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Norton at Bonneville blog: Day three

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.

Day three was the first day of runs on the salt flats:

Yes! We’ve been out on the salt, and laid down a run! There’s a sting in the tail, but we’re on our way to performing reasonably well.

A 7am start provides the opportunity to see the desert in the flattering early-morning light – the oblique sun’s rays light up the surrounding hills much as they do in the evening, long shadows and direct lighting onto the reds, ochres, tans and pinks of the surrounding mountains’ strata – it’s very peaceful and beautiful in a gaunt, almost alien-planet manner.

We arrive in the paddock, that floats out of the salt-pan like a Saharan oasis – the enormous, white, featureless salt-flat provides little or no sense of perspective, so it takes a surprising long time to finally arrive once spotted, but before long we’re back in position, the NRV588 is dragged out of the over-night trailer, and we start to prepare for our first run on salt.

We’ve had all kinds of varied advice to cope with; “What are those tyres/tires (in deference to our American cousins’ spelling)?” We’ve fitted the new Dunlop full-wet race tyres, on the advice of Matt Capri of South Bay Motorcycles, no stranger to Bonneville record-setting, but there are plenty telling us they’ll chunk badly and we’d be better off with V rated road-sports tyres.

We can’t see it – sure, wets will disintegrate as quickly as snow melts if they get hot, but why will they get hot?

We’re only running 5 miles at a time, the acceleration from static will have to be controlled to avoid spinning-up on the loose-topped salt surface, and in any case we have two miles to bring up the speed before we enter the timed mile, we only get to open the throttle the once, not like on exiting hundreds of corners during a tarmac race event, and there are no cornering forces to generate tyre-heat.

Oh, and the salt surface is surprising cool for a desert where the surface temperature would otherwise be well into 100 degrees Fahrenheit plus, as it’s still slightly damp, and the latent heat of evaporation as the sun burns off the moisture that seeps ever-upwards from the water-table a foot or so below acts in exactly the same was as a refrigerator.

Albeit fighting hard every daylight second with the blazing sun – and today, it’s bright and clear, not a cloud in the sky, though during the day the heat-haze builds up steadily, so that by late-afternoon the more distant mountains are thoroughly blurred.

Motorsport is all too often like war – 90% hanging-around boredom, 8% action and 2% sheer terror, only it’s just Stuart Garner, MD of Norton Motorcycles UK Ltd and our self-selected brave pilot that maybe experiences the 2%!

And so it proves today – we take the bike outside the paddock area, where we’re permitted to run at up to 50mph for a leathered-up Stuart to first get a feel for the bike on salt, and Tony to check that push-starting on the somewhat loose salt surface is not impossible.

Fortunately, bump-starting is not a problem, just as well as we’ve no rear-wheel starter machine we normally use at UK track-events – South Bay Motorcycles’ other entries are road-bikes in various states of tune, but all retain their electric starters, so because we’re a full-on race-bike, we’re the odd-man-out, and just have to look after ourselves.

“What’s it like then, Stuart?” we enquire as he returns to the paddock.

“Like a bar of soap, loose and slippery!!” Hummm – not quite the answer we wanted, so maybe we need to wait longer until the sun has done more of its work in hardening the loose surface layer.

Another worry is the salt thrown up by the front wheel is clogging the front-mounted radiator matrix – not great news on a machine that generates huge quantities of heat at the best of times.

Not much we can do about it though, other that wait for more compacted salt.

Tony busies himself with cleaning the bike up, taking-off the undertray and removing literally pounds of salt, and using a very effective spray to flush out the rad matrix.

By mid-afternoon, we reckon we’re as well prepared as we’re going to be, and set off through the multi-stage venture out to the start of the five-mile Mountain course we’re facing – that’s Mountain, as in that’s what the arrow-straight, flat as a pancake and then some course points at way into the distance, rather than a series of delightful hairpin bends, of course!

Each stage of the journey out consist of about an hour of waiting about in the blazing heat and merciless sun, but each station has water-bottles available, and we follow the advice to routinely drink assiduously.

Finally, Stuart gets out to the start-line and is flagged away.

We manage to record the entire run on a somewhat shaky hand-held video camera, and our ears can follow his progress as each gear-change slots home.

A marshal’s walkie-talkie crackles into life – “Bike 747, 103mph.” Woooo!! Result! A first run at over the ton is no disgrace, given our inexperience and complete lack of salt-experience.

We jump in the car and head back to the paddock, remembering to observe that 50 mph limit (or thereabouts!).

“I’m sorry” are Stuart’s very first words, “I screwed up big-time!”

“How come?” we all demand. “103, first-time out ain’t all that bad!”

“I miscounted the marker-flags, and was doing 135-140 per as I went into the measured-mile, but I thought I was exiting it, so shut off and was actually losing speed all the way through,” he replies.

D'oh! But hey, never mind! We’ve four more days of runs, with the forecast for ever better salt-conditions as it continues to dry-out, and we’ve seen Stuart get up to around 140mph, with the bike behaving perfectly.

The tyres are in as-new condition, the motor has not over-heated, and it was still accelerating as Stuart shut off.

So, all that says that around 140 is a shoe-in if Stuart just repeats the run tomorrow whilst being better aware of the marker flags, possibly more if he can feed extra power in earlier in the two-mile run-up so he hits the entry marker even faster, and holds it there or even continues accelerating.

It will depend on the grip and stability of the salt at faster acceleration and higher speeds, but at the maximum he’s already achieved, the bike is fine – sure, it wanders slightly over the tyre-tracks and small bumps on the strip, but it’s nothing to worry Stuart, and the rear is not losing traction as we had feared might be the case.

Result! Well done Stuart – yeah, okay, slight cock-up on the flag-counting front, but we’ve time to rectify that, and we return to the Rainbow Hotel for a couple of well-earned beers in fine spirits. Tomorrow, bring it on!

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