A rookie crew member at the Bonneville Salt Flats gains an inside look at breaking a Speed Week land speed record on a 1972 Norton Commando.
Guy: “This Norton has a speed record of 126mph?! In 1974 my Norton did 130 with my girlfriend on the back!”
Racer: “That’s cool ... but did you do it at Bonneville?”
It’s hot and the air is thin. And salt isn’t the best surface to go fast on. But if you want to have a land speed record in the books, you have to do it on the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah.
I received an email from the North Texas Norton Owners Association. NTNOA member Randy Johnson was looking for a volunteer to help with his 1972 Norton Commando land speed record effort in Bonneville during the Bonneville Speed Week in August 2013. After thinking about it for two minutes, I was that volunteer.
Randy’s regular crew chief, Steve Adkins of Big D Cycle in Dallas, couldn’t make the run. In 2012, Randy Johnson and Steve set the record in the 750cc Production Pushrod class at 126.434mph. The yellow 1972 Norton Commando also ran an unofficial speed of 129mph. Randy was out to break his own record, with a goal of 130mph.
It would be my first time at the Bonneville Salt Flats, and I was prepared to learn a lot in a short amount of time. I met Randy for the first time when he picked me up on Saturday to begin the 24-hour drive from Dallas to Bonneville. Speed Week begins on Saturday, but Randy prefers to get there on Sunday to avoid the opening day crowds.
The 24-hour drive was a blur of fast food, short naps and motorcycle talk. We pulled into the tech inspection area around 3:30 p.m. on Sunday. I always had the impression that the race course was right off the highway. It’s not. There’s a 5-mile ribbon of asphalt from the highway through a desert area. At the end of the asphalt, the sand ends and the snow-white salt begins. I could see a dim line of dark shapes on the horizon. That was the race area, another 5 miles away across open salt.
It was incredibly bright on the salt, with a brilliant sun overhead and a perfectly white reflector underneath. I had been warned of this and pulled out my heavy-duty sunglasses. I expected the sweet smell of alcohol and race fuel mixed with salt air. But the salt doesn’t really have an odor and everything is so spread out that all I could really smell was my SPF 50 sunblock.
We headed to tech inspection. They began by inspecting Randy’s riding gear, then the chase vehicle for safety items such as the required CB radio and fire extinguisher. The rules of the sanctioning body, the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), are strict, but the officials were casual and friendly. The bike was unloaded and rolled into a shaded inspection bay. Going by a checklist, the inspector went over the bike from front to back. I waited for him to find some overlooked item that would disqualify the bike, but this was Randy’s seventh trip to Bonneville and he had the Norton fully prepared. It was certified in less than 10 minutes, which Randy told me later was relatively quick.
Inspection sticker in hand, we loaded up the bike and drove into the pit area, easily a mile long with several rows. We started to prepare our pit by setting up the required ground tarps. No liquids can be dumped on the salt. We set up the frames for the canopies, but fatigue from the long drive was setting in. We established our spot and headed to our hotel in Wendover for dinner and some rest.
We returned to the pit area Monday morning at 7:30 a.m. We finished setting up and unloaded the Norton. Randy spent the morning carefully going over the bike. His concentration was apparent and I tried to leave him alone so I wouldn’t distract him. It was becoming clear that this was serious business with a lot at stake.
With the bike prepared we drove out to the starting line so Randy could show me what to expect. I got to see how the lines for the staging area were organized and watched a couple of starts. After the race vehicle launches down the course, the return vehicle heads for the return road for the pickup. That would be my job. Randy drove the route I would be taking on the return “road,” a packed salt area that parallels the packed salt area that is the race course. Only foot-tall orange cones separate the two. After Randy drove the return road route he had me drive it.
Driving on the open salt was strange. All I could do was follow the miles of orange cones. Added to that are all the other return vehicles following their own cones at different speeds and directions. Vehicles seemed to come at me from all sides. It was a lot like piloting a boat on a crowded lake.
After rookie crew orientation, we stopped for fuel. Race vehicles running gas must run certified race fuel supplied by ERC Racing Fuels. The Norton’s tank was first confirmed to be completely empty by an official before being filled with 110 octane race gas ($13 a gallon). Another official came along and sealed the gas cap with tape and dobs of nail polish on the edges. His initials on the tape meant we were ready to take our place in line to race.
We drove to the staging area for course two. There were four courses running, but Randy favors course two. At about eight spots back Randy entered the trailer to put on his leather race suit. We pulled the bike out at about four spaces from the starting line. Randy had his game face on and I was going over my duties in my head.
Then it was our turn to approach the starting area. Randy pushed the Norton up to the starting area between the cones, started the bike, and I removed the bike stand. Once the starter gave Randy a wave, he was off. I watched him for a few seconds to make sure his start went well and then I ran to the truck.
In the truck I made sure the CB radio was on the correct monitoring channel. The CB radio was needed in case I had to call the officials for help, or if they needed to tell me I was doing something stupid. Luckily, I never had to use it. At a signal from the start official, I drove out onto the course and soon veered right to get on the return road.
I soon learned that it didn’t really matter where I expected to pick Randy up. I just kept driving beside the cones until I saw a dot in the distance. When the dot got large enough to turn into Randy sitting on a Norton, I turned the truck around and positioned the trailer for loading. Registered race vehicles are not allowed to travel under their own power except on the race course. Bikes went onto trailers and cars were towed or pushed back.
On our way back we stopped at the timing trailer to pick up our slip. Randy was only running a 3-mile length, so the slip gave speeds at 2, 2-1/4 and 3 miles, along with atmospheric conditions. The first run was only 117mph at its fastest. Randy took it in stride and directed me to get back in the staging line. He would make adjustments in the trailer.
Once we were back in line, Randy pulled the spark plugs. After reading the plugs he called Steve Adkins at Big D Cycle in Dallas. I may have been the crew, but Steve was still the crew chief, even if it was by phone. They decided to make a carburetor jet change.
On the next run the bike did 123mph. This was encouraging, but still far from the desired 130mph. We got back in line and did another jet change. The next run produced a speed of 114mph. Randy needed some time to think about his next adjustment because he didn’t feel like it was just a jetting issue. He directed me to drive back to the pits. Except, on the way he wanted to stop and talk to the Oracle.
OK, I was the only one that called him the Oracle. He’s actually Rick Gold, owner of ERC Racing Fuels. Rick has the skill to read spark plugs with uncanny accuracy. He’s highly regarded for his tuning advice with the dynamics of fuel and ignition. He told Randy that the engine’s fuel and timing looked OK, but something else was wrong. The Oracle suggested setting everything back to the way it was for the 129mph run the year before.
If any of Randy’s runs had broken the record it would have been called a qualifying run. For SCTA rules, a vehicle has to run twice to set a new record. After the qualifying run, the bike is put into an impound area where officials test the fuel and go over the bike again to check for compliance to the production class. The next morning at 7 a.m. all the vehicles in the impound area are paraded to the courses to try for their record run. The highest speeds are averaged together for the official speed. If the averaged speed breaks the class record, great. If not, you get in line and start over. Our goal was to get the 1972 Norton impounded. Back at the pit Randy and Steve discussed the results from the Oracle, Rick Gold. Randy and I checked and reset the timing and then Randy disassembled the carbs to make sure they were working properly. By the time it was all back together it was too late for another run.
Tuesday morning found us confident that the tuning would pay off. The Norton was starting with one kick and idling solidly. But the morning run was a disappointing 117mph. Back in line, Randy consulted Steve and made another jet change. There was still no joy, as the bike’s next run only made 113mph. We went back to the pits to go over everything again. Electrical problems were suspected and we spent the day going through the system from battery to plugs. By late afternoon it was determined that one of the screw holes in the crank case that held the Tri-Spark ignition in place was stripped. The screw held the ignition module in place as well as providing an electrical ground, so it had to be tight. The optimism from the morning had evaporated.
There is something about Bonneville that tests men, women and their machines. Every vehicle there has been repeatedly tuned and tested for the better part of a year. The vehicles come to the salt as ready to race as their owners can make them. But still, something will go wrong. I learned to believe in the salt demons.
“Do you have an extra nitrous valve?” “I’m looking for spare parachute cord.” Those are actual requests made to us in the pits. And if we had any of those things we would have shared them. The attitude of the meet is extremely friendly with a shared kinship in the quest for speed. We got help from strangers and we gave help to strangers.
Wednesday morning we were back at the pits and the outlook was beginning to change. It had been decided to insert a Helicoil into the stripped screw hole. Wendover has an auto parts store that has saved many racers, but they didn’t have a 10/32in Helicoil set. The nearest place to find one was in Salt Lake City, an hour and a half away. Four hours later we returned and Randy dove into the Commando.
With the trip to the city, Wednesday was shaping up to be a bust, but Randy got it all back together by 6:45 p.m. The last run was at 7. If we could get one more run before the end of the day we’d have feedback to make adjustments for the morning. A new sense of urgency gripped our pit area. Randy slapped on his race suit. We loaded the bike and traveled the miles to the staging area with as much patience as we could muster.
We pulled up to the starting line, and with three minutes left we yanked out the bike. There was another bike set to go before us, but fortunately the other bike was having starting issues and we were already at the line ready to go. Pragmatically, the official told Randy if the other guy wasn’t ready then he could go. Randy fired it up and took off down the course for what was literally the last run of the day. The Norton still wasn’t getting the top gear acceleration that would set a new record. With all the work performed in the past 48 hours it was difficult to know where to start with adjustments. The electrical problems were fixed, so now it was back to fuel. It was decided that a jet change would be made for the morning run.
Thursday was our last full day for the meet. Friday would only be a half-day session. If we could qualify today, we still had Friday morning for the record run. We got to the staging area as early as we could, but the lines were the longest I had seen all week.
As we waited, I asked Randy what he thought about as they released him from the line to head down the course. He didn’t even have to think about it. “One up, three down, turn to the right.” It was a simple focus on the job at hand. On course two, which way the rider turns off is important. Turning off to the left signals the officials that there is an emergency and a need for help. Turning to the right takes the rider to the return road for pick up. Wrong turns happen every meet, to the chagrin of the errant drivers.
Randy took off on his first run of the day. My trip to the return road had become a comfortable routine. This trip would be different. Less than a mile down the course I saw the dot that was the Norton turn right. The Norton’s rear brake pedal had come off and was being dragged along by the cable.
That’s when I learned that anything that can vibrate off of a Norton, will. The salt demons had backed the nuts off of the rear brake adjustment rod at the rear wheel. Randy told me the Norton had shed a header pipe and float bowls at other meets. The loss of the brake pedal was a bit of bad luck, but considering that Randy survived and the brake parts stayed together, it wasn’t too bad. After a little hammer work to straighten out the pedal and two new nuts, the Norton was back in action.
On the next run I found Randy waiting at the 2-mile mark. Randy can feel how well the bike is performing, and on that run he felt it wasn’t even close. We went back to the pits without bothering to get the timing slip. He had one last chance. If he could qualify Friday morning there would be a special record run held at noon. Randy Johnson and Steve Adkins had one more night to come up with a solution.
The Oracle, Rick, had been consulted again with the confirmation that the engine just wasn’t getting enough fuel. Randy measured flow rates, checked the tank vents and re-inspected the carbs. Finally, Randy and Steve decided to raise the carb needles.
The staging lines were long on the final morning. When Randy got to the starting line the Norton started on the first kick and sounded strong. Would this be the run we were waiting for? Randy started down the course and the engine began sputtering for the first time all week. Randy kept the bike going for the entire 3 miles hoping the engine would smooth out. When I picked him up he had a look on his face that told me it hadn’t.
Back in the pit there was only a half hour left before the end of qualifying runs. If Randy could have thought of a cure for the Norton’s ills, we would have gone back for another run. Instead, we packed up and started our drive back to Dallas.
Randy was disappointed. He knows that the 1972 Norton Commando has 130mph in it. He and Steve would have six weeks to tune the bike before it was back out to the Bonneville Salt Flats for the World Finals.
Reading this, you may be thinking you have a fast bike that might be a contender for a land speed record. After all, going fast in a straight line can’t be too hard. But the records are made on the Bonneville Salt Flats, and that’s where the salt demons live. All are welcome to race, but if you get the notion to try, just keep in mind something else I learned during Speed Week: If it was easy, anyone could do it. MC