Flat Out Fast
Monterey man looks to go 170 mph on a two-stroke motorcycle.
Thursday, March 2, 2006
831 >> TALES FROM THE AREA CODE
The Bonneville Salt Flats stretch out like a blistering white-hot sheet of possibility for Shayne Torgrimson. Tucked onto the back of “Jones Baby,” a small, odd-looking motorcycle, he travels a perfectly straight, three-mile line across this blank wasteland. The bike’s small two-stroke engine shrieks like a falling star in the wide-open silence.
As the second-mile gate approaches, Torgrimson monitors his RPMs carefully—10,000, 11,000, 12,000...as the gauge reaches 13,000 he shifts into sixth gear and the bike strains forward. The gate passes in a blur, the official’s speed gun clicks on, and Torgrimson hangs on for dear life as Jones Baby leads a wild banshee charge at the world land speed record.
Today, Torgrimson stands outside a garage on Casa Verde Way in Monterey with Ralph Nonella, the 71-year-old owner and crew chief of Jones Baby and Nonella Racing. They’re trying to figure out how to make the bike faster. Jones Baby’s top speed is 141.6 mph. The world record is 172.9.
A mix of rock‘n’roll charm, motorhead savvy, and old-school grit, the 71-year-old Nonella, a decorated veteran of the Korean War, clearly relishes the process of finding another 32 miles per hour in his motorcycle. A wild, dinged and scuffed American flag adorns the stunted little machine. Sammy Hagar’s son Aaron—Nonella counts Sammy as a close personal friend—did the wild airbrush.
“I’d always ridden two-strokes,” Nonella says. “Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, even after the bikes evolved into the more powerful four-strokes. In the late ‘70s, I was still really curious how fast a two-stroke could go.”
In 1998 he decided to find out. With the team’s original pilot and designer Josh Hageman, Nonella began experimenting with a 1979 Yamaha RD400, the last mass production two-stroke street bike ever made available in America. Stock, the RD400’s top speed listed at 105 mph. Nonella and Hageman made some radical adjustments.
They put a front end, a mono-shock rear end, and the forks of a 1998 Yamaha TZ250 on her; they grafted on a custom gas tank which allows the pilot to lay down and cut wind resistance; and they put special racing wheels that weigh only three pounds each without the rubber. Most importantly, they doubled the RD400’s original horsepower of 43 to over 86 and added RZ gears, which provided another four to five horsepower. In the process, they brought her weight down from 365 pounds to 246 pounds.
When they debuted the bike at Bonneville in 2002, they completed three runs with progressive gains in speed—130.393, 140.533, and 141.612, but haven’t gone much faster since.
Last year proved disastrous. They brought the air-cooled bike to the thin air of Utah during the hot August speed trials and blew four engines.
“No one tells you sh*t while you’re out there,” Nonella says. “You’re on your own, so it’s trial and error. You have to expect the worst and last year we got the worst.”
This year, they’ll be returning during a cooler but less predictable October with a new cooling system designed to compensate for the Salt Flats’ elevation, but they’ve got a lot to do in the coming months.
“It’s hard to test. You just go out and run it full out.”
First off, they still need to compensate for Jones Baby’s 400cc designation. The odd motorcycle class they compete in is for bikes from 350 to 500cc’s, which leaves them at a disadvantage against the bigger bikes. Nonetheless, the record was set on a customized RD400, the same bike as Jones Baby.
Secondly, they need to find a way to test the bike before October. Nonella and Hageman used to sneak up to Fort Ord and open it up on the deserted straightaways of the defunct military base, but that was illegal and hazardous to the pilot’s health.
“One rabbit hops out on the highway and you’re done,” Torgrimson says with a grimace. “It’s hard to test. Even at Bonneville you don’t get to practice. You just go out and run it full out.”
They’re currently in negotiations with officials at King City airport to let them use their 4,400-foot tarmac.
But there’s no denying the danger. Nonella tells the story of Nolan White, a friend who rolled his twin-engine streamliner car while trying to break 500 mph in 2003.
“He was doing over 400 when he pulled the chute, pitched it sideways and rolled for a half mile,” Nonella says. “There wasn’t a speck of blood on him. The centrifugal force rattled his brains—like swinging a bucket of water. It happened on a Friday and he didn’t die until Sunday.”
Oddly enough, Torgrimson sounds as if he casually fell into his death-defying occupation.
“When Josh couldn’t do it anymore, Ralph had a hard time finding someone willing to pilot,” he says. “I’d ridden bikes fast before. It’s just a straight line, how hard could it be?”