The salt plays tricks on your mind—the look of it, the sound of it—crunching beneath your feet like the ice of a vast, frozen lake. You expect it to be cold but it’s not. These are the hallowed grounds of speed at the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah. For decades men have wheeled machines out onto the salt and pointed them to the distant horizon, intent on testing the limits of their creations—the limits of their dreams.Breaking the salt-muted silence, the incongruous skirl of a bagpipe greets the first blush of this particular dawn with a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The music becomes an anthem for the congregation of gathering racers, a solemn reminder of all the tears and hopes that have been absorbed by this endless expanse of salt. Like so many ethereal elements out here, the music, at first, seems merely an aural apparition, yet another of this landscape’s mirages. But the bagpipes are real. We’re not hearing things. (Click image to enlarge)The drone of the Scottish pipes issues from the edge of the pits. Silhouetted against the breaking dawn, the bagpiper and two flanking men form a trio. Before them—presented as if in offering to the sun of the new day—sits the Confederate Wraith XP-1. The motorcycle, born in the voodoo vortices of New Orleans, is at rest here on the Utah salt. Its carbon-fiber backbone, the most prominent of the contiguous, intersecting design circles that form the flow of this machine, elicits memories of another brethren of speed; the Cyclone boardtrack racer from the high banks of yesteryear.
J.T. Nesbitt (left); and Brian Case (right) with their creation, the XP-1 Wraith. (Click image to enlarge)
The man breathing life into the bagpipes is J.T. Nesbitt, the creator behind the Wraith. Next to him, watching the sun crest the horizon, is Confederate Motor Company founder Matt Chambers, the soles of his shoes already caked with moist salt. Completing the trio is Brian Case, President and CEO of Foraxis, a Pittsburgh-based industrial design firm.These men have arrived at Bonneville, far from their homes, via an arduous sojourn measured as much in conviction and passion as in miles. They have come not to prove something to the other competitors, not to prove to the clock, but—perhaps more important and exigent of all—they’ve come to prove something to themselves. This day represents the culmination of two solid years of work in bringing the Wraith to fruition. To fathom the commitment necessary to bring this motorcycle into the realm of a functioning, innovative platform, consider that Nesbitt took a vow of celibacy in the six months leading up to this moment, in order to focus all his romanticism, all his strength on the task at hand. Case poured countless hours into marrying Nesbitt’s artistic hand drawings with the pragmatic realities and demands of computer engineering. The two men collaborated in taking the cerebral, theoretical design concept of the Wraith—a distinct departure from traditional design, built without a single weld—and bringing it into industrial tangibility. The ever-present Chambers presided over the business to allow these determined alchemists their passions and intense follies in the cloisters of the Confederate Motor Company factory. In the process, a production motorcycle has been born. And now they are here. (Click image to enlarge)Two days of rain arrived before the nomads of speed, leaving the salt wet and slow. A silence has settled over the entire pit area—a contingent comprised of perhaps a hundred two-wheel competitors—as everyone waits for the salt to dry out. Teams try to dissipate the boredom, busying themselves with mechanical tasks to pass the time. They’re eager to get onto the salt, to get to speed. They come here, year after year, to experience the seduction and trance of the most unusual of motorized competitions.
To race on the salt is a very private affair. The opponent is the ephemeral invisibility of speed. Racers will tell you about the stimulated silence they experience when making a run, their perception of movement deceived by the endless expanse. For at speed, with eyes focused on the remote mountain range, there is no sensation of drawing closer. The distant peaks stay where they are. When the sun is directly overhead, the shadows are non-existent and a sense of direction evaporates along with the sensation of time.Finally, after days of waiting, the salt is deemed suitable to run. But the course is not “fast.” Everyone is off their pace, robbed of as much as fifteen miles per hour by the wet salt. Out here, the loss of fifteen miles per hour is devastating. (Click image to enlarge)The Confederate team pushes the Wraith to the staging area. More waiting. Then, at last, their time on the salt is at hand. They roll to the line. Rider Chris Roberts, eyes focused ahead on the famous measured mile, fires the engine. He feathers out the clutch gingerly and the Wraith’s wheels begin churning up a light spray of salt as he progresses through the gears, gradually, carefully building momentum. The Salt Flats, though known for speed, reward patience. Top gear, and the Wraith’s engine builds rpms.Nesbitt, Chambers and Case watch their Wraith as it makes its maiden run at Bonneville. This moment embodies two years of dreams, two years of questions. J.T., his face red from the harsh sun, utters, “It’s a symphony of sound.” Tears streak down his cheeks as he watches the motorcycle pass through the trap at speed, the sonorous V-twin’s exhaust note swallowed up and dissipated by the landscape. The three men stare in silence at the diminutive spec as it floats away on a mirage spilling out in the distance.Their timing in the trap is somewhat inconsequential. Just to be here with their creation is the victory. Given the sluggish conditions of the salt, many of the competitors chose not to run and have packed up and departed. Plagued by the ghosts of engine tuning created by the altitude, Nesbitt, Case, Chambers and Roberts are happy with an initial run of 131 miles per hour. A subtle vindication echoes in the voices of other competitors. They are complaining of tires slipping on the wet salt. Roberts smiles; he and the others know that their Wraith never broke traction. The platform has proven its stability.
Bonneville – the mountains of the moon.
The men of the Confederate Motor Company pack the Wraith into their van, like a wild animal reluctantly returning to the confines of its cage, safe in the knowledge it will be let loose to run again. Across the country, machines will be returned to garages. The salt will fall silent as engines are modified, designs improved, and dreams are forged anew. Men will repair to their homes and conceive new ways to go faster than before. And the salt will be waiting for them. www.confederate.com