I’m joking with my brother David as we are rolling along the freeway, headed to the Mojave Desert.
David’s a boisterous, laughing sort of guy who loves people, has lots of opinions (don’t we all?) and shares a new joke every day.
We talk about past adventures and a little bit about Dad.
He is planning a run at beating a world speed record today.
I haven’t been very clear on exactly what is involved with beating this record.
The criteria/category for the record is:
100 cubic inch engine
The current record: 176 miles per hour. Dad considers it a "soft record" not a difficult one to break. He hopes he to bury it with a speed of over 200 mph. If everything goes right, he thinks he could hit 220.
The Southern California Timing Assoc. times the runs at El Mirage by providing 1.3 miles for racers to get up to speed. Then there is 132 feet between two sets of lasers that calculates the speed.
This is different from the Bonneville races in Utah. The Utah Salt Flats Racing Association allows the racers four miles to get up to speed. Then they are timed for one mile. If it is a record, then the racer turns around and races back. The two speeds are then averaged.
El Mirage isn’t long enough to permit this.
The trick in beating this record is the open faring. Aerodynamics are critical at such speeds, and a motorcycle which isn’t using aerodynamics is plowing roughly through hot desert air.
Running on dirt is tricky. There is very little traction for such powerful engines. The danger is in the back end trying to swing around toward the front.
The motorcycle is not built for slowing down. It remains under pretty good control only when it is accelerating. Decelerating is different. It does not handle well with the weight on the front tire. Also, it doesn’t turn well. The rider must manage to coax it back down to less than 120 mph and then lean it ever so slightly so it makes a great curving arc before coming to the end of the lake.
The fuel is 85 percent nitro and 15 percent methane. Under compression such fuel is explosive. It is very easy to have it tear an engine apart. In fact, the mixture is designed to just approach the edge of engineering failure in the distance the bike will travel.
And it costs about 10 times the price of regular fuel.
Dad shared that no one has ever set a world record at age 70. Another reason for this run at glory.
David and I followed the white pickup all the way out to the desert. We stopped for breakfast about 15 miles from the lake. I had biscuits and gravy (I know, I know, it isn’t good for me) and sent my daily postcard home.
Throughout the drive, throughout the chatter with my brother and the surprises that California highways seem to spring on laid back Oregon drivers, the conversation I had with my father the night before echoed in my head, more importantly, in my heart.
I had come to a small realization, a tiny epiphany of the heart that my sense of right and wrong can diminish my love for others.
I needn’t judge, I needn’t evaluate, I needn’t stand large over my father’s sins and place myself over him.
I think I grew up a little last night.
This was the day my dad had dreamt of. It was the day he would face the challenge of engineering and skill and see if he could tune a machine and himself to finesse enough speed out of that 400 horsepower machine to set a world record.
I was a little concerned that at the end of the day I would see him loaded into an ambulance or a helicopter.
But it didn’t matter.
Well it did matter. It mattered enough that I paused every so often to whisper to my King...
“Thy will be done...”
I stayed out of the way of the inspectors and mechanics and employees of my father’s business...
I stayed near enough to ask pertinent questions about the challenge of this event, the details of the engineering, to learn which sort of things were of concern and which were not.
I kept soaking my hat with water and dropping it on my head...
The sun bounced from the white hard pan and made my eyes ache...
The sweat washed the sun block from my forehead and stung my eyes...
And I helped my dad in any little way I could.
They tested the engine. The sound was like a repeated crack of thunder rolling into the rumble of a volcano. The smell startled me. The acrid methane/nitro mixture burned the eyes, assaulted the nose like horseradish. The roar evened out, half of those standing nearby had their fingers in their ears.
It was ready.
He was number 179 in line and about 10:30 we heard the call for our group of racers and we pushed the motorcycle and the chase vehicle into line.
I helped the engine builder free the bike from its stand every ten minutes or so and we shoved the bike another 40 feet along the dusty desert.
The tingle along the collar of my tee shirt told me that the sun block was a little thin there.
As we got closer to the front my dad headed off to use the outhouse.
“Final preparations,” I thought with a small sardonic smile.
He came back and one of his employees and I helped him into his leathers.
His pants came off, the leather ones went on. Then his leather riding boots...
I zipped his coat to his pants... shoved his elbow and pulled on the gloves...
He sat down on the bike, no racer between him and the shimmering mirage over the desert.
I shook his hand, impulsively pulled his head over and kissed his cheek.
The guy has been a jerk.
He has done many things wrong.
He has been arrogant and self-centered and has dominated my life in ways that only a father can do...
And I love him terribly.
With that peck on his cheek a wordless prayer leapt from my heart...
He shoved the helmet over his head, clipped the leather jacket to it...
The official gave him a thumbs up as I snapped a couple of pictures, trying to stay out of the way of the camera crew.
J.D. and Bill attached the external starter, hit the switch and the engine shouted its titan’s voice across the desert.
We stood back... He eased out the clutch.
I wondered if he was going to die within the next minute or so.
He sought to keep the power just right, just on the edge of not losing too much traction. Four hundred horses can turn a wheel pretty hard.
Within seconds he was disappearing ahead of the rooster tail of dust climbing slowly into the still, thin desert air.
The chase vehicle took off... the large duelly pickup would tow the bike back
Isaac came up to me... wanting me to look at the video he had taken... oblivious to the sound of my father still shifting gears on the powerful motorcycle. I shook my head and concentrated on the still loud growl of that engine as it went through its gears.
That was its top... but the engine never howled the way it should when it is running with peak efficiency...
Then it began to let off...
I strained for any sudden stopping of that engine. If he tumbled the lanyard attached to him would yank the switch... shutting off fuel, shutting of the electronics.
Instead it slowly faded off... stopped.
And I exhaled.
I couldn’t see through the distant dust, but I knew my father was all right.
The announcer’s voice blared from the speakers...
“Final speed for number 659: 126 miles per hour.”
We went back to the engine builder’s trailer and waited. The tension of the day ending with an anticlimatic stroll to the cooler for cold beer.
Dad came back... oil staining his right leg where it had blown out of the front cylinder. The spark plugs looked like they had never gotten hot enough. The down side to such large meets. All that time spent in preparing and only one chance to get it right. The fuel had probably been a little too rich.
I smiled at my dad... slapped him on the back, told him I loved him. Made a show of getting the road maps out, having my sons give grampa a hug.
He reminded me that he’ll fly me to Thailand anytime I want. I thanked him.
We got in the van.
I rolled across the desert in that family van, thinking about my sons and what kind of grampa I will be.