Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Motorcycle Speed Trials week at Bonneville - Review and Pictures

Well, my time at the Bonneville Salt Flats is over.  For a first visit to the Motorcycle Speed Trials, it was a great week, so I thought I would set down how I felt about the time I spent there.

The salt flats are huge and the Bonneville Speedway is at the west side of the now mainly dried up sea, near the town of Wendover on the Utah / Nevada border.  Wendover is really the only place to stay overnight as it is the closest place to Bonneville.  Comprising hotels and their casinos, as couple of gas stations, a handful of shops, Wendover is a strange place, but as the only other option is Salt Lake City which at 110 miles away, it is really too far.

Access to the Bonneville Speedway is via junction 4 of Interstate 80 where a tarmac road heads out about 4 miles across the salt flats.  Pay your $20 for the day and then you drive onto the salt itself, and wow, what a feeling that gave me.  This place is iconic, historic and famous.  The Triumph Bonneville its name and the salt is flat, white and disappears so far into the distance, you can see the curvature of the earth here.  A line of cones marks where you need to drive / ride a further 5 miles across the salt to get out to the main pits area.

Getting there for the first time is odd.  There are no fences, no walls, no signs and nothing to tell you where to go.  The salt is a completely natural environment, so nothing permanent is built or left here.  The pits area is where all the bikes are worked on, there is a registration van, a scrutineering area, somewhere to buy food and drink, plus a few temporary toilets.  You are free to walk anywhere and everyone takes full advantage of this.  There were not many spectators and each bike was supported by a team ranging in size from its sole rider / mechanic to about ten, looking after the bigger, more complex bikes on a big budget.

Being able to walk anywhere makes the place very informal.  Most people don't mind you walking up and chatting to them, providing they are not too busy.

As a Bonneville virgin, I found it quite hard to work out what was going on.  There are so many different types of motorcycle of all shapes and sizes racing in so many categories that there isn't a sense of 'racing' at all, but one of everybody trying to simply get their bikes ready to go a fast as they can.  These are not by any means all true speed demons running at 100, 200 or 300 mph, but a collection of diverse machines (and people) simply trying their best.  For some, that means a speed of 60 mph on their motorcycles with small engines and for others, especially the streamliners, that means trying to crack the elusive 400 mph record.  Some people enter their street bikes in the 'Run Whatcha Brung' category.  The range is amazing.

What does seem to be common amongst most racers at Bonneville is they all seem to know a lot about the mechanics of their machines.  Most people seem to spend most of their time working on, tinkering with, or completely rebuilding their motorcycles, under temporary gazebos (or eazy-ups as my American cousins call them).

The Speed Trials week takes place at the end of August and it was hot when I was there.  Wide-brimmed hats, sunscreen and drinking lots of water are all essential, as are closed shoes to protect your feet from the salt.  It is a dry heat, so not overly uncomfortable, although finding shade is important.

After walking around and watching what was happening for a couple of hours, the seemingly chaotic nature of the event began to make sense.  Riders get their motorcycles ready and take them to scrutineering for the essential safety checks.  Get through that (and many don't first time around) then you head down to the pre-stage area to await your turn to run on one of the two tracks.  Waiting is something you have to be good at if you are a competitor or team member, as there is lots of waiting at Bonneville.  Lots of entries, an emphasis on safety and very long tracks that have to be cleared by the previous rider all take their toll on time.  Eventually though, you are told to ride out to the start area for one of the two tracks and after another wait, it is your turn.

As a spectator, you cannot really watch the riders blasting down the tracks, as they are so long (5 miles and 11 miles) that you cannot see the entire length.  I think spectators are meant to stay in the pits area, but I didn't do that, preferring instead to drive out to the pre-stage and start areas.  Taking photographs for me is a passion, so getting out to these areas was essential.

What I really enjoyed was speaking to the competitors at the start areas.  Now free of getting their motorcycles ready, riders seemed to enjoy talking about their machines, where they are from, speeds they have reached and what they hope for on the imminent run.  Then they are off.  Whether on a large or small bike, a standard model or a specialist build, a seasoned or novice competitor, all riders just want to go as fast as they can.  The riders I spoke to ranged in age from 13 years to 75 years old.  They all gave off the same feeling of excitement and this certainly encouraged me to think about competing myself one year.  I really would like to give this a try.

There is one thing to watch out for each visitor or racer at Bonneville.  The salt is really bad for your vehicle.  Competing motorcycles get covered in the white stuff and I am told some components need to be stripped down to eliminate all traces of the salt.  Cars driven on the salt don't suffer as badly, but the rental car I used needed a lot of cleaning to avoid a big bill from the rental company.  There are a couple of car washes in Wendover and they certainly were very busy soon after the weeks racing finished.

Would I recommend going to Bonneville to watch the racing as a spectator?  Yes, I would, although don't expect many comforts - this is raw racing at its most basic.  Would I want to race? - if I can find the right bike and somebody to take as a mechanic, you bet I would!

Here are a selection of my favourite pictures from the week.....


Steve said...

Great set of photos Gary. I love the rain clouds looming in the back ground. It must have been very interesting being there.

redlegsrides said...

Lovely shots Gary, especially the ones of the Brough Superiors with their weird looking chromed fairings....the one I liked best was the toaster shot....

mq01 said...

fabulous gary!

your pics give a great idea of the vastness that is "the salt flats". i know i will never forget one particularly memorable ride where the sky opened up with this incredible desert summer storm. the flowers, sights, smells, winds that the rain brought had me awestruck. personally, i am always in awe when i ride through.

ive been wanting to do speed week... thanks for sharing it! i would love to watch jody perewitz or the klock girls break their world speed records!

so, are you considering returning? with a fast bike and mechanic? ;)

SonjaM said...

Great review, Gary. With the lack of fences or signs the place still seems to emanate the legendary moto pioneer spirit. I would not want to race there but I'd be curious to ride on this surface.

Needless to say that your pics are once again drool worthy. Amazing contrasts, amazing machine, amazing people. Thanks Gary, I enjoyed your photos very much!!!

Trobairitz said...

Stunning pictures Gary - when does the book come out?

We have a local lady rider who likes to take her MadAss and race it on the salt flats. She does not enjoy tearing the thing down to clean out all the salt when she gets back.

Unknown said...


Next to the Brough, I liked the BMW chrome tank reflection.

Can't wait until you return with your "team". With enough notice we could probably round up a cheering section too

I was wondering if the salt was slippery for bikes, or lack of traction for the tires

I like the last photo too, with the angry clouds

Riding the Wet Coast

VStar Lady said...

Spectacular selection of photos Gary ... Wendover has a very hot, dry KOA campground too ... where you might meet some very interesting people.

Rex J. Covington said...

Great Post, Gary, Thanks For Posting, Gives Me Some Great Insight On What To Expect When I Go There.

Fantastic Photos!

Gary France said...

Chiller tek – Thanks. It was interesting and the clouds led to the most amazing storm I have ever seen. Ten minutes after that picture, the heavens opened in a violent rain bust that flattened everything. Ten minutes after that the blue skies returned and all was perfectly calm again.

Charlie6 – Thanks Dom. I must be being dumb – the toaster shot?

mq01 – It is a huge place. What struck me on driving on the salt flats for the first time was I knew where the racing was (or at least the general direction) but due to the curvature of the earth, you cannot see anything as it is five miles away across the salty. As you get nearer, you begin to make things out. Perewitz and the Klock girls were there – indeed one of my pictures is of one of the girls. To answer your last questions - yes, yes and yes!

RichardM said...

A stunning set of photos. It's hard to actually pick a favorite. What kind of speed did the scooter do?

Gary France said...

Sonja – I absolutely agree about Bonneville’s legendary status. Driving past its sign, seeing the salt and then stepping out onto it made me think of all of the history that has happened there. As I drove out onto the access road, I though “Burt Munro has driven in this exact same spot.” Wow! Unlike you, I DEFINITELY want to race there. I am glad you liked the pictures.

Trobairitz – Sorry, no book this time. It would however be very easy to write a book about Bonneville. I can see the tearing down afterwards would be a pain…..

Bob – Me too. That reflection appealed to my eyes to. The “team” may be in Bonneville for 2015. Just maybe. No, the salt isn’t slippery as such, although it is easy to light your rear wheel up wheel when accelerating, so a slow build up of speed is essential. That is why they have such long courses.

Gary France said...

VStar Lady – I saw the KOA campground sign and wondered if you might have stayed there! Who knows the stories that could have come from Wendover – it is a strange place indeed.

Rex – Thanks. If you are thinking of going, I can only recommend it!

Richard – Thank you. It was fun taking the pictures. Last year, she did about 40mph. This year, she did just over 60mph. I learned the bike was prepared at the last minute last year and the carb setting were not right, so the improvement was due to spending time to get the bike right. It even had the carrier rack on the front!

redlegsrides said...


Toaster is the nickname given to the all chrome gas tank on the airhead Beemers. :)

Oz said...

More great photos! I need to make it up there for the trials. Looks so fun.

Tarsnakes Down Under said...

Sensational pics Gary.I look forward to going to the Aussie version of this when I retire. Very similar set, out on a slat lake in the desert and no creature comforts.

That looks like Alan Cathcart on the Brough Superior. He comes to Australia often and I've met him on a couple of occasions.

Cheers Jules.

Tarsnakes Down Under said...

Sensational pics Gary.I look forward to going to the Aussie version of this when I retire. Very similar set, out on a slat lake in the desert and no creature comforts.

That looks like Alan Cathcart on the Brough Superior. He comes to Australia often and I've met him on a couple of occasions.

Cheers Jules.

Gary France said...

Charlie6 – I never knew that.

Oz – If you get the chance, you should definitely go. What a buzz!

Jules – Thanks, I am glad you like the pictures. You should go and watch when you can. Definitely no creature comforts at Bonneville. Except that is, the portaloos and the mobile burger bar. Yep, spot on, is was Alan. Nice guy.