salt flat
Lewis Grubb

Salt Flat Rookies Set Speed Record At Bonneville, Part 2

Chris Glaister and Jeff Henise catch “The Salt Bug”

Nick’s Note: The Bonneville Salt Flats offer a pure but complex challenge, and who better to sum up that challenge than my gifted friend Gregg Bonelli? Here, in the second installment of “The Salt Bug,” the verbose Bonelli discusses Bonneville, record setting, vintage challenges, and the success of a rookie team aboard a “highly modified” Yamaha TZ350.

Every racer can tell you that the mental speculation process of countering every contingency can be maddening all by itself. At Bonneville there is the added uncertainty of surface conditions as moisture can turn it all into a lake overnight, while winds of sufficient magnitudes can negate records or make it impossible to go down the course at all.

During my first trip there, many years ago, there was a migrant surfer in the ranks of helpers of someone’s pit, and whenever the course conditions were all within allowable limits it would be opened again for runs. “Surf’s up” he would yell to all who had wandered off to kill time while waiting and were needed back at their stations. Someone asked me why anyone would say that out there, hundreds of miles from the ocean. It didn’t matter why he said it, we all knew what he meant.

Once you have experienced time trials at Bonneville, with all that is involved, you can begin to appreciate what setting a speed record there really means. To hold one, someone managed all that is involved and did it better than everyone else ever had. To have a record stand the test of time over several seasons is a testament to the difficulty of the accomplishment. Add the worries of the usual mechanical sort and you can begin to see what a constructor who races is up against. Now consider that Chris Glaister and Jeff Henise had neither built a land-speed bike nor ridden one and yet they managed to set records in their first effort and you can appreciate what a great accomplishment it truly was.

Jeff Henise
Jeff Henise after his first test run on the “Orange Bird.” Happy to be alive, he initially took the Yamaha TZ350-powered machine up to 141.864 mph.John Patton

It’s a combination of challenges like none other, requiring design imagination, craftsmanship, riding ability, machine performance, and just plain luck. All of this is found together in varying degrees at different racetracks across the country, whether it’s vintage machines or brand-new MotoGP bikes, but it is not seen in as great a variety and in such a high concentration anywhere else. Having gone fastest at the Bonneville Salt Flats will always carry its weight as an accomplishment into the future, like having won your race at the Isle of Man. Sure, they race elsewhere, but it’s not the same.

Take just one aspect of the problem in real terms. You have to have the right overall gearing to have a shot at a record. If your motor makes power in a certain rpm range and you know what it is, and if your rear wheel is a certain circumference and you know what it is, then you can calculate what gearing you need to run to have a chance at making a record-breaking speed.

An unintended consequence of that calculation, working backward through the gears you have to work with, is the launching point where you start the engine, close the cover and stretch into position; you pull the clutch lever in and try to balance it as you work the throttle and clutch to get it moving without killing the engine or spinning the back tire excessively. Not enough gas and the motor dies. Too much clutch too soon and the motor dies. Too much gas and clutch and the wheel spins.

While all this is going on, you have to negotiate the final 90-degree turn that sends you from the line you’ve been in waiting your turn down the salt toward the timing marks. Did I mention that when you lay face down and you want to put one foot on the ground to keep it upright, that your knee bends the wrong way? Get it wrong and give it too much power, spin the back wheel on the salt, lose control, and it can all slip out from under you leaving you unceremoniously on your ass.

Chris Glaister
Chris Glaister waits for his turn to run at the Bonneville Salt Flats for the first time. He managed a 159.277-mph pass.Jaeson Cardiff

It happens. You could quit and say it was a bad idea or just admit that you can’t ride it, or you can get up, straighten out anything you bent, and try again. Chris and Jeff did the latter, having both done the former. Yes, you can fall over at Bonneville and survive it, but you can’t count on it, and it is bad for the bodywork. The details of that bodywork and the chassis construction and all the powerplant images are beautiful and amazing and I want you to see them, but this isn’t a book and I don’t have room here to show you or need to; they are all online if you look for them. I focus here on telling you what’s surprising about it all that you can’t see.

More Ienatsch Tuesday

While Jeff has a Ph.D. and is undoubtedly a highly skilled craftsman who leaves nothing to chance, he also has an odd penchant for superstitions. For instance, even though he has done all he scientifically can to make things right, he has a small effigy that he shakes over the whole machine before each run to ward off holed pistons. While he kept a close eye on the exhaust-gas temperature gauge on each run and did not have a meltdown, he admits he also keeps an eye on the odd trinkets that turn up here or there and find a place in his tool box or on his dashboard. Once established, they are to be kept in situ for the duration lest any disruption in the karma occurs. It sounds odd, but who would know better the limits of science than a person who is very good with it, has been out there dancing around with them, and understands that not everything can be controlled?

Chris Glaister
Glaister on his return run at 167.588 mph, fast enough to set the record for 350-APS-CG class.Lewis Grubb

Chris had his own problems and was starting from the total novice riding point. He is also from London and a greater contrast for surroundings is hard to imagine. From twisting lanes and cobblestones to flat as another planet with no horizon is a big jump in acclimation for just about anything you might do, especially something you’ve not tried before. He is a professional design engineer familiar with CAD software and was brought up to speed on the quirky aspects of motorcycle handling by extensive collaboration with Jeff and others in person and in print. It’s a crash course of a different sort, and the final exam can be a real killer. This added an element of consideration to calculations not usually found, but problem-solving minds go about their business with a degree of oblivion the rest of us can only imagine as we look for a better radio station. At first they considered building a fully streamlined machine but the possibility of something going bad pushed them to the laydown design early in the planning stage due to their mistaken belief that they would be better off if thrown clear than trapped inside.

I understood completely. Watching Dave MacDonald die in the car Mickey Thompson had designed and built as it burned at Indy had turned me off to the idea of seat belts so completely that I started racing motorcycles the year after even though a race car was in the offing. While it might not really make a difference given the speeds involved, there is some mental comfort at least in hoping for the best when the worst happens.

Chris had the job of helping design the electronics, the cooling system, and the major portion of the aerodynamic package. I interviewed him by phone after some initial digital exchanges. He has one of those charming accents that I had to struggle to get past to hear what he’s telling me. He said it was more work than he had expected, then added that he can’t wait to do it again. He went on to say that it was horrifying and dangerous before giving them both kudos for having quickly gotten the hang of it; he crashed more than Jeff but no worries, he reassured me, he thinks he’s got it figured out.

Chris Glaister
Glaister’s return run timing slip for his 350-APS-CG record.Chris Glaister

There was a problem for both of them with losing their frame of reference in the vast landscape after a run which would translate into problems with excessive speed in the braking area. Part of that was their overestimation of the effectiveness of the brake they chose based on calculations of mass and principles of physics. It was something off a golf cart, apparently, which is heavier, but not nearly as fast.

The bottom line is they did it. They designed and built it themselves, all of it, and it worked. They accomplished their goals of setting a new record and of toppling one that had stood for 40 years. Their final top speed of 171.079 mph was achieved after many runs, each with attendant tales of its own, including unheard of exhaust-gas temperatures, crazy steering inputs, rainstorms, beer runs, and the usual entertainments. On the list of needed improvements for next year are a better cooling system, clean-air intake for the motor, and more speed.

In the process of putting this piece together, I’ve noticed that during our conversations it takes no time at all to get Chris and Jeff mentally back out there on the salt where a noticeable change in their narrative takes over. Their well-educated professional selves disappear, and eager speed demons focused on the next run materialize in nothing flat. The bug bites and they taste the salt again as it all comes back to them. Do they remember? Ha! Can they ever forget? The AMA record book holds the answer: Chris Glaister 350–APS–CG–163.292 mph; Jeff Henise 350–APS–AG–170.519 mph.

Boiled down to its extreme, we like the same thing about racing motorcycles: It forces you to make decisions in real time that yield something timeless. The vintage aspect of it just adds challenge. Can you do something no one else has done with something from the past? Can you build what you need, modify things in a new way, learn, ride it, and be right in every decision and move you make? If you can, you’re the undisputed champion. If you were wrong about any of it, or stepped back to rethink and second-guess yourself and missed your opportunity, you will have nothing but excuses to use to justify why you failed.

To quote Jeff Henise, Ph.D. and land-speed record holder, “If you’re building something to go faster than anything like it has ever gone before, then life has but one purpose: moving forward with more speed. Everything else is secondary.”

Once the salt bug has bitten, there is no cure.