Behind land speed records stands a photographer who provides proof of the accomplishment. Without them, the achievement would be remembered by few.
Steeped in history, the Bonneville Salt Flats is like no other place on earth. All the greats who’ve set records there own a piece of history, such as: Wilhelm Herz, the first rider to break the 200 mph barrier riding with the NSU squad, dominated the salt in 1956; Don Vesco, first over 300 mph riding Silver Bird, the twin engine Yamaha powered streamliner; or Marcia Holley, first female into the 200 MPH Club running 229 mph in 1978.
Part of capturing history requires someone being there to record it. Someone with a good eye for lighting and distance, as well as fast moving objects. That person will be on the salt when the sun comes up just as the more serious teams are expected to be. The days will be long, the coffee not always hot, the porta-pottie not always within reach. But he will be there, ready to capture the moment and preserve it for all time. He was there when history was made. He was part of it. Without him, there would be no visual proof, only the written word.
It’s the unsung heroes behind the lens who preserve the memories of the greats, of the unusual and, on occasion, some real turkeys – not to mention the majority of everyone else who just like to go fast…
We all have our favorites like Ray Buck, James Weishaar or Dick Lague. I caught up with three of mine and decided to start at the beginning.
“I was building scale models at the age of nine,” recalls Horst Rosler, who photographed them and later became a sub-editor for a scale modeling magazine. By 1981 he was writing and photographing motorcycles for trade magazines. “In 2004 I was asked to report on the new BUB SPEED TRIALS.” He’s been coming back ever since.
Thomas “Pork Pie” Graff describes how he got involved: “When I was 13 I got a small Kodak Instant Camera for my birthday. I shot a swan on a lake which won first prize in a photo competition with more than 3000 entries. Not a bad start… I earned my money as a designer in the automotive industry and kept my photography as fun. In 1970 I found a new hobby in land speed racing and today I’m one of the five leading historians in LSR.”
“I’ve been shooting magazine features and motorcycle drag racing for close to 20 years.” says Scooter Grubb. “I worked with Keith Ball of Bikernet.com when he was building his Panhead for a record. I decided to tag along to the salt to photograph the adventure. Having been a rider for over 35 years I couldn’t remember enjoying myself so much or spending a week with a better group of people.”
I asked all three if they had any racing background themselves.
Horst: “No racing background of any kind. As a German, I can go as fast as my bike/car/guts and traffic will allow any day on the Autobahn – and I do just that.”
Pork Pie: “In the ‘80s I ran sports cars around Europe, but quit when the sponsors forgot to transfer the money. I have never run on two wheels, but have some fast runs on the salt (unofficial). I hope maybe this year to make some official runs.”
Scooter Grubb: While Scooter admits to not having a racing background, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t experienced life in the fast lane. “About 1998 I was riding with the Hells Angels for their Florence Prison Run. Three different agencies set up a road block to stop 30 of us coming from the south. They tried to send me on my way when they realized I wasn’t an Angel. My media credentials allowed me to stay and keep shooting. I wrote an article that disclosed there were eight agencies involved with a total of 450 heavily armed law enforcement officers, two mobile command centers, two helicopters, an airplane and an armored tactical vehicle. All this for about 400 bikers.”
On which is their favorite event and why, I think Pork Pie sums it up best: “Each event has its own character and spirit. Speed Week for its sheer size, World of Speed with their 130 and 150 Club competition, World Finals for its cold air running late in the year, and the Shootout with its high speeds and stress of one and two-hour return runs. Each is special. You can use this to capture the different feeling or spirit of the event where a click of the camera can save the memory for all time.”
On memorable experiences at Bonneville: “Every year, that first drive out onto the salt is very special. Its like passing through the gates to Oz, you’re home.” – Scooter Grubb.
“Every sunrise and sunset at Bonneville is a unique experience. Everybody who has been there and seen it will agree.” – Horst Rosler.
“Maybe the short-lived project from Jack Costella & Cliff Gullett. This low slung, tiny white painted motorcycle streamliner was practically invisible on the salt. Sam Wheeler’s was not much better. I’m still fascinated from Sam’s EZ Hook streamliner, but this Nebulous Theorem was out of this earth…”
As for the future, Horst would like to see a jet or rocket-powered vehicle run at Bonneville or elsewhere. “With so much more power than any wheel driven ride it would shatter the LSR beyond hope for wheel driven vehicles.” Pork Pie adds, “I will be back for most of the 2011 events, but I’m also looking forward to attempts from Bloodhound, Aussie Invader and North American Eagle…”
“I will be at BUB every year until I expire,” warns Scooter. “I want to be there when Rocky Robinson and Chris Carr eclipse the 400 mph mark in a battle royale for the top spot in the world – which could be this year. I want to be there when Belen Wagner sets her 50th record. I want to be there when Leslie Porterfield becomes the fastest ‘person’ on a sit-on motorcycle.”
I hope they get their wish and are there to witness history in the making. And that they continue to share it with the rest of us…