The 2008 BUB Speed Trials – Bonneville Salt Flats
It must have been about Christmas of 2007 when I learned that there was the possibility of actually riding at Bonneville.
The Canadian Arrows team were intending to run their 500 cc motorcycle streamliner at Speedweek in late August, and again at the BUB speed trials in early September, and were looking to augment their participation by ‘selling’ the ride at each event.
Having discussed the terms etc with the owner of the machine, Bob Williams of Windsor, Ontario, I decided that as I would probably never get another chance to compete there, I would give it a go, even though it would be costing “an arm and a leg”.
I had after all had experience in using the counter steering technique necessary to pilot a streamliner by riding Motivator, even if this is flat out at 130 kph! So although a ‘Salt Virgin’ at least I should be able to keep the thing upright and going straight.
Williams claims that his streamliner holds the World Land Speed Record for a 650 cc motorcycle, despite the fact that there is no such category in the FIM’s classification, and that they had apparently never raced under FIM rules.
One has to be very clear about claims such as these which are, I’m afraid, only too often banded about, so let’s get this straight right here.
Love ‘em or Hate ‘em, there is only one official body that can confirm a World Motorcycle Land Speed Record, and that is the FIM.
If a motorcycle runs under any set of regulations other than theirs – no matter how similar –the attempt is not observed by their personnel, or representatives, and the result subsequently confirmed by their offices, it is not a World Record.
It matters not whether anyone exceeds an existing record under similar circumstances whilst running under the rules of any other body – such as AMA, for example – It cannot be claimed as a World Record.
“If I go faster than the last guy, shouldn’t I be entitled to call myself a World Record holder?” I hear you cry.
Unfair! Unjust! Well, I’m not going to get into that discussion here, but we all have to accept the rules of the game as they currently stand.
I was told that in return for my sizeable investment, I should be able to contest at least four records, and should qualify (providing I went fast enough) for membership of the 200 club.
Well, let’s see. There was the FIM 500cc World Record, the AMA 500cc Streamlined, Blown Gas record, but I never did learn what the others were, despite asking the team owner more than once.
It turned out that only entrants at BUB who ran under FIM rules, whilst satisfying the club’s other criteria (which requires one to run considerably above the 200 mark in some capacities) would be acceptable into the prestigious 200 club.
I told Bob that my prime interest was in the World 500cc record. Although this had been set in 1956 by Wilhelm Hertz, riding a streamlined factory NSU at 211.4 mph, this was technically a ‘frozen’ or absolute record, i.e. could not be directly challenged as the rule book had been subtly altered since that time. However, despite that, anyone now going for the record in this class must naturally want to exceed that figure and thus put any new record beyond dispute.
In the run up to the event it quickly became apparent that there is almost no interest in speed record breaking in the area of South Africa where I reside. Very few people had even heard of Bonneville, and most had only a very hazy idea of what was involved in setting a record. Certainly there was no rush from prospective sponsors to dig deep into their pockets, though I would like to thank Doron of Bright Sparks, Alan of Auto Motorcycles, Walmer, and Chris of RST Helmets, plus numerous friends who did help the effort in so many ways.
It also became quite apparent that Bob Williams had no interest at all in the FIM!
It was only when I queried progress in our application to run under their rules that I learned that he had not even entered us with them!
Thank goodness Denis Manning’s Daughter-in-law, Delvine, is on the ball.
This sweet lady, as one of the top officials of the BUB meeting, and thus having a thousand and one things to attend to, nonetheless found time to lead me gently through the paperwork necessary for a World Record attempt. One of the requirements was for a series of photographs of the entrant’s motorcycle from front, back, both sides, with and without bodywork. They didn’t even exist, and I had to make do with some postage stamp sized images culled from the Williams website. These were accepted, thank goodness, and a full International FIM licence obtained from MSA, the South African Motorsport body.
It seems that they had never issued an International Licence endorsed for record Breaking before, and were just about as ‘green’ as I was about the whole affair, but again, thanks to Adrian Scholtz, their Competition Manager, and Charlie Hennekam of the FIM, we made it with about two days to spare!
OK, paperwork, insurance, medical cover, ticket, all in order – Bonneville, here we come!
But not quite.
Just a few days before I left for America, I received an e. mail from the Williams camp. It seems that the guy who had bought the ride at Speedweek, two weeks before BUB, had crashed quite heavily and done severe damage to the streamliner. The official explanation was that he had been hit by a cross wind. Well, maybe, but no-one was saying any more than that. I know from my early outings with Motivator that it is all too easy to lose control of one of these things, especially if you find yourself rapidly drifting towards the edge of the course, but whether the crash was due to wind or just inexperience, there was sure plenty of damage to repair.
The streamliner had been taken to Wendover airfield – this is the place from where the first Atom bombs were dispatched in the B29s “Enola Gay” and Bok’s Car” to rain destruction upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki and effectively bring World War II to a close. When I saw the bike, it was not a pretty sight. The canopy had been ripped off, together with the periscope, steering, and much of the wiring. The body panels were badly dented, but the wheels still appeared to be in line and the chassis undamaged. A new canopy was being manufactured in Salt Lake City, and other minor parts had been sourced.
The Wendover hangar scene
Williams himself had gone off on holiday, and of the between eight and five crew members I had been promised, there were only two. These guys really worked their socks off. I don’t think they had a day off right from the start of Speedweek up until the end of BUB, but without the boss man there, they were unable to take any major decisions, and progress on the rebuild was obviously going to be a slow affair.
There was another complication. I had been assured that, as a six-footer, I would fit into the ‘office’ ahead of the engine in this 600mm diameter projectile. Not So!
Even without the steering gear in place, I couldn’t even get my knees to fit under the canopy. I was told that no-one as tall as myself had ever tried to ride in the beast, so the bit about my height being O:K was pure supposition on the part of Williams. The previous pilot, although rather more rotund, had been several inches shorter than me.
It was obvious that some major re-positioning of the throttle pedal and raising of the handlebar would be necessary if I was to stand any chance of fitting into the cockpit with my helmet and firesuit on. The regulations specify that as a streamliner is in effect a two-wheeled racing car, so I had to wear the full Nomex underwear, balaclava, racing overall (firesuit) gloves, and boots exactly as per your Formula One driver. This stuff is hot even in winter. In the 35 degree heat of the Salt Flats, it was going to be pretty uncomfortable!
As Dave and Dave, the two crewmen were obviously doing all that they could, I felt obliged to pitch in myself so I found myself in the rather unique position of paying for the ride, and crewing for myself!
No matter, there is little enough to do in Wendover anyway, unless you like to gamble, but once the speed trials were ready to start on Tuesday the second of September, I bid farewell to the hangar for large parts of the day, and set off for ’the Salt’ as it is simply known, about 14km down the road.
There I met the organiser of the event Denis Manning. Denis has built a number of outright record holders over the years and currently his ‘liner Bub7, piloted by rider Chris Carr held the worlds fastest title at 350.884 mph (564.7 kph). A very talented engineer, and great raconteur, Denis and I were soon into deep conversation about tyres, suspension, c/f factors and all manner of related subjects. In the course of our conversation (I think we were on our third beer at the time) I mentioned the somewhat radical design of our competitor for the 500cc record, Nebulous Theorem VII built by Jack Costella and driven by Cliff Gullett. “Yeah Ray”, said Denis “Of course, everyone has his own ideas about what works, but I don’t like it. If the wind ever gets under that thing, I don’t want to be around to see the result” I was to remember that comment in a few days.
Riders eye view of the salt
The BUB meeting caters for all manner of motorcycles. Many riders are chasing National category records, of which there are a multitude of classes depending upon build, fuel, engine capacity etc. There must be dozens of them. Below this are a large number of entrants in the Run-Wacha-Brung category, who run simply for times on standard (and sometimes not so standard) motorcycles just to achieve bragging rights in their local pub.
At the top of the tree, as it were, are the International competitors, all in streamliners, going for FIM (i.e. World) Records, again in various capacity classes.
As a result, there are a vast array of motorcycles present – electrically powered, diesel, supercharged, even steam! The competitors range in age from an eighty two year old man to a fourteen year old girl, and everyone, but everyone, is friendly, and only too willing to talk about their machinery.
The ones who are not competing, being in the main members of competitors family or club, make sure that a stranger, especially one with a ‘funny’ accent, is never sent away thirsty, and the number of cans of Budweiser that I consumed during my perambulations through the two or more kilometres of paddock, were quite staggering – in both senses of the word!
As fellow competitors for the 500cc record, I spent quite some time talking with Cliff Gullett, and builder of his machine, Jack Costella, about the design of Nebulous Theorem. This streamliner featured a very long, flat bottomed body set extremely close to the ground, and Jack explained that he was trying to exploit Ground Effect as used in most racing cars. It is ironic that one of Cliff’s remarks to me about the Williams machine was that the only thing he had ever seen the thing do was crash!
He didn’t have a very high opinion of the Arrows team – a feeling I was to gain myself as time went on.
When Cliff ran for the record in the middle of the week, our machine was still in the hangar being slowly – very slowly – put back together. I was at the trackside when he made the first of his compulsory two runs, one in each direction. The pits were situated opposite the measured mile, half way along the 11 mile course, though about ¾ of a kilometre or more away. His run was fast, and the turbocharged twin cylinder two stroke engine, running on a methanol based brew of fuel, sounded beautifully on song. Some time later, he returned on the down run, again sounding and looking great. Just as he exited the measured mile, I heard the girl next to me scream, and saw a confusion of parachute lines and carbon fibre as Cliff’s streamliner flipped over and tumbled down the salt. The ambulance was on the scene in seconds and we heard on a Marshall’s radio that one of Cliff’s arms had been almost severed, he was losing a lot of blood, and they were applying CPR. A few minutes later we heard the sad news that the doctors had declared him dead. It was a tremendous blow to me personally and to everyone present. The meeting immediately closed down for the day, and everyone went home in sombre mood.
Bob Williams meanwhile had returned from his holiday , and the team were pushing on against the clock to get the machine ready. The new, and unpainted, canopy was a dreadful fit. There were no ‘blacksmithing’ tools in the team’s toolbox, nor was there anyone with the skill to use them, so the canopy was fitted (if that is the word) with the corners sticking out into the airstream – a real crude job! No attempt was made to replace the great slabs of body filler (!!!) that had been broken out of the bodywork of the motorcycle, but the worst of the remains were chipped off and the scars then simply covered with red duct tape! As a result, the whole machine looked a real bodged up job - which it was. There had been no attempt to beautify the thing, and it was pretty obvious that the philosophy had become one of “Get the thing running and the rider mobile, otherwise we lose our money”
Early morning at the Williams pit
The team didn’t make it to the salt until the Saturday. When it was tried, the engine refused to run on more than two cylinders until in response to a call over the paddock broadcast system, a couple of spectators appeared and climbed into the mysteries of the engine management system, finally getting the motor running on all four. No rev counter is fitted to the machine; in fact the only instrument in the cockpit is a redundant air pressure gauge from a long since discarded skid operating system. Bob told me what I had suspected. The gear change light, which lights up when optimum revs are obtained, would not be fitted, so I would be ‘flying blind’ in this respect. As the power curve on the engine climbs steeply towards the top of the rev range, this would mean that, without any previous experience of the characteristics of the bike, I would have to change gear ‘by guess and by God’.
Hardly a way to attack a record.
With Saturday drawing to a close, and no one from the team seeming interested in calling the Scrutineers to our pit, I called them myself. With the mandatory labelling on the canopy for main electrical isolator and hood release buttons being merely written on to the bare aluminium shell with a felt tipped pen, it was no surprise that the streamliner failed technical inspection. More seriously perhaps, the capacity of the fire extinguisher bottles, whilst satisfying the requirements of the AMA, did not meet the FIM regulations, though to be fair, the rule book is a bit ambiguous on this point. However, the warning was given to comply in this regard, together with one concerning the lack of any method of initiating the fire extinguisher’s operation from the outside.
Sunday morning, 9 a.m., only three hours of salt time left, and nothing had been done about either the fire bottles or their external operating mechanism. Whilst one team member cut indicator arrows from the ever shrinking roll of red duct tape, and transcribed the requisite safety instructions on to masking tape, which at least did not rub off, we tried a ‘quick exit’ procedure, with me in full firesuit etc.
It proved impossible to get out in time using the conventional method, i.e. with one leg either side of the raised canopy, and in fact I did a bit of a nasty to my hips in trying.
At that point I reached a low point in my life. I couldn’t accept that such a small thing could screw up my chances of riding at Bonneville. My thighs hurt like hell from trying to get out, and I just sat in a chair and felt wretched. Then it dawned on me that if I swung both legs to one side, there was a chance. We tried it. My helmet still didn’t clear the roll bar too easily, and it took 41 seconds. Not quick enough, but with my legs recovering a bit, I began to see a glimmer of hope. If I rolled as far as possible to the right, raised my hips, and shoved really hard, I reckoned that I could still do it. If not, I had been offered the loan of a helmet from a rider a little down the pit lane which, being of a smoother configuration at the back, would probably make all the difference. It was going to be worth another try anyway, but with my legs still feeling very groggy, I wasn’t going to risk it until the stewards called upon me to demonstrate it as part of their inspection.
Front view of streamliner showing ill-fitting canopy and team boss Williams.
10 a.m., and I went for the scrutineers again. One of them had actually left on the Saturday evening, but not before he had expressed to me his reservations about the team getting the machine ready in time for running on the Sunday. The remaining one however, accompanied by a technician, arrived and went straight to the fire bottles, which had not been touched. “Ah well, that’s it then” was his remark, and you have done nothing about their external operation anyway” Williams replied that he was going to thread a piece of wire through the gap in the canopy and secure it by – you’ve guessed – a bit of tape!
The stewards pointed out what by then was blatantly obvious. The team were never going to get the thing ready and on the track in the remaining hour and a half or so, and there was really no alternative to just taking a few photographs of what might have been, packing up, and going home.
In terms of the written agreement between myself and the team, if they did not run for any reason, I would get my fee returned in full. This sum was in two parts, the first 50% would be considered paid if I ran, the remaining 50% if I got a record. I got the feeling that Williams would argue about the first bit, and anyway I was so grateful for the way in which the two Daves had worked, I felt I owed them something, so I suggested we negotiated on the deal, or at least the first portion. Clearly I would be due for repayment of the latter part in full. A figure was agreed and we shook hands on it.
And that, I thought, was that!
A week or two passed and, as I had received no reimbursement of my participation fee, I wrote to Williams.
I had no reply. I wrote again. He replied that he was still sorting out the finances of the event.
This just reinforced my suspicion that he was not going to pay up.
I wrote again. In reply, I received an envelope containing a small cheque, far less than the agreed figure.
It also contained a letter in which Williams alleged that I had withdrawn from the event – no reference to the rest of the money, or the fact that his vehicle was not raceworthy in time.
Once more I wrote to the man pointing out that he had been party to the agreement, which he had written himself, and furthermore, he had agreed at a meeting between us on the Sunday morning of the event, that he would repay far more than I had received. In fact $5 000 more!
His eventual reply repeated his allegation that I had refused to take part, and inferred that I had done so either out of cowardice, or as a means of securing a refund!
He concluded by telling me that what I had received was the balance of what was left after expenses – racing is expensive.
The Author with Rocky Robinson – now the World Land Speed Record Holder
Now in fact I do not have a problem with any man or team who wants to run his outfit at a break even level, or, for that matter, at a slight profit, as long as he is honest and above board about his intentions initially, and I know the situation.
I do however have a problem with a man that insists that any rider of his streamliner sign a solemn agreement which states, inter alia, that the team will supply a crew of between five and eight members, then only supplies two. It also states that if they do not run for any reason a full refund will be made, which he was not prepared to do. Notwithstanding that clause however, subsequent to us leaving the salt, he does agree to a revised figure, but reneges on the deal.
I also have a problem with a man who, presumably in an effort to justify his theft of my money, which is what we are talking about here, falsely accuses me of refusing to participate, as if the reason why the machine did not run was entirely down to me!
It is perhaps ironic that at the end of the agreement Williams states that :- “ Win or lose, we all go home richer for the memorable experience”
Well, he has gone home the richer, but I am the one who has gone home with the memorable experience – that of being swindled by this despicable character. I feel therefore that it is my duty as a member of the land speed racing fraternity who as a body I believe to be overwhelmingly honest and true in their conduct, to make this episode known in order that others who are tempted by any offers by this outfit might think again.
Although bitterly disappointed by my experience, , I am glad to have been to Bonneville, and but for the unsavoury experience above, thoroughly enjoyed being there and meeting so many great people, their team members, their machinery, and all that goes with it.
I have come home full of ideas, and maybe a MkII Motivator may appear one day - this time as a real streamliner to challenge, at least initially, for some South African Land Speed Records.
If anyone with a relevant skill would like to be involved in this project they can contact me via this website.
Sunset over the Salt. Will I return??