Web-based Motorcycle Team Sets Land Speed Record

Moto Guzzi Rules

December 10, 1999:

photo by Romina Derra

For folks who like to go fast, the Bonneville Salt Flats are Mecca. The actual speeds they reach there may not be the tops -- the grainy surface and thin air knock a few mph off what a determined motorist can do on, say, a good stretch of Texas highway -- but the wide-open expanse, the tradition, and the challenge of racing against the best have made Bonneville the clear standard when it comes to land speed records. Twice a year, thousands of speed freaks make the pilgrimage to the Utah desert to pitch their tents on the flats for a five-day frenzy of motor madness. One who made the trek this past October -- and came back with two land speed records for the motorcycle he customized in his Central Austin garage -- is Russell Duke, by day a mild-mannered husband, father, and engineer at Applied Materials, by night an avid bike mechanic and rider, and "lead wrench" for the Moto Guzzi Land Speed Record Team.

Motorcycle enthusiasts share a unique bond, with their own language and customs. A passion for, say, V-twins, or Harley-Davidsons, or thumpers (four-stroke, single cylinder bikes) can transcend a lot of social barriers. In Duke's case, the passion is for Italian bikes, and it's no surprise that he would fall in with other fans of the Moto Guzzi brand. But even considering that, this was an odd team. What was unusual here was that this group had gotten together online, through the Moto Guzzi discussion group, and with a few exceptions, had never met before they got to Bonneville. What had started as a tease -- "I bet a Guzzi could break that Harley's record!" -- became a challenge -- "Well, you want to go after it?" -- and eventually a team. But although they had collaborated on the project for months -- raising money, planning the record attempt and its logistics, putting together a Web site, printing T-shirts, raising more money, making the necessary arrangements with Bonneville, getting a 75-foot Moto Guzzi hot air balloon, and, oh yeah, building the bike itself -- few of them had actually ever laid eyes on each other before they traveled cross-country to meet on the salt flats. They had a team leader from New Jersey, riders from Florida and Ohio, a computer geek from Duluth, Minnesota, and of course, Duke. None of them had ever tried anything like this before.

After all the preparation, there turned out to be some drama at the end, and again, even from the relative wilds of the Nevada desert, it was the usenet group that bailed them out. After the bike surprised them all by rather easily bettering the existing record on its first run, it was discovered that it was missing a small body part, and thus couldn't be considered stock. Then they thought, "Well, we are the Moto Guzzi owners in the country," recalls Duke. "We just thought, "Who do we know who's got a bike that'd have it? --' and we called up Godfrey, over in San Francisco; he said sure, went out and took it off his bike, and had it to Federal Express within a couple of hours."

The bike eventually got two records in its 1,000cc class: as a stock bike, the category the Team had been pointing for, and also, on the last completed run of the entire meet, in the "A-Frame Partial Streamliner Pushrod Gas" classification, where a couple of minor tweaks (such as Duke building "velocity stacks" out of plastic drink cups) got the Guzzi up to just over 142 mph.

That was enough to beat the Harley that had held the record at 133, but that won't be the end of it. It seems the Harley users have taken the challenge, and adopted the strategy, of the Guzzi usegroup. Duke notes that there's now a Harley record attempt Web page, and figures, "We'll have to do 150 next time," to keep the record under his beloved Moto Guzzi banner.

So you will go back next year?

"Oh, yeah, definitely."

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