The rise and fall of a Bonneville legend
By Chris O'Neal 12/08/2011
The endless salt flats of Bonneville, Utah, are good for few things other than filming apocalyptic scenes in science fiction films and setting land speed records. The flat surface makes the perfect setting for Bonneville Speed Week, a gathering of tech-driven custom builders bent on acceleration. In the year 2000, one Ventura native broke the record on sheer serendipity. Eleven years later, David Hansen and his team of custom experts set out to surpass the record once again — only this time, over-confidence and an engine a little too large proved to be their downfall.
Hansen, owner of The Shop in Ventura, knew the right people to put together a winning machine. On his first attempt at breaking the record, he commissioned a custom engine but it came too late to be of any use.
“We had to pull the engine out of my bike, and this is just a regular street motor with about 30,000 miles on it,” said Hansen.
With Hansen and his crew explaining to spectators at the Sturgis gathering that they were simply “testing the chassis” with the old engine, it was off to Bonneville, where expectations were low.
“Here I was thinking, ‘God, I hope it runs,’ because if it doesn’t, it’s all on me,” Hansen said.
“So we take it up to the line and it goes through the traps at 117 mph on the first run. This is my street motor! We find that the record for the class — the MV750 class — was only 122 mph. By the end of the week, we broke the record by six tenths of a mile an hour.”
Hansen and his crew returned to Ventura exalted and confident, but it would be another 11 years before Hansen got the itch to try for another record, hoping that his luck would carry over.
In August, Hansen and his seven-man crew brought their all-Indian 1937 frame and 1947 engine back to the salt flats of Utah, hoping to strike fear into the competition.
Hansen entered his motor into the 750 cc class and broke the existing 116 mph record on the initial run. The following morning found Hansen and his rider breaking the record once again, this time at a definitive 119 mph. With emotions running high, the crew realized that they’d done the unthinkable, smashing records twice in two visits, a feat that veterans of the salt flats hadn’t accomplished in 30 years.
Hansen was prepared to leave as a two-time champion, until it came time for the inspection.
“The inspector asks me what size the motor is, and I say, “It’s a 1340,’ ” said Hansen, whose knack for building suspense is as sharp as his engineering. “ ‘A 1340?’ he says.’ You’re in the wrong class.’ I said, in 2000 we ran a 1340 with a side valve in this class, but apparently they’d changed that rule in 2005. We hadn’t won a thing.”
Deflated, Hansen tweaked the motor and geared it for the higher 1000 cc class, only to burn the clutch on the initial run. Without a replacement, the team’s hopes for another record were dashed.
“When you assume things, you make an ass out of you and me. I should have read the rule book. We folded up our tents and came home with nothing but a burned up clutch.”
Though the sour taste of defeat remains, Hansen and his crew have much to be proud of. In 2004, Hansen launched the first David Mann Chopperfest, a gathering of enthusiasts from around the country who display their customs and the art of Hansen’s late friend and renowned artist David Mann, who passed away months before the inaugural event.
This weekend will see the show’s eighth year, which promises to be big and loud enough to take Hansen’s mind off the defeat.
“When all these people come together to form a team, it’s neat in itself just to be a part of that, and we were all champions. For about an hour.”
The Eighth Annual David Mann Chopperfest will be held on Sunday, Dec.11, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. General admission is $15, $10 with military ID, and $5 for children younger than 12. For more information, visit www.chopperfestival.com.