August 10, 2014

Bonneville Salt Flats

Going to race at the Salt Flats in Bonneville USA.

What makes you think


As you know, I've been working on old engines for a long time. Since you can go for your driver's license at the age of 18, I got the idea at the age of 14 to buy an oldtimer by my 18th birthday. Eventually, due to lack of money, I started restoring bikes first, and then switched to mopeds. First I started with 50cc, then 100cc and then 125cc. It had to become bigger and bigger. We all know it; started with one moped and soon deberging was too small.

I couldn't buy the big, fat bike I was looking for anyway, so I bought whatever I could afford. I then repaired these bikes and sold them again and bought a bigger one instead. Now you must know... 40 years later, I'm still looking for that big, fat bike. A man is never satisfied.


Over the years I noticed that less and less was driven with old, pre-war engines. From experience I know that with the engines from the late twenties - early thirties, there is perfect to drive in today's traffic. I think many riders or collectors choose the youngtimer faster out of convenience.

On mucholdtimer and classic-racing I notice that the regulations are such that you can only win with the younger models. That's why you don't see many older models here and if they do, they are rarely original bikes.

From here the idea came to start up a race team (or demo race team), measuring only original pre-war engines. The idea behind this was: "I know I can't win, but I'm here anyway".


"High time to live.


At a certain point in your life you come to a point where you realize that you don't have your own life and that most of your active life is already over. Some women call this the 'midlife crisis'. I prefer to talk about this: 'high time to start living'.

You then start making a bucket list in your head: "What do I want to do in my life?" "Once no riding on the salt lakes in Bonneville," was one of the things on that list. A real Burt Munroe story.


By selling my bikes I have some good contacts in LosAngeles and other places. This is how I got to know Blue. He has been in Bonneville several times to help car racing teams. So Blue was immediately there to go with memee.


Organization in the USA: The rule book


Several times I have been in contact with the organizers of the Speek Week in Bonneville, theSouthern California Timing Association (SCTA). Do you want to ride along? Very easy, you have to become a member of a racing organization in America and buy the 'rulebook'. This rule book consists of 248 pages and you can buy from them for 10 USD. These regulations are very strict and cannot be applied to my motorcycles that I wanted to take with me. So, I had a problem.

Follow me, the solution to this problem was very simple. I would go there and try to explain my plan to the organization on the spot. By mail or phone I couldn't get any further than the receptionist, who always told me to follow the rule book.


So I traveled to LA in August 2013 to make a trip through America with Blue and drive to Bonneville. Blue knows everything perfectly, so I left detrip to him. In Los Angeles we first visited the oldtimer event. We visited BobbyGreen's Old Crow Speed Shop. Bobby is also a customer of mine, a collector and racer ofBelly tank racers. After the war the fuel tanks of the warplanes were the cheapest and most aerodynamic thing you could find then. In them you build jetwee axles of a Ford and a flathead V 8 block and you have a streamlined racer. Bobby has a whole collection of these and has broken many records inBonneville with them.

We also went to visit George Barris, who has built almost every car ever for the film industry. The most famous is definitely the Batmobile. We had a chat and were photographed with the old Barris. This all went very smoothly with Blueerbij. He is very well known in America and far beyond. His father was a famous director and his mother (ex-fiancé of Frank Sinatra) was a famous actress. Because of his influence we ended up in places where normally no one comes. When I showed the pictures with Barris later on in Bonneville, no one could believe that we had had a chat with him.

After this we left via some gold mining villages to Death Valley. Just before Death Valley the road was closed by a subsidence. We had to make a detour of 600km! No problem, Blue knows the shortcuts, which were actually just sand roads. Yet the road inspector didn't let us through, but when he heard that Blue knew the road perfectly and wanted to drive past an old mining site and Indian reserve, he said: "Wait till I'm gone and then I won't see you driving on", handy!

From there we drove to Bonneville. An unbelievable experience! This is definitely a must on everyone's bucket list. Anything can drive here, from a motorcycle made with the engine of a concrete mixer, to the hypermodern rocket-propelled car that goes over 1000km/h. That's why the rule book is filled with the latest safety technology. Which do not fit my engines.

During our visit,we had a conversation with the head of the technical inspection,Mr. Tom Evans. An incredible moment. Good laugh! Finally,we were invited to weed. I spoke to Tom with the question if I could come and ride oldtimer motorcycles, his answer: "No problem, there are several riding them". What I saw riding oldtimers, were: Triumph Bonneville and NortonCommando engine blocks in a state-of-the-art frame, to follow the rules. I told him I wanted to come with "real" oldtimers, so pre 1920's metbikes. He looked at me and offered me the best place for next year, in the front, so everyone could see it well. I told him that I didn't come to exhibit them but to ride them, his answer: "You can't do that, can you?! So old, they don't drive anymore". My bikes still ride (sometimes). I asked him if it was possible and what I had to comply with. The first thing he did was take the rule book. Not that rule book again!


First he told me that the tires should have a DOT indication (maximum speed indication), but I drive with Talon tires and this didn't exist then. Tom was very surprised and didn't know what I was talking about; you'll all know it when you start telling a stranger about your bike. The problem was soon solved when he knew that I probably wasn't going to break a new world record for some hypermodern bike. The deal was that if the tyres weren't too old and hadn't cracked, I could still ride with him (I'll take the can of shoe polish from BurtMunroe with me).
The next point was that you had to have a chain box, but I didn't have a chain at all. Again amazement combined with a smile of sympathy, because I have a cardan (FN) or a belt. This was a difficult case, so we went on to the next point in the booklet.
I had to have a kill switch so that the electrical circuit was manually cut off around the wrist. I told him I can tie a cord to the ignition cable and put it around my wrist, because this was pretty much the complete electrical circuit there is. There was more and more laughter metals result an invitation for my racing team at next year's edition, the special edition, the 100th anniversary of the race.


After a few days on the hot plain and an overdose of speed, we left San Francisco. South of San Francisco lies Montrey/Pebble Beach. One of the biggest events in the world for oldtimers. Here are a week of auctions, tours, concours d'elegance...
In Pebble Beach I was invited by a customer to push a motorcycle, which I sold to him, on the Green (a golf course at the coast). This was an honor because you have to be invited and pay 2000 USD to put your car or motorcycle there. An event for the top of the world. The plebs are kept out by selling the entrance ticket at 500 USD a piece! Beautiful experience, but the next day we visited "Concour de L'emon" and it was much more sympathetic. This is a counter reaction of the population against decadent events. You can only enter if you have the biggest wreck or the most ridiculous means of transport. It has become such a success that the rich are now renting a wreck somewhere, just to be able to participate.
After a few days we drove the M1 from here to LA to finally fly back home. This M1 runs for a few hundred miles along the coast and has been proclaimed the most beautiful highway in the USA. In short, I had a wonderful holiday with an overdose of old iron and more than 5000km behind us. We have arranged what could not be arranged... we are allowed to drive on the salt flats.


Organize for 2014


I was totally convinced; I would be the first Belgian and would have ridden the oldest bike ever (sorry Burt Munroe your Indian was from 1922 and so far the oldest). The next question was what to bring. Had agreed withBlue that I would not have the crates of motorcycles delivered to Bonneville, but to his house. I would come early enough and then we could make a nice roadtrip back to Bonneville. We would drive his old Mercedes again with a trailer for three bikes. So I had to pick three bikes.
First, a Peugeot model D from 1904. This is a 330cc IOE. Normally with an atmospheric inlet valve but this racer has the option of a real OHV inlet valve, which makes it much faster! I just bought it and it was running, but I had it checked by my friend mechanic Marc Goes from SOS Motoparts in Mechelen. The second bike is my FN 4 cylinder from 1910 and the third came at the last moment. I was offered a BMW model R47 ex racer from Paul Greifzu. Straight out of the museum. A chance like that you can't miss, so I changed my plans to take this one with me. After some inquiries I found out that this was the prototype of the R47. This model was for sale in 1927 and 1928. I have pictures of my motorcycle where it has won awards in 1926. Later it was confirmed by BMW that this is the oldest factory race BMW in the world. The bike ran, but after 40 years in a museum it needed some work. I didn't have time for it, the bike had to be shown in the new BMW Brand Store in Brussels, because there was a meeting of all the big race teams from the world. Then the bike had to go to Spa-Francorchamp to participate in the BMW Track Days. As a consequence, the bikes could not be sent by boat, but had to be sent by plane, which was much more expensive. They would be delivered to Blue a week before I would arrive in LA. With the emphasis on "would". When choosing a transporter, I had chosen for one of the big players in the field of air transport. The agreement was that I would have the bikes ready on Thursday for transport to Zaventem, so they would arrive in LA during the weekend and could be released by customs that week. All this 1 week before I would arrive in LA. Sounds perfect.


Enduring Hell


So there should be no problem, because everything was arranged by mail in advance. They had pictures of the bikes and crates and everything was agreed with the seller of this company. He sent the package with the mails to the lady of the processing (that's how it goes in big companies), with the mention to arrange this, which she did (without reading the mails further). That same afternoon I receive an angry phone call from an unintelligible Pole and a little later from the transport company, asking why I am not at home for the collection of the crates! This is where the game started. I ask her to read the mails so that she sees in the second sentence that I will contact her when the crates are ready. Eventually the crates are ready for Thursday and have been collected correctly.

The next Monday I expected a phone call, because the crates would be delivered in LA during the weekend. I didn't get the call, so the next day I called them myself. "Oh yes the bikes are still here, there was no room on the plane, they will leave tomorrow". I made it clear to her that this was strange because I had paid for a seat. So Wednesday I called back. "They are still here because they are wrongly crated! She promised me that they would leave the next day. Thursday I called again, on which she now told me that they still had not left because they smelled of gasoline. She referred back to the mail that said there could be leftovers, but this was not a problem. Friday I called again and was told they were on their way to Amsterdam? Eeuh to Amsterdam? They have to go to L.A. and would leave from Brussels...


But my flight tickets were booked so during the weekend trip to L.A. I was well aware that the motorcycles hadn't arrived at Blue yet. After calling several times without any result, we started the necessary procedures to get the bikes out of customs. My first week in L.A. I had suggested something else !

Despite I had paid from Belgium to take the bikes out of customs, I went looking for a broker myself. And successful: after a lot of paperwork we finally got the bikes!

Just in time: the race starts on Saturday but from Friday you can already go to the technical control. Our road trip was a bit shortened but still we make it.



Everything falls into the water


Friday morning: we're getting ready to arrive by Sunday.

Despite the fact that we didn't have a place on the trailer, Blue wants to take his 1928 German Triumph and we don't find a free spot : on the roof of the Mercedes. This had something. And so did many drivers who met us on the highway. Many pulled pictures, movies and "thumbs up". One picture of the Mercedes break with the Peugeotop on the roof even made it to the site of Mercedes Germany who was allowed to enjoy 37.000 likes in 3 hours on instagram.


During our transit we make a stop in Las Vegas where Blue's father lives.

Then head for Bonneville!

Last Friday we had heard that the technical inspection would take place on Saturday instead of Friday because of the rain. Because the temperature there is 40 to 50°C, everything dries very quickly. So we were in no hurry and arriving on Monday instead of Sunday would be fine.

On the way I suddenly get a message from the home front on Saturday that Bonneville would be cancelled due to flooding. This could not be true! Full of disbelief I put my cell phone away because this had to be processed before I tell Blue.

We take something let a stop at Mc Donalden there I see indeed via intranet the message confirmed. There goes my dream, my money that I had invested in this trip! Together with my friend Blue I try to process this setback.


We decide to keep on driving and see for ourselves what's going on, with a small hope that it might all dry up after all.

After all, we were planning to go after Bonnevillenaar Monterey.

On the way home we see more and more trucks and trailers so our courage sinks deeper and deeper into our shoes.

On the way we meet Bobby from Old CrowSpeed Shop. A client of mine who has been racing for years with Bellytank racers onBonneville and was now also back home on a wagon.

Arriving at Bonneville, we feel the swinging atmosphere that hangs between the stranded racing teams at all the car parks and along the track. About 200.000 people have to return home without a race.

We drive on to the entrance of the salt plain and indeed we see 50 cm of water on an area of +/- 160 km by 60 km. This was rain that had fallen for several hours. We were able to take very nice but eventually expensive pictures here.

The temptation is too great and yet I must have driven for a while on the salt flats. We start up the BMW and drive up to the water and over the abandoned access road. The movie we make there, however, gives that Burt Munroe" feeling.

And yeah, Burt can keep the record "oldest motorcycle raced" from me.


So we have more time to spend in Monterey. We get several invitations including one from Nick Smith (responsible for the motorcycles for auction house Bonhams) to take the car and motorcycles to the auction house of Bonhams, which we like to discuss.

We are allowed to go to a private party at Porsche, to 2 other auction houses, and to the tour of Pebble Beach. There we've been asked for Condour de L'emon where we meet Jay Lenno who came by to have a look at the bikes.

And then to another very exclusive party : "The Quail" where we get into conversation with a big collector and BMW lover from the neighborhood. We promise him a ride with the BMW and after a while we give him the wheel. After all, these motorcycles are made to drive let him enjoy it. Nice when you see how smiling he sits on that bike.

We agree to visit him the next day. He has a vineyard in the hills around Monterey. Apparently he is a well-known old racer who has an extensive collection in his entrance/tasting room. Suddenly I see in his desk an old BMW model R37 (also 500cc head valve). I remember that I have more information and an old picture with me where just these 2 BMW's are now. This picture was taken after a victory. Left Henne on a R37 and right Paul Greifzu on (my) R47.

Quickly the idea arose to set up the engines as shown on the picture. We immediately get cooperation from the wine taster to pose and take a great picture just like 88 years ago.


The return via the M1 to LA is mixed feelings. We came to race and this was only welded 3 times in 30 years and just this year !

Despite this setback, we made a great trip and met several like-minded people. A whole experience.

And no, racing on the salt plains wasn't one of them, but I/we will definitely go back.


Interested parties are always welcome to let us know.

The next event we want to participate with the racing team is : Vintage Revival in Monthlery. This is a one-man race on the old bowl track/race circuit south of Paris. This race is for motorcycles and cars from before 1940.

Our team is already registered with Peugeot 1904,FN1910,FN M60 1924, BMW R47 1926 and a Saroléa 23T 1928. Furthermore we take 10 other motorcycles with us.

Everyone is welcome and there is a tent in the paddock where the bikes can be parked safely.








No pictures yet!