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mattjware

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Posts by mattjware

Bonneville: Speedland – the home of record-breakers

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 north western 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.

The hidden world of Scooterville USA

Bikesure is taking a three-part look at the alternative motorbike scene in the USA. Here’s part one – Americans ride scooters too. Who knew?

 

Historically, America hasn’t been hugely convinced by scooters. Cheap petrol and the vast distances between cities helped cement the popularity of giant cars and bikes with the turning circle of a cow glued to an iceberg, and there was always the sneaking suspicion that small vehicles with good fuel economy were one of the ways commies dilute the purity of your precious bodily fluids.

That said, there have always been pockets of scooter fans, usually to be found in the larger cities where they make sense as nippy, easy-to-park runabouts. These groups reflect the style and energy of their home cities, with each having a quality that could only ever really occur in that place.

 

Scooters in Brooklyn, New York

Scooters in Brooklyn, New York

New York, with its sensory overload approach to life, has several thriving communities of scooterists, including the Italian lifestyle connoisseurs of the Vespa Club of NYC or I Scoot NY, which attracts a more Anglophile/Mod crowd.

Meanwhile on the west coast, in the hipster zoo that is Portland, the Twist and Play Scooter Club are coolly ironic groovy young people, which fits with the dominant image of the city.

 

Poster Portland Spring Scoot

Poster for Portland’s Spring Scoot. Artwork by Noah Patrick Pfarr.

Further down the coast in tech-savvy San Francisco, it should come as no surprise that a start up is using scooters to disrupt the urban traffic paradigm. Scoot is basically Boris Bikes with electric scooters. As they are rated as less powerful than a 50cc engine and the rentals are for less than 48 hours, you don’t need a licence to use them. Simply book one via an app, which directs you to the closest garage as well as tracking you to make sure you don’t nick it. It’s a very neat solution to transport for a city with a large population and an interesting transport infrastructure. Whether it would work anywhere other than San Francisco is debateable, relying as it does on the vagaries of local laws, but it’s possible that in a few years renting electric scooters could become a common sight in more places.

 

Scoot scooters in San Francisco

Scoot scooters in San Francisco

One of the less likely strongholds of American scooterdom is Texas. While you might think anybody willingly riding a scooter would be escorted to the state border at gunpoint, there’s a surprisingly high proportion of active scooter clubs there. From the Ready Steady Gos and Blue Meanies in Dallas, the United Scooter Riders in Houston and the Austin Scooter Club in, er… *rustles papers*… somewhere, the Lone Star State turns out to be something of a stronghold of scooters and scooter fans. The Austin scooter club even organises an annual Clint Eastwood themed rally.

 

Austin scooter rally

Clint Eastwood themed Austin scooter rally

 

Nine lost speedway stadiums

During the first four decades of the 20th century, motorcycle racing evolved from niche interest to mass phenomenon.

1907 saw the first Isle of Man TT and the world’s first 24-hour endurance race at Brooklands. The world’s oldest trials competition, the Scottish Six Days, dates from 1909. But it was the years following World War One that things really took off, and the introduction of speedway in the late 1920s saw motorcycling become a national obsession.

This was helped by the other new sport that had reached mass popularity, greyhound racing. It was simple enough to repurpose a greyhound track for speedway, and up and down the country this is exactly what happened. Teams formed in towns and cities across the country, with stadiums capable of holding audiences of thousands being built for them to cheer their teams on to glory. Join us as Bikesure takes a trip down memory lane to the golden age of British Speedway.

 

Do you have memories of these dramatic former speedway theatres? Did you attend meetings there, or even ride in the races? Share your stories in the comments below.

 

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