A Long and Not So Winding Road

Story by Colin C.D. White// Photos by Colin C.D. White and Mike Schaalje
March 1 2009
Picture of the 1939 Triumph Tiger T100 at the salt race track

A Vision

Picture of the 1939 Triumph Tiger T100 at the salt race trackThe Bonneville Salt Flats are much more than a unique geological landscape located in the high desert of Utah. For most of us in the motorcycle community, Bonneville is synonymous with speed and land speed racing. Bonneville is one of those special places that many of us immediately recognize, but few have had the opportunity to visit. Most of what I knew about Bonneville Salt Flats I had read in motorcycle and hot rod magazines. Even after the movie release of the “World’s Fastest Indian”, I never thought for more than a moment that I would run a motorcycle at Bonneville. That is until one August evening in a 1960’s style bar in Elko, Nevada, when my Australian friend, Peter, paused over his beer and said – “Mate, we should run something at Bonneville”. With that short statement we began a pretty cool adventure.

Our conversation occurred during a southbound motorcycle trip to Las Vegas that had us detour to the famous speedway to gaze across the salt from the end of the access road and photograph the famous sign. Telling my story today almost feels like I should start with one of those jokes that begins: “An Australian and a Canadian walk into a bar…”

Exactly thirteen months later, the Time Cycles Team was pulling onto the salt with a 1939 Triumph T100 500 cc purpose-built salt racer tied down in the borrowed trailer behind us. After leaving Cochrane, Alberta in the rain and enduring a sixteen-hour drive through the night, we were at the 5th annual BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials and registered to run our bike in the Modified Vintage Gas 500 cc Class (M-VG). We were ready to challenge the “great white dyno”.

Time Cycles Team

The Time Cycles Team consisted of three adventurers; Peter Loats (a transplanted Australian soon to be known as “Spanner” in recognition of his skill with a wrench), Rick Pikulski (“Drillbit” who has claimed to be an innocent bystander, but with an ability to restore cars with nothing more than a portable drill) and the author (who after a few interviews was given the questionable name of “Hollywood” by the Team). Mike Schaalje (“Dizzy’—named simply because it seemed appropriate for a man with multiple cameras) our team—appointed photographer and owner of our pit truck was to join us later.

The Building of a 1939 Triumph Salt Racer

The final run for the Triumph Tiger T100 at the salt racesLike all great ideas dreamed up by friends over a beer or two, the reality of life intervenes and the changing seasons forced our bikes off the road for another season. I normally keep sane through the cold Canadian winters by hibernating in my shop to focus on one motorcycle project or another. During follow-up conversations with my friend Peter, the topic of Bonneville kept resurfacing. While the scale of our initial discussions were downgraded significantly, the ember of an idea that began in that Elko bar never seemed to completely go out.

In the corner of my shop sat a rusty collection of motorcycle parts that generally resembled a Triumph motorcycle. In spite of the motorcycle’s poor condition, I was starting to view this motley collection of parts as a possible future salt racer.

I had purchased the bike a few years back for $500. It had been incorrectly advertised in the local “buy and sell” as a 1949 Triumph 500 cc basket case. Some research into the frame and engine number identified the motorcycle as a 1939 Triumph Tiger T100. Further research suggested that this bike was one of approximately 2,100 Tiger motorcycles that were manufactured by Triumph in 1939. There is no way of verifying these production numbers as factory records for pre-war production Triumphs were destroyed in 1940 when the Luftwaffe blitzed the city of Coventry, destroying the Triumph plant. What we do know is that the T100 is the sporting version of the Speed Twin launched by Triumph in 1937 and is an early version of a motor design continually in production until the Triumph factory’s demise in 1983. In its stock form, the motorcycle is estimated to produce about 33 horsepower and achieve a top speed of 158 km/hr (98 mph). A period advertisement from Nicholson Brothers, formally of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan called the 1939 Triumph Tiger “A super-tuned twin with unrivalled performance”. The Nicholson Brothers advertised this super-tuned twin for sale in 1939 for $480 (in standard specifications) and $510 (with special equipment).

I can only speculate if my motorcycle had been imported to Canada via Saskatchewan, but I do know that it was not pampered at the hands of its previous owners. The bike was missing its originally fitted girder forks. The crankshaft, connecting rods and pistons, and what seemed like dozens of other small but essential parts were missing. Its rigid frame was cracked in two places, the engine cases were damaged and the barrels were missing fins. Rust seemed to define the collection of parts rather than simply describe the overall patina. When I had purchased the bike, I had spotted a set of lower fork legs in one box that would replace the damaged fork legs I had for a 1954 Triumph T110 that I was restoring. All was good in my restoration world but without a crankshaft there would be no salt racer.

The long and strait slat racer motorcycle trackI started calling around to friends and suppliers and was pretty much at a dead end until I spoke to John Oland at Motoparts in Edmonton, Alberta. “Let me have a look, I may have something” was John’s response. The day before Christmas 2007, I received a heavy package from John. Inside the package was a N.O.S. (New Old Stock) crankshaft, late unit 650 Triumph rods and new main shells. To my surprise the attached invoice read all zeros. John wanted to support the project; now I had someone else hooked. The crankshaft went under the Christmas tree–the perfect gift for a salt racer’s dream. John would continue to provide welcome support to me with parts, advice and general words of encouragement throughout the project.

From the warmth of my small shop, the little bike was starting to take shape as a salt racer. The cracked frame was sleeved and welded and forks from a unit Triumph of a much later vintage that had also been gathering dust in the shop were grafted onto the bike. Engine mounts were fabricated. The frame got a good coat of “Harvester Red” paint from a rattle can in the backyard. The fins were repaired and the cylinders sleeved back to their original 63 mm bore. In the course of my travels, I had found a small engine shop in Calgary that was able to fit the connecting rods to the crankshaft and the pistons to the connecting rods with the required care and precision. Some minor machining to the cylinders to allow for the 2 mm increase in stroke of the 650 rods and I had the heart of the motor in place. I used the original cast iron head in accordance with the rules and fitted new guides, valve springs and valves. The increase in engine stroke was a worry at first, but with some careful measurement, modeling clay and good luck, I determined that I would have no piston to valve clearance issues.

I researched a range of camshafts that would fit my engine but in the end I used the stock cams. This was a performance upgrade that I thought would be best left to future experiments. I fabricated the exhaust pipes three times until I was satisfied with the look and what I understood to be the optimum length for peak performance. A 21-inch front spool wheel, peanut gas tank and tires were sourced from my friend, Rick in Cochrane and after lacing an 18-inch rim into the factory hub; I now had a rolling chassis.

Now that I was well underway with the fabrication, the question remained how to actually run at Bonneville. I discovered two opportunities to get on the salt. The first is the SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) sanctioned event which is run mid-August and includes cars in the lineup. The second is an AMA (American Motorcycle Association) sanctioned event sponsored by BUB Enterprises that runs the first week of September. After discussing the pros and cons with anyone who held an opinion on the matter, I elected to run at the BUB/AMA event which for 2008 was in its fifth year.

The BUB/AMA event is a motorcycles only event started by Denis Manning with the objective of advancing the sport of motorcycle land speed racing. Denis and BUB Enterprises is perhaps best known as a manufacturer of aftermarket exhaust systems. He is also known in the world of land speed racing as the designer and builder of the streamliner “Seven” which achieved a remarkable speed of 350.884 mph on the salt in 2006. While the streamliners may be considered an elite class on the salt, the BUB speed trials seemed to offer something for everyone and was getting high praise from those who had attended past events. Through the Internet, I downloaded the AMA rulebook, got the registration forms and returned to the shop to complete the paperwork.

A little research into the rules found a class I could fit in–Modified Vintage Gas Class 500 cc or M-VG. Essentially the rules permitted me to modify the motorcycle frame, but I had to run a pre-1955 motor and keep the original cases, barrels and head. The class record was standing at 78.163 mph.

One thing I did have to do was call the BUB officials for a race number before registering. I was expecting to be assigned a number and when asked, “What number do you want?” I was stumped for a second – “Hmmm, how about 1939?” “I think we can do that for you” was the response. With the completed paperwork and entry fee I was registered and the year of manufacture would soon be proudly displayed on the motorcycle’s number plates. I had to think, “Man—there is that good karma again”.

A Distributor Retrofit

In 1939, the electrics necessary for spark and lights on the Triumph T100 were handled by a “magdyno”. This bit of kit was bolted to a small shelf behind the cylinders and driven off the intake cam gear. The magneto provided spark to the motor and the 6-volt dynamo provided power for the lights. Triumph later replaced the electrics on its motorcycles with various combinations of distributors, magnetos, generators and alternators. After having difficulty finding anyone locally to rewind and refurbish the “magdyno” and finding myself short on time, I scrambled for an after-market alternative with little success. As a final decision, I retrofitted a distributor (or “Dizzy” if you prefer the Australian term) from a pre-unit Triumph 6T with a “total loss” battery supplying the juice. This little “dizzy” modification was to be the source of a continued struggle at Bonneville.

I started the engine for the first time on August 15, 2007 and after many more late nights we loaded the trailer for Bonneville two weeks later.

The Salt at Dawn

It was dawn when I wheeled the bike out onto the salt for the first time. Our pit area was ready. The air was still and cool, the perfect atmosphere for racing. Maybe it was the shock of being up before dawn, but I was not really focused on racing at that moment. I was thinking about how the salt flats had captured the imagination of so many people before me. It really came home to me that the salt flats shared a similarity with other wild and open places I have had the pleasure of visiting. There is a similar vastness and special spirit that can be found on a mountain glacier or in the middle of the Canadian prairie surrounded by grasslands and sky. The salt flats had pulled me south from my home in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies to accomplish a simple dream of riding the motorcycle I had brought back to life as fast as it would go. For some, this place was where their dreams were fulfilled. For others it was a place where their dreams sadly ended. As the sky filled with light, the bark of open exhaust pipes and the smell of fuel from the pits cleared my head and had me once again focusing upon the task at hand.

A First Day of Preparation at the BUB Speed Trials

The first official morning of the BUB Speed Trials begins with a rider’s meeting and orientation. Once the rules were read and introductions made, we proceeded to registration. Despite being normally impatient, I just chilled out and enjoyed the atmosphere. From the moment I stepped on the salt I was greeted with a smile and assistance by everyone associated with the BUB Speed Trials. For a first-timer, I can’t say enough how much this was appreciated.

The first true event milestone for me was getting through scrutineering. I worried about what I may have missed or that my interpretations of the rules in my shop were different from this day on the salt. As the red shirt BUB official placed a check mark in each appropriate box on the form clipped to his board, I was another step closer to running. When the BUB official finally said, “Where do you want the tag?,” it was a fabulous relief. Nine months of sourcing parts and fabrication and I was officially a competitor at Bonneville. Grinning like a schoolboy, I quickly pushed the bike out of the area before the guy changed his mind.

With successful scrutineering behind me, the next stop was for gasoline. Since I was running in a gasoline-powered class, I was required to run the event gasoline that was supplied by ERC Racing Fuels. This was not your normal pump gas. After a series of technical questions about the nature of the gasoline our little bike preferred, we had our 2.2 gallon tank filled with an exotic mixture of oxygenated 110 octane leaded gas. The gas cap was then sealed by the ERC Official to ensure we didn’t alter the mix.

I knew the bike was not 100%, but with this “rocket fuel” on board, I was determined to make my first run on the salt.

The First Run

The first run was an exercise in self-control. As a first timer, there seemed to be endless instructions that I needed to remember to keep everyone, including myself, safe. After getting through the pre-staging and start line lineups and with the assistance of the ever helpful track officials, I was finally ready to run. I had been directed to Mile 3 of the eleven mile “International Course” (which accommodated the plus 200 mph runs and the streamliners). The “International Course” was one of two tracks laid parallel to each other on the salt. The “Mountain Course” (aptly named because of its closeness to the mountain range framing the northern extent of the salt flats) was a shorter five-mile track. Runs are initially made on both tracks from east to west with record backup runs made from west to east.

Standing in the heat made my full leathers feel like my own personal sauna, but at least it wasn’t raining. In no time, it was my turn to stage. The starter was waving the flag and I could begin my run any time. There is no need to rush I told myself. This was not a drag race—you have time to breathe. The Triumph idled nicely and barked with purpose with each snap of the throttle. I slowly slipped the clutch, pulled away from the start, and accelerated up through the gears just getting accustomed to the feel of the salt and the bike. The open pipes were singing out a beautiful tone. As the mile markers passed, I settled into the bike and focused on the run. It just seemed natural to be on the bike and any nervousness I might have felt was replaced with the normal calm I feel riding motorcycles. The salt was reportedly in the best condition in years–no worries. I went through the timing marks at mile five at 74.418 mph. I had made my first run and I was close to the standing 78.163 mph record for my class. The motorcycle was rock solid, but the motor was clearly breaking up at higher revs. As I rolled off the throttle and moved to exit off the track, I remember starting to laugh out loud. What a rush—after nine months of hard work and focus I had made my first official run on the Bonneville Salt Flats! There were smiles all around at the Team Time Cycles pit. If we could get this motorcycle to run well, it might very well earn its advertised praise of “unrivalled road performance”.

A Frenzy in the Pits

Getting our motorcycle to run right was a bigger challenge than we ever imagined. We traced the wiring for shorts. We played with the timing. We changed jets. We changed the carburetor. We swapped the battery. We changed plug wires, plugs, the coil, the points and the condenser. Nothing we did seemed to stop the missing at high revs. We were getting beat up pretty good by the gremlins.

After a full day of struggle we continued a brainstorming session around the pool at the motel in Wendover. Peter was convinced it was the dizzy. “Do we have a manual?—We don’t need no stinkin’ manual!” was the immediate response. Fortunately I had photocopied the pages dealing with the distributor. After close examination it looked like we had the wrong rotor. The manual showed a rotor with an extended leading edge designed to contact each of the contacts in the distributor cap. Instead of the leading edge, our rotor had a tail in the opposite direction. The 3 or 4 degrees we were losing at the distributor was retarding our engine timing. It was a theory and about the only one we had.

Problems with the Spark

The next morning in our pits we pulled out the dizzy once again and as we had speculated, the rotor didn’t look anything like the one in the diagram. After a short discussion, the Team was in the truck and off to Wendover to look for parts. After about an hour or so, the Team returned prepared to cut a new slot in the distributor shaft to reposition the rotor and advance the timing. I remember thinking, “Man, this is hot rodding at its best”. While other pits were re-mapping fuel injection systems with laptop computers, this team was cutting a new slot with a portable drill and cut-off wheels. With the experimental repairs made, the dizzy was back in the bike and with a solid kick on the kick-starter, she roared to life once again. A few cranks of the throttle and we knew we were on the right track. I scrambled for my gear. This was it! The Team had done it! A minor setback with the clutch rod had us back to the pits for a replacement and I was back in the lineup.

Peter pushed me into the Mountain Course start and the bike pulled strong up through the gears. We were still a bit fat on the carburetor jetting (the elevation of Bonneville is 4,242 feet above sea level which is only 351 feet higher than home), but the advance on the timing was much closer. At the timing mile I was through at 75.960 mph. As I pulled into the pits after the run it didn’t matter that we hadn’t made a record run. Through pure determination we had made our bike run and I had achieved a personal best.

Left to Race Another Day

We quickly re–grouped, made adjustments to the points and headed out for another run but our gremlins were still hanging on. During the run, the acorn nut holding the intake rocker shaft backed off allowing the rocker shaft to migrate out of the rocker box. What is amazing is that the motor kept running. It had sounded like a blown head gasket on the track, but in spite of the mechanical troubles we were tagged at 71.206 mph through the timing mile. We didn’t have the parts to continue so we kicked back, milled around and talked to other teams, and just enjoyed the remainder of the event as spectators.

The range of motorcycles prepared for racing on the salt was simply amazing. From vintage machines to streamliners, these motorcycles are designed and fabricated for the single purpose of going as fast as possible. Walking the pits was schooling in the design principle; “form follows function”.

A Reflection

Back in my shop, the little Triumph is once again parked in the corner in the shadow of much newer motorcycles equipped with fuel injection, computer chips and LED lights. It seems hard to believe that it was an old Triumph manufactured almost 70 years ago that gave me the chance to race at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Many other Triumphs have raced on the salt before and now this little 1939 T100 is part of that family. The spirit of the old machinery and the challenges that it presented seemed to add a special value to the experience. We didn’t get a record. We didn’t really go all that fast, but we did something that defined for me what motorcycling has given me all my life—purpose, freedom and adventure. We had met the challenge and I know that it’s just a matter of time before I hear; “Mate, we should…”

As a final and sad note, the unfortunate passing of Cliff Gullett of Bozeman, Montana during a record back–up run in his streamliner was truly a sad moment for everyone at the BUB 2008 Speed Trails. I didn’t know Cliff but I understood his passion. His passing gave me pause to reflect on how truly fragile life is and how important it is to continue to pursue our dreams while we are still able.

Ride safe.

Published with permission of the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials and the American Motorcycle Association.

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