Vintage Grand Prix: The Bonneville Vintage GP Debuts

Vintage grand prix racing got off to an exciting start at Bonneville in northwestern Utah.

vintage grand prix - Laf Young with inside position on two other racers

Laf Young (no.73) running his spectacular 1968, 414cc Benelli Four at Miller.

Photo by Richard Backus

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“Bonneville.” It’s without a doubt the most iconic name in motorcycling, conjuring images of men of steel riding untamed and outrageously fast motorcycles. And for three days last September, it lived up to its image.

For over 100 years, the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah have been drawing racers and speed demons, eager to push the limits of both man and machine in a bid to score big in the history books as the fastest of the fast. Motorcycles, cars, tractors, hell, even lawn mowers taste the fine salt of the Bonneville Speedway as they roar down one of the course’s regulation strips in search of ultimate speed.

Sept. 15-17, 2006, signaled the first of what’s sure to be an annual event in vintage grand prix racing, the 2006 Bonneville Vintage GP. Held at the brand new Miller Motorsports Park outside of Tooele, Utah, a quick 15-minute drive west of Salt Lake City, it signaled the first new venue for AHRMA’s (American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association) classic motorcycle racing series since the Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama opened its track a few years ago. 

Like New Mexico’s Sandia Classic, the Bonneville GP is trying to fill the void left when vintage racing was pushed out of Steamboat Springs, Colo., in 1998, a victim of progress and encroaching condos. Vintage race organizers had one successful year, 1999, in Park City, Utah, but a small – and wealthy – group of Park City residents forced the local city commission to abandon the event, even after 18,000 people showed up.

It was the failure of the Park City venue that prompted Craig Murray to organize the Sandia Classic starting in 2003, and it also prompted Utah resident Tom Kullen to organize the Bonneville Vintage GP.

Kullen, who moved to Utah in the 1970s to be a ski bum, started racing not long after. He attended all of the races at Steamboat, and was one of the major forces in organizing the Park City race. After Park City, Kullen continued looking for a site in Utah, at one point approaching Tooele city officials with a proposal to build a club-type track outside of town. But then came 9/11, which Kullen says killed the investor pool.

Kullen had approached track designer Alan Wilson about building the club track, and then he heard that Larry Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz professional basketball team and a slew of car dealerships, was thinking about building a track. Miller, it turned out, had pegged Wilson to design the track.

“I had heard Miller was thinking about a track, so I contacted AHRMA. They were interested, and as soon as I found out it (the Miller track) was actually happening I contacted Miller and said, ‘hey, we’d like to be one of the first events.’ We actually had the first contract,” Kullen says. And while Kullen didn’t end up with the first full event at Miller (a car race in May), he did get on the schedule.

Miller Time

The Miller venue is amazing, and not just for the track, which features a 4.5mi road course that can be split into two, 2.2mi courses, one more technical and suited for the slower speeds of vintage bikes, and one faster for modern race bike and cars.

What’s really amazing is how quickly this $83-million, world-class facility went from table to track, with the complete course, grandstands, clubhouse and race facilities completed in less than a year, rising up from what had been bare desert scrub. The park’s location, with the Wasatch and Uinta National Forests filling the background and the Great Salt Lake just to the north, is spectacular.

Track designer Wilson, who also designed the track at Barber, calls Miller “Barber on steroids,” and according to Miller, 80 percent of the design of the track was specifically for motorcycle racing. Unlike Barber, which has a lot of elevation changes, Miller is relatively flat. But its challenging esses and corners had riders universally praising it. Larry Corbin, who raced his 1982 Suzuki GS650E in Formula Vintage, loved it, saying, “I love Mid-Ohio, but as a total picture, this is probably my favorite.”

A big hit at the show was the gaggle of Team Flying Circus Honda CB160 riders who came in from Oregon, participating in the hugely popular Battle of the CB160s LeMans Start on Saturday and Sunday, where riders had to run across the track and bump start their bikes for the race. Team member Charlie Johnson not only took the checkered flag for Saturday’s LeMans start but came in second in the 200GP on Sunday.

It helps that the famed Bonneville Speedway is just a few hours east. Kullen seized on this early, and worked with the Utah Salt Flats Association to set up a special day for AHRMA racers at the flats, letting them come on Thursday for a day on the salt. “That gave our event even more sex appeal, because on top of coming out and racing on one of the newest and best tracks in the U.S., they could go out and run on the salt flats,” Kullen says. A single fee let riders run the 3mi course as often as they wanted, and run it they did, with dozens of AHRMA riders lining up for a shot at the salt.

Typical among those was Tony Starros from Echo Park, Calif., who was riding his 1973 Honda CB350 just so he could say he did. His goal? “Not to fall, to make it to the end,” which he did at the not-so-blistering speed of 85.11765mph. Then again, that’s not bad for an essentially stock CB350, and the same bike he’d later take to first place on both Saturday and Sunday in Production Lightweight.

Behind the Grandstands

Besides racing there were various events during the weekend, including the christening of a Rider Hall of Fame in the track clubhouse, autograph sessions with former AMA Grand National winner Gary Nixon, a vendor area, an extreme trials stunt show, the Wurth Custom Bike Show, and Motorcycle Classics’ first Concours d’Elegance Vintage Motorcycle Show.

Forty classic bikes lined up for the Motorcycle Classics show, including a spectacular Brough Superior, an immaculate 1953 Triumph Speed Twin and a beautiful Norton 850 Commando John Player Special, among others. Ken Wheadan walked away with our Editor’s Choice award for his lovely 1967 BMW R50/2, a bike he rode to the show and with almost 64,000 miles on the clock. And Tim Keane won the People’s Choice award for his stunning Kenny Dreer-restored 1980 Ducati 900SS.

Rain on Friday and Saturday morning put a hamper on attendance, but even so, roughly 3,000 enthusiasts were on hand to take in the weekend of racing. “We got sucker-punched with the weather,” Kullen says, “and even though it was sunny and dry on the track by Saturday afternoon, it was raining or snowing in the surrounding area.”

Kullen hopes to get more vendors and build a swap element for 2007, and he’d like to see vintage motocross in the future. With more than 300 racers on hand it’s clear the racing community supports the new venue, and with a little more publicity and some more help from Miller (“I’d like to see a bigger commitment from Miller on marketing,” Kullen says), the Bonneville Vintage GP is set to join Sandia as a premier Rocky Mountain event. See you there Sept. 7-9, 2007, for the second of many to events to come. MC

Further Information

Bonneville Vintage GP 

AHRMA

Miller Motorsports Park