By Kevin Clemens
It’s an inhospitable place to race motorcycles. Limited traction on the dazzling white salt surface, only a few inches thick, determines how much power tires can apply before slipping. The salt sticks to everything it contacts and corrodes anything made of metal. The merciless sun reflects off the salt and sears the retinas. Even the nearby town of Wendover can charitably be described as rustic. Yet, for a hundred years, racers have been coming here.
During six days at the end of August, the nearly endless Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah serves as home to the Motorcycle Speed Trials – an event exclusively dedicated to some of the most technologically interesting motorcycles on the planet as they hunt for an elusive land speed record. While the more famous Bonneville Speed Weeks event takes place in early August and allows both cars and motorcycles, the Speed Trials is where you go to set U.S. National and FIM World recognized top speed records on motorcycles.
The salt flats are unique. At the end of the last ice age, 14,000 years ago, this was actually Lake Bonneville—more than a thousand feet deep and larger than Lake Michigan. As the planet warmed the water evaporated, leaving behind a briny pool that dries completely each year under the summer sun to become, for a few months, a race-worthy surface for a handful of racing events.
Except 2014 was not a good year for land speed racing at Bonneville. Flooding, caused by rain showers during July, cancelled Speed Weeks. For the Motorcycle Speed Trials at the end of August, the salt had dried enough for a curtailed eight-mile version of the usual 11-mile course. Competitors had to drive across a mile of axle deep water to reach the relatively dry pits.
Mine MN-based team is one of three teams of electric motorcycles that were among more than 400 teams with gasoline and diesel-powered machines that arrived in Bonneville to set records. My bike is a road-racing sidecar motorcycle that was built in the early 1990s in England by sidecar racing legend Tony Baker. It is safe to say that water and electricity don’t mix. Throw in some highly corrosive salt that plays havoc with electrical connections and, at the time, I found it hard to imagine what I was doing here.
My rear-engine Formula One Baker hack was built to run the Isle of Man TT race in the same year that the rules changed to only allow front-engine Formula Two machines. It was subsequently shipped to the U.S., where sidecar great Rick Murray raced it to several U.S. National Championships before it fell into my hands. I’ve converted it to electric drive using a Motenergy AC drive motor and 6-Kilowatt hours of lithium polymer batteries – the kind that more commonly are used to power electric model aircraft.
I’ve been to Bonneville before – once back in the 1980s when I helped engineer a Mazda RX-7 Turbo to over 200 mph, and during the past four years with a variety of electric motorcycles with which my team has set four FIM world and four AMA national land speed records.
Generally, we have tried to keep our machines simple and straightforward, but the new Baker sidecar has pushed us into a whole new level of sophistication. With salty water getting into everything and an incredibly bumpy pit area, electrical connections that were reliable in testing caused us all manner of problems. Just cleaning the salt off the machine and its substructure took my team, armed with small brushes and scrapers, more than an hour. Add in windy conditions and the occasional rain shower that threatened to shut down the entire event and 2014 was not proving to be our finest effort.
The other two teams with electric motorcycles are interesting. John Sullivan is a Professor of Aeronautics at Purdue University. This is the second year he has brought an electric motorcycle to the salt and he is actually chasing one of my FIM world records. His team of former students is small but technically savvy and by the end of the week John had broken my old record, setting a new one at over 110 mph in the 150-kilogram (330-lb.) electric motorcycle class.
The other team is led by Eva Hakansson. Eva’s bike is an unlimited electric streamlined sidecar machine that has already set records at more than 200 mph. She is a PhD graduate student in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Denver and, along with her husband Bill Dube, has developed a very potent electric land speed record machine. Despite the difficult conditions, Eva managed to set the fastest time of the entire meet – the first time an electric has done this – with a record-breaking speed of 240.726 mph. A few weeks later, in a test session on the salt, Eva and Bill dial a bit more power into the electric drive system and made a blistering run at over 270 mph.
As for my team? We had teething problems with the motor drive that kept cutting off in the middle of our record runs and the sidecar was initially skittish and difficult to drive. The wind and weather meant we never had enough runs to sort out the problems. We were chasing an open record, whatever speed we managed would be a record, but we had hoped to go more than twice as fast as the 64.475 mph national record we ended up with. Still, a record is a record and for our machine it was just a starting point. We already have plans for a lighter weight composite body and a twin motor setup to give us more power.
The 2015 Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials will take place at the end of next August. This is triple-distilled motorcycle madness and the sheer variety of bikes, trikes and sidecars of all displacements and configurations boggle the mind. If you like bikes, it should be on your must-do list of legendary events to attend.