Return To Bonneville

Licensing, legality, cool people and high speeds at the salt flats.

Bonneville Salt Flats

Crowd at the Bonneville Salt Flats

The name “Scott Guthrie” appears frequently in the Bonneville Salt Flats motorcycle record books. So, when Guthrie himself called to inquire if I wanted to ride one of his bikes at Bonneville during Speed Week, my bags were packed before the numbers on my phone went dark.

My eagerness to run a Guthrie bike on the salt stems from two experiences: 1) In 1993, Guthrie spent a half day with me at Daytona International Speedway tweaking the aerodynamics of my Yamaha TZ250, working on my tuck and moving parts around. Later that weekend, I put the bike on the podium in the AMA 250GP race; 2) five years later, I made my first trip to Bonneville and turned in a best pass on a Luftmeister BMW turbo of 198 mph, achingly close to my goal of eclipsing the big Two-Oh-Oh. So, I trust and respect Guthrie, and I have unfinished business at Bonneville.

And I still do. As I write this, though, Guthrie’s turbocharged Suzuki Hayabusa is sitting in the team’s trailer with a blown head gasket. Soon-to-be-salt-legend John Levie was at the controls and doing more than 200 mph when the engine popped—just one day before I was scheduled to take over the reins. Levie and I are hoping to join the Southern California Timing Association’s 200-mph club on the big Suzuki, but we will have to wait at least another month. Meanwhile, Levie is making his eighth of possibly 20 record runs on his own equipment. Between Guthrie and Levie, I’m in good company.

Nick Ienatsch and Scott Guthrie

The author with Bonneville record holder Scott Guthrie

Getting my license. Again.

My previous SCTA license had expired, so I’d loaded up a Yamaha YZF-R1 fitted with Dunlop Q2s from the Yamaha Champions Riding School and drove to Wendover, Utah, to make the required graduated runs. But I soon found from the SCTA tech inspectors that my stock Yamaha was not “safe enough” to run at Bonneville. I said a quick prayer of thanks that I’d survived all those years of racetrack lapping on bikes that were apparently unsafe to run in a straight line.

After the inspectors pointed out all the flaws, I got to work: metal straps to hold down the battery; metal valve stems for the wheels; a metal chain guard; safety wire for the axles and pinch bolts; a dead-man’s switch to kill the ignition and fuel pump if I were to fall off.

Initially, I chafed under the scrutinizers’ criteria. Then, I realized that if I’d just read the rulebook more closely, I would have avoided all of this hassle. With no one but myself to blame, I quit crying and eventually passed tech.

Hey, rookie, where’s your crew?

The SCTA runs an informative rookie-orientation program that every newbie is required to attend with his or her crew. Crew? I didn’t bring a crew! Fortunately, the Van Horn family is a big part of Levie’s racing effort, and Becka Van Horn was drafted as my crew chief and support-vehicle driver. The 19-year-old college sophomore proved to be organized, on time and reliable. Perhaps a future with AMA Pro Racing is in her future.

Every rider needs a crew and support vehicle because the only place you can ride your competition bike is on one of the four courses during a timed run. Yep, you read that correctly: no warmup area. You can't idle forward in line. You can't ride back on the return road after a run. You can't putt to the pits to grab a hot dog.

This “course-only” rule also causes frequent stoppages because “tuning” runs can’t be made anywhere else on the salt. This bites more cars and bikes than you can believe, and I’m willing to bet that one out of six runs that I witnessed ended with the vehicle running less than optimally.

It’s tough to sit in line for more than an hour only to find that your fuel line is pinched or your jetting is off or any other myriad problems that could have been discovered in an accessible practice area. I found it frustrating to wait in line while hearing bikes and cars misfiring and aborting runs ahead of me.

The typical Bonneville vehicle is built to the limits of the class rules and edge of the performance envelope. The good stuff is amazingly well-done and mind-blowingly impressive. Some of the other vehicles? Not so much. You wouldn’t hear this many poor-running bikes in five years of roadracing.

R1 Fix

Repairing the R1

Got an hour? Make three runs!

Like many motorsports events, Bonneville starts hot and heavy with everyone in line first thing Saturday morning. A hard downpour the day before closed one of the three available courses the first day, but by the time I was teched and ready to go on Sunday, all four courses were open. Rookies are required to make their first run under 150 mph on Course Four, and that line was almost an hour long. But after that, I ran for my C and B licenses in short order on Course Two.

The toughest part of my three runs? Holding the throttle halfway open on the first rookie run! Each rookie is closely watched for technique, nervousness, attitude…and speed. If you exceed 150, you’ll run again. Sitting upright on a straight piece of salt with the throttle half-open was just plain weird. I went 136 mph for my rookie run, 163 mph for my C license and then 174.8 mph for my B license.

Why didn’t I go faster? The bike wouldn’t let me. The speedometer indicated 186, the speed to which the bike is limited by the factory, and the tachometer was pegged at redline. I was offered taller gearing, but I wasn’t there to run the R1 for anything more than to become legal for Guthrie’s monster. The R1 delivered, and I instructed on it at the Yamaha Champions Riding School two days later—after spending $4 worth of quarters at the Wendover car wash and serious time back at Miller Motorsports Park detailing the bike.

Great folks, great fun

I like Bonneville people. Some take themselves a bit too seriously when they set a record of 63.453 mph in some obscure class. But the boys and girls who run big speeds are an elite group and have the same mental focus and awareness that roadracers do. These people prep all year for this event, and the equipment is jaw-droppingly cool. The entire event is packed with motorheads, from the rat rods to the pit bikes to the apparel. If you love to hear and see engines pushing their limits, you’ll love the salt.

And if you love searching for traction, prep a bike (study the rule book!) and sign up. The riding is quite easy in the grand scheme of motorcycling, but the secret is finding rear grip, period. The courses are hugely wide and relatively smooth, but with traction control turned off, I was easily spinning the R1’s rear Dunlop in fifth gear. On all my passes, I ran my speeds between the first and second clearly marked mile because the R1 only needed that much distance. I may need five miles on Guthrie’s Hayabusa just to get the thing hooked up!

It’s a five-mile run I can’t wait to make.

Aluminum chain guard

Plastic chain guards aren

Plastic chain guards will not fly at Bonneville. So, a quick trip to a Wendover, Utah, hardware store netted aluminum angle stock that Kurt Neumann whipped into a guard in about 10 minutes. Neumann’s day job is building race cars and piloting a 200-mph Mitsubishi Eclipse. He’s a good man to know. He donated my “crew” and a CB radio for our chase truck. Now, where’s that mandatory fire extinguisher?

Motorcycle leathers

Wearing a legal set of leathers at Bonneville

Legal vs. safe? Perforated leathers are okay for MotoGP but not Bonneville. Don’t argue; it’s in the rulebook. I read the part about “no fabric panels” but missed the part about perforation. Kenny Lyons came to my rescue with a legal set of leathers. Here, I’m holding the fully armored Alpinestars that I would rather have been wearing. I was legal but miserably hot.

Yamaha YZF-R1 repair

Installing a dead-man

“Electrical Genius” will never be associated with my name. Thankfully, Albert Andrade (right) saw that I was confused and stopped me before I attempted to install a mandatory-at-Bonneville dead-man’s switch on my Yamaha YZF-R1. I knew Andrade from back in the day at Willow Springs Raceway, and he and his friend, Greg Arredondo, pushed me out of the way and completed the installation. Unlike my earlier effort, their work passed tech.

Bonneville crew meeting

Talking with my Bonneville racing crew

I arrived at Bonneville with a truck and bike. Not enough. You need a “crew” because your bike must be trailered everywhere, except when it’s actually running on one of the four official courses. Becka Van Horn, at Bonneville with her dad and brother to crew for John Levie, came to my rescue. Do any readers remember when I raced AMA 250GP? Let’s just say Miss Van Horn has my old tuner, Steve Biganski, covered.

Team Guthrie Hayabusa

Team Guthrie Hayabusa

This thing is a monster. Levie’s first two passes on the Team Guthrie Hayabusa were “embarrassing”—only 198 mph. “It went 207 the last time we ran it, and now we’ve got another $10,000 worth of development in it,” said Guthrie. “I hate to pay more to go slower!” The team discovered a problem with the fuel injection, made the fix, then the engine popped a head gasket, ending my hopes of running 200 mph. There’s another meet next month.