Categories: Features
August 28, 2019
| On 2 months ago

Bonneville Pilgrimage: Offerings to The God of Seating

During the Southern California Timing Association’s Bonneville Speed Week, motels nearby are expensive and fully booked. Which leaves campgrounds. And I hate carrying camping gear on a motorcycle. When I see those BMW earth-roamer types with all the gear piled up over their heads I think, “Oh, Hell no! I’m cool as an ice cube, that’s not me.” Yet here I am. Here I am piling camping junk over my head like a Starbucks-sipping, Hi-Vis wearing, mid level manager-who-mistakenly-thinks-corporate-values-his-efforts, Beemer rider.

That’s not the worst of it. I just know the flimsy aluminum subframe on the Husqvarna is going to break. It has to. This bike was designed with two things in mind: to pop wheelies and flee from the Po-Po. I don’t have a running street bike. So, I’ve turned the Husky into a single cylinder Gold Wing. It burns me up, man.

The bike needed dramatically expanded luggage capacity, also known as saddlebags. To do bags I needed infrastructure in place that would prevent the bags from tangling in the rear wheel and melting against the high mount, noisy, life-saving, public opinion destroying Arrow exhaust can.

I chopped up some stainless tubing and took the sticks to Roy’s Welding (out by the mini-goat farm) where the fine crew stuck it all together. My Safety Exhaust on the Husqvarna is high and tight so I riveted a metal heat shield on the left side of the Super Mo-Tour. Since my buddy, Mike, loaned me his saddlebags, I didn’t want them to catch fire. All told, I’ve probably doubled the poundage of the featherweight Husky with this jungle gym hanging off the back.

A Husqvarna SMR 510 is not the best choice for a 2400-mile trip to Bonneville. Ask me how I know.

Unrelated to the luggage situation but still needing sorting was the Husky’s headlight. The normal bulb is an incandescent 35-watt, both high and low beam. The bulb works OK in the daytime, but it casts a feeble light for night use. It’s like having a Black Hole on the front of your motorcycle. The pattern reaches only a few feet into the gloom. It’s so dim bugs fly away from it.

I tried a bunch of different bulbs. LED, Halogen, HID, incandescent, most of them ran too hot for the Husqvarna’s plastic reflector. I’ve settled on a cheap LED bulb with no watt rating or any information at all stamped into the metal housing. It is a very crummy bulb. Even weaker than the incandescent bulb, but I’m hoping it stands up to vibration better. A strange side effect of the LED electronics is that the high beam indicator light stays on all the time. I’m 56% sure the bulb won’t short out and fry the Husky’s electrical system.

I thought the guy behind us was yelling at the black SUV. The SUV drove past us but the guy kept yelling. Strange garbled words, some Navajo, some English, it was difficult to say if he was angry or loaded. He was smiling all the time.

The words kept pouring out as he bumped into me, wanting to shake hands. He didn’t care for the standard handshake and performed a fist bump/hand wrestling sort of maneuver. All the while he was speaking fast, stringing unrelated words together in an almost-sentence-like way.

Just your average blown, mid-’60s pushrod Honda. Running at 100cc displacement.

I could pick up a few bits of the conversation: he called me the N word, but in a nice, brotherly way. At least I think it was brotherly. Then he said that I was in his town then some vague, scattered bits about cutting people with a knife. “What language are you speaking?” I asked him. “It doesn’t matter,” he said to me and then he showed me his driver’s license. He was from Arizona.

Tall and good-looking, the guy may have been a great warrior chief in an earlier time. Now, he wanders parking lots jabbering at people in a confused muddle, his skill set woefully out of sync with life in 2019’s America.

The guy kept stumbling into me, by accident or by design. It was annoying but he seemed cheerful as he asked me if I’d like to be stabbed and thrown into a ditch. It was the most non-threatening threat ever. Was he serious? There did seem to be a lot of ditches around. I started looking down for bodies and errant coins.

Blower is a smog pump from a car. I’m not sure about this whole set up, how much volume does a smog pump produce? The guys were having a fuel starvation issue.

It dawned on me that the guy was completely bonkers and then he asked me for two dollars. “That’s messed up, man.” I told him. “I don’t want to be cut and thrown into a ditch.” He didn’t seem surprised. I’m guessing his unorthodox panhandling method turns off a lot of potential marks.

We went into a Taco Bell, the only place open in town. Switchblade looked startled at the glass door of the Taco Bell. It seemed to frighten him, and he drifted towards the street. Still wanting to kill someone.

The perfect bike for cruising the salt: no fenders and end of the world styling.

The rain started around 3 PM and kept a steady pace. It was a cool, 54-degree August day in the Four Corners area. I was stranded at a combination liquor store and gas station that had no electricity. Mike rode on ahead to look for gas. Mike’s BMW 650 can go 200 miles on a tank. The Husky taps out at around 150 miles, hence the lack of fuel. From my perch under the store awning I saw 700 to 800 cans of beer get sold in a few hours. Skinny people, fat people, old people, young people, all types and forms but no one bought less than 48 cans. They carried the stuff out by the armload. The cash register was on battery backup.

The power would come on, and I’d run out to the pump then the power would go off. This happened about 20 times. One of the liquor store staff was an adorable woman complaining about menopause: “You don’t know what it’s like, one minute you’re fine, the next you’re on fire!” The power sputtered. All of us, customers and staff, started yelling, “Lights on! Lights off!” in synchronization with the flickering power.

“Would you like a hotdog? Free, I won’t charge you for it. They’re still kind of warm but we have to throw out the hot foods after a few hours of no power.” What a nice bunch of people. Free hot dogs, all the beer you could fit in a trunk, we had a good time, you know?

“Your friend has a funny accent,” said Menopause Woman, “Where is he from?” “New Jersey, or somewhere back east.” I told her. “I suppose he thinks we sound funny too.” She said in that rising, New Mexican lilt I’ve come to love.

Mike came back with the gas and we dumped it into the Husqvarna. About 10 miles down the road we saw a lineman in his truck sitting out the rain. For all I know the power never came back on back at the store. The lives we shared at the gas station faded away. We were back on the road.

A reverse-head Triumph running what looks like mechanical fuel injection. I bet those velocity stacks suck in the salt.

I moved my camping gear 510 miles today. The longest I’ve had to endure the Husqvarna’s ridiculous seat. This was the longest day. We covered a lot of miles so that tomorrow’s ride into camp will only be 250 miles, leaving us plenty of time to ponder how the tent goes together.

Caliente, Nevada is shut down. Nothing is open. The road into town is lined with old railroad cabins. The cabins are restored with new paint. In a land of space, where the view goes on forever, the cabins are huddled only feet apart. It must have felt safer being together against the huge western skies. Railroad tracks ran behind the cabins, and when a train came through Caliente, the ground shook and the doors and windows of our motel room rattled.

On a motorcycle, you can feel elevation changes and temperature variations on the road. You even feel agriculture. The spot humidity rises, 1/4 mile of cold runs alongside dark green crops, alive against the tan dirt. And then you are back in the desert. Warm, dry air fills your helmet. I can look ahead and predict the local weather.

On long days, there’s not much human interaction. Ride, gas, ride, gas. Repeat over and over, each fill up is a couple hours of seat time. The long passages give you a lot of time to think great thoughts, maybe a new idea for land terracing or a way to lift 60-pound bags of concrete more efficiently. All I thought about was the Husqvarna’s seat. It’s a player in my dreams and nightmares. I imagine the seats in the waiting room of hell are shaped just like the Husqvarna seat.

West Wendover, Nevada, where else can you find an old flathead Ford Hot Rod and a 27-foot long turbine powered Liner parked up at the cafe? So many talented builders are in Bonneville. The trailers are works of art, their suspensions complex links and air bags. It’s like a superior race of mechanics from another planet has landed on Earth. Right now, in this town, the combined brainpower could accomplish any task. And it would be accomplished with glossy paint and many, many holes drilled for weight reduction.

Salt Zambonis: used to level the lakebed.

Salt is everywhere. The cars are covered in it. It falls off in fist-sized chunks and passing cars pulverize the salt chunks. My buddy Old Iron says that to find a good restaurant in West Wendover look for salt in the parking lot. The more salt, the better the restaurant.

At the KOA’s site J10, my tent has changed shape in the 6 years since I last propped the thing up. The poles are all the wrong length now, and I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to cut large sections out of the walls to assemble the thing. It looks more like a pile of dirty laundry rather than a tent. Ah well, I didn’t come here to sleep.

On the salt flats, a Ukrainian guy crashed his 900-volt electric bike at 150 miles per hour. He’s OK but the bike is bent. It’s been a hard day on the salt for motorcycles and not much better for the cars. The course is rough and soft. A Buell rider was 5th from the start line when racing was called for the day. He’d been in line since 7am and the line was a mile long. It takes a lot of patience to go fast.

Southern California Timing Association seals the gas cap to prevent altering the fuel. I guess you could back feed the tank from the fuel line but that would be cheating.

I hear the racers grumbling as I cruise the pits. “No records this year.” “We might as well go home.” “They should call the whole thing off.” Conditions have restricted the racers to one course for experts and one course for rookies. At the start area the blue course lines are close together, and they get wider apart the further down course you go.

The Bonneville speed trials are spread out over 8 miles. There are thousands of 5/8-inch re-bars pounded into the salt, each one leaving a tiny circle of rust as the corrosive ground eats away at anything made from steel. Between the re-bars there are miles of yellow plastic tape denoting the pits and the return lanes but the design seems random. We ride over and under the tape following the magnetic field of the Earth. The tape is just there to give your mind something to work on in the featureless white. The ground is solid where compacted. Out towards the edges and further north the salt gets crunchy and damp. It feels like the water table is a few inches down.

With the vast, featureless expanses of salt it helps to have something to identify your pit area.

Walking the pits is a 6 mile proposition. It’s huge and the light reflecting off the salt burns your skin from underneath. You really need two hats: one on top as normal and one with the center cut out and the brim circling your neck like a Queen Elizabeth collar. Mostly the pit area is near the middle of the 8 miles, and the course is 1/4 mile away to the east. Bring binoculars or all you’ll see of the time trials is a tiny object speeding from your right to your left.

The track radio announcer, who is from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is also in charge of the Porta-Potties. There are 74 of the plastic potties spread around the 8 miles. I told him number 68, out by mile marker 7, was not sitting quite level and could he run over and shim the thing properly. He said no.

Nice clean CB750 running the stock class. Ride ’em, don’t hide ’em!

Then he told me that he wants to set a record with a ZZR Kawasaki but has run out of money. He offered the bike for free to anyone who would finish it and let him ride it at Bonneville. There were no takers at the hamburger tent. The announcing business was slow, with 75% of the track closed and runs 15 minutes apart, but he made a good job of keeping it interesting.

I met a chick with a turbo CB125 Honda. She was in the empty impound area where the record setters await a second pass to make it official. She said the track was rutted and bumpy but she managed 57 miles per hour. Somehow that was a record. Soft salt sucks power. It’s like racing through sand.

The rough salt did not bode well for the speed trials this year. After spending all day on the salt yesterday and seeing how the racing situation unfolded, Mike and I were in no hurry to get out to Bonneville again and in fact it was almost 11am before we paid the SCTA man another $20 entrance fee.

Aluminum front wheel on a motorcycle liner. This rig was running an inline 4-cylinder but I couldn’t tell what brand with all the plumbing blocking the view. Can you imagine steering this through wet salt?

The ticket man told us to avoid the start area as it was getting churned up and the competitor’s vehicles were getting stuck. That was kind of a pain because the start area was where we wanted to go. One thing I’ve learned in my short life is that there’s no sense in railing against nature or trackside officials.

My hamburger-stand-at-noon meter told me there were fewer spectators and contestants than yesterday. Bonneville isn’t spectator friendly to start with as the courses are far in the distance. You pay to be surrounded by the ambiance: great things are happening just over the horizon. The pits are very open, you can go bug the races all you like. They really seem to appreciate helpful suggestions for grabbing that final 1/10 of a mile per hour from guys that have never seen the dark side of 150.

Beautiful workmanship on this 140 mile per hour, double Scout Indian. This guy is from Santa Fe, just up the road from me.

My motorcycle brothers were being obtuse on the track. They consistently failed to clear off the course after their run much to the dismay of the hundreds of waiting competitors. It was like they didn’t realize 100 other guys were waiting to run as they stopped dead on the course. Even without the motorcycle guys gumming up the works, wait times between runs stretched to 20 minutes. Multiply that by 100 or more competitors and you start to get at the immensity of the problem caused by shutting down the 3 unusable courses.

After one really lengthy pause in the action, Mike and I decided that racing must be over for the day. We headed back to camp feeling ill-used for our $20 entrance fee, but it all goes to a good cause: the pursuit of speed.

One of the four bolts holding the luggage rack to the Husqvarna had fallen out somewhere on the trip to Bonneville. So I figured now was a good time to fix it. I removed the opposite side bolt for a sample and took the thing to Ace Hardware where they had no metric bolts. CarQuest had two of the small 4mm bolts.

As soon as I located the correct bolts I knew I was in trouble. The Husky uses those captivated-nut type of deals where a threaded nut is crimped into the aluminum frame tube. It gives you something sturdy and steel to screw into.

When the sample bolt was removed, the captivated nut became a free-range nut, and it wandered off into the frame tube. Of course I had no idea any of this was happening. I kept trying to screw the sample bolt back onto the Husqvarna. The thing would not start. As I became more confused, I became more irrational. It was hot, Mike was making suggestions and I was not wanting to hear them: “I just took the @#*@ bolt out of the @#*&@ rack minutes ago! Why won’t it start?” Semi-blind from sweat I removed everything off the back of the bike, and it became clear that the bolt was never going to thread into the hole because there was nothing to thread into.

It seems like everything is blown or turbo. Here’s a Triumph 250 (I think). You can see the turbo up front with the long pipe running to the intake port.

Back to Ace hardware for a $35 drill motor, a $14 drill bit set, and assorted 1/4″-20 bolts and nuts. That bastard rack was going to be secured by any means necessary. I drilled all the way through the frame tube and into the plastic inner fender. Now, the longer bolt was slotted through into a locknut on the other side.

It took 3 separate trips to the auto store and hardware store to gather all this junk. I gave Mike the new drill motor, hoping the shiny bauble would make him forget the ugliness that he had seen earlier. I spent the remains of the day sitting by the KOA swimming pool and drinking Gin & Tonics.

It seems like tents get larger the more time they spend exposed to sunlight. But the thing is, man, camps were made to be broken. As much as I liked the hot sun, KOA’s dusty gravel lot and the 500-yard walk to the facilities, we had to go.

We spent two days on the salt, and I feel like we got a really good idea of the speed trials at Bonneville. The Southern California Timing Association had their hands full. They didn’t need me prowling around, stirring up the troops. The salt was in no mood to be trifled with this year, and so, we left it to bake and heave, a different salt from that of a few hours ago and different again in a few hours more.

The view from the start line. Just follow the blue stripe as fast as you can.more
Just your average blown, mid-’60s pushrod Honda. Running at 100cc displacement.more
A reverse-head Triumph running what looks like mechanical fuel injection. I bet those velocity stacks suck in the salt.more
The perfect bike for cruising the salt: no fenders and end of the world styling. more
Beautiful workmanship on this 140 mile per hour, double Scout Indian. This guy is from Santa Fe, just up the road from me. more
A Husqvarna SMR 510 is not the best choice for a 2400-mile trip to Bonneville. Ask me how I know.more
With the vast, featureless expanses of salt it helps to have something to identify your pit area.more
Yet another reverse head Triumph. This one is pre-unit I believe and running Amal remote-float carburators. more
Aluminum front wheel on a motorcycle liner. This rig was running an inline 4-cylinder but I couldn’t tell what brand with all the plumbing blocking the view. Can you imagine steering this through wet salt?more
Salt Zambonis: used to level the lakebed. more
Nice clean CB750 running the stock class. Ride ’em, don’t hide ’em!more
Southern California Timing Association seals the gas cap to prevent altering the fuel. I guess you could back feed the tank from the fuel line but that would be cheating. more
It seems like everything is blown or turbo. Here’s a Triumph 250 (I think). You can see the turbo up front with the long pipe running to the intake port.more
Blower is a smog pump from a car. I’m not sure about this whole set up, how much volume does a smog pump produce? The guys were having a fuel starvation issue. more