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Speed Racers

Northsiders set two-wheeled record at the Utah salt flats

By Stephen Carter-Novotni · September 23rd, 2008 · Cover Story

Maybe the reason men aren’t gifted with the ability to give birth is that we would spawn monsters. That’s what Len Kerkhoff did and does every day.

He hatches chaotic, two-wheeled beasts from the decaying corpses of yesterday’s motorcycles. He climbs on their backs and hurtles himself through the streets as fast as his rebuilt engine will take him.

On first glance Len’s garage in Northside, Autobahn Craftwerks — originally his dad’s radiator shop — appears to be a pretty mellow place. It’s a living museum of moto history. Classic Italian, Japanese and Len’s favorites, BMW motorcycles, shine, adorned in buffed chrome and fresh paint, their engines winding up with more life than bikes that just hit the showroom floor. He sells new scooters, too, if that’s your thing.

But even if you’re not a bike person by nature, it’s hard not to get caught up in the passion and excitement these machines inspire — the old ones especially. If the romance doesn’t grab you, the beat will. That is a 400-pound vibrator you’re asking your girlfriend to sit on.

It was around last Christmas that Len watched The World’s Fastest Indian with his wife. The film tells the story of Burt Munro (played by Anthony Hopkins), a crusty, cantankerous kiwi from New Zealand (bearing a few similarities to Len) who decided to travel to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and set a world record speed.

Kerkhoff’s wife tilted her head toward him, asking, “You’re not gonna do that, are you?”

“And I said, ‘Naw.’ And then I started building the next day,” he says.

It’s been since then that Kerkhoff worked with his friend Eric Ratermann on the ground-up restoration and rebuilding of a vintage BMW R50/2 frame with a circa 1954 500cc air-cooled BMW engine. Bright orange, basic and customized with cool, polished metal accents, it’s retro-futuristic like a Buck Rogers ride. It’s destination was Bonneville, where they’d aim at setting national speed records.

“It’s like riding an old Chevrolet as opposed to a new one,” Kerkhoff says. “It’s harder to ride, and it’s more fun.”

Bonneville looks like it’s another planet. The flats are 6-feet deep with salt — lifeless, white and flattened by rain to the curvature of the Earth. Nearby mountains appear to float at the horizon. It’s the perfect dead zone to launch yourself on a rocket, and that’s just what draws thousands of riders, drivers and spectators there every year.

Kerkhoff and Ratermann made their runs in the first week of this month. A rider gets two passes, five miles out and five miles back. The first two miles are to build up speed, and you’re clocked at the beginning and end of mile three.

Miles four and five are to slow down. You repeat this on the way back, and your times are averaged to arrive at your speed.

Kerkhoff and Ratermann rode in two different national classes at Bonneville: Kerkhoff in Altered Vintage Gas (AVG) and Ratermann in Semi-Streamlined Vintage Gas (SVG). They were eligible for SVG by adding a fairing to their bike, Ratermann explains, which gave them two bites at the apple.

The classes are new at Bonneville, so the top speeds reached this year are the benchmarks that future racers will try to beat. Kerkhoff says he broke 92 miles per hour and Ratermann reached 104 miles per hour. These speeds are still unnoficial as they haven’t yet been rati fied by the American Motorcyclist Association.

Kerkhoff describes his enthrallment with the run — just a few minutes of riding after a months-long roller coaster build-up — as infectious. Along with all the tension of hitting his best speed, a rider has to maintain control on the flats, which feels a bit like riding on sand.

“It’s very alien,” Ratermann says. “Most people say it looks like Mars. In many ways a lot of people compare it to being on snow. The salt in front of you just fills the horizon from edge to edge.”

"It’s more of a mental thing,” Kerkhoff says, compar ing it to road racing. “You’ve got to get your head together.”

According to Ratermann, they didn’t know anything about land speed racing when they started. They were simply compelled by the idea and the unknowns that came along with it.

This focus extended like an arrow, all the way from its inception to that day on salt.

“Everything is very small on the flat,” Ratermann explains. “You’re very small on the flat. It’s so great an expanse.”

Racing on a landscape that’s nearly empty of reference objects dampens the rider’s sense of speed, he says.

Their victory and the electricity of the week were saddened by the tragic death of Cliff Gullet of Montana, who lost control of his bike while racing in the same locale. Kerkhoff and Ratermann heard the news the day after Gullet’s accident.

“We had a moment of silence, and then we went right back to racing,” Ratermann says. “I think if he’s an angel looking down that’s what he would have wanted.”

Len Kerkhoff went to the Bonneville Salt Flats with Eric Raterman and survived to tell the tale.




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