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The Unlikely 1: What it Means to Race at Bonneville

Ask any diehard motorcyclist for their short list of places they want to visit and, more importantly, ride, and odds are good the famed Bonneville Salt Flats outside of Wendover, Utah, will be at the top of that list. A visit isn’t that hard to arrange, but a ride on the fabled flats? Not so much. Unless, of course, you’re willing to take the time to make the necessary arrangements — and spend the necessary money — to compete for a Land Speed Record run. Most of us aren’t going to go the second route, but as Gary Ilminen discovered, you don’t have to pilot a 500mph projectile to qualify for a run at Bonneville.

Ilminen, an occasional Motorcycle Classics contributor and Ultimate Motorcycling’s associate online editor, made not just one, but four runs at Bonneville, and on the unlikeliest of motorcycles: a 1984 Honda V30 Magna and a 1974 Honda CB350F 4-cylinder. Those experiences are at the core of The Unlikely 1, Ilminen’s engrossing account of his learning curve preparing a bike — or in this case two bikes — for Bonneville and actually riding on the salt, a not-so-easy challenge for a number of reasons.

For one, there’s the question of what to ride. For Ilminen, the Magna was an easy choice. Why? He already had one, and in the 500cc Production class it could slot into he thought it had performance potential. Ilminen didn’t expect to shatter any records on the Magna, but he came closer than he expected — within 7.5mph in fact, a result he hardly could have predicted.

That first run in 2009 inspired him to return in 2010, this time on the CB350F, a bike he’d bought earlier that year as a rider but which, he came to realize, could slot into an unchallenged category, 350cc Production.

A two-way average speed of 72.63mph secured a record in the 350cc Production class — but for only a day. But convinced the lessons he’d learned so far could produce a winning run, he returned in 2012, this time with the Magna, again gunning for the 500cc Production class. Mother Nature is nothing if not fickle, however, and while he did get in one survey run, heavy rain the night before his planned record run closed the Salt Flats.

Not ready to give up, Ilminen returned in 2014 with the CB350F, this time aiming for a record in the recently added 350cc Classic Production class. Proving that experience is often the best teacher, Ilminen drew on everything he’d learned during his previous attempts on the salt to prep the little Honda for the hoped-for record run. His first timed run came in at 80.209mph, 6.2mph faster than his 2010 run, and his final run produced a two-way average of 80.1015mph. And an official Land Speed Record in the 350cc Classic Production class.

While Ilminen’s experiences racing on the salt are at the center of The Unlikely 1, the book is about much more than just the push to race. It’s also about what it means to be a hard-core enthusiast, and how that enthusiasm pushes us to learn more about the sport we love.

When Ilminen first went to Bonneville, he had little idea he’d return three more times. And he had little idea how much he’d learn; about himself, about his motorcycles, and about the other enthusiasts who make Bonneville what it is.

If you’re on the fence about visiting, much less racing, at Bonneville, read The Unlikely 1. I’m betting it will inspire more than a few future Land Speed Record contenders. TouchPoint Press; 94 pages, 60-plus color photographs, $19.79.

Published on Dec 19, 2017

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