Norton at Bonneville blog: Day four

Published: 01 September 2009

Norton Motorcycles is making its first visit to the Bonneville Salt Flats in the USA, where boss Stuart Garner is riding the NRV588 flat out.

The team is using this year to get an understanding for the salt flats – it is hoped the FIM will introduce a new class for rotary-engined bikes in time for next year, so the team can aim to set a world record in 2010.

Garner and the team hoped to build on the success of the first run on day two of timed runs – this is how it went:

With the one run under our belt, and now knowing the procedures and timescales, we’ve decided a late start won’t do us any harm – indeed, the longer we leave the sun to do its work on the salt surface, the better, and as we’re only shooting for the one run each of the 5 days we’ll have (Sunday through Thursday, in American parlance), the afternoon makes sense.

We’ve nothing to do to the bike, which is cleaned of salt after each run then tucked away in the South Bay Motorcycles trailer, so we’ve no real need to be early.

Tea/Coffee in the Rainbow Hotel waiting for the entire team to assemble as we drift in at slightly different times, McBreakfast, a call in at the supermarket for fruit and water, Burger King for lunches for Alan Cathcart and the South Bay guys already out there on the salt, and we’re finally off.

The salt is noticeably firmer today – we can see it from vehicles coming the other way, their tyres being noticeably less salt-encrusted than yesterday.

Similarly, our shoes don’t pick up salt as readily; yesterday, the fine surface looseness was about the consistency of perfect snowball-snow, fluffy but sticky.

Today, it’s more like sand.

Whilst waiting to go out quite late in the day, we’re cheered by the news that fellow-Brit ace-bike-journalist Alan Cathcart has set a new world record in the up to 1000cc turbo-charged twin-cylinder class, at a shade under 150 mph, on one of the South Bay machines, to add to the normally-aspirated twin record he picked up yesterday – congratulations, Alan, and Matt Capri, boss of South Bay, and well done Roger and Andrew, their helpers.

Once again it’s a long wait at the intermediate staging post, where we’re joined by another couple of Brit Bikes, a 500cc rigid rear-end Triumph twin of mixed ages, varying from 1949 to about 1951 ridden by a Brit, and an ex-Motocross sidecar 980 Commando engine recently installed in a Slimline Featherbed frame from the early 60’s and ridden by a Swiss émigré, Roland Badertscher.

And down the road, entered in a different line and therefore classification, is an almost completely standard 1971 Roadster Commando 750 with a mere 5,000 miles on the clock, ridden by Tom Skemp, hoping to break the ton this year, having recorded 97mph last year.

After well over an hour’s wait in line out on the featureless salt, shadeless but for the first two or three bikes huddled together under a small gazebo intended mainly to keep the Bub Speed-Week voluntary helpers out of the blazing all-day sun, we’re released to the start-line holding pen a mile or so down the track.

Bonneville Speedway consists of two strips, the up to 7 mile-long Mountain course, and the up to 11 mile-long International one, parallel to one another and about a half-mile apart.

The centre points of both strips are in line with one-another, and the timing station is situated exactly on the half-way point, so the timed mile starts half-a-mile before, and finishes half-a-mile after the timing station.

Strangely, speed is not measured directly – Land Speed Records are the average of the speed over the measured mile (and indeed kilometre), so all that’s recorded is the bike’s start and finish times over the appropriate distances, from which a time for the mile/km is obtained, that can then be translated into average speed.

Starting points for the various classes differ – our class, the Run as Brung non-official speed record setting class intended for those with a penchant for speed to try their luck, sets off from only a mile before the measured mile commences.

This may cause us a problem in reaching our true potential if we’re not able to apply all the power as quickly as we can normally on asphalt thanks to the fluffy surface, plus the increasing track-marks, so we will be unlikely to be up to full chat as we hit the starting point.

At long last Stuart Garner is off, following the usual push-start from Tony Squires, our stalwart race-mechanic, up to the line itself.

The marshal waves his flag, and he’s off, to rapidly disappear into the distance in a series of sharp bursts of engine noise between gear-changes.

Once more, we await the marshal’s walkie-talkie to convey the news – it’s not long in coming, and by God, it’s great news!

158mph! Wow, after a fumbled 103 per yesterday, that’s one hell of an improvement, and well beyond our expectations of perhaps 140 miles an hour.

We have to await Stuart’s return to the paddock to do any serious evaluation of the run, but we’re naturally cock-a-hoop as we cram into the support car and shoot back to base.

As we suspect, with only a mile run-in, Stuart is still accelerating as he hits the front line – indeed, he’s still accelerating as he throttles back at the end of the measured mile!

Alan Cathcart brings yet more glad tidings back with him from the organiser’s trailer, where he’s picked up our print-out.

160.31mph for the flying kilometre! We’ve actually cracked 160 on only the second run!

The maths suggest that we entered the mile at around 150, and exited at about 170, so there would seem to be a way to go yet!

The bike is still running well, no problems of any sort need to be fixed, the tyres are still perfect, so we finish up the day with a photo-shoot to record the event, before washing off all the salt and returning the beast to the South Bay trailer.

Over a well-deserved glass of bubbly, there’s discussion of requesting a run in from a mile further back – and if we reach the minimum qualifying speed of 175mph, there’s even the possibility of a crack on the International strip!

We have some negotiating to do with the organisers tomorrow, but even just a two-mile run-in holds out the real possibility of reaching that sort of speed

Provided the salt holds up as the expectation of grizzled Bonneville veterans remains, with a forecast of steadily improving conditions (i.e. more drying-out and firming-up of the course) right through until the last day, Thursday 3 September

At dinner, Matt Capri is full of admiration for bike and rider; “It’s unprecedented for someone to come here a Bonneville virgin, lay down a reasonable starter-time, then improve it by over 50% the next time out – Stuart has done exceptionally well!”

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  • Courtesy of nortonracing.com