The salty dogs chase their tales: Thursday’s child


It was still dark when the team assembled in the motel lobby.  A few other teams had members gathering for breakfast and getting ready to head out to the salt for the first day’s running.  Everyone was a bit nervous with anticipation and uncertainty.  This is a common thread throughout racing, and the only relief is to put a wheel on the track.

In the truck and we began the daily routine we would follow the next three days.  The speedway access road is a string of taillights and marker lights of the waiting vehicles, since you can’t get on the salt before 7 a.m.  Once the gates are opened, it’s three and four wide across the salt heading for the pits.  The sun coming up offers a truly unique and beautiful backdrop with the sunrise over the mountains to the east and the stark lighting of pink on the rock outcrops to the west.

photo by Gary Ilminen
photo by Gary Ilminen
photo by Gary Ilminen
photo by Gary Ilminen

The rider/driver’s meeting was first on the agenda and it was there I first met Dick Munz.  I had heard of him around the Madison Wisconsin area for many years but our paths never crossed.  He is a successful real estate businessman with a penchant for things motorized.  His collection included a roadster out on the salt as well as many unique two and four wheeled vehicles back home.  After the National Anthem and the prerace prayer it was off to drive the course after the rookie meeting.

Driver's meeting

Driver's meeting

It was while going down the course we realized how good the salt really was.  It was said to be as good as some had seen in 30 years.  There were none of the holes that were there in 2007 and it was so hard we couldn’t drive nails in it to hold own our drop cloth in the pits.  In the middle of the course between Mile 2 and Mile 3 there was some loose stuff, but it sat on top of solid salt.  All we could do was shake our heads and go “Oh my God!”  Another excuse for poor performance removed.

Looking down the track
Looking down the track

Unloading the bikes and verifying their running at the 38 degree temps is a part of the routine that can be interesting, considering all the testing was done at 60 to 70 degrees at the shop.  We saw 24 degree temps coming over the mountains so it was a good thing we had antifreeze in the Ducati.  Firing up the Triumph was always an adventure with the 20/50 oil giving a 180 psi. oil pressure spike before the relief valve kicked in and the oil started to thin out a bit.

Trailer and DucatiTrailer

We loaded the bikes back in the trailer and headed off to the starting line.  This is another thing that takes a bit of work, the loading and unloading, that is.  Here we are out on the salt and the chase truck has to find two motorcycles over a 6 mile span, load them up and head back to the impound area if a record has been run.  If it isn’t a record run you then decide whether to go to the starting line if a little work is needed or the pits if a lot is needed to be done before the next run.  That is the reason for the ramp door on the trailer, so we don’t kill the chase crew after loading and unloading two bikes up to four times a day.

Once in line for staging which is the lead-in for the starting line you have a chance to get out and meet with people you may not have seen for a year and meet new and different individuals.  At this event there was only the one long course owing to the fact that most of the salt flats were under water the Sunday before.

Normally there is a long and a short course for the fall event and two short courses and a long for the summer Speed Week event.  The single long course made it more difficult to make a lot of runs because the streamliners that normally use the long course take more prep time before a run and even though some run near 400 mph, the time to run the entire course, slow down and exit the course takes quite awhile to allow for a safe process.  The short course is for use by vehicles running under 175 mph and/or licensing runs.  This group using the short course can have its own challenges as far as timing.  You can have a rookie rider who turns out (or the wrong direction), doesn’t get to the return road to clear the course, falls down, etc.  To correct these deficiencies is more than just yelling at someone because there is usually a mile or more between race officials.  It is sometimes hard to at first to comprehend the scale of distance.  This is shown by the extensive use of CB radios by the race officials and crews.

As we approached the starting line, it was time to unload the bikes.  One of the things unique to Bonneville is the rule that specifies the race vehicle will only be operated on the racing surface (meaning the course out on the salt).  Thus there is no riding the bikes or driving the cars in the staging lanes or in the pits.  They have to be towed everywhere.  We unloaded Gary’s Magna, then the Triumph and then the Ducati.  Final fuel levels and tire pressures were checked and then the riders suited up.  Moving forward we were approached by the SCTA safety crew and at this time we were checked for helmets on and strapped, tether kill switch hooked up, sitting on the bike before startup and tech medallions on leathers.  Ooops, remember earlier when Gary didn’t get his?  Evidently they had decided to use engine seals instead and Gary hadn’t gotten one and he was immediately shuffled to the side and sent to Tech to get his seal.



Well, that left Jim to run and then me.  As the cars ahead of us left on their runs, the tension mounts.  You are always looking at the bike for a loose this or a wiggling that.  It is a studied, practiced cool and casual you see in a crew chief as he accompanies the vehicle to whatever starting line it is.  A jittery crew chief can spook the rider or driver, making them wonder what is wrong with the vehicle and disrupting their concentration.  Speaking from personal experience now and in the past, I am as nervous walking Jim up to the starting line on the Triumph as I am getting on the Ducati the next bike after.

Bill and Jim
Bill and Jim
Ready to run
Ready to run

Having seen the car before leave we pull up on the line.  We are again greeted by another SCTA official, this time the official starter.  He rechecks the helmet security, tether attachment and asks the rider how he is feeling.  A few casual words from him or her (a lady starter also working the event this time) and they then step back to monitor the other vehicle on the course.  It seems like hours while they check the down-course progress (or lack thereof), and that the vehicle is safely on the return road intact (not leaving parts on the course).  A quick reminder to flip your shield down and then the same motion a flight control officer gives the planes on a carrier and off you go.

Jim moved away and after second gear looked a natural on the bike.  Then he started moving to the left.  He had mentioned that was his plan, having seen the loose stuff between Mile 2 and Mile 3, but I didn’t think he was going that far to the left.  We listened to the radio and loaded up the starter cart as they said his exit speed at Mile 3 as 119 mph.  Not what I wanted to see but we could discuss it when we picked him up.

Now it was my turn.

Bonneville National Finals 2009 Bill & the Duc

The car in the lane next to me left on his run and I didn’t realize it was Mike Cook, an organizer of this event and of the previous week’s private meet where Chris Carr went 367 mph in the BUB streamliner.  He was a long course car and I started everything up way too early.

By the time it my turn to go I had the engine temp up to 83 degrees C and I was wound pretty tight as well.  Taking off I didn’t clear the motor out and it nearly died and was never very happy taking throttle.  Chugging along I plugged it into second and it showed a bit of life.  This bit of teasing went on in third as well.  A bit of misfire followed by a bit of  promise.  I could see the 1 mile marker go by.  Realizing that I had to make 175 mph by the 2 mile marker I got a bit more adventuresome with the throttle and looked at the EGTs (exhaust gas temperatures).  They were showing about 1300 degrees which was within acceptable limits, but not making any boost.  I pulled in the clutch and hit the throttle a few times to try and clean it out and then rolled it back on.  A few bangs out of the exhaust and it started to run again, albeit poorly.  By this time I could see the 2 Mile marker approaching and knew something had to happen.  I rolled further into the throttle and it rolled past the marker shooting ducks.

I then looked at the GPS and it showed way below what I needed and in the true fashion of a die-hard I was sure I could salvage something of the run, so I jacked the throttle wide open and was rewarded with a VERY loud bang.  I was a little surprised by this and wasn’t quite sure what had happened.  I looked down and the entire left side of the intake manifold was folded out about an inch along the top edge.  I opened the throttle just to see what might happen (not the brightest move in hindsight) and to my surprise it relit and started to run again.  I looked back at the EGTs and the needles were past the end of the scale, covering up the “Made in USA” area which should have indicated molten, so I shut it off and rolled over to the return road.

Bob and Louie rolled up and we loaded up the Ducati after quickly surveying the damage and went to pick up Jim.

The pits and the black line
The pits and the black line

Jim was waiting down track about a mile and a half and we loaded up the Triumph and went back to the pits to unload the Ducati.  After doing that we realized we had better get to Impound as we had to be there within an hour after the run on the salt was finished, his run being the first leg of a record.  At a speed of just over 119 mph it wasn’t what I wanted to see, but we knew we were coming out a bit light on horsepower.  The bike had worked as expected with no surprises in the chassis and all the parts were in the motor.  The only vibration casualty was the shift light pill that had popped out and was in the belly pan.

We checked into impound and received a card with the time we had to be done with the bike and gone.  You are allowed three hours to service any vehicle after a record run and that is it.  The vehicle then sits on the salt that night and is among the record run parade at 8 o’clock the next morning.

We started servicing the bike, checking oil levels, topping up the fuel, setting the valves, clutch and checking for other missing parts.  An allen screw at the front of the chain guard was the only apparent casualty and we replaced it.

It was at this time that I looked over towards tech and noticed a tall blonde next to a Hayabusa.  If you have been following motorcycle speed runs for the last two years you should know who Leslie Porterfield is.  If not, look it up.  I was able to get her autograph for my girls on a course map and we talked about my girls working on the bikes.  A very pleasant lady to talk to.

Leslie Porterfield

We went about regearing the bike as it wouldn’t pull the gearing used on the first run.  The decision to go from a 31 to a 35 tooth rear sprocket necessitated adding a link to the chain and the air compressor just wasn’t up to the task, adding a lot of generator noise and time to a normally simple project.  It was during the servicing time that I felt a tap on my shoulder and a request for safety wire and pliers as tech wanted pinchbolts wired (sounds familiar).  I did have to look a considerable distance upward as Leslie is in fact very tall.  A short time later I’m back up to my arms in Triumph and her bolts are done.

After it was all said and done we wrapped the Triumph in plastic and left the impound area with thirty minutes to spare.  I wondered how the bike was going to take being abandoned and all alone on the salt overnight.

Gary had made his first run and was rewarded with a 72 mph blast and didn’t get far enough off the course, earning a comment or two.  Once again ,the scale of the place take some getting used to.

We talked to David Pilgrim again and found out he had just gone 262 mph in his turbo Corvette on his own 236 mph record he set when we were there in 2007.  They were busy finishing up servicing the car and not much time for chatting.  He did lend me a small stick welder with aluminum rods that unfortunately was beyond my abilities to try and deal with the Ducati.

David Pilgrim's corvette
David Pilgrim's corvette

Gary was the next to last vehicle down the salt and after a bit of frustration at waiting in line, got to make another runs and went over the 100 mph mark on the salt.  Congratulations Gary and Jackie, (his wife)!


Back to the pits and the Ducati.  The initial damage estimate was accurate as the manifold had split down the top seam on the left side.  My ear was still ringing from that and after the manifold was removed we set off in search of a TIG welder in the pits.  Well I found a trailer with a TIG welder but no argon (the bottle didn’t get loaded). Another trailer left theirs home for this trip because they had to pack quickly to get here.  The third possibility had just blown up out on the salt and packed up and I saw them disappearing into the sunset.  I called the local auto parts store and was put in touch with Kip who said he had burned up his TIG welder (I never found out how he did that) but he could MIG it and had just fixed two gas tanks that day.  The deal was struck and he took the manifold, promising to call when it was ready.

This left me time to try and figure out why it blew up.  I surmised the ignition quit due to a component failure so all the components were replaced.  Pickup coils, ignition coils, spark plugs, the works.

Well, we packed up the trailer and after talking to Rick Yacoucci (who holds more records than a vintage music store) concerning the profile of the front fenders and windage succeptibility, we got a phone call and went into town to meet Kip. Delivery right to the motel lobby with a smile and a reasonable fee to boot. MIG welding aluminum is very difficult and while Kip’s welds were strong, the airtightness couldn’t be verified because nobody had plugs big enough.  A slight leak in the manifold would cause a leanout that could lead to another rupture.

Not knowing what to expect, we stopped at the local parts store and tried to buy a fiberglass kit.  Well, Rick Dorfmeyer’s crew had bought all of them because they had to lower the back of their bodywork to conform to the 40 inch maximum height.  After looking all over Wendover, and picking up a 2-part epoxy called “Goo” this led to a trip back out to the salt where they generously allowed us to borrow fiberglass resin and scissors (more items on the packing list for the future).

After dinner out came the sandpaper, acetone and ultimately the “Goo”.  The bathroom fan labored mightily and eventually a satisfactory sealing job was done.  By morning it was ready to go, and so were we.

Next time: runs and spins

*All photos courtesy of Bob Crook and Gary Ilminen


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