California beach cleaner’s land speed record adventure for BBC TV documentary
11:03 04 January 2013
It is a hallowed ground where more than a dozen land speed records have been set - and broken.
Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, USA, is the dried lake bed where Sir Malcom Campbell became the world’s fastest man in 1935 when his car Bluebird hit 300mph, and in 1965 American Craig Breedlove reached 600.6mph in his car Spirit of America.
And last summer a motley crew of Norfolk bikers decided to follow in their footsteps - and tyre marks - accompanied by a BBC documentary crew.
Beach cleaner Chris Ireland, 61, lives in a cliff-top bungalow in California, on the Norfolk coast.
He used to run a motorcycle shop in Southtown Road, Great Yarmouth and later a firm making “unusual vehicles” in Battery Road.
But he retired for a “blissful” life - with his job as California beach cleaner 100 yards from his doorstep.
But behind his garage door in sleepy California Crescent is a workshop to rival many a motorbike shop, where he still spends much of his time.
And when his friend suggested a trip to Bonneville, he could not resist.
“My mate had raced there in 2010 and was going back in 2012 and asked me if I wanted to go and watch,” revealed Chris. “But I don’t do watching and decided to build my own bike.
“I had an engine from a 1942 American Indian, left here at the end of the second world war, so the next 18 months were spent rebuilding it and building the bike, frame and all, in the small workshop at the side of my house.”
Every part of the bike was hand made and not one bit of the engine escaped modification, but that was no problem for Chris - who trained as a mechanic in Grantham where he was born.
“I’ve always owned an Indian motorcycle,” he explained. “I bought my first one when I was working a in the early 1970s and have owned quite a few.
“The world of motorcycling is pretty close-knit and it wasn’t long before we learned of four other bikes being built, so we organised a meeting.”
The bikers decided to chip in to rent a shipping container, and around that time a BBC2 film producer got wind of the adventure and asked to tag along to film a documentary.
In June 2012, the six bikes came together in London and were loaded into a shipping container to set sail for New York.
From there the container was put on a freight train to Los Angeles, and at the end of July, 22 team members - riders, crew and friends - along with an 11-man film crew, flew out to collect them.
Once reunited with the bikes, they drove 650 miles in a convoy of hire-vans to Bonneville.
And when they arrived the desert landscape hit them.
“What a vast place,” recalled Chris. “It’s almost beyond imagination and you can actually see the curvature of the earth.
“The salt is dead flat and as hard as concrete, the pits were two miles long with four lanes, so effectively there were eight miles of vehicles with their crews working under canvas shelters.
“There were four courses, all dead straight and level, the temperature was around 120 degrees and Bonneville is over 4,000ft above sea level.”
With adjustments for humidity the bikers were racing at 7,600ft.
This saps engine power by 30pc due to the lack of oxygen, so Chris’ bike - which managed 120mph when tested in the UK - could only manage 81mph there.
But they were not trying to set a new record, and in speed trials the only person you race is yourself - to record the best speed you can with the vehicle you brought.
“It was still super-fast for a 70 year old engine that could just about manage 45mph when first built,” added Chris.
“The old girl proved to be 100pc reliable, a testament to the engineering skills I learned in good old Grantham, not missing a beat while some of the more modern bikes blew up.”
And he has clearly caught the bug - for he has already begun building a new bike powered by a supercharged Indian engine to return to “The Salt” in 2014.
A few neighbours got wind of Chris’ adventure when they spotted a film crew at his home, where he lives with partner Lynne and daughter Erin, 19.
Scenes were shot on the beach at California, by the village sign which the crew were “fascinated with” and in Ormesby where Chris first rode the bike on a bridleway.
You can also see footage of Chris on Youtube by typing in “Chris Ireland Bonneville 2012”.
Among the other bikers on the trip was Briz, a frame builder from Dereham, who took a 1,000cc Wes Lake bike he built himself.
And Chris has hailed his friends David and Shaun from Dereham and Jim from Scotland who flew out to act as pit crew at their own expense, and Shaun Taylor Racing for free use of dyno facilities to test the bikes.
The documentary, titled Speed Dreams - The Fastest Place on Earth, will air on BBC2 at 10pm on Sunday, January 6, with part two following on Sunday, January 13.