An American Journey Part 2

Part 1 here

After several days in the big city, we were happy to get back on the road, with the motorbikes and all the equipment following behind the Vans. Traditionally, the participants of Speedweek take the most direct route through Las Vegas, to get to Wendover as quickly as possible. However we had decided to go through Death Valley.

Our first stop was at Motel6 in Mojave, a small town where between the diesel trains with their characteristic sirens that come through continually and the military airbase there's not much opportunity for tourism, though it has a fine B-movie ambiance.  Here, already, the heat was stifling and a warning for the climate we were about to endure....

Mike's Roadhouse Cafe

Best Strawberry milk Shake around

Death Valley is indeed a burning oven, and you cannot pause there. The lunar landscape is fantastic and despite the conditions there is some vegetation, and hence some life.... I have promised myself that I will go back there someday to explore it.

Death Valley is 283 feet under the sea level

We decided to carry on and find a more hospitable place to spend the night. Tonopah in Nevada was our overnight resting place. The hotel showed us some local colour: the ground floor was a casino, and I was astonished that there seemed to be always someone playing the damned machines all hours of the day and night.

R.J the Mad

Back on the road we found ourselves at Glofield where there was a junkyard garage by the side of the road, owned by this old eccentric called RJ ... an ex-mayor of the village, a devotee(collector?) of  stock cars racing and of hoarding scrap metal..we spent a while discussing politics with him and his companions, and then got back on the road.

The miles went on and on, and we went through interminable dry valleys bordered by mountains, nothing to see, and so we pushed on as fast as possible (though our vans were limited to 95mph)(normally 55mph). But, we were going in the wrong direction: a mistake at a crossroads had led us back on ourselves. Despite all this we stumbled on this abandoned village, where everything had just been left as it was, and the unbelievable atmosphere encouraged us to stop in the junkyard in search of some treasure.
The sky was threatening, we could see an approaching sandstorm... David and Olivier had a DJ battle on the back seat of the Van, the women were dancing, I was driving and a bottle of Tequila was being passed round: a superb moment.

Finally we arrived at Austin at the end of the evening, after a 600 mile journey. Our stay 2 years previously in this lost village on Highway 50 ("The Loneliest") had left me with an amusing memory. We had stumbled upon a band of old crazies, gathered for their Hot Rod meeting, getting ready to drive to Wendover the following day, and ended up at the local saloon in a haze of bad Tequila (Cuervo). In truth we needed the help of a few drinks to get to sleep in the precarious conditions of our first night camping...

The next day, the big day, we were going to finally  reach Wendover and the famous Speedway, the final goal of our journey.
After a brief stop at Ely, we arrived at the entrance to the Speedway at the end of the afternoon in a storm with the rain pouring down.
In this  apocalyptic scene we passed the famous sign and went into the Stands to establish our camp.

Ely in Nevada is a Time Capsule

The weather was sometimes daunting, but never lasted long. We met up with our friends Kristina and Maxwell who had come from Spain and England to accompany us on our great adventure.

Tomorrow would be a great day: Speedweek was about to start!


July’s Reunion Day at Brooklands

By David Lancaster

I’m rather ashamed of not visiting Brooklands before. It’s a disgrace, surely, for a committed petrol-head, based in west London for most of his life, to have treated the world’s oldest purpose built race circuit, just a few miles from home, quite so casually. Would it live up to its history?

The first hints that it may well do so came as I snuck in behind an MG and a Bentley purring their way over the final mile or so to the well-hidden circuit entrance for this July’s Reunion meeting. On the cusp of entering, the topography begins to alert you to the fact that you’re about to enter the built environment of over 100 years ago. Brooklands is different – different not just from other theatres of racing, but from other banked circuits as well.

Nestling in glorious woodland, Brooklands was built in 1907 for one purpose: the pursuit of speed. It was Edwardian Britain’s marker in the sand: a super-confident concrete look ahead, built on the then unquestioned trinity of Empire, optimism and the coming internal combustion engine. Today’s roads, signage, planning… even the chicanes implanted on modern race circuits, all aim to limit speed, not raise it. Not at Brooklands: and so what was once so modern, now seems so old-fashioned.

The day promised runs up the ‘Test Hill’ which is still in semi-regular use. The famous banking, on which cars and bikes would tear around in search of a 100mph lap, and a Brooklands Gold Star, is now a worn, rather down-at-heel echo of the brave men and women (such as mechanical engineer and racer Beatrice Shilling) who raced and tested basic suspension to its limits on its steep inclines. But the Hill survives much as it was.

Beatrice Shilling

Banked racing circuits fascinate. Brooklands is the third one I’ve visited. Each one tells a story – of style, country, machinery, architecture, attitudes to safety, finance, moto-history.

France’s Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry is one of Europe’s most famous. Owned for a period by the French government, for most of its life it was run by the French car-makers’ body, and used for high-speed testing and world record attempts. It is mostly open to the elements of wind, sun, or rain. Dating from 1924, it hosted the Les Coupes Moto de Legende meetings in the 1990s until the event moved to a more conventional circuit near Dijon.

The heavily banked Michelin test track is even more of a bleak, modernist monster – isolated, sun-blazed, it lies deep in rural France, near the company’s Clermont Ferrand HQ. It still, unlike many such tracks, fulfills its original purpose of being used for high-speed motorcycle and car tyre testing. Riding a Honda CBR600 at a Michelin tyre launch in 1989, unprofessionally hungover and following the factory test riders at 100mph, the experience engendered in me both a deep respect for anyone who’s ever raced on a banked circuit, and a decision never to anything like that again.


As different as each one is, banked circuits court danger on every lap. Getting it wrong on an infield is one thing – doing the same at the edge of control, gravity, performance and suspension is another. A crash at the 1928 Grand Prix at Monza saw the loss of driver Emilio Materassi and 27 spectators. Montlhéry, in 1964, saw more drivers and marshals perish in an accident. The speeds obtainable, not just on the banking, but crucially on the straights following them, were often simply beyond either the cars’ safety features, or the circuits’.
Brooklands, by contrast, looks and feels from an earlier generation. From another age, in many ways – the 20 years between its birth, and the construction of Linas-Montlhéry for example, might not seem much now, but those years saw the massacre of the First World War, and massive changes in cars and bikes’ reliability and performance.

The Surrey circuit is from an age of relative innocence, then, when high speed driving could be conducted in the outer suburbs of London with just the aid of a flat cap, set of cotton overalls and the famous Brooklands silencer to keep the locals happy. It still has a friendly, shaded ethos and design; it is more redolent of art nouveau than the clean, art-deco later variations on the theme. Only Spain’s elegantly-wasting Sitges-Terramar Autodromo is of a similar hue and survives; urban, tree-lined, it too earned its keep with an in-circuit airfield facility for a while, just like Brooklands.

Autodromo Terramar

‘The Hill’ at Brooklands was built in 1909 as ‘a facility to encourage use of the track for development and test work,’ according the Brooklands Museum guide. Some 352 feet long with three sections, the starting gradient is ‘1 in 8, then 1 in 5 and the top third has a gradient of 1 in 4.’ First used by manufacturers to test the ability of cars to ascend gradients, soon it was reversed as well, to test brakes coming down.

Cars and bikes both tested their metal on it, the latter having on the ascent the ‘more daunting prospect of not only taking to the air but probably parting company with their machines in the process.’ But the bikes were faster. ‘On 9th June 1936 Francis Beart, on a Grindlay-Peerless, fitted with a 500cc speedway-type J.A.P. engine, established the all-time Test Hill Record at 6.99 seconds (an average of 34.55 mph),’ according to Brooklands website. ‘Beart came off on landing, but was unhurt,’ it states. Beart’s name would come up later in my day at Brooklands.

Soon enough I was joining a patient line of pre-war motorcycles, queuing to take their run. There was a good range of makes lining up – Sunbeams, whose cars and bikes were a theme of the day; Nortons, of course, A Brough and a Vincent HRD series A Comet. The briefing had warned us to throttle down near the top in order to make the sharp right. Watching the cars for tips earlier, I noted some held first gear, others sneaked in a change.

I opted to reach for second gear, and discovered the flat-ish section half way up, offering a slight pause in which to shift. It soon emerged that the ‘one run’ rule outlined in the briefing was a fittingly louche Edwardian one, so we were blessed with four or five further chances to gun our bikes skywards. Each run was neater, a little faster, and more fun. Like a sprint, it is a moment of exhilaration – booked-ended either side by less exciting activity. But just how often do you get to grab the first two gears on a piece of concrete of this vintage and provenance? And then potter back for the next run, via the rough, un-kept banking?

Like most bikes of the pre-war period, Vincent HRDs were raced at Brooklands. The top of the range, 1000cc V-twin Rapide gained several 100mph laps for riders – and its success was used promote the bikes in the firm’s ongoing battle with the other British high-end, large V-twin manufacturer of the time, Brough Superior. ‘Last Saturday,’ a Vincent HRD advert from 1938 records proudly, ‘Mr P M Aitchison won the first long handicap at the Campbell Circuit at Brooklands…’ Much of this is, of course, recorded in the numerous books about Vincent HRDs and their exploits.

So it was a fine and unexpected discovery later in the day, on looking through a photo album in the care of the Brooklands Society, to find unseen pictorial evidence of the marque’s activities there. And puzzling, too. For there, nestling in this recently unearthed album chronicling ace tuner Francis Beart’s tuning and racing work, was a shot of the marque’s ill-fated 500cc foray into supercharging, captioned simply: ‘BLOWN H.R.D.’

 Yet, it was believed neither of the two Works blown pre-war Vincent HRDs known of made it to anywhere near Brooklands. Phil Irving, Vincent HRD’s co-designer, states in his Autobiography that the two blown Comets he built were tested at Donnington (being ‘reasonably free from observation’) before being dispatched in June to the Isle of Man for the 1936 TT. And that was the end of them as due to poor, hot, unpredictable running, the blowers were removed before the Senior race, never again – so it was thought – to be fitted to a single cylinder Vincent HRD.

Yet here, in black and white, was a blown bike, at Brooklands, circa 1936-37. Did Beart have anything to do with the bike? Was the work of it a rogue privateer? Peart turned his hand to all sorts of projects - the album features a pre-war BMW with a blower fitted by him. And after the war, he had great success with Norton powered Formula 3 cars. Did he work on this bike? Research since then has found no further clues as to the blown bike.

A page or so later lay a further gem: a shot of factory-backed rider Pat McIver, cornering at speed at Brooklands on his Comet Special. McIver (without a blower) won a Gold Star on the bike, with a lap at 101.6mph in 1935. Not bad for a 500cc road-based bike with just mild tuning from standard; this, an engine designed and built in six months, and the first engine of the factory’s own manufacture.

Pat McIver on the Comet, The so-called ‘Brooklands can’ was introduced, for cars and bikes, in 1924, providing a solution - of sorts - to local protests at the noise from testing, racing and sprinting. Today, a Brooklands can fitted will see a bike or car emit a still loud, but rather bass note report from its exhaust.

And so moto-culture still throws up the unknown, the unexpected. Brooklands with over 100 years of history, has exhumed yet another ghost of speed – and the mystery of ‘BLOWN HRD’ for now, endures.

Pictures David LancasterRick Parkington
All © David Lancaster, 2012