Bonneville's Blazing Bikes

People and Machines Overshadow Racing

story by Alex Edge, Photograph by Alex Edge, Created Oct. 05, 2007
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Anyone who attended this year’s BUB International Motorcycle Speed Trials hoping to experience racing excitement on a par with that found at a Superbike, MotoGP, or Motocross race would have left disappointed. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

As I described in my first article, the pits are situated at the midpoint of the course, and with bikes whizzing by alone, perhaps 300 yards away and traveling at speeds frequently exceeding 150mph, there isn’t a whole lot to watch. The PA system was only average in terms of how well it could be heard throughout the pits, and with bikes starting their runs several miles away, it was difficult to keep track of who was running and how fast they had gone. Hardcore salt-racing enthusiasts may have known many of the competitors and been able to ID them as they blew past the pits, but I found myself mostly uninterested in watching the actual passes.

No, the great thing about Bonneville isn’t the racing; it’s the people and machines that are there to take part. I spent hours wandering the pits, camera in hand, and every few steps I was hypnotized by another wild creation, machines far different from the blandness of the production bikes found at most racing events, which share a similarity that comes from the precise corporate-backed nature of these series.

A walk through the pits at a World Superbike race or an AMA Outdoor National provides plenty of eye candy, but how many times can you see a set of $20,000 Ohlins forks or a custom-cast magnesium carburetor before it loses its charm?  Even the full custom MotoGP machines, much as I love them (and that’s a lot), all possess a host of similarities born from the research and schooling of the highly-trained engineers who design them and the near-unlimited budgets that pay for their construction.

Bonneville is something entirely different. Budgets are far from unlimited for most of the paddock, and while I’m certain that the salt racers have their fair share of engineers, most of these bikes have been designed and developed by the same people who own and ride them, using a wild mix of parts fabricated not in the million-dollor CNC machines and carbon-curing autoclaves of a MotoGP facility, but in their own garage or small race shop.

Maybe they have an old Bridgeport manually-controlled mill (you can almost picture the traditional industrial-grey paint flaking off the sides of the mill to reveal specks of rust) or a high-end TIG welder, but the point is, the bikes at Bonneville are as unique and individual as their owners – and as anyone who has attended an event on the salt can attest, some of the owners are pretty, umm, unique.

Below you’ll find a selection of short features, each detailing an interesting machine and its team. This is just a taste of what can be found at Bonneville – for the rest, you’ll have to make the trip to the salt yourself!

Andy Sills and his support crew try to keep cool while awaiting their chance to run.  When it wasn't raining, the temperatures were high and sunlights reflecting from the salt seemed to cause the heat to double.
Between runs, the Max RPM team pulled off parts of the bodywork to check the turbo setup (just out of sight under the bike) for problems or leaks.

BMW Las Vegas/Xplore K1200S

At first glance, a K1200S might seem to be a strange choice for a machine to attack a world speed record. Despite the fact that BMW’s most powerful streetbike possesses an 1157cc inline-four cylinder powerplant putting out a claimed 167 horsepower at the crank, in most rider’s minds, the “classy” BMW doesn’t fall into the same category as brutal speed monsters like the Kawasaki ZX-14 or Suzuki Hayabusa – and it would most certainly be competing against Hayabusas at Bonneville. Nevertheless, an early ride on the BMW’s new uber-machine convinced Bonneville veteran Andy Sills that the bike possessed two crucial components required for success on the salt – stability and a suspension design that offered excellent traction.

Following this ride was a lunch-table conversation between Sills and BMW employee Helli Kornton, which was the real genesis of the project. Kornton and Sills were convinced that the idea had merit, but it took some time to convince the higher-ups at BMW, who were enthusiastic about racing the K1200S but wanted to move slowly to ensure that the bike would perform impressively when it finally did hit the salt.

Finally, in 2005, a team led by Sills and Kornton and backed by San Francisco BMW headed to Bonneville with a basically stock K1200S. In a first-year effort at the salt flats, there are dozens of things that could go wrong, but in the end things worked out just as Sills had predicted on his initial ride – the BMW’s unique Duolever front and Paralever rear suspension kept the K1200S steady as a rock, and Sills blitzed his way into the FIM record books (1000-1350cc partially streamlined, naturally aspirated motorcycle class) with a 173.57-mph pass – quite impressive for any stock bike!

The record caught the attention of BMW Motorrad USA's head honchos, and it was decided to return in 2006 with the bike in identical condition in order to generate film footage and still photography for publicity purposes. With their efforts concentrated on making a documentary-style film for BMW PR purposes, the team made only a few runs – the fastest of which clocked in at only 162.199 mph, more than 10 mph slower than their record-setting 2005 pass.

With their marketing duties out of the way, the team began to prepare for a big step up in 2007 – the transformation of the K1200S from its stock, naturally aspirated form to a heavily modified, turbocharged speed monster was beginning to take shape.

At around the same time, BMW Motorrad began investing its resources in an organization that was an obvious partner for the talented K1200S land-speed racing team: the BMW Xplore rider’s group. While most corporate-backed riders groups or clubs focus their efforts on social events, bike shows, and group rides (often at a painfully slow pace), BMW Xplore had a different mission – to encourage BMW owners to explore the performance limits of their motorcycles, and in the process also explore and improve their own riding skills.

With the BUB International Motorcycle Speed Trials now offering a “run what you brung” class open to all street-legal motorcycles, Xplore encouraged BMW owners to test their machines’ limits on the salt, with the newly renamed BMW Xplore land-speed racing team leading by example. Judging by the surprising number of BMWs I saw lined up for the street group, the strategy was extremely successful.

But back to the development of the new and improved 2007 race bike. The pivotal figure in the development of this machine was Helli Kornton, now proprietor of the performance tuning company GTR (while also affiliated with Remus/Max-Moto. Kornton made contact with a German company MAB Sports, which was producing bolt-on turbo kits for the K1200S and selling them in the European market. After numerous long telephone conversations with MAB’s owner (conversations where Kornton’s fluent German came in handy), MAB agreed to support the American team’s effort by providing a complete turbo setup, as well as offering extensive over-the-phone technical consultation as Kornton struggled to force the BMW’s powerful and complicated stock ECU to work in harmony with the new turbo system.

Remus built a custom exhaust system to fit the newly-turbocharged BMW.

Kornton partnered up with Max RPM, a high-performance tuning shop that specializes in custom applications, and the work began. Custom front and rear shocks were built to lower the K1200S more than 3 inches for better aerodynamics, and Kornton fabricated custom rearsets to help the rider achieve a more aerodynamic position during his pass – a task that required building new shift and brake linkages, as these rearsets were actually attached where the passenger footpegs would normally be located, quite a bit farther back than your standard sportbike rearsets.

'Weeks of effort finally paid off, with the bike running perfectly and making 25% more horsepower than stock.'

Meanwhile, work began on the engine with the installation of aftermarket pistons and rods, upgraded to handle the stresses imposed by the higher cylinder pressures and greater intake air temperatures that come with turbocharging. A custom oil cooler setup was also installed, and numerous stock items had to be removed or replaced to make room for all the new components; the bike’s new, lower stance exacerbated the problem of space, forcing GTR and Max RPM to keep everything mounted as high as possible to maintain ground clearance.

Once the mechanical side was handled and the bike had all its pieces attached, the really hard part began – tuning. In addition to the two piggyback computers that were added to control additional functions like boost pressure and the secondary injectors that had been installed in a showerhead configuration to provide more fuel under high-boost, high-rpm conditions, GTR and Max RPM had to trick the stock BMW ECU into not “freaking out” when it saw readings that were far outside those it had been programmed to consider normal. Weeks of effort finally paid off, with the bike running perfectly and making 25% more horsepower than stock. Even more power could have been dialed in, but there was one problem: gearing.

Re-gearing a shaft-driven motorcycle is vastly more complicated than making changes on a machine where the rear wheel is driven by belt or chain, especially if you want to make drastic changes – and drastic changes would be needed to move from the stock bike’s 173-mph pass to what was hoped to be passes well in excess of 200 mph. Numerous options were discussed, researched, and discarded, until finally the team settled on something everyone felt would work (We would tell you what but don’t want to reveal the team’s 2008 plans too early).

With time running out to get the bike on the road for Bonneville, Kornton realized that the gearing change just wasn’t going to happen. This year would become a shakedown for the entirely reconfigured (and much more powerful) machine, with record-setting attempts being postponed until the bike can be re-geared, tested, and brought to the 2008 event ready to surpass what the Brits call the “double ton” (200 mph).

Here’s a view of Sills just before his run.

Without the taller gearing, the extra power that could have been gained by dialing up the turbo kit’s boost pressure would have been more a hindrance than a help, making it difficult to obtain traction on the sometimes slippery salt flats. This forced the team to leave the bike with merely “somewhere around 200 [horsepower]” – still enough to do some damage, and hopes high that Sills would top 200 mph with the stock gearing.

But considering that the nearest town to Bonneville is Wendover, Nevada (which consists entirely of casinos), and we were all staying at a casino and attending an event sponsored by a casino (thanks to the Wendover Nugget, but you better have wireless internet in the rooms by next year!), I guess I should say that the dice just didn’t fall the BMW team’s way this year.

First there was the poor salt condition mentioned in my first article, and then the lack of a gearing change, both of which nixed any chance at running for the record (which, for the class they are now in, sits at 259 mph). Still, the team was having fun, working their butts off and learning valuable information about the new turbo configuration. Unfortunately, that all came to an abrupt halt on Wednesday when the built K1200S powerplant decided to un-build itself directly under Andy during a medium-speed (that being around 150 mph) testing run. With little time left in the event, the poor conditions, and the general impossibility of the situation, the team began packing their gear to make an early retirement from the endless expanses of salt whose conquest they had so long anticipated.

Don’t count these guys out just yet, though. As they told me themselves, 2007 was merely a warm-up year in preparation for an all-out blitzkrieg assault on the record in 2008 (and 2009, and 2010, whatever it takes). The K1200S will be back next year with more boost, significantly more power, a longer swingarm, taller gearing, and whatever else this little group of BMW enthusiasts can come up with over the next year. And won’t the big, bad turbocharged Hayabusas be surprised if their record gets snatched away by a German bike from a manufacturer most consider to be somewhat staid? That’s one thing I learned about BMW over my few days in Bonneville: Forget all your stereotypes – these guys are just as serious about speed as any group of riders in the world.

For more information and to read some informative articles about Bonneville written by Andy Sills, check out bmwxplor.com. If you’re interested in MAB Power’s BMW turbo kits, GTR is now the exclusive U.S. distributor and will soon be offering them for sale in the States.

Even in the Bonneville pits, with wild custom bikes everywhere you look, the Confederate Wraith was impossible to miss - those massive, bladed front suspension arms certainly are eye-catching!

Confederate Wraith

This unique, low-volume American producer of boutique streetfighters powered by traditional air-cooled, pushrod V-Twins has had some troubled times recently. Originally headquartered in New Orleans, Confederate’s factory was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, with many employees left homeless as well. In the two years since the hurricane, Confederate has struggled to recover from the devastation, moving its business facilities to Birmingham, Alabama, and slowly re-starting production of its first (and currently only) model, the Hellcat.

The small company’s lead designer began a complete reworking of the Wraith, which would be Confederate’s second model that had been nearly ready for production when all plans and prototype components were destroyed in Katrina’s devastation. Inspired by the classic boardtrack racers of an earlier age, the Wraith nevertheless uses a stunning amount of cutting-edge technology, with a blank-sheet design that throws conventional wisdom out the window and re-thinks the idea of a powered two-wheeler from the ground up.

The first thing that strikes you when you look at the Wraith is the massive, bladed front ‘fork.’ The bike actually uses a control-arm system somewhat similar to BMW’s Telelever design, but the connection between the control arms and the front wheel is made by huge, bladelike carbon-fiber spars. The spars are massive from front to back to maintain stiffness under braking, but the thin side-to-side profile was carefully designed to allow a certain amount of sideways flex under heavy lean angles. The design also happens to be quite aerodynamic, somewhat similar to the tube shapes found on wind-tunnel-engineered time-trial bicycles.

The Wraith's carbon-fiber spine frame allows it to be much narrower than a perimeter-framed machine, and the small frontal area gives even more aerodynamic benefits than the bladed front suspension.  Don't worry - the seat is only a prototype, and the production machine will feature a far cleaner-looking and more comfortable piece.
With the exception of the custom-fabricated S-shaped handlebars (which keep the rider's arms tucked in a more aerodynamic position), Wraith Prototype #2 received few visible mods for its attack on the salt.

Moving closer, you realize that what you first thought was merely the gas tank is actually a massive, tubular carbon-fiber spine that serves as the main structure of the Wraith’s frame. In an organic design that mimics the human spinal column, the front of the tube terminates in a massive headstock that provides a sturdy attachment point for the front suspension arms, while the rear curves down to end at a rear shock mount just where the human tailbone would be.

I could spend another dozen pages discussing the stunning details of the Wraith, but instead I’ll get to the point: What was it doing at Bonneville? In a tragic story that somewhat parallels the recent history of the company itself, the Wraith came to the salt to commemorate a fallen friend, one who had dedicated his heart to the project but passed on before he could see it reach fruition.

Chris Roberts was the lead electrician on the Wraith prototype project, and his dreams of running at Bonneville had brought the team to the salt once before, in 2004, to test an early prototype of the Wraith as a first step towards achieving a land-speed record with the company’s creation. While those plans where derailed by the destructive forces of Hurricane Katrina, and Roberts’ personal life became much more complicated after the birth of his baby girl in early 2007, he never let go of the dream of riding the Wraith down the salt and into the record books.

Roberts was something of a hero to many in the Confederate factory, and not just because of his dedication to land-speed racing, which carries its own heavy risks. No, Roberts was admired for the grit he had shown back in 2003 when, while attempting to prevent an armed robbery, a thief shot him through the upper arm. Not one to complain, Roberts returned to work the next day and even downplayed the issue of his heroism when colleagues brought it up.

Although Roberts loved working at the Confederate factory, he loved the city of New Orleans even more. In December 2006, Chris made the difficult decision to quit his job at Confederate and move back to the wounded city, taking a job at a local restaurant. He left the company on good terms, however, remaining close friends with the small team at Confederate. Roberts was still considered the first choice to ride the Wraith upon its return to the Salt Flats.

This year, with things settling down at Confederate and the Wraith design moving closer to completion, it began to look like Roberts would finally get his wish – plans were laid to run Wraith prototype #2 at the 2007 BUB event, with Roberts as the rider and a support team of volunteers from the Confederate workforce.

Fate, however, would strike Roberts an even more tragic blow than it had struck his beloved employer in 2005. On June 17, Roberts was at home in New Orleans when he spotted a thief attempting to steal his motorcycle. Running out to confront the criminal, Chris Roberts was shot dead in the doorway of his own apartment building. Roberts’ girlfriend Jeanette and infant daughter Aoife had lost him on, of all days, Father’s Day.

The thin frontal profile of the suspension arms should slice through the air quite efficiently.

The Confederate employees were devastated by the loss of their friend, but they insisted on moving forward with the Bonneville attempt, their way of honoring Roberts’ memory. Wraith Prototype #2 was the last bike that Chris had wired before leaving the company, and Confederate employee Jason Reddick volunteered to take his close friend’s place in the seat of the new bike.

Reddick and Adams loaded the Wraith into a trailer and began the long drive to Utah from Confederate’s Birmingham factory. Despite the less than optimal salt conditions, the two made a valiant effort at breaking the current record in the Special Construction Frame, Pushrod Gas 2000cc class – a record that currently sits at 169 mph.

Unfortunately, the Wraith wasn’t geared quite tall enough to reach their goal, but Reddick made numerous passes in the 155-mph range. The two said they hope to return in 2008 with more power and taller gearing, but the record wasn’t really the point – it was the memory of their friend and hero Chris Roberts’ love for the salt that brought them there, and they knew that wherever he was, he was smiling every time the Wraith he had helped create blazed down the salt with the rider tucked in and the throttle pinned.

For more information on the Wraith, check out http://www.confederate.com/. You can also find some videos of the Wraith’s Bonneville runs in the ‘Multimedia’ section.

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