LAND SPEED RACING AT EL MIRAGE
Feature and Photographs by Tony Thacker/TorqTalk.com
Even the most ardent moto fan might never have heard of El Mirage Dry Lake or, El Mo as it is known to the cognoscenti. El Mo is located about 100 miles north east of Los Angeles, California, in the Mojave Desert. Used to be, it was way out there, nowadays the townies are creeping ever nearer with housing tracts, strip malls and the inevitable traffic. Nevertheless, the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), formed in 1937, continues to sanction land speed racing events every month from May through November except August when they decamp to go race at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, where its longer, flatter and even faster.
Unlike Bonneville, which is a salt lake, El Mo is a dry lake of alkali dust. Most every winter it rains and levels out the lakebed, more or less, to form a long, flat race track. Every spring a hearty and hard working band of pure volunteers arrives to lay out a 1.3-mile course that runs arrow straight west to east.
At each event a hundred or more racers, half of them on motorcycles, face Mecca and try to break a record. The fastest car so far on the lake is the Leggitt-Mirage Blown Fuel Lakester, an open-wheel, dragster-like device driven by Paul Prentice to a speed of 312.100 mph.
The fastest motorcycle speed, 266.399mph, was set by the late Ralph Hudson in November 2016. Sadly, Hudson died at the Bonneville Salt Flats on August 14, 2020 when a gust of wind sent him into a tank-slapper at a reported 252 mph—from which he did not recover. Hudson is the current FIM World Record holder for the all-time fastest non-streamlined motorcycle at 297mph.
Hudson was riding a highly modified turbocharged 2003 Suzuki GSX-R1000 but the SCTA has a class for just about every size and shape of bolide up to and beyond 3000cc. A rule book can be purchased for just $10 from their website and what racers do is study that rule book looking for what we call ‘soft’ records. Soft means that it’s an easy-ish record to take for whatever reason, such as an ‘open’ record or a record that nobody has gone after for a while or one that is just not very fast and is ripe for the taking.
Given that there’s a seat for every backside, the field at a typical lakes race is eclectic to say the least. At the very bottom of the totem pole is Rick Yacoucci who has a record at 39.648mph riding a Honda Express. But Rick also drives a streamliner car at over 400mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats! At El Mirage in November he went 284mph – the highest speed of the weekend.
Rick Yacoucci’s streamliner is in essence a full-bodied dragster
Unfortunately, between the weather and the pandemic the race schedule of late has been somewhat upset. As I said, annual rains flood the lake but in recent years the water has caused deep fissures in the surface that have proved difficult to repair. Consequently, there was no racing at all until October 2020. Annoyingly, the wind got up in October and obliterated that event too.
John Noonan posted fastest motorcycle time of the weekend at 211.815mph on a 1000cc Suzuki
Notwithstanding dust in places you’ve only ever seen with a mirror, we were all back for the season finale in November and it was a great event. Beautiful weather, hard surface and minimal wind. It total, there were 29 records broken of which 11 were motorcycle records. Fastest rider of the weekend was John Noonan riding the #9 RIP Glen Barrett 1000cc Hayabusa with a speed of 211.815mph.
Despite their long history of land speed racing, what you don’t see many of at the lakes events these days is Vincents. That said, Alp Sungurtekin of AlpRacingDesign.com, Los Angeles, was there with his ’48 Vincent Rapide. Check his website and you will see that Alp has a ton of records including, he says, the fastest pushrod engine, sit-on motorcycle in the history of land speed racing—175.625mph. Running unblown but on nitro Alp took the beautiful ‘Vinnie’ to 171.986mph. Pretty fast for a septuagenarian.
The Alp Racing Design Vincent which Alp Sungurtekin rode at 175.675mph
Talking about V-twins, in 2017, in preparation for the Burt Munro (World’s Fastest Indian) 50th anniversary, Indian Motorcycle set three new records at El Mo with Burt Munro’s great nephew, Lee Munro doing some of the riding. After completing his rookie runs, Lee recorded a speed of 186.681 mph—a new record.
Lee Munro set a class record of 186.681mph with a new-model Indian in 2017
John Hateley, a dirt track racing star in the 1970s, went 97.07mph on this vintage Indian.
David Davidson’s ’34 Roadster ran 254mph
Brandon Leggitt’s ’53 Studebaker is aptly named ‘The Beast’
Neil McAlister put in a 174 64mph pass in his ’32 Ford 5-window coupe