Publish date:


Down to spare engines and threadbare tires, Don Vesco wedged himself into his Silver Bird and roared off across Utah's Bonneville salt desert to set a motorcycle world land-speed record

Ten years ago on the worn salt flats of western Utah, Don Vesco of San Diego climbed—or, more precisely, was crammed by his brother Rick—into a spanking-new streamliner motorcycle of his own design. In compliance with the dictionary definition of motorcycle, Vesco's futuristic creation had only two wheels in line and transmitted power to the rear one by chain drive, just like the ancient, ear-splitting machines that Tom Swift and Glenn Curtiss rode to glory more than 50 years ago.

The similarity between a machine like Vesco's and an old Tom Swifty ends right there. Modern streamliners capable of three or four miles a minute are slick and low-slung, their cigarlike bodies encapsulating the driver in a cockpit more cramped than a $50 coffin, and about as comfy. In some machines the driver lies prone; in others he rides supine or semisupine, hunched up as if suffering from stomach gas. To fit into his first streamliner, Don Vesco was obliged to kneel, tucked in a prenatal ball. Because the surplus military wing tank he used for a body was only 18 inches in diameter, he cut a hole in it to allow the top of his helmet-ed head to protrude.

After Vesco was safely packed inside his streamliner for its initial speed run in 1965, his brother Rick got him on his way by giving the vehicle a running push. Within 20 feet the engine caught, and the machine spurted off toward the distant horizon, attaining a speed of almost 15 mph before falling over. After being properly repacked, Vesco tried again, this time weaving all of 30 feet down the course before rolling over. On his third try the streamliner again wobbled along for about 30 feet, gave a few barks, fell over and died. On his fourth attempt Vesco poured the gas to it and managed to peak out in first gear at 80 mph before the machine rolled over. When streamliners fall on their sides at such a speed, they customarily slide across the salt flat nose first, like misfired rockets. Vesco's ailing machine somehow swung sideways and began bouncing and rolling over and over, from its wheels onto its back and back onto its wheels. According to Vesco's wife Norma, "The poor thing was flopping around on the salt like a sick goldfish."

In his farcical debut in a streamliner, Vesco broke his nose and a collarbone and blackened an eye. In the 10 years since, going faster and ever faster, he has spilled a little blood now and again and in wild slides of a quarter mile or more has left quite a lot of paint smeared across the Utah salt. In the process he has won undisputed right to the title of the fastest man on two wheels. At present he holds 10 of the 20 national streamliner records in displacement classes ranging from 250 to 2,000 cc, and could easily bag half a dozen other marks except that, like many proficient speed nuts, he is obsessed with the ultimate.

Only four cyclists—all Americans—have averaged over four miles a minute to and fro through a One-mile speed trap. In 1966 Bob Leppan of Detroit drove a Triumph-powered streamliner 245.667 mph at Bonneville. Four years later Vesco upped the record with Yamaha power to 251.924 and within a month was surpassed by a San Diego chum, Cal Ray-born, who used Harley-Davidson power to record a 265.492 run. In an attempt to take the record back that same year, Leppan broke his front suspension while going 270 mph, flipped and slid three-quarters of a mile, almost losing his life and permanently crippling one arm. Three years later Rayborn died in New Zealand when a road-racing engine seized and threw him into a wall. In 1973, after two frustrating seasons of falling over and blowing engines, Bill Wirges of Princeton, Ill. got a Kawasaki-powered machine up to 241.927 and retired, leaving the game to Vesco. Last year Vesco upped the record to 281.702 mph.

Curiously, although all the runs of the four-mile-a-minute men were precisely clocked and supervised, none is recognized by the Fédération Internationale Motocycliste, the world body governing motorcycling, which operates out of Swiss headquarters far removed from the realities being achieved on Utah salt. By the rules of the American Motorcycle Association, between his run through the one-mile speed trap and his return through the same trap, a driver may replace any part of his power plant except the cylinder head, crankcase and transmission, provided all new parts are identical to those supplanted. Vesco's 1974 record run of 281.702 mph was not an official world mark because he changed the belt coupling the two Yamaha engines that power his bike, which the FIM does not allow. Vesco's previous record-breaking run in 1970, as well as the runs by Leppan in 1966 and Rayborn in 1970, have no world standing because at the time they were made the FIM did not recognize the AMA, which clocked the attempts. The 241.927 run by Bill Wirges in 1973 would be a world record except that the papers laying claim to the mark (along with three claims by Vesco in small displacement classes) were lost by the FIM. The most that can be said in cool detachment about the FIM is that the organization now seems aware that the last Ice Age has ended, leaving Utah's salt flats available for record-breaking. The FIM does acknowledge that an American named Bill Johnson did travel 224.569 mph somewhere out on the Utah salt back in 1962. According to its "records," that is as fast as anyone has gone on a motorcycle.

The fact that the world body governing motorcycles seems to have developed a permanent three-mile-a-minute mentality has never bothered Vesco. Bereft of challengers and FIM recognition, this past summer he pressed on, trying to better his own best, aiming for five miles a minute and having a rough time of it. Power per se has seldom been a problem for him. Indeed, in such terms as power-to-weight ratio and speed-to-power, he is a standout among all the heroes who in the past 40 years have driven internal-combustion thunderbuses across the salt. His present streamliner, consisting of an oft-battered and reshaped body on a 6-year-old frame, measures 20 feet, nine inches overall and, with five quarts of gas aboard, weighs about 900 pounds. The twin Yamaha engines he is currently using (with 96-octane street gasoline) have a total displacement of 1,500 cubic centimeters (about 90 cubic inches) and put out 200 practical horsepower—about what most little old ladies are using to tootle around Pasadena these days. By comparison, Goldenrod, the piston-powered car that in 1965 set the current land speed record of 409.277 mph for four-wheel vehicles, weighed three tons and was driven by four Chrysler engines putting out 12 times the horsepower of Vesco's two-wheeler.

Even with his limited power, on a course that would allow him at least four miles to run up through six gears, Vesco believed he could easily get through a one-mile speed trap at more than 300 mph—that is, he felt that he could if he could keep his danged contraption riding on its two wheels. In his quest he has been plagued by all the quirks that beset modern speedsters: human error, the frailties of the finest metals and the many whims of God. One of God's forces, the wind, is Vesco's special bugaboo. Whereas a high-speed, four-wheel machine can go along fairly well in 10-mph winds, a breath of only three mph is rough on Vesco. A sudden feathery puff from one direction followed by a lull is like a hard, fast blow from one side and then the other—and whoops!—over Vesco goes in a wild slide.

Vesco made his first 1975 record attempts in August during an outing called National Speed Week, sharing Bonneville with 170 other drivers who were seeking greater and lesser grails in two-wheel and four-wheel machines. Because of wind and rain and an assortment of human and mechanical failures, Vesco never put a two-way run together during Speed Week. The salt was so damp and soft that he had a scant three-mile run into the speed trap from either direction. As a consequence of the poor footing and the faulty alignment of his front wheel, he managed only two clockings better than four miles a minute. Twice his wheels lost the salt and he fell on his side while rolling at more than 250 mph. On the worst of his two slides he left a paint streak a third of a mile long.

Seven weeks ago when Vesco returned to Utah, he had better conditions. The course, albeit bumpy at one end, allowed him a run-in of four miles on both ends of the speed trap, and in four days Vesco made almost all his dreams come true. By the time he finished his last attempt of the second day, with the sun already under the western mountains, he had broken the world record two times. His fastest two-way average—293.542 mph—exceeded his own previous best by 12 mph and the so-called world mark by more than a mile a minute. On his second run of the first day a wrist pin broke, poking a rod through a cylinder. As a consequence, on the second and third days he ran spare engines with a total displacement of only 1,400 cc., which put out about 175 horsepower. Despite the limitation, by the end of the third day he had upped the record to 299.475 mph.

To make the most of his low horsepower, Vesco then backed farther away from the mile speed trap, starting a five-mile run-in on salt so rough it chewed rubber off his tires. Determined to get over the five-mile-a-minute mark (where $15,000 in contingency money from a dozen sponsors awaited him), he replaced the damaged vitals of his larger engines, and on the fourth day, riding on the last two good tires in his worn inventory, he averaged 302.928 mph. At the end of the last run there was fabric showing on one of his tires.

Vesco's attempts were properly observed and recorded by FIM-sanctioned officials. If the FIM acts with its customary alacrity and efficiency, by the turn of this century Vesco's best mark of 302.928 could be recognized as a world record.

In addition to the officials and his personal team, Vesco's four days of record breaking were witnessed by a scant two dozen spectators. Which was too bad, because the effect was stunning. In one moment Vesco's machine appeared as an orb on the distant rim of the salt. In the next sliver of time it was frozen on the retina dead ahead, elongate, bright red and yellow. In another instant it was gone over the opposite rim of the earth, lost in its own trailing noise.

On all his runs Vesco came out of the measured mile faster than he went in. On his fastest one-way run, for example, he clocked 304.645. He entered that mile at about 302 mph and came out of it at about 308 mph. So his power still exceeds his opportunity. Given a longer, better course, he could probably raise the mark by at least 10 mph.

Vesco does not seem suited in either manner or mien for the fast game he plays. He is devoid of pretense, a low-key hero who almost defies inflation in press releases. Although his prematurely gray hair is worn modishly full and his spectacles to correct astigmatism give him a bookish air, at 36 he is still part boy, puckish and prankish and about as introverted as a belly dancer.

In the final hour before a record attempt, knowing that he may end up riding upside down or sideways at four miles a minute, Vesco comports himself as casually as a geology professor out on a field trip to collect metamorphic samples from Jurassic times. In the last hour before possible doom, he will pat any stray dog that happens by and chat with children, or discourse with equal ease about intricacies such as boundary layer control and laminar flow with speed buffs who have gathered to admire his slick machine. Not even the occasional idiot questions of the news media seem to annoy him. After one very unsuccessful run this past August, a TV man stuck a padded microphone in his face and asked what he was thinking about when he went out of control at 250 mph. '"Probably nothing," Vesco replied. After his machine failed to accelerate properly on another bad run, his first comment was equally untheatrical. "I forgot to turn on the gas," he confessed.

Vesco was born in motor-mad Southern California, where his motor-mad father had run stripped-down Ford Ts on the dry lakes back in the '20s. Vesco's devotion to two-wheel machines began in a customary Southern California way. As he describes it, "In San Diego in those days at the age of 14 you bought a secondhand motor scooter for $10 and spent another $30 making it run. Then you sold it to pay all the traffic fines you collected for driving without a license. Then you saved up and bought another scooter and kept it at a neighbor's house so your parents wouldn't know you had one."

Vesco went from scooters to street machines to road racers of half a dozen brands back in the days when the sport of motorcycling was trying to clean up its soiled image, abetted by the comforting sales pitch, "You meet the nicest people on a Honda." In 1964, after Vesco was twice laid up with broken bones incurred racing for the Yamaha factory team, the machine shop where he was employed ordered him to quit racing. Vesco quit the job instead and kept on racing, a choice made easier because Yamaha offered him a dealership in El Cajon, west of San Diego. His present record-breaking, Yamaha-powered streamliner is called Silver Bird, the designation of the new line of cycles that Yamaha is putting out this year. Yamaha wanted the record-breaking streamliner to be silver-colored, consistent with its name, but Vesco demurred, decorating it with livid streaks of red and yellow. "I said I would not ride a silver machine on that white salt on a gray day," he explains, "unless I could unroll a ball of colored twine behind me. When I wander off the course at 250 miles an hour, I want to be found very quickly."

Vesco's present establishment in El Cajon is a busy enterprise, although his 10 employees are never sure whether their boss is trying to run a bike shop or a fun house. He once hung the bicycle belonging to his head machinist, Randy Hodges, 20 feet up a phone pole, and on another occasion disassembled Hodges' bike and distributed the components through the parts bins in the shop.

Vesco's establishment is now franchised to sell Yamahas from Japan, Husqvarnas from Sweden and DKWs from Germany. Although all three marques displayed in Vesco's shop are well labeled, many of the first-time customers who step into his place want to know how much a Honda will cost them. Vesco takes this frustration lightly, as he does all the setbacks in his two-wheeling career. He recognizes that it was the smart sales pitch of the Honda company a dozen years ago that started the motorcycle business on its booming way. It is perfectly all right with him if some of the nicest people are still on Hondas as long as he remains the fastest on two wheels of any kind.