With the Southern California Timing Association’s Speed Week event scheduled to run August 9-15 this year, recent sprinkles had bumped the planned start by just a day, with first actual runs to start on Monday instead of Sunday. Not bad. When I arrived Friday afternoon, everything was looking promising. The short drive from I-80 to the “Y” intersection of the access road to the salt and Leppy Pass Road to the camping areas at the foot of the Silver Island Mountains was jammed with traffic and vehicles parked on the shoulder. Several BLM Rangers were directing the stream of traffic, asking each driver what they hoped to do, and then directing them as needed.
I made my way up toward last year’s campsite, found a workable area, and parked just long enough to yank the Evelo Aurora off the front end of the Ford. Racers are nothing if not celebratory partygoers, and although I found a level spot, I saw RVs closer to the mountains and wanted to investigate without putting the rig at risk. See, I like sleeping at night. Also the ground in this area now looked like it was turning into a wash, with dried mud flows promising future adventures in a long-term stay. The road out toward the mountains was okay for the ground-hugging Defiant, but tended to have shoulders that would drag the rear skids on pulling off it. Opportunities to turn around promised to be very sparse should I go very deeply in. But, I didn’t need to. I investigated a side trail heading off toward a small group of RVs and found a perfect spot near them that would allow positioning the trailer for maximum solar power. I set up camp.
I had apparently set the Defiant near a nest of flying ants who had a pronounced attraction for the trailer and anyone on the windward side of it, which made the solar panel deployment less pleasurable than it might have otherwise been. They seemed to have a bizarre attraction for the white rubber trim inserts at the leading corners of the roof, and massed there for awhile. They became a frequent nuisance inside the trailer too, and I reluctantly broke out the Raid to do battle on the ground. A building wind ended that effort in a draw, I like to think.
Not settling for the first campsite to present itself turned out to be a good thing, though. At least one of the partying racers had firecrackers and aerial fireworks, and the celebrations in the spot I had vacated went on late into the night – until the rain started.
That night beheld a rain that was just heavy enough to be a concern, not for me but for the racing event. That’s because all of the area surrounding the salt flats leads water into it. The next morning it was all over, in more ways than one. With the sun now brightly out, one of the local campers, a racer, wandered over to check out the Defiant’s odd solar setup and told me that the course now had a foot of water over it, and Speed Week had been cancelled. Ugh. That was disappointing for me, but a catastrophe for the myriad of racers who had worked and saved all year to be able to take a whack at the standing records. Although many were semi-local, some had made their way over the Great Waters to defend their records, and perhaps improve on them. Their investment had been sobering, but Nature could not be defied.
So, resigned to simply wait for the next event a couple of weeks away, I set two goals for the day: do laundry in town, and see the submerged race course at the end of the access road. I loaded up the Ibex trailer with clothing and detergent, added a few water bottles, and headed for West Wendover where a Texaco gas station doubles as a laundromat. It was a 9.4-mile trip, and by the end of it, the Aurora was limping. That was likely because I had put some goodly miles on its battery pack just before leaving Sandwich, Illinois. The moderate but very long grades here were taking their toll. At the listless rate the e-bike was crawling toward the end, I wondered if I’d be able to return to camp under power. Perhaps packing all that water had not been overkill after all.
I completed the laundry in an efficient and effective manner, answering a few inquiries about the e-bike during the drying cycle, and then packed up for the return trip. This time, I was careful to watch every rise and fall of the display’s watt meter and found that taking it easy and making very slight adjustments to the gearhub ratios could make a big difference in power usage. There were two challenging climbs onroute, but I made it back to camp without having to personally struggle with either. I let the bike do that. I maintained a speed of around 11 miles per hour most of the way, since I didn’t want the trip to take forever in the unrelenting sun and heat. I was also very careful not to blow myself out trying to preserve battery power for when I would most need it. It all worked out.
So that was 18.8 miles total that trip, and who knows how many miles on that pack earlier. This one trip was far longer than I would have been able to manage on the Raleigh, but I didn’t feel so taxed that I wasn’t game for a quick battery swap and a quick trip out to the track after dropping the bike trailer. That round trip was 11.1 miles at maximum speed, naturally.
That evening, I was very graciously invited by the group of racers and support people around me to a rather elaborate supper. Despite my quirky aversion to social gatherings, racers are a different story, literally. The wearing griping about politics, taxes, work, weather, and gossip are absent. Racers remain maniacally upbeat as they relate facts, experiences, events, and future plans.
The gold nugget in this particular gathering was that a record-holding team from the Isle of Mann would be present. Mann is a windswept island, a British Crown Dependency on the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. Just 30 miles across, it is the nerve center of motorcycle racing: the Isle of Mann Tourist Trophy race began in 1907 and has built up influence and respect ever since. It is a historical gem in its own right, a sort of coming-of-age proof for scores of British and European motorcycle manufacturers over the years – and still today. Some half-dozen major events take place each year, amateur and pro, cutting edge and vintage historic. There is no “race track”, and neither are there any two-lane roads there. All racing takes place on the selected narrow paved roads that wind some 38 miles through towns and forests.
So the group that was to arrive were not big shots or a faceless corporate team, but pedigreed heavy-hitters in the motorcycle racing world. They were a small group of friends who liked to see what could be accomplished. The downside was that they had blown some $70,000 to get here with all their equipment, and had endured the senseless pain of legally documenting every hand tool and spare part they’d brought. Every piece would have to be accounted for on exit from the U.S. They found this particularly irksome, since as an outsider wanting to race at one of their events, all you need is a passport and a ticket to load all your crap onto an Isle of Mann Steam Packet Ferry. Then unload and go racing. Naturally, the last-minute cancellation of the Speed Week event was a bitter disappointment, but they took it all with a remarkably upbeat stoicism. The main pilot tried to be philosophical about it, as he felt that, at age 52, he was too old to ever return for another try. Naturally, I found this confusing, but accepted that I was missing key information that I had the manners not to press for.
This was an interesting group. One was holding the record for his vehicle class, another ran a blog about whiskies and “whiskey tastings”, devoting his meager proceeds to worthy causes. Possessing a thorough knowledge of distilling, he had also located and picked up a few unique brands during his travels in the U.S. You Jack Daniels fans can forget it, as it’s no more representative of a fine whiskey as Budweiser is to beer. Another racer, and the one that I spent the most time with, was enjoying his first trip to America. It was kind of an amazed enjoyment. He used to own an RV camp in Mann, and was now retired, funding his escapades by gardening for others a couple of days a week. After the physical constraints of a lifetime in Mann, his “wow moment” occurred here when the GPS in their rental van announced, “turn left in 108 miles”. That doesn’t happen where he comes from. The view of the vast expanse around our encampment also held his interest as just one of those things that just can’t be, but is.
Chris is his name, and as proof of his interest in his hobby, he admitted that he owns 39 motorcycles, mostly vintage Japanese bikes. Crazy, huh? Well maybe not so crazy. First, he has two friends who each own well over 100 bikes each. Secondly, the group agreed that a careful selection of bikes amounted to a strong income opportunity in the long run. Because of the historical significance of the many, many orphaned models there, demand remains strong even in these times. The market value of any well-chosen model over 15 years old begins to trend upward at that point, making an “old used bike” morph into a “collector’s item”. This deeply confused one of the local Harley owners, who had complained of spending $300 in gas to get here. He wanted to know if there were any Harley-Davidsons there, and had only a vague familiarity with Triumphs and Nortons. All of the myriad of other historical British makes were news to him, and I had the feeling he wondered why anyone would want to pay out good money for an ancient and obscure British bike that nobody ever heard of. It’s not that he was dumb, but that, here in the U.S. we tend to value only what is popular. Why would you want a ’54 Packard that placed well in the Pan-American Races when a ’57 Chevy is available? It’s just a sort of cultural gulf.
Since I was sitting beside Chris and was involved in the discussion, he eventually noted my lack of an accent and asked how I was associated with the group. When I let him know I was just the yahoo camped in that wreckage over there, I made up for it by briefly faking a British accent as best I could, which prompted the praise of “very good job” by the group, mixed with the integral dismissal of “oh, that’s upper-crust”. At that point I had to admit that my fakery came long ago, courtesy of Upstairs, Downstairs, with which they were not familiar at all. (That’s a British 1960s TV series about the challenges facing a pre-WWI upper-class family and the servants they employed to run their manor. Kind of a character study in class distinctions.)
The most spectacular example given was two brothers there who had inherited their late father’s estate, consisting of a house and a shed. “I’m having the house,” one insisted, “And you get whatever’s in the shed.” His brother, a motorcycle enthusiast, had no need to console himself, as the shed contained a half-dozen valuable old motorcycles. In fact, one was (and is) particularly valuable, current value now above $400,000 alone. The name was mentioned, but I’ve forgotten it. Anyway, the first brother neither knew about nor cared a bit about such old junk, and figured himself the “winner” in taking the $100,000 house. The second brother has not sold his father’s motorcycles, as he is not forced to by circumstance, and they are a fond remembrance of him. The moral, I suppose, is that knowledge is a vital component of greed. When it’s lacking, you may get what you want, but not all you hoped for.
The issue of the perception of safety was breached, and in that regard, the societal differences stood out. Here, every racing fatality is perceived as an indignant rallying cry for better equipment, improved tracks, or the permanent end of that event. The public road track in Mann is a throwback to 1900-1960 car racing venues, ended by newspaper editorials claiming and whipping up public outcry at the carnage. Then again, spectator loss of life was comparatively great when it occurred, as people just assumed that nothing bad could happen, and lined the streets without a thought to comparative risk at different vantage points. Once street racing was outlawed, dedicated race tracks sometimes concentrated the problem by concentrating spectators into massive grandstands. Match the right mechanical problem with the right location, and each 3,000-pound disintegrating parts grenade, usually on fire, flew into the grandstands with horrifying results. Now you’re talking public outcry, and all of the classic European racing venues are defunct, save for occasional commemorative vintage events.
The descendants of public road racing today are desert racing and international rally car racing, both forms of off-road racing. There Darwin’s Law still applies to spectators, who occasionally run out to choke down the track to a single lane, but the media no longer pays any attention to these interesting niche events, and the toughened race vehicles present fewer opportunities for calamity.
In Mann, both the physics and attitudes are different than they are here. It’s considered that a motorcycle in trouble at 100-200+ MPH while on a very narrow course lined with buildings and trees is going to present some problems and suffer some natural results no matter what you do. I think it revolves around the concept of personal responsibility: there will be a racing event here, and you are welcome to participate or spectate. It is the same course used for over 100 years, and it’s even more risky an undertaking than it was at the start, because speeds are so much higher. If you come to race and your bike breaks or you make a mistake or hit a slick spot, you could be killed. If you want to watch, we will help you find a safe vantage point. However, this is a racing event, not lawn chair entertainment. If you choose to stand in the most dangerous parts of the track, Darwin’s Law will hold, and you may be killed when an accident occurs. We will do what we can to help, given the existing constraints, but it is up to the individual to manage their own risk. If you want risk, it’s available in full supply. Your choice.
If I remember rightly, racer fatalities average 60 over each annual course of six events, something unthinkable here on the flat, featureless voids that pass for race tracks. The demands on emergency responders at each event is obviously much more than the tiny Isle of Mann can muster, so numerous crews with equipment and supplies are imported for each event. It’s a major undertaking. But the consistent historical base of each motorcycle event has weaved itself so strongly into the national character of Mann that there is no option but to accept the losses as well as the victories, and challenge on.
The story was told of one widow of a racer who died in his event. Instead of collapsing and hiring legal guns to financially atone for his death, she prearranged his funeral in a spectacular but personal way, one which she felt would honor him in a way that he would want. She quickly located and acquired the fastest hearse she could find, had it modified for additional speed by some race car fabricators, and made special arrangements with the local police to have the hearse be able to go through town on blocked-off intersections on its way to the cemetery, at speed. She hired a race car pro to pilot the hearse. A full motorcycle honor guard would follow close behind, of which Chris was one participant. He told me that the hearse went flat-out through both turn and straightaway, going through the intersections at around 90 MPH past the police standing guard. Only some of the vintage racing motorcycles could keep up. But, none of the following parade could hang on at all once the long straights up in the forest came. He estimated that the hearse was hitting a solid 150 at points, losing everyone including himself. “And” he said to me, “We were all going flat-out the whole time! We couldn’t keep up, even in town!” He thought for a moment and added, “But that’s how we do things in Mann.”
The police? The consensus was that the police in Mann are down-to-earth and pragmatic. A speeding ticket doesn’t hurt as much as having to get out of the car and walk back to the last speed limit sign and return, to report what it says. The verbal warning to not be caught speeding again starts to carry some weight at that point. Speeding is not a big problem in Mann, I gathered.
Spectating is particularly interesting, I was told. The driving precision needed is incredible, requiring a line through turns that does not vary more than a fraction of an inch. Cut a turn too wide, and you lose a lot of speed and time. You are then literally wasting your time out there. Cut the turn too close, and you’ll gather in a curb, fence, tree, bush, or building. As a spectator at a race in Mann, you have no need of binoculars, because the racers are never more than a few feet away as they pass by, and often, inches. The visitors related bringing some American friends to watch one event and, located on the inside of a particularly fast kink in the road, they stood between two buildings to watch the racers tear by. They said that the effect of a modern competition motorcycle firing past at 230 or so at a turn where they cannot afford to let off and lose momentum, is daunting. When the rider is getting as close to the building as he possibly can while still at full throttle at those speeds, it’s intimidating. I can attest that it’s not so much the ear-splitting noise as it is the pressure waves of air pounding you from head to toe. You can feel the car’s presence, and for me that was race cars some 30 feet away doing some 140 MPH, climbing at full throttle. Here we have a bike doing twice that speed, a foot or two away. When the first bike shot past, one American friend was overwhelmed by the “shock and awe” aspect and instinctively scampered away some distance. “I’m just not ready for this,” he said, trying to gather his nerves back together. I believe it. Think of standing 50 yards from a space shuttle launch, only it’s “instant-on”. It’s that kind of thing.
So I have to say that this was one social gathering that I was distinctly honored to attend, and one that I will, alzheimer’s excepted, not soon forget. Today, as I write this, nearly all of the racers have departed, it’s a wistful 94 on the outdoor thermometer, and I’m laying low for the day. The weekend and week ahead is in theory a total loss, but not for me, and perhaps not for all who were here. Some will be back for the follow-up October event run by the same organization. And so will I be.
My spectacular rig is planted well over the legal 100 feet from a main roadway, so I would expect to get tossed out by a passing BLM Ranger, but now I’m not so sure. See, there are some porta-potties planted at various points, which look like they may have been distributed by the BLM for this event. One of them is in my area. So we’ll see. Meanwhile, I’ve got a grocery run to make tomorrow on the Aurora, and I’ll perhaps get a better idea of how a fresh battery holds up in this distant and somewhat desolate area. Temps don’t really get brutal until they hit their peak at 5PM each day. So if I complete my run before, say, 2PM, I’ll have time to recover in repose, with a fan blowing on me and an iced tea in hand.