If you haven’t done it twice, you haven’t done anything.
That’s the cardinal rule, among others, at Bonneville. It’s how land-speed records work. But it’s also an unofficial rule, writ large, for coming back to Bonneville, year after year. Whatever compelled you to fill a van or trailer and get to Bonneville the first time is the same force that draws you back next year. If you’ve given your all to beat a record once, you have to do it again.
It sounds less than triumphant, but technically, your record is an average of at least two recorded speeds. You qualify, then you return. Tiny numbers mean everything, even when defined by subjective human benchmarks. Andy Pickett’s goal from last year was to hit 50mph on his 1963 Production Pushrod Honda CA110.
As told in the March/April 2020 issue of Motorcycle Classics, Andy Pickett first hit Bonneville salt in August of 2019, in search of a land speed record near the bottom of the Southern California Timing Association register. It was a tribute to a lost friend, Joey Haupt, who hatched the idea.
On paper, the goal was to beat 46.618mph. In spirit, the idea was to get to fifty. Or Fiddy — Joey’s nickname and race number. One mph for every cc and 50mph because that was Joey’s race number. Or just hit 50mph because it’s a great number. Why the hell not?
It took a motorcycle-addicted village to get Andy to Bonneville last time. This time, much of the foundation had already been laid. The bike already existed, spare parts had been hoarded and a blueprint was being followed. The record unbroken, Andy’s mission was clear this year — break the record free and clear, and get to 50mph. This time, sponsors were waiting.
A new helmet from Adam Voigts at LS2 Helmets. Lots of head work and carb-whispering from Madison, Wisconsin-based Patrick Zeigle at Motorcycle Performance. Plus, Andy’s race entry fees were paid for by Hagerty Insurance. Crucially, Andy’s housemate, Andrew Stillman donated a couple rent-free months and coinage. Most of all, several hundred of Milwaukee’s motorcycle cognoscenti passed the hat to keep the beloved 1973 Dodge B200 van filled with gas. But to keep things interesting, some magic waited until the last minute. Natch.
Andy’s forgetting something. They did run into a wildfire outside Salt lake City.. Because of course, 2020.
“I didn’t get the head parts back until a month before we left. Then it wasn’t running right, until about 2 weeks before departure.”
Little tiny obstacles
Contrary to the spirit of adventure, the van didn’t blow up or break down in any entertaining way on the way there or back. But it got an OPEC-pleasing 6-10mpg the whole 2-day trip there. And to be fair, Andy got strep throat and/or a Covid-scare complete with a visit to the ER shortly before taking off. He was still recovering on the long drive to Bonneville. Dry, salty air is probably good for that sort of thing.
For obvious, tiny, microscopic reasons, it wasn’t clear whether any runs would happen this year at Bonneville. A sport defined by solitary risk and anticipated danger was being threatened by unprotected everyday activities by unthinking groups of folks. Though the runs went off without a hitch, turnout was understandably lower than in years past. 750 participants became something closer to 250. This had an upside. Lines on Wednesday runs were virtually non-existent, same for wait times between runs.
This year’s crew was slightly different. Working under the assumption that no one would fly out to join him, Andy prepared everything with girlfriend, Justine Marsh. “Girlfriend” is an incomplete description.
Andy explains. “She was Navigator, Assistant Crew Chief, Umbrella Girl, you name it. She was also in charge of making sure I got to the line on time. And drinking fluids.” Also joining the crew eventually was Jason Fassl and photographers Kevin McIntosh and Ed Subias. Knowing how, where and why things worked made for a less hectic pit, with more effective and focused tuning between runs.
Strangely, the weather cooperated. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Last year, Andy got within 1mph in only 4 runs. This year he managed 15 runs, which made a huge difference. Gearing changes, jetting, everything could be tweaked and revised without having to bet the house everytime. Not coincidentally, Andy started improving other critical times.
“I got it down to less than 15 minutes for a rear-sprocket change and 5 minutes for the front. That included safety-wiring everything.” This is no mean feat. In stock configuration, the CA110 has a fully enclosed chain, for maximum inconvenience.
With more runs, Andy had the freedom to find the golden gear ratio, among other magic numbers. The engine ran great, but 4th gear was elusive. “The engine had enough boom, I just had to figure out the right gearing ratio. I had everything from a 13- to an 18-tooth front sprocket. With a 32-tooth rear, it turned out 2.9 was the golden ratio.”
On the subject of time, Andy’s first run yielded a 47.194 qualifying run which he backed up with a return run of 47.437mph. Qualifying run + return run = an average of 47.315mph.
Some of the most impressive numbers don’t show up anywhere on the stat sheets. “It’s not exact, but I’m pretty sure I hit 12,000rpm. I remember looking down at the tach and just trying to comprehend this little single going that fast.”
Salty tears & windstorms
It wouldn’t be Bonneville without a windstorm. True to form, mid-day gusts kicked up on Tuesday, destroying every single pop-up they’d brought (except for the sturdy one provided by Hagerty) and scattering multiple sets of carb jets across the salt. Expanding her job description, Justine somehow found every single jet hidden amongst the coarse salt.
Bonneville wouldn’t be Bonneville without a little lunacy. A dune buggy doing donuts at 2 a.m. resulted in Andy coming out of van in his underoos to beg for peace and quiet. The next night, on a hill 20 minutes away, peace, quiet and new accommodations were re-established.
The actual record
So what’s the record now? It takes Andy 5 minutes to find the number, he doesn’t know off the top of his head.
Finally, he coughs them up. 46.618mph is the old record. 47.316 is the new record, set by Andy. He remembers that number, on account of “316” being professional wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin’s trademark number.
“Day 1-2, we went 47.194. Then on Sunday we went 47.437 to get 47.315. Sorry, gave you the wrong number. I guess that’s not Steve Austin’s number. Damn.”
Then things got better.
On Tuesday, Andy hit 49.898mph on the qualifying run. Then he hit 50.005mph on the return run. Ergo, Andy hit 49.951mph. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a … record (again), though just shy of the 50 mark he wanted to hit.
“I’m pretty sure we’re going to go back. I have salt fever.”
It’s contagious. Andy happened upon a competitor at the fuel pumps on the same bike. However, fears of another Production-Pushrod Production entrant were unfounded. They were running M-PBG, or Modified-Pushrod Blown Gas. Incredibly, they’d put a supercharger on their 50cc Honda. Despite the mechanical cojones of their engineering feat, they topped out at 47.287mph. Sympathizing with their effort, Andy loaned out a few spark plugs and swapped some tips and tricks with them.
Moving on up
Record in hand, Andy’s thoughts turned to other classes. He decided to bump up to M-PG, meaning Modified-Pushrod Gas.
That class has a record of 57 or so. Andy rebuilt the bike in about 6 hours. They’d been on the salt for 18 hours that day, and were wiped out. But they were there, and the time was now.
On went the Dell’Orto carb. No good. Then it came off in favor of the tried-and-true stock carb. You wouldn’t think there’d be that much to change on such a tiny steed. But the search for precious miles per hour takes time, no matter what.
“We got rid of the seat, cut off the clubmans, put aluminum rims on and cut about 25 pounds off the bike. It was really uncomfortable to ride. I cut off the left foot peg, and just used a passenger peg. I shifted using my hand, a suicide shift of sorts. But we still got it to 53 or so, running full choke!”
Andy’s jockey-build came in handy. He was able to rest his head on the tank, for added aerodynamic effect. He had to demonstrate to officials that the tiny strip of foam on his rear fender was a “seat.” The added mph made for a disconcerting ride. Rollie Free, eat your heart out.
“The front end got weird and we were consistently a few miles per hour off” is Andy’s technical take on it. They put in an earnest day’s effort before calling it quits. To be honest, Andy and Justine were looking forward to their Milwaukee homecoming.
Brewtown did not disappoint. A parade of socially-distanced motorcycles and cars safely serenaded the Keefe Ave. shop for blocks, honking horns and screaming their congratulations to Andy and Justine.
What would Joey say about all this?
I pose the question to Andy, who laughs.
“Joey wouldn’t say anything. But he’d yell, ‘Yeah, buddy, You did it! Let’s do this again next year!’, followed by maniacal laughter and bear-hugs.”
This would probably be followed by a pillion “victory lap” with Andy on the poor CA110.
For Andy, making The Thing happen came at the expense of words. Andy got a bit misty when Papi, the lead impound motorcycle inspector handed him the post-inspection report — and a hearty congrats for setting the record.
“Oh, it was emotional. It was great. He handed me the record, and I started crying and just wishing Joey could’ve been there to see everything.”
The important thing is there’s still The Thing left to do. Andy hit 50.005mph, but the official record is a scosh short. So work remains unfinished. Just like a Qualifying Run needs a Return Run, a single record needs a companion piece next year. Once is never enough.
Thank goodness. MC
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