by SB J. Holden (Mendocino Bonobos)
[for the last few, and next few Fridays we are featuring the recollections and observations of our West Coast brethren. SB SM]
You’d never guess it to meet Tom. Kinda quiet guy. Easy going, slow moving. Usually. Charter member of The Mystic Knights, about which I am forbidden to reveal anything further.
Tom lives in his cozy retirement cottage with his ever-patient wife Liz, up an unmarked alley right here in little old Talmage, Ca. A laid-back kind of guy. Soft-spoken, gentle soul. And a mad speed demon.
Speed? I’m not talking about circle tracks or quarter-mile drag strips. I’m talking about serious full-on flat-out speed. Speed that takes a minimum of two straight-ahead miles, full-throttle, wide-open to get up to. I mean these fearless folks set “World Land Speed Records” in every class of vehicle from tiny motorbikes to pickup trucks to rockets on wheels.
You see, they got a place called the Bonneville Salt Flats out there in the middle of nowhere on the Nevada-Utah line. As the name says, it’s salt and it’s flat. And it’s vast, and harsh. Nothing can live on it. Not a plant, nor an ant. That’s where these motorheads conduct this lunatic speedfest. Been doing it out there for generations.
This ain’t a sport for sissies, folks. The highly experienced woman motorcyclist right after Tom wiped out at high speed and had to be airlifted with broken bones to the nearest hospital, over a hundred miles away in Salt Lake City.
Now, our unlikely hero Tom – our 60-something-year-old, mild-mannered Clark Kent, if you will – towing his motorcycle 12 hours across the Sierras and the high desert, he’s here to break the World Land Speed Record for his motorcycle class. And me and a delegation of the Mystic Knights are here with sunglasses and sunscreen to behold this historic event.
I say historic because after 11 years of chasing the World Land Speed Records, this is going to be Tom’s last hurrah with his 1975 yellow-and-black 750cc Moto Guzzi motorcycle, “The Bonneville Bee”. You see, Tom picked up a case of this multiple sclerosis business – “M.S.” they call it — and it’s starting to affect his balance, which is a skill that comes in right handy when zooming over the salt flats on a two-wheel bike at over 150 mph. I mean it’s bad enough when you have to fight surface bumps, gusts of wind, waves of heat, and blinding white salt beds, but a momentary loss of balance out here can cost you your life. I didn’t say it, but I (and several others) was praying for Tom the whole time. Can’t hurt.
Tom calls this event “the Woodstock of motor racing”, because of the camaraderie going on out here between speed maniacs from all over the world. As Tom puts it, “This isn’t about competition, it’s about achievement. You don’t race against anyone in particular, you race to break the Record.” It’s a race against time.
Out here Tom is known affectionately as “The Flying Merkel”, named for a famous early 1900’s motorcycle. Tom had a poster of it in his previous residence at the “Rolling J Ranchette” out by the old Masonite plant. And he and his devoted pit crew of Steve Olivera are known out here on the flats as The Pepperoni Brothers Racing Team, partly because they hand out full-size pepperoni schlongs right and left at the event. The Pepperoni Brothers are so well known out on the salt that they even put a picture of Bee on this year’s event poster.
In the default reality Steve is the head facilities guy at Mendocino Community College, but out here on the salt as Tom’s pit crew, he’s in heaven. Been doing this lonely death-defying madness with Tom for the last 5 or 6 years. And this is their day. Their final shot with Bee to break the 151 mph World Land Speed Record in the 750cc gasoline-powered production motorcycle class.
Get in line, fire it up, and here we go. There they go, Merkel and Bee roaring off through the gears and disappearing into the distance.
First run, 144mph. Not nearly enough. Straight to the pits for Merkle to swap out Bee’s rear end, so to speak. Tom’s pretty handy with the wrench, having been tinkering with engines since he was six in his mechanic father’s shop. A few years back our boy almost got his face burned off by a backfiring carburetor. But he don’t scare easy. Fine line between bravery and foolhardiness …
Second run – a blistering, Record-shattering 156mph. On two wheels. And still alive – whew! The Merkel is ecstatic, us Knights are ecstatic, and the Bonneville staff is ecstatic for this quiet little Pepperoni guy from Talmage who they love. He gets a personal congratulation from the official timer. For a minute there, his M.S. doesn’t hurt him.
Then the bottom falls out. The Flying Merkel gets disqualified. Seems when Tom registered for the event he had wrote down the wrong computer code for his class. Really?!? Talk about crestfallen …
It was a surreal dinner we all had together that night, celebrating and grieving the “Unbroken Broken Record”.
If that weren’t bad enough, taking one last shot at the Record the next morning, Merkel nearly ended his racing career altogether. He is at the starting line and the bike stutters as he lets out the clutch, and with the M.S. weakness in his legs, Bee falls over onto his foot and he’s down on the salt.
Down, but not out. Symbolic of their love for The Flying Merkel , instead of tossing him out of the contest the Bonneville staff rush to help get him upright and remounted, wave him on, and off he goes, setting a new World Land Speed Record of 155 mph.
But that wasn’t enough for The Flying Merkel. After that he entered the class for higher-class motorcycles that burn exotic fuels like pure methanol, nitromethane, and nitrous oxide. Except he didn’t burn such fuel, he just kept burning gasoline straight out of the pump. And he busted that record too: went over 156 mph. In fact, The Flying Merkel now holds four World Land Speed Records.
That final run had a close call too. You see, to go that fast you have to lay yourself out almost prone on the motorcycle and keep your elbows tucked under the streamlined windshield, with your face down on your gas tank and looking up every few seconds to make sure you’re going straight. Except this time “I looked up and I was headed right at a course marker at 150-plus and it hit my boot and the bike wobbled, but I never let off the gas and managed somehow to stabilize it” — going on to break The World Land Speed Record for that class by 14/1000 mph.
We asked The Flying Merkel what it’s like to be screaming across the flats at such speeds? “It’s awesome,” he said. “I just try to stay calm. It’s exciting, but I’m concentrating so much on controlling the machine that I don’t really get any joy until I pass the finish line. But when I’m coasting for over a mile after that finish line, it feels like I just hopped off Sophia Loren — all kind of panting and excited.”
And now, after 11 years of broken Records, blown-up engines (one exploded at 143 mph) and his M.S. getting worse, is the legendary Flying Merkel hanging up his racing helmet and laurels? No way. He and Steve got their sights set on getting a four-wheeler and turning the driving over to Steve. Tom says, “Because of my health situation I can no longer deal with things that fall over if we’re not attending to them. We want to get a car next, and go even faster.
“We have huge support from the community. People who don’t even care about motorcycles come up and hand me a few bucks now and then, and it goes in a can. But to get enough funds for the car, it’s with a heavy heart that I’ve had to put Bee up for sale. I knew this had to happen someday. I’m letting go of it. Somebody’s going to get it and probably go out and break my Records with it. But that’s the game. It’s better for a younger person to handle it.”
Such is life, I suppose. The Flying Merkel’s parting thoughts? “I thank everyone for all the support they’ve given me over the years. The auto parts stores, the paint shops, everyone. The feeling of that many people behind me is really a source of joy. Thanks everybody, and we’ll give you something to smile about in the future.”