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Week two of our trilogy of articles looking at alternative biker culture in the USA focuses on the speed kings of Utah.

For over a century when people have wanted to break land speed records they go to the salt flats of Lake Bonneville in northwestern Utah. A beautifully desolate landscape, during the summer months the lake evaporates leaving a thick, perfectly flat crust of salt. This makes the ideal surface for racing vehicles, and the size of the lake allows for staggering speeds to be reached in relative safety.

September is bike month, and teams of all sizes and technical advancement arrive. Whether it’s vintage mopeds or state of the art custom streamliners, Bonneville has seen people set new records on them.

Its reputation was assured when Malcolm Campbell broke the 300mph barrier in Bluebird in 1935, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that it became the place where motorcycle records were smashed. This wasn’t accidental.

Until then, motorcycle speed records had been dominated by the Germans. When Wilhelm Herz broke 180mph in 1951, a small group of Texans decided to bring the record to America for the first time since 1920. The bike built by Stormy Mangham and his friends was a revolutionary cigar-shaped streamliner, which took the record to a staggering 193mph in 1956.

1956 landspeed motorcycle

Cigar-shaped 1956 record-holder

From that point onwards, the motorcycle speed records were dominated by American teams and builders, as improving technology saw record after record fall. By 1966 it had risen to 245mph, by 1976 it had reached 300mph. The 1978 record of 318mph wasn’t beaten until 1990, but has been rising steadily since 2006, with 376mph the current benchmark. Modern technological advances make the 1950s speed demons look like stone age prams, with carbon Kevlar monocoque chassis, computer controlled engines and finely tuned designs being an absolute must for anybody serious about breaking the next big target, the 400mph barrier.

So far the 21st century has been dominated by two teams – BUB seven and Ack Attack. In early 2015 Triumph, whose engines powered the majority of the record holders in the 50s and 60s, announced a new attempt on the record driven by the charismatic daredevil Guy Martin. Sadly Guy suffered an accident which put the attempt on hold until 2016, so it remains to be seen whether the record will break.

Castrol Rocket Triumph Guy Martin

The Triumph-powered Castrol Rocket, Guy Martin’s intended ride

Sadly the salt flats face a greater threat than accident-prone drivers. Races were called off entirely for the 2014 and 2015 seasons after it was discovered that the salt crust was too thin to provide a safe racing surface. For many decades, the salt lakes have been mined for potash. The company doing this has attempted to replace salts removed in order to preserve the environment. Despite this, there has been a worrying decline in the thickness of the salt, and the total area of the salt flats has shrunk considerably in the past 30 years. An alliance of interested parties is working to attempt to save the salt flats, but despite the efforts of the mining industry to limit the damage they cause to the place it is likely that unless they are stopped the destruction of this unique natural habitat will continue.

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