Preparation for the Maxton Mile

About two months ago, my good friend Buzz Kanter from American Iron called me up with a great idea for an article for American Iron.  Buzz and I had done several restoration, "rustoration", and "crustoration" projects for his magazine, but Buzz wanted to make this one a little different. 

He went on to tell me about a 1931 Harley-Davidson VL 74" flathead that he’d just purhcased.  The bike hadn’t run in 21 years and Buzz’s idea was to bring it down to Wheels Through Time, get it running, and take it to Maxton, North Carolina for the East Coast Timing Association’s Land Speed Record event.  Of course, I said "Lets do it". 

So last week, Buzz hauled the old VL down to Wheels Through Time to get her prepped for the run.   Not knowing what we had to work with, I was very suprised to see that the bike looked to be put up in running condition some 21 years ago.  We had from Monday night to Friday morning to get this thing back to tip-top shape, and a full crew to help out.  My son Matt is always ready to get his hands greasy, and Buzz brought down buddies Jim Sims, Dave Fusiak, and Bill Nugent to handle the task.  My friend, and expert restorer, Brian Haenlien from AMCE Cycles in Michigan also jumped in on the project ready to lend his expertise.

The 1931 Harley cranked up for the first time in 21 yearsAfter a brief brainstorming session on Monday night, we all jumped in Tuesday morning ready to get to work.  When we unloaded the bike, we all commented on how complete it looked, and all agreed that it wouldn’t take too much to get her running.  After putting the bike up onto the lift, we figured that seeing how she ran would be a good place to start.  Without checking the plugs, cleaning the points, or checking the valve adjustment, we put in a fresh battery, some 50 weight oil and some good gas and gave it a go.  Believe it or not, it started on 2 KICKS.  Not to bad for a bike that hadn’t been touched in over 20 years.  I revved the throttle for a few minutes, and despite a bottom-end full of oil, it seemed to run pretty well.  This was a big step, as it confirmed that we wouldn’t have to pull the engine apart to get this one ready for the run.

The next step was to remove several unnecessary parts, while still keeping the bike as original and complete as possible.  In order to qualify for the production class, we had to leave certain items like the horn, front-fender, headlights, floorboards, etc, but were able to take off several items in order to loose a bit of weight.  We pulled off the mirrors, crashguards, kickstand, and plenty of other bits and pieces, all in all shaving off about 20 pounds.  This was just the edge we’d need to separate this machine from what a stock VL would have done back in the 30s. 

After about a days work, we all sat back pretty satisfied with the progress so far.   With the bike running well and a few bulky items taken off, we left the shop feeling good that night.  A few more days, and this thing would be ready for its first Land Speed Record Run at the Maxton Mile.


Death Valley (Day 1 and 2)

Early this October, Matt and I, and my two buddies Myron Pace and Joey Crider, headed on our annual trip to Death Valley, California for the Antique Motorcycle Club of America’s annual road run.  The task at hand — take a bunch of old bikes out to ride the desert, put on some major miles and have some fun.  

I’ve been going to Death Valley to ride vintage iron for about 15 years now, and every year is different than the last.  New faces and new bikes are always present, and the opportunity to catch up with old friends you’ve been meeting there for years always brings new stories and old memories.  

We headed out late Tuesday afternoon.  We had all the right gear, a cooler full of goodies, and the right bikes for the ride.  Matt loaded up his ’38 Knucklehead — a bike he’d built specifically for this run.  My buddy Joey — his 1956 Harley-Davidson Panhead.  Moe would be riding "The Big Fish" — a 1941 Harley that is, without a doubt, the fastest Knucklehead on the road.  And I was on my old 1936 Flathead Prototype — a bike that had been to Death Valley many times, conquered the dirt and the road, and had seen over 15,000 sunny Southern California miles.  My friend, and drag race legend, Pete Hill (known for his career drag racing the fastest knucklehead in the world — 190 mph to be exact) came along for the ride, and would meet us in the Valley a few days later to show off his ’46 Dual-Carburated stroker knucklehead.  We even brought my friend Wayne Stanfield’s ’37 Harley, just in case he could make his way from Tustin for the ride.

After a quick 40 hour journey across the southern states, we descended into Death Valley just as the sun began to set over the Panamint Mountains to the east.  As we rolled into Furnace Creek, the National Park lodge, our exitement grew.  All four of us jumped out of the truck, a bit stiff, but eager to unload, get ’em cranked up and head down the road for an evening ride.  Within an hour, we were already 30 miles down the road heading right into one of the most beautiful sunsets there is. 

With plenty of great riding ahead, we woke up early the next morning ready to roll.   After a 60 mile breakfast ride to the world famous Panamint Springs Restaurant, we headed through familiar territory towards Mt. Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous united States.  Steep grades, switchbacks, and roads with no guardrails were the norm, and as we ascended towards Whitney portal, the bikes began to show their true grit….pulling each of us steadily toward our destination.   While it was about 95 or 100 degrees in the Valley, thermometer at the Whitney Portal visitors center read 58 degrees.   Thank heavens for leather jackets.

On the ride down, we stopped in Lone Pine to see our buddies NAPA Dave and Rick.  These two guys came into the museum about 2 years ago riding a couple of old Harley choppers and we quickly became friends.  I made sure to let them know we’re out there every year, and that we’d stop by if we ever got the chance.  I’m glad we did.   We rode with them for the rest of the afternoon, putting on about 300  miles of some of the most breathtaking mountain roads in the worlds.  40 mile views, wide open road, and 6 old Harley’s that came along just to take a beating.  This is what we’d been waiting for.

The next morning, we woke up to my friend Wayne Stanfield’s van swerving into the parking lot.  Wayne and I have been good buddies since the ’80s when I first took part in the great American race.  Over the years, Wayne and I had ridden hundreds of thousands of miles together, including everything from Great American Races, Death Valley road runs, and North Carolina mountain rides.  Wayne even captained my 1937 Knucklehead during our 24-hour endurance run at Talladega.  He’s one heck of rider and one hell of a guy.  All ready to go, we set out for another day ride. 

We headed back to Panamint for another great breakfast, and from there rode to Darwin, CA — a little ghost-town that was once the largest city in California.  After the 100-mile ride out, we checked the map, and found some great dirt roads for the way back.   We headed out into the valley, leaving a dust trail a half-mile long.  Matt and Wayne love the dirt, and ride these old bikes like a couple of motocrossers.  Joey, Myron and I hung back, taking our sweet time and enjoying the views.  After 30 or so miles of some of the best, albeit rugged riding there is, we reached the pavement and laid the hammer down.  Theres nothing better than running down the road with friends on a bunch of great running, finely tuned antique motorcycles. 

Just past noon, we headed back toward Death Valley through Wild Rose Canyon.  We rode up through what seemed like abandoned territory through the canyon and twisted and turned along mountainsides for what I wished could last forever.  We even passed the curve that Myron missed last year, when he ended up about 20 feet down the mountain.

When we hit the downhill, we cut the motor’s off and started the coast.  Out there you can coast for 20 or 30 miles at a time — no noise but wind and rubber hitting the road.  Of course, Wayne and Matt got competative, and coast raced down, drafting each other and bumping elbows the whole way.  I never did hear who won. 

As left the canyon it was just before dusk.  We cruised the 60 mile ride back and got to the lodge about 8:00.  Exhausted, we did a quick tune-up on a few of the bikes to get them ready for the tomorrow.   What a ride.