Riding on the Salt is different than anything I’ve ever done before—and pretty darn exciting.
The conditions on the Bonneville Salt Flats were “…the best they’ve been in 10 years,” according to the veterans who’ve been racing out there for years. “Hard and flat … but thin.” Back in the 70s the salt was about six inches thick. Now, because of mining nearby that leaches the minerals out of the groundwater, the salt is only about 3/4” to one inch thick. It would be sad to see what has become a national treasure vanish for the mining interests of a few. If you’re interested, you can support the Save the Salt effort, by visiting their website and contacting your representatives (regardless of where you live in the U.S.)
There were a handful of racers who, in the riders meeting on Friday, identified they had been racing on the Salt for 50 years or more. The Utah Salt Flats Racing Association (USFRA) puts on a great event with drivers and riders from all over the country—with even some international participants.
I had heard the rumors about the people who race on the Salt Flats. They are all true. These are the most generous-spirited people I think I have ever associated with. Whether advice, parts, or elbow grease, these folks are willing to help you achieve your goals on the course. To be honest, I admit to thinking it was a lot of hyperbole, but it isn’t. I experienced it first hand.
I was pretty much prepared for inspection when I went through my scrutineering, but there were a couple things I still needed to do. Although I had metal valve stems on my tires, I didn’t have metal valve stem caps, for example. Without them, I wasn’t going to pass inspection.
I started searching among the trailers and pits of other racers. The first place I went was a big semi with what wound up being a shop attached. I sheepishly approached and said something like, “I neglected to bring a couple of metal valve caps—you wouldn’t happen to have a pair I could buy from you, would you?”
“Let me see,” he said as he entered the trailer, dug around in a drawer and handed me a pair.
When I reached for my wallet, he waved me off. “Those are yours,” he said.
That was the nature of what I experienced at Bonneville.
What’s more, the guy inspecting my bike was looking for reasons to say yes, rather than reasons to say no. While he was going through my bike, another racer (who also happened to be an inspector) got off the course and noticed my bike. I had done some safety wiring, etc., that I didn’t need to do. He noticed and made a couple of additional suggestions—rider to rider. Then he pointed at his trailer and said, “If you need anything at all, even if it’s just something to make you more comfortable, that’s my trailer. Stop by and if I have it, it’s yours.”
I didn’t know any of these people. It was the first time we’d met. Yet, their generous spirit made my first time on the Salt Flats something I’ll not soon forget.
The bonneville Salt flats is friendly
I don’t know if it’s the hostility of the landscape, but no sooner did I have my trailer parked, my tarp down (you put a tarp on the ground so you don’t leak oil or other fluids on the salt), and my canopy up, before I had a steady stream of people stop by to chat, offer their help, and leave an encouraging word. They were friends I’d never met, but they became friends who were genuinely interested in how the day’s racing went and what my plans were for the next day.
As a result, I found myself being more friendly. I offered some water or Gatorade to a driver or rider that looked thirsty, I showed an interest in what they were doing, I admired their car or their motorcycle and asked about their objectives on the Salt this year.
One of the volunteers told me, “We’re a family out here.”
It felt that way. Although I had never been there before, I have to admit, I was treated like I was part of the family.
riding on the Bonneville salt flats
I didn’t know what to expect. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like greasy asphalt. I never felt like the surface was really sketchy, but it always felt like it was on the verge of sketchy… if you know what I mean. I admit to being a little hesitant to just romp on it off the line and instead opted for a smooth (if somewhat slower) departure from the start line.
As a result that mile comes up on you pretty fast. I certainly didn’t set the world on fire racing down the course, but I learned a lot about my bike, riding on the salt, and myself as pilot (which was the goal of this year’s campaign on the salt). I also must shamefacedly admit, that it was the rider, not the machine, that limited how fast I was able to go this year.
Day #1: Rider’s Meeting and Rookie Orientation
Within a few minutes of arriving on Friday (I’ll try to arrive on Thursday next year), I was in the driver/rider’s meeting to kick off the event. Following that there was a rookie orientation where we rode the course to make sure we knew where we were going when it was our turn to go.
I was running the standing mile course this year and since I had never been before, it was important to get a feel for the course, where the mile marker was, and where the exit from the course was. I appreciated the rookie orientation before heading back to the pits and tackling a couple of jobs I hadn’t finished before leaving home.
After the orientation, there were a couple of things I knew I would need to get done to pass inspection, I needed to go through inspection, and then I could get ready for my first run on the course.
You spend a lot of time waiting for your turn at the course. My first run on the salt we were shooting for a calibration time of around 100 mph—my first run was 96.46987 mph. Without a speedo and running by the tach, I felt like we got pretty close. To be honest, it’s really difficult to gauge speed based upon your surroundings. There’s nothing like trees or anything whipping by (with the exception of the markers every quarter mile), so you’re only indication of speed is your speedometer or tachometer.
With everything else that happened on that first day, we only got one run in.
day #2: You gotta be patient to Go fast
Day #2 was a tough day for all but those who were on the course at 7:30 am when it opened. We were not. We arrived about an hour later and after waiting for several hours for our turn, they called the day due to wind and we didn’t get to run.
So we went back to the pits to put everything up for the day. We left the trailer on site every night, but put away the tools, put the bike in the trailer, and otherwise gathered things up so the wind didn’t scatter everything.
We went back to the hotel that night hoping for better weather in the morning.
Day #3: 9 Hours on the Salt and 3 Runs
We spent another long day waiting for our turn on the salt. Sunday would have been a quieter day, but with the wind cancelling the racing on Saturday afternoon, Sunday was jammed packed on the short course.
Your pretty exposed to the sun and it doesn’t take long for full leathers to get pretty hot. Fortunately, you didn’t have to be completely ready to race until you were three spots away from the start. Surprisingly, I was OK with the wait. Although I would have preferred a quicker turnaround, I felt like the starters and the organizers were doing the best they could to get people through.
It helped that Steve backed up his car with a cooler and some comfortable folding chairs to make the wait in between runs more bearable. I’ve got the leathers unzipped and my buff pulled up around my face to escape from the sun as best as I could. With the reflection off the salt, I think the inside of my nose even saw a little bit of sunburn.
I had mixed results on Day #3. I saw improvement—until I didn’t.
Run #2: 102.69476 mph
Run #3: 108.86623 mph
Run #4: 102.74693 mph
I missed a shift on the fourth run, which hurt me. That mile is over before you know it and there’s basically no room for error. I was also trying to gradually push the engine to higher RPM and was working between 6000 rpm and 6500 rpm not wanting to blow up the engine.
This was the first racing event I had ever participated in, so I’ll freely admit that the limitation on this go-around was totally the pilot. I also admit to being a little frustrated at what I felt were rather lackluster results when I knew I had taken the Road King to speeds like this before. That is, I was frustrated until I realized that I was starting at a standing start and hit 108 at the mile. In other words, I did the mile in a little over .87 minutes, which isn’t really too bad.
Nevertheless, I was hoping for a little faster on Day #4.
Day #4: Last two runs and a good finsih
Steve and I were up with the dawn patrol and at the starting line by 7:30 on Monday morning. We had two more runs to get in (we had six runs on the short course) and didn’t want to miss one because the lines were too long. Fortunately, many of the other racers had headed home so the lines were shorter.
The conditions were great. The temps were cooler, there were fewer racers, the salt remained flat and hard, and I finished the day with my best two times of the event.
Run #5: 118.90949 mph
Run #6: 119.99420 mph
One of the other racers was also running a Buell and suggested that I could push her beyond 7000 rpm. I gave it a shot on my 5th run; and although she nosed over at about 7200 rpm, we got up over 118—which was more in line with what I was hoping for.
My last run I decided to push to 7000 rpm and see what it would do. I was happy with the result. I felt like it was a successful campaign on the salt.
Lessons learned and preparing for next year
I didn’t set the world on fire by any means, but I learned a lot about how far I could push the bike and what I needed to do to further push myself. It was a good foundation for future years on the Salt Flats.
I was really glad Steve was able to join me. He took care of a lot of the logistics so I could focus on the bike and what I needed to do on the course, it would have been a lot harder if I had tried to tackle it alone, so the first lesson I learned was: It takes a crew to run on the Salt Flats.
I also learned that in addition to the work I will do on the motorcycle over the next 12 months (I’ve already got a few parts on their way to get started), there are some things I need to do to better prepare. I’ll start working on that too.
I would be remiss if I didn’t thank those who helped me both get ready and campaign on the salt. As mentioned, Steve’s contribution can’t be overstated. Not only was it great to spend the time together, there were so many little things he did to help it would be hard to list them all.
My friend Steve Gilchrist helped me tear down the top end, replace the cams and myriad other projects to prepare the bike this year. Thanks Steve.
My friends Kelly Corsi and Jim Meadows dropped whatever they were doing many times to help me solve a problem I was struggling with. The value of someone to bounce ideas off and get a second opinion can’t be overstated.
No longer a rookie, I’m anxious to get back on the salt to see what this little gal can do.