Norton at Bonneville blog: Day six

Published: 03 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. Today the team broke 170mph after the disappointment of pulling out the day before:

We can hardly believe it, but at 7am, the Bonneville Salt Flats are actually slightly chilly, a reflection of the 7000 foot altitude we’re playing about at.

Stuart Garner leathers up, then saddles up, and we’re off to the first staging post around half a mile from the paddock area, marked out by bio-degradable dye sprayed lines on the white salt.

This is normally the precursor to a long wait in the broiling sun, but at this time of the morning, we’re close to first in line, and the air has yet to heat up.

Within minutes, we’re instructed to proceed to our start-point, at Mile Zero on the five-mile strip we’re running on, having obtained the necessary dispensation to allow us to start a mile further back than Monday’s 156mph run, where our flying kilometre time of 160mph showed we were still accelerating well inside the measured mile.

Rough calculations suggested an entry speed of around 152, and an exit of 168 to achieve these results, so starting a mile further back ought to see Stuart entering the timed mile about15mph faster and certainly capable of an around 170mph run.

It’s too good to be true, of course – getting out onto a run inside of an hour is seemingly beyond the organisation abilities of the power-that-be that police the Bub Motorcycle Speed Trials, so our rapid progress has, of course, to be slowed, and sure enough, at the final staging post by the start-line, the opportunity presents itself in the form of unreliable walkie-talkie coms between the timing tower and the starters.

So we wait, yet again, talking to some of the other guys (guys only, this time!) waiting to run

But at last, those ahead of us in the line are released one by one – we’ve been somewhat unfortunate to be positioned behind the HRT diesel non-turbo machine, that spits our fumes so we feel much like being stuck in a traffic jam behind one of our HGV friends, stabbing at the re-circulation button on the air-con or heater-system to prevent being choked to death – but no such button!!

Eventually we, who’ve been last in line in this first batch out onto the Mountain Strip are called to the line. Chief race mechanic Tony Squires provides Stuart with the obligatory bump-start (no push-button starter, of course, nor roller-starter machine.)

Stuart is kept on the line longer than we’d like, but at long-last here’s the Green Flag and its GO..O..O..O as dear ol’ Murray Walker used to enthuse at the F1 starts.

The power is fed in crisply but not over-enthusiastically, no wheel-spin, no ‘rooster-tail’ of spun-up salt to dramatise the launch but at the risk of excessive tyre wear, just Stuart sailing sublimely into the distance, his progress marked by a series of sharp, snarling applications of power between cog-shifts – the Rotary really does sound superb, a curious mix of the banshee wail of the 500cc stroker Grand Prix bikes of yore, and the deeper, more gutteral snarls of modern MotoGP machinery.

We wait with bated breath for the marshal’s now-restored-to-life walkie-talkie to crackle with our news – “Bike 747, 173mph” - !!!!!!!

Result, or what?!? Here we are, complete rookies, Bonneville (and indeed any other salf-flat) virgins, with a bike designed for circuit racing, and therefore teetering on the edge of instability to enable it to make the rapid turns required on the race-track rather than a nice placid raked-out, stable steering set-up. And we’re light as a feather at 140kg rather than ballasted with 100+ pounds of lead to stick the rig to the floor, and running on untried Dunlop full-wet race tyres.

And with all due respect to Stuart, owner of Norton Motorcycles UK Ltd, he may be a fast road-rider, but he’s never competed in motorsport, but he’s come through magnificently.

We jump into our support car, and race back to congratulate Stuart on a stunning achievement, and to conduct a post-mortem once the timing slip has been collected from Race Control.

We’re all cock-a-hoop, of course! Anything over 150 mph was going to be some sort of a result for us, but Stuart has really exceeded expectations. Inspection of the timing slip reveals mile and kilometre times almost identical, so the decision to get a start a mile further back looks to have been spot-on.

Once the initial euphoria has started to wear off, we think a little clearer. All the local experts say the same; running on the slightly loose salt knocks at least 10% off the speed one could expect on asphalt, so our 173 translates into an equivalent 192mph. Then factor in the 7000 foot altitude, and the thin air we’re all, including the NRV588 Rotary Norton, breathing and one can clearly see well over 200mph from this, our ‘baby’ rotary.

  • Read about day five of the Norton blog here