Bonneville 2012: Driving out


Driving out onto the flats

This year’s Bonneville effort is the continuation of the frustrated attempts of 2011, where a rather long trip out to Utah resulted in a rainout and a long trip home.   One of the benefits of that rainout wasn’t realized until now: less cleanup!  Back in 2011, the bikes didn’t even touch the salt so all we needed to do was take all the ballast off, change the batteries, tires and front wheel, then off we went.  This time around – since we actually ran the nitro bike on the salt – we have to clean the bike up and fix all the fun we had at Bonneville, with only 3 ½ weeks before we head out to the biggest motorcycle drag race in the world at Valdosta Georgia.

The runup to this event primarily focused on the development curve of the nitro bike.  This bike started out in 2011 at the drag strip running 9.80’s @ 135 mph and ultimately ran an 8.92 @ 147 mph three weeks before we were scheduled to run at Bonneville.  Three weeks seems to be a running theme out here… The development last year (after the race at Valdosta 2011) involved different crankshafts, flywheel weights, transmissions, clutch settings, three different valve configurations in the heads, two different piston types and three different camshaft combinations.  This was done in the span of four trips to the dragstrip.  Of course there was the usual playing around with the ignition timing and fuel injection settings, which included four different percentages of nitro.  For those who attended our nitro clinic in May, you are aware of the myriad of paths that can be taken with the fuel injection.  For those who didn’t, suffice it to say there are many, many ways to mess it up and only a few ways to make it better.  We thoroughly explored those ways both positive and not so positive.

The number of runs with the bike did allow us a fairly high comfort level with the basic reliability of the platform and how it may react to different changes.  The Ducati 749 motor we based this on had a very wide sweet spot that displayed a remarkable sense of humor, even when some of the tuning was done with bad intent. (we kept pushing it farther and farther without ill effect!)

The Road to Bonneville:
The usual list of suspects included Nick Moore as the rider of the nitro bike, Fred Weege as the lead tech on that bike and the crew chief of the turbo (Fred also is the engine builder and without his expertise, care and attention to detail, we couldn’t  do it.  His skills are always tested with a nitro based project as “things can happen”),  Bob Crook and Chris L’Amore returned as the loaders and unloaders of the trailer,  Noel Hackbarth came back in his second year as general help.  We were joined by my wife Patty and my daughter Jacki who I think wanted to see if we really did anything out there or just sat around and made sure we got our stories straight for those back home (sort of like “Deer Camp”, except it’s “Salt Camp”).  It was fortunate because we were also able to use their vehicle to carry two of the spare motors, windscreens and water, saving room in the trailer.

Loading the trailer is a project in and of itself.  You have to take everything you will need to deal with every eventuality and be able to do it for a week.  With two different bikes we also had two engine programs and different fuels to account for.   It generally takes a full day to load the thing and then another day to go over in your mind what you forgot, find those things and then find a spot for them where twenty four hours of jostling, bouncing and banging around won’t destroy them.   Having done it a few times before, it wasn’t quite as much an adventure, but a hair-puller nonetheless.

After the loading is complete, we took a tour of the Madison area roads in order to shake everything down, and see what falls over or.   After completing a load like this, you can really get an appreciation for what went through the settlers’ minds as they set out across the prairies in the 1800s.  You have to be self-sufficient in pretty much every aspect of the trip and it has to be done on a deadline as they aren’t going to hold up the race for you to get there.

Heading west out of Madison we just get to the highway when we get a phone call.  The van has to return to town.  Somehow someone’s house keys were in someone else’s pocket.  We continued onward and left them to their devices to catch up.

The trip out was pretty much like the other four we made.  Go for four hours or so and then stop for gas and back at it… cycles of four hours went like normal until just east of Kearney Nebraska.  Fred was driving and commented on the voltmeter in the truck, wondering where it was when we left.  Having just replaced the battery, I mentioned it was just below 14.

… it wasn’t there now.

Smart phone and digital technology to the rescue.  I decided to deal with this during daylight hours in Nebraska rather than night time in Wyoming.  We located a parts store, took up 9 spaces in their parking lot, and found an alternator.  By the time the paperwork was done, the part was installed and verified and we were off again.  We kept the core as it was charging, albeit weakly, and if the new one failed we would have been stuck.  A brief stop at Arnold’s Mexican restaurant and away we went.

Replacing the Alternator
Fortunately we had a few tools in the back of the truck

Things were pretty much normal the rest of the trip.  A bit of snow alongside the road in eastern Wyoming was a bit disturbing, but the one bright spot, literally, is coming down out of the mountains to Salt Lake City.  It is an amazing sight and after Bob is done scaring the hell out of us coming down the big hill it is a welcome and beautiful view.

Tooele, Utah and the truckstop there is the last stop before the salt flats. The tanks are topped up and thermoses filled – it is usually about 5 in the morning going through there.  Driving by Miller Motorsports Park is a reminder of the other types of motorcycle racing in the area.  Rocky Mountain Raceway holds drags (as seen in “Funny Car Summer”, a movie I recommend) and various other types of motorsports endeavors as well.

mountain on the salt
One of the iconic mountains on the salt flats

It isn’t hard to find a driver for this last stretch as the anticipation makes sleeping difficult, even if the night has been spent bouncing around in the last seat of the Suburban.  Seeing the salt is better than coffee (well… almost).

Driving by the salt plants, you think about how much salt has been taken from this area since mining began in the 1930s.  Another movie “The Boys of Bonneville” goes into a bit of the history of the flats and how racing began at Bonneville.  The level of salt has gone from 18 to 24 inches down to 1 to 4 inches and has only recently begun to be restored.  Oddly enough it is the racers and environmentalists that are on the same side in this one.  There is a new salt plant that has begun taking salt directly for processing.  It has primarily been the gypsum plants beating up the flats, but this newest threat is a direct assault on the sodium chloride layer.

salt mining
you can see mountains of salt piled up alongside the mining facilities

One of the pivotal organizations that is working for the preservation of the Bonneville Salt Flats is “Save the Salt”.  I recommend you check their website and contribute – we all do here.  They are working with the government and environmental groups to put legal teeth into the legislation intended to preserve this unique geological feature. I urge you to support them!

Now that I am climbing off my soapbox we can return to the trip.  Stopping at the western edge of Utah, there is one rest stop before the salt flat exit.  As you approach this, the sun is coming up and it almost seems the flats go on forever, or at least it feels that way.    Occasionally we stop here and stretch if we are going right out on the salt, and with a couple of first-timers we did just that.

Historical marker about the salt flats
Historical marker about the land speed races

Pulling off at the exit for the Speedway, you go by a truckstop that is the jumping off point for the racers.  Looking for ice, we were disappointed, and the restaurant wasn’t open yet, although you could smell the prep cooking, and after 24 hours in the truck it smelled darned good.  Without an assurance that food would be ready soon, we opted to head out to the salt as it was time for the gates to open.

Driving from the truckstop, you come to a right hand turn in the road.  This is called the “Bend” and is the impromptu campground for those not staying in town.  A very popular place in August, for Speed Week, it has a sparser population now.  The camping is cold, salty, and free.

water on the salt??
We were more than a little nervous to see that the entrance to the salt flats had standing water…. but it was only where the salt met the road, fortunately. The main part of the track was firmly packed.

Coming to the entrance to the salt, we are greeted by the perennial smiling faces at the gate.  A quick explanation as to where to go and where not to go is very important.  With only an inch or two of salt, breaking through is a very real possibility.  Once you break through the salt, all that’s there is mud and getting out is difficult and often expensive.   Scars still exist from Boyd Coddington’s struggle three or four years ago.

Sunup on the salt is a singular experience.  A virtually limitless horizon to the east and the stark mountains to the west offers a multitude of vistas.  Combine that with the arrival in the pits and it is a motophile buzz.


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