Bonneville Speed Week

Published: 26 August 2001

Lee Burkey stares out into the white and blue yonder. " The worst thing that can happen is that I fall on my butt " he muses. There are, of course, various degrees of falling on your arse. Falling off a rocking horse from three feet onto a nice thick shagpile carpet, for example, is slightly less uncomfortable than, say, falling off a turbo-tweaked Suzuki at 200mph onto a blanket of salt. Here, in a dried up lake bed on the edge of Utah, the prevailing philosophy runs a little bit like this: Go Fast Or Go Home. And Lee, who has built a particularly wild looking twin turbo GSX-R1100 especially for this occasion, ain't about to go home.

" I'm not nervous," he insists as he wonders off to his pick up truck to climb into his leathers. "I'd better go and help him, " says his son Ron. "He sometimes gets stuck and struggles to get them on."

You can’t help thinking someone who struggles with his zips might not be the best man to be attempting a double ton, but then Lee is 73 years old, this is Bonneville Speed Week and, as one racer here points out, 'This place is full of frigging idiots with the damnedest ideas."

Bonneville is where America comes to go fast. The surface is perfect for winding up any crazy contraption you’ve built and really seeing what she can do.

Two minutes later Lee’s straddling his bike. He pulls off, gently wobbles a little as he stands on the left peg so he can get his right foot in position without hurting his dodgy knee. Then he's off - the fastest pensioner on the planet. Probably.

After his run I meet up with him in the pits as he’s changing a front sprocket. " " When I get this thing sorted it’s going to go like zip! " he says as he prepares for another run. "When I change gear the boost drops and I can’t get it back up. But that’s not the only thing I can’t get up any more. "

Bonneville is the biggest and most spectacular racetrack on earth with its own special characters, rules and hardships. Each year a small temporary town of canopies, tents and canvas garages is erected on the snooker table-flat, ice-white floor.

The salt flats were formed when an ancient lake, 325 miles long by 135 wide covering almost 3000 square miles and 1000 feet deep in places, evaporated and deposited its minerals on the lakebed. The surface is so flat and desolate you can see the curvature of the earth. It’s both beautiful and eerie. And hot. bleeding hot - 38 degrees centigrade by half eight in the morning and 45 in the shade by eleven o'clock. Couple the overhead heat with the fierce reflection from the crystalline surface and you can't get away with less than factor 50 and a very big hat. It burns under your chin, under your nose, your eyelids, the inside of your arms, and - if you're wearing shorts without any pants - your knackers. Forget your sunglasses and you better have remembered your guide dog.

But still the racers come. Of all ages, sexes and sizes. This year there are around 400 racers – a quarter on bikes, all accompanied by buddies, pit crews or families. Wink is from California. He is an amply nourished bloke with a biker beard and a belly like a bouncy castle. He's bought a 200bhp nitrous injection Harley - plus sidecar - with him and has so far managed 185mph. 'I come here to develop my bike. Every year I go a little faster. " A few less hamburgers ought to do it.

Each vehicle has a code to help onlookers work out what class it’s running in. With so many classes some racers scour the record books to find ones that are either ‘open’, categories that no-one’s got around to setting a record in, or are so old they’re ripe for picking. One such enterprising glory hunter is Kenny Lyons. He’s brought along a bog-standard, brand new Goldwing for a crack at one of the open production classes and by the end of the days the record is his.

There are also hundreds of spectators, the coolest of which fly in, land their light aircraft beside the pits and taxi over to the viewing area. " We heard there is a beautiful woman behind every tree, " jokes a Canadian down with a van full of mates for the week. Not that there are any trees round these parts. The nearest vegetation - clumps of scrubby grass at the side of the road - is seven miles from here. The mountains, which look like they’re a couple of hours hike away, maybe five minutes full pelt on a ‘crosser, are in fact 27 miles away. The pits have nothing higher in it than an articulated truck, so there are no landmarks to aim for. People have driven out to explore the mountains, driven over the horizon and lost their bearings completely. Miami Beach it is not.

To keep the racers from getting lost, there's a huge straight black guide line etched into the salt. There are two tracks running in a ‘V’ from a similar starting point. This year the short course is over four miles long with the timed section being between the two and three mile markers. Racers shut off after the three and have as much as a mile-and-a-half to coast to a stop and turn to the right to get onto the return road. Novices or those with vehicles that can’t go over 175mph are limited to the short course. Everyone else can race the long course. This monster is nearly seven miles long with three timed miles between the two and five mile markers.

Former bike mechanic Les Ranger has bought a turbocharged Honda CB1100F. His proudest moment was getting the record for unstreamlined bikes: 214mph on an unfaired Honda. "It was more terror than fun, ' admits Les. 'It was like putting a Cessna into a nosedive and climbing out onto the wing.'

Les has now fitted a Hayabusa fairing to his old Honda and is on the hunt for more records. As he changes into his leathers a metamorphosis takes place. He turns from a white-haired, middle-aged dude with a bit of a spare tyre around his midriff into a superhero from a Marvel comic book. With his custom-painted Simpson Bandit under his arm, stood tall on the alien soil with the blue mountains in the background I almost expect him to put his bike under his arm and fly off.

But Les isn’t going to do battle against the forces of evil, but the forces of nature. Wind resistance, air pressure, friction, air temperature, altitude; they’re all trying to slow a man down.' It’s a big game of fighting the traction,' he adds.

The other is thing holding a man back could well be his wife. But not for Joe Amo. This is Joe’s tenth straight visit to the salt flats. His first time here was on his honeymoon. " We came straight from the reception and drove 850 miles in 13 hours, ' he laughs. " Oh yeah, my wife knew what she was letting herself in for. She still comes with me and so do my two brothers and my son. His name’s Aero, as in aerodynamic. "

Joe’s sat within spitting distance of the startline on a black, rough, nitrous-injected Kawasaki ZX-10 he calls his ‘old junkyard dog’. The tank is neatly dented in like a steel drum so Joe can totally hide below the screen and take advantage of its aerodynamic effect. Like the majority of the Bonneville bike racers he’s working to a small budget. There’s not a single dollar of prize money up for grabs.

Joe’s wearing black leathers and is sweating like a shrink-wrapped politician. " I’d like a light-coloured bike but they don’t always trip the timing sensors, " he explains while rubbing the perspiration out of his screwed-up eyes. Not tripping would be a nightmare. It could be your best run of the week. Fluff your run and it’s straight to the back of the queue, sucker. It can take as long as three hours to get to the front again. Three hours sitting in your air-conditioned tow vehicle or baking under the relentless sun.

Joe growls off and tucks behind the Kawasaki’s fairing. He’s qualified for the seven-mile long track. He winds on the power and I can here the revs rise rapidly as his rear tyre spins, up another gear and it’s same again, until he’s doing 207 and he has one hand on the record. Not bad for an old Kwak that’s had ten per cent of its power robbed by the 4000-feet above sea level elevation.

Over at the short course I find Belen Wagner and her modified Honda RS125. Belen, 30, is one of a handful of ladies competing. She's been racing for 14 years and has set 22 records. " It’s a humbling place, " she reckons before getting all spiritual on me. " I go home a better person after being out here for a week. I’m recreated. You don’t think about your job, you just think about going fast.'

Then she zips up her leathers, tightens her helmet and places her feet on the pegs while her dad steadies the tiny Honda from behind as they wait for the signal to go. When they get the OK he pushes like crazy to get the Honda rolling before Belen lets out the clutch. Watching record attempts from the startline is a little bizarre. At most events this would be a great place to watch. But, as I keep discovering, Bonneville isn’t like other events. Outright speed is everything here, not acceleration. You have two miles to get up to speed, blasting away from the line isn’t important. Because of this racers gear up until their bikes can barely pull themselves off the line. Some of the 200mph-plus cars need to be pushed by huge pick-up trucks up to 50mph before they can even let their clutches out, their gearing is so high. Also, the salt doesn’t offer the grip of tarmac. However, the weird starting routines are excused as soon as you find out Belen’s old Honda road racer, which has been bored out to 135cc to enable it to compete in a different class, has just run at 130mph.

If you want to talk serious motorcycle speeds then Don Vesco, a white-haired Californian, is the man I need to speak to. Done has gone faster than anyone else on two wheels ever. He was also the first man to go over 300mph on a bike. In 1975, his streamliner Silver Bird, fitted with two Yamaha TZ700 engines, blew the Land Speed Record into the weeds with an average speed of 302.928mph. In 1978, riding a machine called Lightning Bolt, that looked like an inter-continental ballistic missile with a windscreen and powered by two Kawasaki Z1000 engines, he clocked the incredible speed of 333mph. Every record at Bonneville needs to be backed-up with a run in the same direction on the same track. It used to be within one hour, now it’s at 7am the day after the original run. Vesco didn’t back up the 333, but only a day before he’d set the outright motorcycle speed record at 318.598mph. It was 12 years before the record was raised to 322.150 by Dave Campos in a streamliner powered by twin-Harley-Davidson engines. A record that still stands to this day.

I find Vesco with his head is buried in his latest project the Turbinator, an immense streamliner car powered by a 3750bhp Lycoming gas turbine helicopter engine. On one of its first runs at this meeting the car did 470mph. Vesco didn’t even bother backing it up for a record, he views anything below 500mph as a practice run.

Even so Don admits those record-breaking runs back in the late-Seventies weren’t a doddle. When he came to back up his first 325mph for the new record the weather had changed slightly and a side wind had got up. At 300mph in a bike 21-feet long, even a gentle 5mph breeze can be the difference between life and something else. " I was sat on the line and I thought the starter said ‘go’, so I went. I found out later he said ‘no’ when I asked should I go. "

Vesco shot off down the course and when he was up to speed the wind made itself felt by blowing him towards the timing lights. He believed he could avoid crashing if he just steered away. He passed the timing lights with the bars on full lock. The Lightning Bolt left two lines down the track, one from the rear wheel spinning up the other ploughed by the front wheel that was pointing in a different direction to the rest of the bike. He did succeed in breaking the record going over 310mph. The experience obviously didn’t put him off.

"I want to get the 1978 bike out and get the record back, " says Vesco. " The new engines would be better, but I don’t have the time or the right personality to hustle for money and sponsorship is difficult to find. I know the old bike can beat the record. I think it could go close to 380mph. I never ran it as hard as it would go. "

Talking to people like Don Vasco and Lee Burkey and Wink and Belen Wagner only makes me even more determined to have a go myself. From the minute I arrived in Bonneville I've been desperate to get a ride up the famous salt - on anything. After dropping not too subtle hints to anyone with a bike my pleas are finally answered by Mike Corbin, Bonneville regular and boss of American bike seat, luggage and three-wheeled car manufacturer, Corbin Inc.

" Get a licence and we’ll let you ride the Hayabusa tomorrow, " he promises. Between then and now I’d paid $90 to become a member of the SCTA-BNI, the organisation that runs the event, had my leathers boots and gloves passed and my helmet rejected. " I don’t care if it is a brand new Arai, this BSI sticker don’t mean nothing here. You’ve got to have a Snell sticker, " said the inspector. So I borrowed a lid, a very used one that wasn't nearly as nice as my own, but it had the American safety sticker on it, so it got the thumbs up.

Next thing I know I’m sat on Corbin’s company ‘Busa with nothing between me and Floating Mountain 37 miles away. Corbin have brought the bike to speed test their new range of hard panniers. You’ve got to love a company that tests its products on the Salt Flats. In the hands of Jim robbins, one of the company's engineers, the bike went 181 without the panniers . And 181 with them on.

" We want three things, " says the seen-it-all marshal, over the rumbling note of the Suzuki’s Muzzy exhaust, " We want you to be safe. We want you to have fun. And we want you to go fast. "

He asks me a few questions to ensure I've been listening at the rookie meeting. (I was right up to the moment the next to me woman fainted from heat exhaustion.) " This is your first run, so to gain your licence you got to go between 125 and 150, not over, " he warns, then motions me to put down my visor and clear off. I set off gently having been warned by everyone about the slickness of the salt. Les Ranger's words echo around my head: " Riding here is like holding a 220-volt cable and taking a good jolt for five minutes." Short-shifting into second and then third I finally wind it on. At the mile marker I’m doing 130. Then I give it a little more. The two-mile marker comes up before I know it and I’m in the timed section. I look at the clock and it reads close to 155, I give a little for inaccuracy, and then look at the tacho. There’s plenty left and I just want to nail it and aim for the mountain, but I really want that licence so I hold back. The bike’s tyres tramline slightly in ruts left by 600bhp cars spinning their tyres, but even at these speeds it’s not disconcerting. It’s quiet tucked behind the tinted screen. Nothing’s rushing by, nothing to concentrate on but the speed of the bike. It takes 26 seconds to cover the next mile and as I pass the three-mile mark, I let off the gas and coast to exit road.

As soon as I do I want to get straight back in line and have another go, this time really wringing the ‘Busa’s neck. Unfortunately, Corbin are ready to leave. Their turbocharged Triumph partial-streamliner, the Privateer, has burnt a piston and there’s no point in hanging around here when there’s so much to do at the factory. I thank them pick up my timing slip – 144.986mph – and go get my SCTA Category D licence. Category A is the one I really want. They only give that to people who have jumped through all the hoops in between and are approved to travel in excess of 200mph. Maybe next year.