Bonneville 1969—The Turning Point

An era of titans was on the horizon but what was to be the old guard was still setting records on the salt

Legends of 20th-century speed meet on the salt.Archives

Savvy eyes looking out over Bonneville's salt in 1969 would have seen change in the shimmering air. An era of titans was on the horizon. Don Vesco was there with Big Red, nudging the clock tantalizingly close to 250 mph. The next decade would see records fall time and time again—and a spectacular duel between Harley-Davidson-mounted roadracing legend Cal Rayborn and Vesco's Yamahas. But in 1969, the old guard was still putting up a fight.

Detroit Triumph dealer Bob Leppan, defending the 1966 two-wheel speed record with his twin-engine Gyronaut X-1, was still very much in the hunt. And representing the hardscrabble post-war tinkerers that made Bonneville so special, there was Burt Munro. At 70 years old and riding a machine that was not much younger, Munro was the very personification of grit and guile—and still chasing records on his old Indian.

Over the following decade, the motorcycle land speed record would edge upward by 73 mph. The world’s fastest riders were a staggering 30 percent faster in 1979 than they were at the time of Burt Munro’s run here. But Bonneville is never easy. Munro would miss his record in 1969, and while he would return to Bonneville, his record-setting years were over. The salt skunked the new guard too. Vesco would come out swinging in 1970 with revisions to Big Red, setting records and showing conclusively that a new generation of riders was at Bonneville to stay.