Bonneville Salt Beds | On the Salt

By Chet Billings, Photography by Unknown

From the November 1938 Issue of Motorcyclist Magazine.

Five and a half miles West of Bonneville Salt Beds in Utah is the small town of Wendover. It is equipped with a transcontinental highway, a transcontinental railway, has camp cabins, restaurants and gas stations. Except for the fact that it cuddles up to a vast area of salt there is little to distinguish it from many other small western towns, so far as the casual traveler is concerned.

Yet in all the world there probably is no other town just like Wendover. Under its calm exterior and in the minds of its modestly sized population is a most unusual knowledge of and liking for speed.

In one breath Wendover feeds the weary tourist or cares for the needs of his equipment. In the next breath it cater to tastes from scattered countries of the world and supplies some of the necessary service for a couple of the greatest Juggernauts of land speed ever built. The town never sleeps and some of its most important duties are in the wee hours of morning.

From station master to waitress the town talks and thinks speed, and adjusts itself to the requirements of speed.

On September 21st, Wendover learned that Captain Eyston was finished with his trials. Its townspeople rejoiced with the Captain and settled to the task of helping his crew prepare the Thunderbolt for its return to England.

On September 22nd, Wendover, without surprise or change of stride, welcomed a new crew, and as quickly settled to the task of helping in the matter of motorcycle speed trials.

What followed consumed three days. What had preceded had required two years.

From the public’s point of view most speed trials are a sort of “a flash in the pan.” The actual runs are fast. Most of the time is consumed in details of preparation. And more times than not the real story deals more with failure than with success.

As was told last month, Freddie Ludlow established two new world’s class C records. He rode a 45 cu. in. Indian through both ways of the mile for an average of 115.126 m.p.h. and he rode a 74 cu. in. Indian through for an average of 120.747 m.p.h.

Then he took his first fast ride in a completely enclosed and streamlined shell, powered with a special 61 cu. in. o. h.v. Indian. At a point near the American record mark he had to shut off. A quick check pointed to faulty design in part of the shell and the attempt to set a new high speed record was unsuccessful.

Preparation for the rides which won new records was comparatively simple. Work on the shell had involved two years, and the expenditure of a lot of money. It proved that pioneering is hard, that speed comes high, and that existing records are good.

To the public that was the sum total of the trials. To those who worked on them it was but one more out of many chapters of some very interesting motorcycle history, and perhaps the beginning of other chapters to come.

Now with our story ended before it is started, we must go back in history to start it. The trouble is that nobody knows for sure just when and how the whole affair did start.

Somehow the idea germinated a couple of years ago when four men on the west coast read with moderate interest of records that were being established abroad. Of course those records were established with supercharging, and they involved varying degrees of streamlining.

Since most needs in this country are served without supercharging no one was interested in that phase. But gradually interest did rise in the matter of relieving wind resistance. First these men wondered what could be done, unsupercharged and with a shell. Then they began to figure. Soon they were reading a bout different phases of areo dynamics and that led to discussions with professors and other experts. It was found that most authorities had worked to keep something up in the air; they were not so sure how to keep it down on the ground. They all said that in actual trials would be the final proof.

Although these chats and investigations tended to bring the investigator back to where he started, it also whetted the interest to get something on paper.

And when that crew reached the point where they had something definite on paper , a speed trial at some future date was just naturally under way.

Hap Alzina was sponsor; Freddie Ludlow was rider; Bill Myers, both flyer and motorcyclist, was designer; Pete Andreson, pattern maker deluxe and all around technician, was builder; and “Red” Fenwick was mechanic.

Nights were spent first with the designs, then with aluminum tubing, airplane Spruce and Balsa wood. A carcass took shape and the rider was called for a “fitting.” No cabin with plush seats for him. Space was at a premium and weight a sin. The frame suggested that of some odd fish. When Ludlow crawled inside and flattened on the tank he looked like Jonah may have looked in the whale. Everyone agreed, “It’s a whale of an idea, whether it runs or not.” While the boys were constructing the frame Fenwick had been working on his 61. He brought out an engine that was like a mirror inside. With the plugs out, the tension of one valve spring turned the motor, transmission and rear wheel.

This 61 was 13 years old. Hap had secured it in pieces. Many parts were missing and had to be made by hand, or replaced by parts that were adapted. This was to lead to failures later on in the several tests. But the redesign of the 61 was for the primary purpose of building up horsepower, a purely experimental venture.

Winter months were giving way to the spring months. This was the year 1937. And with the advent of spring came something else; a new American record was set by Joe Petrali at Daytona. Aside from the fact that he had put the figure up to 136.183 m.p.h., he had also tried some streamlining. The west coast crew read the accounts which told how Joe’s job had tried a little flying at 124 m.p.h. and there was some more checking on design.

When it was decided that all the curves were right, the linen was stretched and doped and the paint applied. That called for another trip to Oakland on the part of Ludlow. Gone was all the fish skeleton appearance. Instead the boys trundled the “Indian Arrow” from the miniature “hangar” which had been built for it in the Alzina shop.

No speed trial is complete without these meetings of all who are concerned, careful inspection of the workmanship, and finally the ride across the shop where the rider is in place and somebody gives him about a 10 m.p.h. shove. There are almost as many thrills in that first trial as in the real run.

The writer was also given the privilege of an interior inspection. Although bigger than Ludlow he managed to get into a semblance of riding position. The tail was bolted on. The “landing wheels” were pushed down by putting feet on the pedals. Outside they said, “She’s yours. Hold her.” And right there the sensations started.

The first tendency was to tire out the legs by pushing so hard with one that the other was worn out pushing back. Over control might be a term for it.

A couple minutes of that; out of the corner of the eye looks were taken at all the surrounding struts; and, realization came that the window gave very limited vision. Another reaction; the moment eyes left the window the sense of balance was destroyed.

Then a ride. Control was surprisingly easy despite the slow speed. There again the vision through the window was necessary to balance.

A summary of impressions left one feeling that it would not be too difficult to guide the machine on a strip such as is used on the Bonneville Salt Beds, but the tow off and the stop would be something to watch. Further, there was a feeling of wonder as to just what was going to happen with so much nose, tail and fins around the rider. It was certainly something entirely new in the feel of a motorcycle.

Another high spot came when the motor was started up and for a minute given a few revs. There are some who say that plaster fell off the walls a block away. “B-z-z-z-z-z-t” said the motor and that became the password between members of the group.

It was also the signal for a trip to Muroc.

A new group of problems arose in connection with the trials. Thus far all preparationhad been in secret. Two factors were in favor of keeping the tests secret. First, as in all straightaway tests, safety of rider and equipment calls for very few visitors or observers. Secondly, a move was afoot to bar competition from Muroc Dry Lake, and no one wanted to stimulate that action.

So, the shell was placed in a trailer. It was in two sections-the nose piece and the tail piece. The motor rested alongside the shell pieces. All was covered in canvas. The result was indeed weird. As something that was supposed to be secret it looked unusual enough to attract anybody’s attention. This had to be hauled 400 miles from Oakland to Muroc and 400 miles back.

On that first trip, not long before dawn, the northern crew met the southern. “B-z-z-z-z-z-t,” they greeted each other in the dark. For thirty minutes they visited there on the lake, before snatching a few winks of sleep. It was cold and the wind blowing a gale. Right then a locomotive would have lifted, let alone a light shell. But nobody seemed to mind. They were motorcyclists fixing for speed. So they turned in for the 40 winks. Two of the boys slept in a small trailer, one slept in the back of a car, and the last crouched in the front seat. His left leg encircled the steering column while his right lay in a box of parts. Sleeping under those conditions produces more rheumatism than it does rest.

All were up before it was light enough to see across the lake. The wind was still blowing and it was cold. Wearing leathers, working by the light of a gasoline lantern, and cooking over a much shielded gasoline stove, the cook made his first raid upon the store of food that was to last four men two days. He carefully counted the eggs but gambled an extra handful of coffee in the brew.

Breakfast chased away the rheumatism demons and the motor was lifted from the trailer. Despite occasional clouds of dust out on the lake it was decided that Ludlow should give the motor a test to see if everything held. Also everyone wanted an idea of how fast the job would go without a shell. If the motor was okay, markings would have to be put on the lake and then maybe the wind would go down.

Freddie was towed off. He went “B-z-z-z-z-z-t” alright, and disappeared somewhere out in the dust. “B-z-z-z-z-z-t” and he came diving back out of the dust a few moments later. They changed plugs. He took off again. And, he didn’t come back.

Visibility was poor so the boys jumped into a car equipped with a compass. A course was set that headed for where Freddie had disappeared. About four miles over he came into sight, standing beside the machine. One look at his face and everyone knew the job was done. Towing it back to the pit a quick check showed that a rod had broken. The pressure had been great and the rod couldn’t take it. So it was loaded back beside the shell and covered.

The rods were strengthened and in a short while all met again at Muroc. The same routine of details was gone through and before more than about three rides a wrist pin had been cracked

Another winter, and finally another spring. During that winter it was decided that while speed trials were to be held it would be easy to include two class C machines, a 45 and 74 Indian. It was also decided to use the parts, when they were available, for 1939 machines.

The big job was worked over again. and when they tried it no longer went “B-z-z-z-z-z-t.” Red had hopped it up until he just twisted the throttle and the machine went “Whack.”

The first test that spring came shortly after Roland Free had gone to Daytona. This gave the two crews something to talk about. Rolly had moved the record up a round 111 for the 45 and around 109 for the 74.

The northern contingent arrived at Muroc one day before the southern crew. Selecting a course shaped like a broad “U” they put in some 200 rods with markers on top. When the southern crew arrived it was just close to dark. Ludlow crawled into his leathers, and the cook with a fishy glance at the group started peeling spuds and onions. He wasn’t far off. About three rides with the motor going “whack” and they had whacked a crank pin.

The last test at Muroc was different. Even the cook had a hunch and stocked enough for three clays. By then the cold winds were gone and the desert dry lake was dishing out some of those nice warm days at around 112 degrees. So a piece of canvas and some poles went along.

They “whacked” up and down the lake trying to estimate speed with the use of hand watches and some markers. The job performed well. After all the runs it was just as solid as when they took the first ride. Wires went out and more crew left Oakland. Weather was good and the next day they would finally try the shell.

Early next day the shell was tried. The work of two years, and something beautiful to see, it still was questionable as to shape. Nobody seemed to want to put the final bolts in place. Freddie saved the day by jumping on them and saying, “Come on you birds, let’s go.” But just before the tow-off, Hap was seen to pick up a small sledge, a big pair of tin snips and about four pyrenes. These he placed in his Ford, all set to follow the shell as best he could and ready to get the rider out if anything went amiss.

The tow was okay. The motor caught and eased around the car. It was to have curved onto the course. Instead it went straight across the lake toward the sage brush shore. A thousand guesses were made in the pits. Could’nt he see? How fast was he going? Wouldn’t it steer? Was something wrong inside? Through the glasses it was possible to see the car pull alongside and shortly they were pulling the tail off.

The car raced back to the pits. The inside of the shell had filled with dust and Ludlow couldn ‘t see or breathe. Constructing a mask of a wet towel and horse blanket pins, they fixed Freddie up so he could give her one good “whack” and see if the body wanted to lift.

Watching through the glasses again, the shell could be seen to tow off along the course. The moment the tow lines snapped the job flashed by the car. In almost the bat of an eye it jumped to around 90 m.p.h., then slowed. The racing Ford soon caught up and again they took Freddie out.

The tests were over. It had handled well, but of course the speed was not high enough to constitute much of a test. Changes would have to be made to correct the internal turbulence. At the same time parts for ‘39 models showed up ready for installation in the class C jobs.

These changes were made and the job put in order for the final trial. When all was ready, it was late enough in the year that Cobb and Eyston were on the Bonneville Salt beds.

Application was made for entry upon the course and finally came the long waited word to go. 750 miles one way for the northern crew and 1,250 for the southern crew.

Everyone met at Wendover on September 22nd. It was toward evening but a trip was made to look at the salt. And there it was, the finest speed course in the world. Thirteen miles long, smooth as a floor , and well marked. Naturally excitement was high.

The 23rd was consumed by unloading the class C jobs which had been shipped, and with one member of the party in Salt Lake City making all the final arrangements. Releases were signed and all was set for a 3:00 A.M. call on Saturday, September 24th.

The referee, Jack Williams, from Salt Lake City, arrived at the course while it was still dark. A pit was set up by flashlight. They rolled out the 45 and Ludlow appeared in his tight leathers.

The timer had been set the day before. It was electric, with the added facilities of a telephone at each end of the course. The referee and a couple of others tested the timer. The first gray showed in the east. The salt being so white, early light is quickly picked up. The sun was still below the horizon of dark mountains when they wheeled Ludlow and the 45 out for his first run. The machine was just as it had been adjusted in the shop in Oakland. The plan was to make a warm-up run, then change plugs and check carburetion. Fred went to the south of the course and squared off. Then those in the pit were treated to their first thrill of speed on the salt.

The staccato of exhaust seemed to shriek out into the stillness of the salt beds, then bounce back. The machine could be heard before it could be seen. Straining through night glasses, one could finally determine a dark speck against a grayish background of haze. Almost immediately he looked like he was upon the pits. That was the illusion of the glasses. Putting them down, with the naked eye the outfit could be seen about a mile down the course. There was barely time to listen again to the motor, note that Freddie was clear down out of sight, getting his vision through a small opening in the fork head. He was riding about six inches to the right of the left-hand marker. He rushed by. The timer clicked and the l00th-second watch began to buzz. There had also been the click of a camera and the buzz of a motion picture machine. Already Freddie was tearing off toward another haze and a dim, dark mountain to the northward.

Click again and the watch stopped. Always a tense moment, this one was the more unusual. It was the first time on the salt, the first time in these trials. The watch read 30.31 seconds. Everyone in the pit read the watch, for the time was faster than anticipated. Then a pencil flew through the figures and out came the answer, 118.78 m.p.h. Freddie had turned around and toured back to the pit.

“How did she feel?”

“She felt pretty good,” answered Freddie.

“How fast do you think you were going?”

“Oh, about a hundred and five,” he guessed.

“Yeah? Well you turned a hundred eighteen point seven eight.”

Not bad at an altitude of 4,240 feet.

That set the tempo for the morning.

Hap Alzina, who was in command of the pits, thought it would be wise to make a south run right away. They quickly changed plugs and towed the outfit to the start of the run.

When the exhaust was first picked up, of course the boys in the pits tried to guess whether it was faster or slower. There were varied opinions, but to all purposes the motor sounded about the same.

“Watch it,” said the fellow with the glasses. Almost instantly the timer clicked and the machine was in the course. Then he was through. The watch showed 32.23 seconds.

It was slower but still fast. The average amounted to 31.27 seconds or 115.126 m.p.h. Although one more run was made, still slower, the first two were to constitute the record. Later it was found that misinterpreting conditions they had gone the wrong way on plugs, and thus the slowing.

“Rack her,” said Hap, and they set the 45 a side.

Quickly they turned to the 74. Against tire company advice, a light tire was tried.

The 74 made a north trip at 30.86 seconds. On the south trip it blew the rear tire. It was a grave moment when that piece of torn tube came up and whacked the rider. Ludlow’s long experience helped him through and he set the job down without a mishap.

That finished the trials for that day. Preparations were then made to try the shell the next morning.

Sunday the 25th, the crew was up at 2:30A.M. Time passed quickly and before long Ludlow was in the shell, at the South end of the stretch waiting for enough light so they could tow him off.

Everyone had a job to do that day for extra hands were needed to start the shell, and to catch it at the finish. The writer was with Johnny Moore of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company at the point where it was thought the shell would stop. Johnny kept the motor running in his car so that we could chase the shell in case Ludlow overshot his mark.

It was dark enough that from our position one and a half miles beyond the measured mile we had but about two miles visibility. Several times we thought we caught the first notes of the 61. We did catch them. It was screaming. Through the glasses we picked up the odd looking blunt nose. In the last half of that mile it sounded like the job was really smoking and we had nearly all the thrill of seeing a new record made.

We heard Freddie taper down on the throttle, and finally heard him cut. It was impossible to judge the speed of the “Arrow.” Once the shell wobbled slightly and veered clear to the right line. Holding until the last before starting the car in motion we saw the shell straighten and pick the center, as arranged

One of us stood spraddle legged and arms out. Freddie drove the job literally into your lap. The other took the shell from the side.

Until then Johnny and I had no doubt but what it was a fast run. But Freddie soon cooled us off. Talking thru the covering he said he had gone into a speed wobble and that only in the last half of the mile had he tried as much as 5,000 revs.

The wobble we had seen was from him moving around and shutting off the gas. He wanted out so he could breathe. We started taking the tail off. Just as we pulled it loose up came the Ford which had been boiling along behind at some 90 m.p.h.

The boys in the car were surprised for they had not been close enough to see the speed wobble. It took a lot of talking that day to analyze all the results of that one fast ride. It was clear that streamlining helped. The job had handled well and accelerated beautifully until it reached a speed somewhere around 135 m.p.h. Then it wanted to “fish tail.” Freddie struggled with it a little and then had gone to 5,000 revs hoping to pull through the trouble, but things didn’t work that way.

The result of the round table discussion was, later in the day, to remove the drag fins near the tail. The spot was covered with a patch.

Early on the 26th everyone again waited daylight and another test of the shell. It was to be a North run. Ludlow went far down the course to the South. Watching from the pits, the 61 could be heard then seen. For a while it continued to pick up revs. Then there was a falter. At that same moment the job drifted clear outside the course to the rider’s left. The revs backed off slightly and as if Freddie was fighting it, the shell gradually crept back onto the course.

When it was straightened out, and just as the following Fred came along side, the revs picked up. Through the glasses it was possible to see the Ford go crazy. It hovered a round the shell like a wasp. Arms waved from the window. The revs backed down again. Then we knew Freddie was going to nurse the job into the pits for a landing.

Pictures on Page 10

Left to right: From top to bottom-Back, side and front views of the streamlined shell.

Testing at Muroc, with canvas covered shell in trailer.

Fitting rider and shell.

The special 61” o.h.v. power plant.

The tow hitch.

After a day on Muroc at 112°.

Pictures on Page 13

Left to right: From top to bottom-How the window looked from the outside, and how it looked from the inside. Round object at bottom of window is tachometer?

The men behind the streamliner, left to right,

Hap Alzina, Pete Andreson, Bill Myers, Freddie Ludlow, and “Red” Fenwick.

The salt flats crew. Two men at right are visiting members of Cautain Eyston’s crew.

Jack Williams, referee, and timer Pete Andreson, read the watch after a fast ride.

The shell showing nose and tail pieces.

Sunset views on the salt, showing the trailer with shell, and the timing stand.

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By Chet Billings
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