was maybe in the low nineties.

Tim France said...

Really enjoyed reading this Gary, thanks for sharing. Sounds like you had a brilliant day.

Gary France said...

Thanks Tim, I had a wonderful day. I don't get excited by many things, but this was really up there. I can picture Charles riding here in a few years.

iansolley said...

Wow thats brilliant- I have always enjoyed the Henry Cole shows and its great he let you participate. Fantastic post and pics well done. Maybe we should get a bike together and have a go!

Gary France said...

Cheers Ian. It didn't take me long to realise that riding a motorcycle at Bonneville is something I have to do myself, so maybe we should work on a plan......

SonjaM said...

Awesome write-up, Gary. It was like being there with you, feeling the heat, the salt and the anticipation. Your pictures are simply gorgeous.

bob skoot said...

Gary:

Must have been exciting to be in the middle of the action, and dreaming that it was you on that bike instead of Henry

bob
Riding the Wet Coast

Gary France said...

Sonja – Thanks for your kind words. I am glad you liked it.

Gary France said...

Bob – Ha ha, how did you know I was thinking that? It was very exciting indeed.

Trobairitz said...

Wow, what a day. Stunning photos Gary.

Somehow the smile on your face comes through in your writing and photos. Thanks for sharing.

David Quail said...

Gary, thanks for this. Great writing and pictures. That bike is fantastic! I read an
article a while ago about a guy and his wife who go to Boneville every year to run their modified Suzuki Hyabusa......the bucket list just got longer!

RichardM said...

What a great write up. It takes a certain kind of person to ride on the salt. I was involved in a team almost 40 years ago as one of those working on the chassis. Boy, has it been that long...

Gary France said...

Trobairitz – I must admit, I was smiling for most of the day. Riding at Bonneville would be a dream come true moment, so photographing and writing about it will have to do. One day……

Gary France said...

David – It truly is a fantastic bike. I have seen a few of these and they really are special. I was amazed at the different classes of motorcycle at Bonneville – you can ride almost anything here and there will be a class for it. There is even a ‘Run what you brung’ category, so you can turn up on anything and providing it is safe, they will let you do a run on the course.

Gary France said...

Richard – I am that sort of person! Being fully involved in a team must created a great sense of bonding together. I was on the outside looking in, and that felt good.

B.D.Jones said...

A year ago I got it in my head to ride out to B'ville for Speed Week. Plans got as far as trying to reserve motel rooms online, when suddenly said rooms went from $50/night to $250/night.

WooleyBugger said...

I got excited from the article and pictures. Good job Gary. Glad Henry made it out of the slapper, it is proven that lying down to put more weight up front helps with a light rider, at least that's what I was told and shown.

Gary France said...

BDJ – I found the same thing in the Sturgis area. I can see an increase happening for Speed Week, but I am at the smaller BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials, which doesn’t seem to attract the same premium.

Gary France said...

WooleyBugger – I am glad you liked the post. I cannot imagine what he was thinking when the tank-slapper happened. Well, actually we both probably can!

simon said...

a great read and well done henry..... thanks

Lucky said...

Excellent! It sounds like a great day. Eventually I'm going to have to make the trek out to Bonneville myself as a spectactor.

As a kid, I was fascinated by the speed records - people just going as fast as they possibly can. I get why they do it.

Gary France said...

Lucky – If you get the chance, you should come and see the racing. I would say three days would be plenty.

VStar Lady said...

Gary I didn't stop at the speedway on my way across the salt flats though I saw a lot of evidence of folks who thought they could set their own land speed record on the flats, just off the freeway (some of them still there, mired up to their hubs). It sounds like I might have to make a return trip, especially if Gary France is going to make a run!

Gary France said...

VStar Lady – There were a few stuck today. If you come back, make sure a racing event is happening at the time – cars or bikes, they are both worth seeing. Hmmm. We were making tentative plans today that might just mean a return next year... with our own bikes....

Canajun said...

What a great experience. Visiting Bonneville has long been on my 50-gallon-drum list. (Bucket list is just too limiting.) Thanks for the photos and writeup.

Gary France said...

Canajun – You’ve gotta keep emptying that drum whenever you can.

Charlie6 said...

more info on the show that is shooting this event: LINK

dom

Gary France said...

Thanks for the link Dom.

Rex J. Covington said...

Great Story Gary! Planning on heading out there next year.

Gary France said...

Rex – You will have a great time if you go to Bonneville during the Motorcycle Speed Trials week. My advice would be to talk to everyone, as they are willing to share what they are doing and details about their bikes.

Clayton Brough said...

Thanks for your info and photos of the Bonneville events this week. Members of the Brough Family Organization enjoyed meeting you at the Salt Flats and appreciated your kindness and expertise.

Tina Walker said...

Love it! Sorry we missed you! We would love to meet up with you sometime on our Road Pickle. I'm dying to see Bonneville, although Steve has been there. I remember being fascinated with it since my teens. :)

Great photos!!
Smooches,
Sash
Www.SashMouth.com

Tina Walker said...

We would certainly attend!
Sash
Www.roadpickle.com

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Henry & thanks Gary for the great story. Glad Henry didn't have to resort to Rollie Free's Brough Superoir land speed tactic (skivvies)-

Cheers, GM

Gary France said...

Tina – I hope you get to Bonneville soon – it is quite a place, but make sure you go there when there is racing happening!

Gary France said...

GM – You are very welcome.

John Munro said...

Nice to see old bikes running. However I have seen this run as being compared to that of my Dad, Burt Munro. Dad went a lot quicker than this on a bike at least 30 years older an dwith no support crew. I don't think there is any comparison.

Gary France said...

Hello John, many thanks for your comment. You dad Burt Munro was one heck of a man and I admired him so much I went to see his bikes and his grave in Invercargill. I wrote about that here and I hope I did him justice. You must be a very proud son. http://garysusatour.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/burt-munro-and-worlds-fastest-indian.html

Nikos said...

Just watching this on Travel Channel now- amazing - well done to Henry especially after he injured his shoulder in training!

Gary France said...

Nikos - The TV programme makes great viewing. Henry really captures the spirit of what being on the salt is like.

Geraldine said...

Watched the programme last night. Great write up - brought back memories of our trip there this August - except the flats were mostly under water! I've just put up my pics on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/geraldinecurtis/

Gary France said...

Thanks Geraldine. I looked at your pictures, including some before the Slat Flats. You captured Yellowstone really well.