Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials 2014 – The Road West, on the Salt, and the Road Home
Ultimate MotorCycling Staff Writer Gary Ilminen has a love for speed on the salt. This passion prompted him to enter his 1974 Honda CB350F in the Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials 2014.
This was the fourth year Illminen brought his CB350F to Bonneville in hopes of earning an AMA National Motorcycle Speed Record. And this is just what happened in the 350cc Production/Production Classic Class; Illminen now holds the class record!
While there, Illminen kept a daily diary. It not only tells the story of his record-setting run, but also describes the overall inspiring mood of Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials.
The staff at Ultimate MotorCycling commends Illminen for his progress not only on the salt, but at the keyboard. Following is his diary:
Day 1, August 19.
We finished loading the night before, decided that anything we may have forgotten will be waiting for us when we got back and we could only hope whatever that may be was not essential.
We got on the road by 7 a.m. and made it to Lincoln, Neb., by late afternoon. About half way through Iowa, an occasional metallic clanging sound could be heard, apparently coming from the trailer.
I stopped to check it out and the safety chains appeared to be the problem. I readjusted them, but the noise continued. I stopped again and realized the tongue jack on the trailer had worked its way loose and the skid was hitting the pavement — a potentially very bad thing. I cranked it up and tightened it to prevent it from winding down again.
At a fuel stop, I checked the bike in the trailer and found the removable front wheel chock had removed itself, allowing the bike to slide out of position and the tie-downs to come loose. No harm done—no damage and after re-attaching the wheel chock and reconfiguring the tie-downs to force the bike forward into the chock to prevent reoccurrence there were no further problems.
Day 2, August 20.
We head out of Lincoln by 7:30 in the morning with the temperature at a pleasant 71 degrees. Contrary to customary weather for August, the further west we go, the lower the temperatures go. By the time we reach Rawlins, Wyo., it has fallen to 57 degrees.
Rawlins is a great little town with an interesting downtown district; we ate at a great sports bar/restaurant called Bucks.
In Wyoming, the rugged vastness of the west makes distance impossible to judge and rock edifices tower over the highway such as the cliffs near Green River.
Day 3, August 21.
We are on the road by 7:30 a.m. with the temps still unusually cool at 57 degrees. It is great weather to drive in, though.
On the final leg of the drive, I-80 takes us through the most spectacular part of the entire route, the red cliffs that soar over the highway of the Wasatch Range near Coalville approaching the descent into the Great Salt Lake valley.
When we reach Wendover, Utah, we don’t even check in first; rather, we go straight to the “boat ramp,” where the pavement of Speedway Road ends and the salt begins. The weather is great and the salt looks terrific. There are only a few small areas of ponded up water around.
By 3 p.m., we were in West Wendover, Nev., at our destination: the Rainbow Casino/Hotel, where we had reserved our room for the week. We’ve stayed at the Rainbow the last three times we’ve gone to Bonneville and it’s always been a good deal and a good place to stay.
Day 4, August 22.
This is Friday—the event opens tomorrow morning, so we have a day to unwind and knock around in West Wendover and Wendover. We spent part of the day at the Historic World War II Wendover Army Air Corps Base.
Thousands of flight crews trained here on their way to combat duty, including the crew under the command of Col. Paul Tibbets. Tibbets and his crew flew the bomber nicknamed Enola Gay that delivered the first nuclear weapon strike in history on Japan.
Many of the base’s buildings survive to this day and are being restored to preserve the site.
After that, we went out to see the salt and were astonished to find water—a lot of water—around the boat ramp! Rain overnight caused the rising water, more rain was rolling in from the southwest as we left and more was forecast for overnight. I begin to wonder if the event will happen at all.
The Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials Facebook page was reassuring, indicating the tracks and pit area are still in good shape.
Day 5, August 23.
Water remains at the boat ramp and a huge line of entrants waited to find out if the event would go on. Event staff at the entry to the salt do a great job helping plot a course through the water and instructing participants on how to navigate the water crossing.
They release caravans of ten vehicles at a time to do the water crossing with instructions to keep speeds at only a few miles per hour to minimize chances of damaging the submerged salt surface. It takes time, but everybody gets in.
The pits have a layer of sticky salt that clings like an extra half-inch thick extra sole to your shoes. Despite that, the weather is great and everybody gets their pit areas set up with no problems. Registration moves quickly, but long lines form at scrutineering.
Despite the high number of entrants and the wild diversity of machinery, the technical staff help the entrants understand the rules and correct any problems; things move along well.
This being my fourth time through the scrutineering process, where both the bike and all riding gear are inspected for compliance with the rules, my gear and 1974 Honda CB350F clear scrutineering quickly and with no corrections.
By the end of the day, the sun is drying the salt up pretty nicely and hopes are high for good weather for the rest of the week. There is no racing planned for registration/scrutineering day, so the salt has another day to dry before competition begins.
Day 6, August 24.
It is my father’s birthday — and mine. Dad is 93-years young today and I hope this event will result in an unusual birthday present for both of us to share — an AMA National Motorcycle Speed Record.
As an American Motorcyclist Association Grand Championship event, The Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials is a stand-alone championship event, so scoring a speed record here would be huge, resulting in winning an AMA National Number 1 number plate for the classification and worth the two years of saving up, planning and anticipation that has led us here.
Weather is clear, calm and cool. The morning Driver’s meeting helps veteran and rookie riders review the rules and get up to speed (pardon the pun) on the course layout. This is good because the course layout for this event is unlike anything any of the riders have used in the past.
The layout usually has had the long course (generally referred to as the International course) furthest from the pits to the east, with the short course (or Mountain course or Basic Course as it has been called) closer to the pits west of the long course, parallel to one another.
For each course, the rider would finish their run and exit to the left toward the pits to reach the return road. Due to the area of the salt that was affected by water this year, however, the course layout moved both courses far to the northeast of the pits and reversed their position, with the long course to the west and the short course to the east and the return lane down the middle between them.
This required riders making their down (initial) run on the long course to exit the course to the right, while the short course riders would exit to their left.
In both instances, they would have to take care not to overshoot the return road and commit a course incursion by riding onto the opposite track. This would seem to be an unlikely event, but due to the distances to landmarks and markings involved in everything, even salt veterans have found themselves confused in the past.
We spend the day networking, shooting a lot of pictures and doing research. I decide to enter an additional class — having pre-registered for the Production/Classic Gas class (P/CG), I learned that my bike also qualifies for the Production/Production Classic class. I pay the fee, register an additional number and go through scrutineering again.
That afternoon, back in town, I call dad and we wish each other a happy birthday.
Day 7, August 25.
The weather has taken an unexpected turn for the worse. It is cool, cloudy and worst of all—windy.
I get in line in pre-staging by 8:30 a.m., but nobody is being waved out onto the courses; the event is on hold due to high winds. We wait in pre-staging all day, but the winds never abate.
The event crew lists the bike numbers and says they will do all they can to give everybody who is in line their place back tomorrow morning, as long as the riders show up and are ready to go.
Day 8, August 26.
Skies are clear, nearly zero wind and 57 degree temp. Wind out of the west overnight has driven water into the pits, registration, tech and impound areas. The tracks, starting lines and pre-staging areas, however, are unaffected and are in good shape.
The Staging area crew keeps their promise and I am waved ahead and get out to the start line for the basic (3-miles long) course at about 9:30 a.m.
This course is for bikes that will not exceed 125 mph in their run and provides a one mile run-up to the timed mile, and a one mile shut-down area for the total of three miles.
At about 10:30 a.m. I am sent off by the flag man, where I ride out to the track, turn left and begin my run. Using lessons learned running this bike at Bonneville in 2010, I know I will get the most out of the little four-cylinder engine if I don’t even try to run in fifth gear; the thin air almost a mile up just won’t let the engine wind out (having not re-jetted for high altitude).
Instead, I take the tach needle up to the 10,000 rpm redline in each of the first four gears so that about a half mile before I enter the timed mile, I am planted on the tank in my tuck with the engine holding a consistent 10,000 rpm in fourth gear and hold it there for the entire timed mile.
The strategy works and the engine never stumbles or backs off for the entire run. The high-pitched Honda Howl we all came to love from these four cylinder engines back in the day is back on the salt! For amateurs like me, that sound is pure magic.
I turn off, head down the mid-line return road and get my timing slip — 80.209 mph; six mph faster than my best speed on this bike back in 2010.
I report to impound, confirm I’ve qualified for a record run, my engine gets sealed, and schedule my return run ASAP. I get right back on and head out to the start line at mile 4. When I get there, I am the only rider waiting to go, so they give me a clear track almost immediately and away I go.
I use the same strategy on the return run and do the timed mile at 79.994 mph. The two-way average works out to 80.1015 mph, establishing the record in the 350 cc P/PC classification — assuming, of course, the bike passes final tear-down tech inspection of bore and stroke and keeping in mind all results are considered unofficial until certified by the AMA.
I begin the teardown process immediately, hoping to get the bike and gear loaded and off the salt to allow us to begin the 1,470 mile trip back to Wisconsin on the 27th. Drew Gatewood inspects the bore and stroke in the impound area after I pull the head off. He finds the displacement to be exactly to specification and offers me his congratulations.
Coming from Gatewood, that is particularly good to hear; he’s been around racing for a long time and operates GEARS—Gatewood Engineering and Race Support in Chesterton, IN, which is home to Hoosier Daddy Racing Motorcycle Landspeed Racing team.
We load the bike, tools and stow our gear and leave the salt at 4 p.m. To add to the magic of the day, Jacci, my crew chief, pit boss, photographer, sock knitter et.al., won over $680 on penny slots at the Rainbow Casino that night! It was a very good day.
Day 9, August 27.
Slept in and didn’t get on the road heading east until about 10 a.m. We learned on Facebook that no racing was going on, apparently track conditions from rain overnight put things on hold. They hoped to have the track open early on the final day tomorrow. Meanwhile, we made it to Rawlins, Wyo.
Day 10, August 28.
Cool, wet, overcast weather—great for driving, though. After ten days away, getting home sounds better all the time. We covered more than 700 miles from Rawlins, Wyo., to Avoca, Iowa.
Day 11, August 29.
We got rolling early and made it home to Lone Rock, WI by about 1 p.m. We’ll take a couple of days to unload, unpack and unwind from our best Bonneville trip ever.
Reassembly of the Honda will be a slow, careful process. Now 40-years old, the 1974 Honda CB350F has been rescued from non-use oblivion in 2010, run at the Bonneville Salt Flats in two competitions and established the first unofficial national speed records in two classes (350 P/P in 2010, but the record fell before the end of the meet) and in the 350 P/PC class — and hopefully this time, the record lasts for a while.
As I write this, official results have not been published nor certified, but no matter what happens, this trip was one we’ll never forget. The Honda will be retired from competition in land speed racing and go back to being the cool, smooth backroad cruiser it was intended to be.
The Bonneville experience is really unlike anything else. There is a brotherhood and sisterhood out there, where strangers quickly become friends, those friends will do all they can to help each other and those friends often turn out to be amazing people. We were able to re-connect with our friend and racing icon, Robert “Bud” Schmitt, from Chalmers, Ind.
Bud is the elder statesman of land speed racing, being the oldest person to set a speed record. In 1954, he took his double engine Harley knucklehead drag bike called “the Monster” to Bonneville and exceeded Rollie Free’s record speed on his down run at better than 157 mph, but the bike couldn’t complete a return run, so he didn’t break the record on that account.
On this trip, we met two cancer survivors who battled back from very grim clinical conditions to not only survive, but to thrive. Their passion for land speed racing was a factor in helping them persevere and overcome long odds.
Another inspiration was Dan Parker, who lost his vision in a drag racing crash a couple of years ago. Parker is a member of the National Federation of the Blind, who designed and built most of his three-wheeled racer.
Parker pilots the vehicle independently using a high-tech, GPS-based guidance system that helps him make mid-course corrections by auditory inputs. Parker already held a world record as a result of his 2013 run at Bonneville and in 2014, he bested his own record with a two-way average of 62.05 mph (unofficial at this point)! Given the unusual track configuration in use for the 2014 event, Parker’s achievement is all the more remarkable.
Thanks and congratulations to Delvene Manning, owner of Delicate Promotions, LLC, who, with her small army of helpful, professional volunteers pulled the Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials 2014 together. Also, thanks and congratulations to Ken Saillant, Track Racing Manager for the AMA and all the AMA staff and volunteers who work to make events like this happen.
Without events like this, amateur riders like most of us would not have safe, affordable opportunities to compete in motorsports. Thanks also to Curtis Smith, AMA/FIM Chief Technical Steward, Drew Gatewood and the entire team of experts and volunteers that managed the daunting task of getting us all through scrutineering, impound procedures and in answering the blizzard of questions that come up all week.
Thanks, too, to the folks who provided us with technical, material and/or moral support and encouragement to help make this happen: Bill Whisenant and his staff at Motorcycle Performance in Madison, Wis., Jim Haraughty of Team MS Racing, Vetesnik PowerSports of Richland Center and Madison, Wis., Joe Rocket, David Silver Spares, Papa Wheelies Speed Shop of Bloom City, Wis., and of course, my friends and colleagues at Ultimate Motorcycling.
Images by Gary Ilminen and Jacci Shauger