Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials 2018
Article by Chris Callen
Photos by Scooter Grub & Heather Callen
December 2018, Issue 261
It’s been six years since I stepped foot on the salt flats of Bonneville, long years. Years that have kept me away from people that had become my second family. For the seven years that I made the Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trails part of my annual trek, I have had the privilege of watching children of my friends grow up, records be broken, experienced the loss of friends and have shared that with the family I made at Bonneville. All of this makes the Salt Flats an extraordinary place, makes the people special and in the end worth the trip to one of the most remote parts of these United States. Although in spite of the things I have mentioned in this small introduction, you are not likely to see major news networks there, there are no historians on hand to record the giant steps made in innovation of the two-wheeled combustion vehicle, there will be no scholars waiting to debate the achievements of these warrior poets who follow a path without a map. No, this may be one of the most pure and metaphysical connections between man and machine left in the world today, and finally, I was back!
Since my last trip to the Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trails, there had been some changes. Namely the ownership of the event and the name. This mattered little in the end as the track workers, team members and general attendees were much the same as I had left them. Some a little greyer, some a little more celebrated for their new records, but for the most part intact. Since I had never had the time to make it to Bonneville early, I was stoked to roll into Wendover Nevada days before the gate opened. I always wondered what it was like to be early. Well, it happens that there isn’t really much reason to be there early. I mean, don’t get me wrong, seeing the hangar of the famous Enola Gay, the Air Force base that has been restored that trained men and women of that era, was awesome, but that was about one day’s worth of entertainment. No big deal, we filled our days by accomplishing one of my long-time goals; camping on the salt flats. We set up our mobile command center right on the corner of the road that leads to the boat ramp. We not only achieved that but managed to do an episode of ShopTalk live from the Salt. Within a few days, other familiar faces started to pour into this sleepy little gambling town and all of a sudden, we had more than just Wendover Willy as our neighbor.
On that live broadcast alone, we were joined by old friends Santa Claus, Steve Garn and Jay Allen. Jay had been in town the entire week before for Speed Week, where he set records. We were regailed with tales of amazing runs like the one where he shifted 16 times through the mile and still managed to break the record. It turns out that the need for shifting was the result of his transmission literally coming apart through the mile. This guy is a true speed freak, it wasn’t even in his purview to quit before he crossed the finish line. Santa Claus was on hand officially to support the Buell Brothers team that he started, now owned and operated by Drew and Ashley Woodford. Unofficially, Santa had the task of promoting the Bonneville Hall of Fame and Museum with meetings in front of the Mayor and other concerned parties. As part of this initiative, it has been his ten-year commitment to hold a dinner during the BMST called the “Legends Dinner.” This year the event would feature Mika McClosky, Jay Allen, Al Lamb, Larry Coleman and Pete, and Jackie Hill. The mayor and Wendover threw in a nice dinner for us, and as we sat around, we were treated to stories from these legends in a very informal manner. What does that mean? Well, as an example Pete shared the memory of Jackie having a disagreement with Pete during a drag racing event they were at earlier in his career. You see, Jackie mixed Pete’s fuel and on that day, she loaded him up with a 97 percent mixture. Pete commented that he knew as soon as he started the bike something was up and when he asked Jackie she just said: “Never mind, you just go down there and get that money.” You never get to have inside access like this to racing legends, and by the end of the night, my face hurt from laughing.
Finally, out on the salt, our focus shifted towards getting the War Pony ready to pass Scrutineering. You see, early on we had decided that we would just take her there this year and rather than go crazy trying to make it happen, we would just get a report on what needed to be done for next year. As it turned out, we needed very little, and this had everyone cheering us on to make an effort to get a run in. At the same time, I knew to make the list I had to be ready, and I joined the Buell Brothers Racing team to make my rookie pass on their “Experience” bike. This is a great program where all you need to do is show up with the desire to get a pass under your belt, bring a helmet and some leathers, and they take care of the rest. I signed up for the rookie class that gave me a ride down the race course, several instructions of what to do and a few of what not to do as far as race procedures that would keep me safe. Upon completion, I was given a red stripe to put on the back of my helmet, so everyone would know I was a rookie. That’s right, in my eight years at Bonneville I was finally elevated to rookie status and I couldn’t have been happier. There was another rider using the Experience bike as well, so I decided to work on War Pony. Santa Claus himself sat with me and resisted calling me peckerhead to shame me into just sitting down and doing the work. You see, Santa had a personal investment in me getting this bike out on the track, many who know me personally from Bonneville did. It was on this very same bike that I made my first trip to Bonneville and on which I made every trip there from my office in Pittsburgh, PA every year afterwards. It was this bike that I raced in the very first Hoka Hey from Key West Florida to Homer Alaska, some 9500 miles in eleven days. It was this same bike that built the magazine from the time it first hit the national newsstands when it was the only way I could afford to travel to fill its pages. And finally, it was on the back of this 2003 Ultra that I had fashionedmounts for the Sportster tank that carried my mother’s ashes here when she passed in 2008. When a friend of mine totaled it a few years ago, it seemed that all that history would be lost with it. As we started to recreate it during the IMS Shows last year, it was as if it was building itself. I truly had no idea until about halfway through that it was becoming a Salt Racer. Coming back here with the War Pony as a reborn race bike was the completion of a circle that took a good part of my life to draw and without all those around me, it would have never been completed.
You find that many of the individual stories that play out on the salt are like mine. There tends to be great depth in someone actually making it to the salt and with the accomplishments that are evident on the surface, there are many that have some greater purpose for being there that you will never see. Take the French team with the little red Sportster that you will read about in this same issue. They were having a blast running the hell outta their Ironhead. And once we got the story of why they were there, it blew my mind. The one man’s father had planned on making a run at Bonneville as part of his bucket list and came close but never got to run. I listened intently as he described that he was a well-known motor builder in France, spent his life making other people’s Harley’s faster and would one day make it to the Salt on a bike that he had built. He had made it one year when the bike got held up and refused to even walk out onto the salt without it. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could make it back and they were all there to see through his dream. That man was Zed of Freeway Magazine, an amazing story of an amazing man and only one of those from the people whom attended BMST in 2018.
Meanwhile, the rest of the racers were experiencing the kind of irony that only Bonneville can deliver. After a few years in a row where they showed up ready to tear down records only to find the wettest most difficult conditions to race under. This year it was quite the opposite. The conditions were the best they had been in over fifteen years, and the salt was as hard as white asphalt. The wind was at a minimum, and it was widely agreed to be the perfect conditions to make dreams come true. As I mentioned, only the salt flats can deliver this kind of brutal irony because across the board riders and teams who typically would be figuring out the right combinations to deal with salt conditions and timing their runs for weather, were now dealing with blown motors and trannys, electrical gremlins and in general mechanical skullduggery.
Still, the days would end in great jubilation with many of us making the traditional visit to Carmen’s Black & White Cafe. The walls of this place are adorned with the history of land speed racing, and as you walk in, you realize that this is just an extension of the activities that happen on the salt. While Drew Gatewood sat playing an acoustic guitar, everyone shared stories and advice, explained theories of what might happen and tales of things that did not. There at Carmen’s everyone is equal. There are no big guys and little guys, racers and wrenches; there are just the members of that year’s event. I proudly took Heather all around the place and told her the names of the faces I recognized. We shared the stories that I knew of the history of Bonneville, and she took it all in like a child learning about the story of Christmas. The crowd never lasted too long since every day the race started before the sun came up and the racers lined up at the boat ramp to get out to the salt and set up each morning. Heather and I made it out in total darkness one morning and set up chairs in front of the Sprinter just to take in the magic of a Bonneville sunrise. Figures this would be the one day that there was so much overcast that we could hardly see the sun. There were plenty of days after that were filled with brilliant colors and a spectacular view that has been fabled in story and song about the great salt flats. It is truly a wondrous place.
Unlike most other events you will attend as a motorcycle rider the sense of community and camaraderie there is like no other. I’ve been trackside at many other forms of racing, and although there are those that come close, mostly on the district motocross level, none are like Bonneville. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re a million miles from anything when you are there so if you need something there is no easy answer. If someone else on the salt doesn’t have something to help you, then you have a hundred and ten-mile ride to the closest real town to get anything. Regularly you will hear loudspeaker announcements asking for help for other riders, and people actually scramble to the call, even people running in the same class. It is in this spirit that Al Lamb of Dallas Honda invited everyone from every team to his trailer one night during the event for a Beef Brisket dinner that he had been smoking for days on the salt. The best part was that through a mishap in shipping Al’s bike, “Big Red” was not able to make the event, and he spent the week there just waiting… Well waiting and smoking. The brisket was to die for, thank you, Al!
Even the track workers are like family. Since this event is put on at great expense as you can imagine, the volunteers are some of the most important parts of the whole machine. Apparently this year they were a bit short, and I suggested to Heather that we take two slots working the gate to help out, just like many others did. It’s not for extra credit; this is just what it’s like there man. People need help, and you step up. For that you got a cool staff shirt, a tent with a stop sign and a cooler full of bottled water, a priceless commodity on the salt in fact. It was funny to me that everyone coming off the salt at the end of the day slowed down and said thank you. They knew that the people at the gate are volunteers like us and each and every one appreciates the help.
Back to racing action and the big news was not that of the Bub streamliner. After a harrowing crash at speed during a run in Australia, the Bub Number 7 was unable to make BMST. Although Valerie, the pilot, was ok, she would have to wait until 2019 to come back to Wendover. Jay Allen on the other hand under the new brand “One Feather Racing” was tearing up the record books. With the help of the Cherokee Nation, Jay was setting and breaking his own records faster than anyone could keep track. With an average speed of 229.7 he set his final record of the meet and was torn down… But get this, he still has no red hat for the 200 mile an hour club. Apparently there are a group of those in charge that have made it a few miles faster than his 220 to get that hat. Hmm, funny they don’t call it the 230 mile an hour club, then right? Still, Jay is an ambassador of this sport, and if you get a chance to pick up the record book, you will see his name more times than the guys who wrote the book. Jay now holds 45 records in numerous classes over his 16 years racing at Bonneville.
Legendary drag racer Pete Hill was on hand with his Knucklehead for another round of go-fast sessions and spending time with him and his wife Jackie was a highlight for both Heather and me. I almost did a spit take when Heather asked me shortly after seeing them pull the Knuckle out of his trailer “Who pilots the bike for Pete?” to which the answer is Pete of course. This is one of the men who invented going fast on two wheels, and I doubt that as long as he can get a leg over that bike anyone but the man himself will ever pilot it down any track.
My time finally came up for the Buell Brothers experience bike, and I was giddy. After all, these years dreaming that I would get a pass on the salt, it was finally about to happen. I got geared up and set off to the check in and then on to the staging area for Run Whatchya Brung, or in my case, what they brung. I would be piloting a Buell s3 Lightning and although I had no intention of setting any record I did want to get at least 100 mph on my rookie pass. Rider after rider left the staging area and I got closer and closer to living this dream. I went over all the details in my head, stay tucked, make sure I throttled the whole way through the mile, tuck until it hurts, don’t turn off after the mile, don’t wreck the loaner motorcycle and for God Sake, DONT SUCK! I got the word that I was up. Next, my lovely wife acted as my crew and helped me gear up and tuck my gloves and such. I sat patiently with the lid of my Simpson helmet flipped up, so I could get some air until it was time. The radio puked out a garbled report, and the flagger looked at me and gave me the sign. From here there was nothing to do but ride out to the zero flags and twist it. As I rounded that corner to line up with the racecourse it seemed as if everything was moving in slow motion. It gave me an eternity to think about my life and the salt flats. I thought about my mother, her ashes lay just a few thousand yards to my left. I thought about the 2500 miles each way that I traveled by motorcycle each of the seven years to get here. The hundreds of friends that I made in my time at these events. How good a cold drink was going to taste at the Black & White that night after entering a fraternity that many will never gain access to, and finally I thought of nothing…. The motor slowed down, the noise of it and my own breathing went away. The blinding light of the salt around me darkened and all I saw was the floating mountain off in the distance and the row of flags that seemed to lead to it. The next minutes went by as if they were seconds. I flew through the course and before I knew it, I saw the mile marker and poured on the gas. My breathing, the motor, the sound of the gears all pounding out a rhythm. and whoosh…. I passed the exit flags of the mile and they all went away again. The wind was all I heard as I realized I had just completed one of the few bucket list items of an otherwise full life as a motorcycle enthusiast. Of course, there was a moment of exhilaration but then just as fast the realization that I was coming to the end. The end of this run, the end of this event, in some ways the end of this life. My list became one item shorter on that day… until I replaced it with another line… To go faster next year!