Thursday, September 01, 2011

SONG OF THE SALT


In the last Ice Age, Lake Bonneville was a 20,000 square miles large and a thousand feet deep; abused by climate changes and the bursting of natural dams over the past 30,000 years, only a few actual lakes remain, remnants of this once-mighty inland sea. Ringed by high mountains and fished by locals ten thousand years ago, caves a hundred feet up the mountainsides, the former shoreline, are still being discovered with old fishhooks, woven sandals, and bones. Distill a lake that large into the atmosphere, and liquid memory becomes a thin, hard layer of salt, dead flat, but not smooth. The Bonneville Salt Flats are enormous, and entered from a 10-mile strip of asphalt called the ‘boat ramp’ - the lake’s memory hovering overhead.

Bonneville is still a lake at times, as every winter the 4000’ altitude brings rain enough to fill the shallow basin with a few inches, refreshing the surface as a season-long tide smoothing the surface. The alluvial deposits ringing the lake grow a salt-resistant scrub as they descend to the flat, dotting the now-dry waterline with tufts of soft green for a mile as packed silt gives way to a dusting of white, then a thin and soft crust, and finally, a mile and a half from the edge, an inch-thick, hard layer of million-year old salt.

But the salt is disappearing, the hard center pan shrinking every year, as the winter lake is pumped away to extract valuable minerals. The mining companies are obligated to return the salty water and refill the basin, but this costs money, and their years of skimping leave less and less salt, and a grassroots movement to ‘Save the Salt’.

The center of the salt flats is no place for a human, utterly forbidding, with no water, no plants, no bugs, visually disorienting, and plenty hot. The nearby mountains are no guide to scale or distance, their bases floating on mirages, the dry clarity of the air bringing them close, but an exploratory hike in any direction will see you plodding for hours, overheated and dehydrated. For all its inhospitality, the salt remains a place of extreme beauty, a photographer’s paradise, a massive white canvas stretched horizon to horizon, making art of anything placed upon it. Every hour of the day, every mood of cloud, sun, or evaporating rain is simply stunning, the most so with a bright blue sky touching the white under your feet in every direction.

It is also the worst possible place for mobile machinery. Corrosive salt cakes every crevice and cranny, refusing to leave, eating away at anything metal. Washing your machine, your car or motorcycle, is a good idea, and a joke. If you don’t strip your motorcycle down to the nuts, crankshaft, and spokes, you won’t have a motorcycle in a few months; certainly not a safe or rideable one. The salt will eat your chain first, then your steering head bearings and spoke nipples, and eventually start on your frame, because when you washed your machine, liquid salt went inside too. Rental car companies will charge $1000 if they find salt caked under your car, as you’ve effectively destroyed it (although they’ll just sell it to someone else).

The salt is also terrible place to go fast. Yes it is generally packed firm, on a good year, although on a bad year even the scraped-smooth racing lines will have soft spots hungry for your speed. Packed salt gives poor traction, being greasy and slick, with loose bits scattered over the top, and applying power is a delicate business. Plenty of powerful machines simply cannot put all their horsepower through the wheels, and calculating wheelspin into rpm/speed readings is a fine art. Typically estimated at 10% of your wheel rotation, what this means is you’re doing a white burnout all the way down the line. A too-rapid course correction, say after a gust of wind, could well have you spinning off course, or far worse. Braking is a bad idea too, for the same reason; what you are riding on is best thought of as salted ice. Flat yes, fairly smooth (but pretty bumpy in the pilot’s seat), slippery and treacherous for the very people who cannot keep away; acolytes of the cult of Speed.

They come from all over the world. Denmark, Australia, Germany, England, Japan, Canada. It is the most truly international of all race meetings, all comers in a salty embrace. The racers are sometimes rivals, but to a man (and woman), their only true foe is Time, and against clocks they battle, any hundredth of a second shaved from a measured mile a victory. Time is not the enemy though - the salt is. Time will kill us all in the end, but the salt might get there first, or simply bedevil your years-long preparations with niggling little problems, or catastrophic ones. The beginning of a Speed Week at Bonneville creates a mechanical village in the center of nowhere, a 6 mile drive into white blankness, a huddle of trailers, canopies, big rigs and motorhomes huddled close in the vastness. By the third day, holes in the gypsy camp appear as dejected racers and destroyed machines skulk home, to try again next year, or not.

Every vehicle has a crew attached, sometimes just a patient wife providing water and company to a sweaty middle-aged man out for a little low-cost fun on a vintage Suzuki two-stroke. Sometimes the sheltering canopies host spreading mobs of interested semi-participants and hangers on, out to see what their favorite will do, eager to lend support and good cheer, even when magnetos go south or mysterious misfires have riders cursing the gremlins tormenting their labor, and their patience.

Some crews seem to hoard luck, making easy runs at eyebrow-arching speeds, with ratty looking contraptions or immaculate objects of beauty; there is no predicting who will do well by appearance, neither of machine, man, or crew. Every camp has a ‘vibe’ and a look about it; some clean and simple and Scandinavian, some scruffy and full of apparently unrelated metal objects in a good-humored jumble, some professional and cold. Again, no predictor. Some of the most impressive machinery, mighty and awesome in its supercharged, nitro-injected, double-engine streamlinitude, are utterly impotent, posting times bested by 40 year old mid-capacity road bikes. Gremlins; sometimes permanent ones. These sites you avoid, knowing the money and time invested, thinking ‘but for grace, there go I…”

For all its difficulty, for all its harshness, Bonneville remains as romantic as a doe-eyed candlelit dinner with your true love, it is the ultimate temple of going fast for its own sake. There is no reward but a cheap slip of paper with numbers, but something about the history and energy of the place makes you want to Go, man, Go; get on your machine, and nail the fucker.

Even in the rental car you’ll have to spend two hours cleaning afterwards…
The awesome Brough Superior SS100, back on the salt after 62 years.  More on this in the next post...
The Danish Viking Vincent team; a genuine, stock Black Lightning, which was hitting around 149mph...
The only BSA A10 on the salt this year...
...lightly modified for full-speed, 6 miles at a time.
No comment necessary...
3000cc v-twin monster...
'Big Sid' Biberman, here with his own Vincent team
Lots of Honda CB 175, 350, and 450s; cheap speed!
The lads try out an MV Agusta 175, which was later sold by Revival Motors; will it appear on the salt next year?
A Confederate monsterpiece...
Steel bodywork; as traction is a major issue, adding weight is a good idea.  Still, this was the only heavyweight bodywork I saw...
Veteran racer Dan Beher in his ca.1973 leathers...
The Goldammer equipe...
More 'CB' Hondas...
Lots of Indians in various capacities; Scouts, Chiefs, doubled-up Chiefs...
This Scout had gremlins, and when they were sorted, everyone cheered...
Catching up on the knitting at 95 degrees...
The Viking Lightning...
...being ridden under real lightning, in an afternoon storm.  Thor was pleased with the Vincent's thunder, as was the crowd; it sounded delicious, hearty, and fast.
Riding the little MV to the edge...much farther than it appears!
Matthew Biberman with Lola and Tina; a couple of fast girls...
Double-trouble Norton streamliner
A pre-run staging tent, miles from anywhere; the Long International course, with FIM certification, for World Records
Pushing a Kawasaki Enduro to the Rider's Meeting
Even brand-new Royal Enfields aren't immune from the Song of the Salt
Red Shirts are volunteer workers who make it all happen...
Glory from the Colonies...
Best Team Transport; Rolls Royce Wraith towing a Triumph Trident streamliner (which was pushing 190mph)
Fabulous contraption; Honda 'step-thru' based
Sam watching racers from the air-conditioned comfort of the motorhome
One mean Indian Scout
Making a Suzuki X-6 Street Scrambler safe for salt...
A flat-track style Triumph Bonneville, how apropos.  While it looked vintage, it was built 'about two weeks ago'...
Lots of V-twins of various builds and capacities; HD, SandS, even modern Indian
Scout not fast enough?  Add an engine!
Double trouble Norton Commandos
Hailing from Australia: the World's Fastest Velocette...
...which may well be the World's Fastest Pushrod-engined Single, pushing 150mph, hoping for 160, aiming for 170 next year with a supercharger, at which point it will be the World's Fastest Single...
The Viking Vincent, looking good all day long
Where's Murph?

20 comments:

David Blasco said...

Lovely! Thanks for the Royal Enfield picture.

Grandpa Jimbo said...

Nice coverage Paul. Thanks.

Jim A., Tucson, AZ hotterherethanthere!

Andrew Macpherson said...

Absolutely wonderful pix and story, really felt like I was there. Hope you're heading to Burning Man next, thats the best party in America, and its just around the corner.

Vance said...

Thanks for taking us there through your dang near poetic commentary and rich photos, how would you describe the sounds? With little to absorb or deflect, and the speed and distance traveled by the racers, Bonneville must be a unique and delicious sound track?

conartist said...

One of your best yet ...

George H-Cologne said...

Paul, that's an excellent report giving a fantastic impression of the atmosphere on site.
I can't wait for the next issue to learn more about the success of the Brough Superior crew.

Riclieb said...

Great pics and great story.
You know Paul, you should charge money for stuff this good ;)
Your fourth photo, the orange colored Rotax engine flat tracker #110, "BBRP" on the cyl head.
That's Brian Billings Race Products, right here in Bellingham, WA!
~Ric

ElSolitarioMC said...

Being told to keep quiet... greatest post ever Paul.

vincent said...

Got salt Paul?....

GuitarSlinger said...

Toss in " Song of the Sausage Creature " with " Song of the Salt " and you've got the perfect medley .

Two thumbs up on the Big Sid photo ( say hey to Matthew for me : he know both my moniker and real name )

Great series of photos . Hows about a few of Max Lambky's " Black Lightning " Streamliner Sidecar . That is truly a thing of beauty , not to mention the perfect marriage between the Old and the New .

hedrives said...

Paul, your images and copy really get close to some of the myriad feelings one gets from the Flats. After running a vintage BMW 2002 for 3 years, my racing buddy and I are prepping bikes to take back next year. Bonneville is teasing, brutal, honest and totally addicting at various times. It should be on every gearheads bucket list to attend, especially if you enter.

Greg Ess said...

thanx paul!

highlight for me was the caption which talked about the viking vincent black lightning doing consistant 149s.

that's where rollie free 'got stuck' back when that bike was new, and as everybody knows, the laws of physics are immutable!

only way to go faster is to do what rollie did ;-).

Anonymous said...

Paul,

I am sure you do not remember me, but we have spoken in the past. I had asked for guidance in regards to a pre war British bike and you were very gracious in your reply. Anyway, so your most recent article in Cycle World was nothing less than spectacular (Oct '11) issue. Thanks for all that you do in regards to golden age of motorcyling.

LB

Lars Nielsen said...

Wonderful pics !!!
Thanks !

Cheers from Lars.
I'm the guy running the little supercharged Indian on the pics.

klooz said...

Beware of any Rolls Royce Wraith on Ebay...It may have latent corrosion issues.

FOE said...

That was great fun on the salt. Nice pic of my wife knitting. We had a great time with Lars. Thanks for sharing the photos.

Troop said...

THROWBACKS had a great time out on the salt as volunteers in red shirts out at Pre-stage this year. We'll definitely have a team for 2012. Thanks for the killer coverage. Wish we could have met on the salt, I think I saw you riding the viking vincent during our wind hold Wednesday afternoon, white leathers at speed!

Keep the faith!

Caterpillarnut said...

Do you happen to have any photos of Fritz Kott's supercharged KHR Harley or supercharged Triumph from years past? The whole family usually showed up in a 73 Ford camper with way too much salt exposure. They also did security detail at the flats for years. He started racing at Bonneville in 1966 with a Hertz GT350H mustang. One of the most interesting people I think I will ever have the pleasure of knowing.

phillhunt said...

Great write up Paul. Thanks
Phill

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