Saddlemen

Jess Thomas: Back on the Saddle

| 6 September 2017 11:21 am

Rider Update: Jess Thomas

By Jess Thomas
SEPT. 4, 2017

This is a follow-up background story to the announcement last week of my new speed record at El Mirage Dry Lake: 111.733 mph in the 650cc Modified Production Vintage Gas class on a stripped-down 1954 Triumph T110.

Jess Thomas at El Mirage Dry Lake. Photo by Brady Thomas

Jess Thomas at El Mirage Dry Lake. Photo by Brady Thomas

I started land-speed racing again last fall after a 60-year layoff.

After setting the motorcycle land-speed record at 214.47 mph at Bonneville as an 18-year-old high school student in 1958 in the Texas Ceegar streamliner, I focused on developing my skills in road racing. An interesting segment of that era was that I was to be the first American to have a factory-sponsored ride on the European road-racing circuit in 1964, with Bultaco. Other motorcycle-industry stints included a year as project engineer/racing with Harley-Davidson in 1967, and then technical editor of Cycle Magazine for 10 years. At that stage, I genuinely enjoyed being on the AMA Executive Committee and contributing to regulating professional racing. During the long hiatus between then and now, I quietly operated a small construction-equipment repair business, away from the visceral energy of the motorcycle industry.

Jess Thomas on a record run (128.89 mph) at Bonneville in 1956, at age 16.

Jess Thomas on a record run (128.89 mph) at Bonneville in 1956, at age 16.

The first consideration regarding this venture was to decide on a venue: where to race and develop the 1954 Triumph T-110. Ted Van Doorn, an AHRMA racer and restoration artist, was dying of bladder cancer as he was finishing the build on the bike. Ted’s motivational dream was for me to take it to Bonneville for a kind of historic-celebration record run. He was intrigued that I had set records there before he was born. At first, it was just two new friends talking about a pipe dream over some beer. Then it was just me with Ted’s barely finished creation.

When Ted’s family delivered his bike to me last spring, it had never been started. But, after some final tuning, we held a first-firing celebration. As these things often go, friends and other racing veterans from years past have taken an interest in the story and the project, and it has kind of taken on a life of its own. As you can see on the Facebook page mentioned below, a revolving crew has now formed. We call it “Team 212,” after Ted’s racing number in AHMRA events at Willow Springs.

Ted Van Doorn’s beautiful 1954 T110 restoration build as I received it.

Ted Van Doorn’s beautiful 1954 T110 restoration build as I received it.

But conditions at Bonneville have deteriorated drastically in recent years, it’s expensive to get there and stay for a week, and it’s not a smart thing to do with an undeveloped racer.

Fortunately, I live where the Southern California Timing Association calls home, and it hosts six speed-record events a year only a few hours from my house, at El Mirage Dry Lake.

Note: See the website at www.scta-bni.org; there are several links on the website that explain the operations and goals, and the rulebook, which defines the various classes for competition at El Mirage and Bonneville. There are 11 racing clubs that comprise the membership of the SCTA, and they are situated from San Diego to the northern San Fernando Valley. A rule change for this year made the motorcycle classes at El Mirage the same as those at Bonneville, a move that substantially increased the opportunities for speed records. There are classes for everything from a box-stock 50cc bike to a 3000cc nitro-powered streamliner.

Getting going again required considerable effort to establish the complete system required to develop the bike, get it back and forth to El Mirage, and to comply with the SCTA rules for racing it against the timing clock at El Mirage. A lot of time and a considerable amount of money is required for even a modest racing program.

First off, I had to buy and outfit a van with a loading ramp, wheel chock, and tie-down straps for transport. Then came a small trailer to haul such equipment as an EZ-Up shade structure, a work table, and other basics for a racing camp at El Mirage. I’ve maintained extensive ranges of common tools over the years, but I was lucky to score a set of vintage Triumph special tools from Gordon Menzie, a retired racer in San Diego. Other sources generously supplied the speed-rated tires required by the SCTA, racing fuel, spark plugs, and other items I needed to get going initially.

The Triumph T110 stripped down and lowered for racing.

The Triumph T110 stripped down and lowered for racing.

Safety equipment is a major expense and concern in land-speed racing. The SCTA has very specific requirements and a scrupulous inspection program about safety helmets, protective leather suits, boots, and gloves. The first time you show up to compete in an SCTA event, the inspectors, who are club-member volunteers, carefully check out each item for condition and compliance with the published rules and standards. Approval is marked with a permanent numbered sticker on the helmet and a small metal brad on the leather suit.

The helmet must be a full-coverage racing helmet that meets the exacting Snell Foundation testing and certification process. Each Snell certification label is dated, and SCTA requires that the helmet is not older than the current approval period. My own Arai helmet met all the requirements, but the new Corsair-X offered additional benefits, especially in the heat of the desert. At age 77, I’d carefully researched the latest technology in racing helmets, and the “Super Synthetic” fiber shell with custom-fit, removable padding sounded like my best bet. This helmet is based on the Formula One car-racing model but has the visor position better located for visibility with your chin on the tank.

Sammy Tanner Arai ad 300 0001I’d known former racer Sammy Tanner since we were 14-year-old kids starting to ride scrambles in Texas, and I remembered that he was now an Arai helmet distributor. I asked him to ship me a white, extra-large Corsair-X. Sammy said no. If I wanted that helmet, I would have to come to his warehouse for Arai’s very specific custom fit. Sure enough, my head size and shape called for a size “large” instead, with adjustments made in the padding for my high cheekbones and narrow chin. Other great racing features on the Corsair-X are very adjustable air-venting passages to keep your brain cool, and a small, adjustable wing on the crown to keep the helmet in the desired position on your head at high speed. This helmet is a design upgrade from the RX-Q that I wore last season, and I’m anxious to get experience with it at El Mirage on September 10.

Sammy Tanner at his shipping desk.

Sammy Tanner at his shipping desk.

The leather racing suit was another daunting issue, as I’m about 50 pounds heavier than when I last put on my old Bates road-racing leathers. Research with veteran LSR riders guided me to NJK Leathers in San Clemente, California. A check on their website showed that, besides making suits specifically for land-speed racing, they also make different custom suits for all types of motorcycle competition.

When I went by for measurement and leather selection, I learned that the owner, Kelcey Gordon, was a retired speedway racer who learned the business by making his own leathers when he first started racing as a youngster. It turned out that we may have met at that time, when he was working and practicing at Ken Maely’s speedway ranch back in the late ’70s. NJK’s walls are covered with pictures of competitors wearing their leathers in many events, from downhill skateboarding to GP road racing. It’s a small shop, with Kelcey doing the measuring and specifications, and two expert seamstresses in the back creating the custom suits from basic patterns for each type of competition.

My new suit fit very snugly at first, as it was designed to do. Gordon has learned just how much the suit will change as the rider races and sweats in it over time. Mine is just now feeling natural after five events at El Mirage.

Waiting on the starting line at El Mirage for my turn to run. Photo by Eric Zimmerman

Waiting on the starting line at El Mirage for my turn to run. Photo by Eric Zimmerman

The bike’s development is steadily progressing now, with dynamometer time at Jett Tuning in Camarillo, California. Sometimes vintage components, such as a 65-year-old magneto, need to be stressed in order to find a subtle weakness that’s preventing those next few miles per hour sought at the timing clocks. But with a class record now in hand, everyone involved is excited about what we might accomplish at the next three El Mirage events in September, October and November. And photographer Eric Zimmerman is making a documentary about the whole adventure.

The story of this bike racing at El Mirage and the development saga involved is covered on the “Stewards of Tradition” Facebook page.

On the chase trailer, testing riding positions. Photo by Eric Zimmerman

On the chase trailer, testing riding positions. Photo by Eric Zimmerman

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