Couple chasing land speed record on salt flats again this year

SUNDAY, JAN. 1, 2012

John and Dexter Yeats make quite the team.

They built a motorcycle they hoped would not only break the land speed record in its category last summer at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, but be the first of its kind to top 200 miles per hour. They didn’t succeed, but they aren’t ready to call it quits. Not even close.

“Oh, no, we’re not giving up,” said John Yeats, 71. “It was just quite a setback. We thought it was going to really run.”

They had high hopes, but the record wasn’t theirs this year.

“We had engine trouble and electronic ignition problems, and we just couldn’t get a good, full run, so we’re making a lot of changes on the bike … and we should be good to go this year coming,” he said, adding they are sponsored by S&S Cycle Inc.

The surreal-looking salt flats are remnants of an ancient lake, and form a vast white plain stretching 30,000 acres that are rendered so flat by the forces of wind and water one can see the curvature of the Earth. Even simple life forms are largely absent from the harsh salt pan, but each year, motorsport enthusiasts like John and Dexter Yeats converge on the flats for the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials, where they attempt to set all-time records.

In addition to any mechanical problems that arise, racers are at the whim of the weather and the finicky salt, which can be difficult to drive on. There’s an air of magic, a sense of superstition and an understanding the salts themselves determine racers’ fates.

“Whatever it was, it just wasn’t with us this year,” said Dexter Yeats, 66. “A lot of people had a good year. It just wasn’t our year.”

The failure was likely a disappointment to Eric Bennet, who piloted the motorcycle last summer and plans to do it again this summer.

“You always want to be able to hold the throttle wide open for as long and as far as you possibly can,” he said in an interview with The Spokesman-Review prior to the last attempt. “It’s just a passion to go fast.”

So they’re tweaking things here and there, and the motorcycle is currently in pieces – some spread around the Yeatses’ garage in Hayden, some down in California with Bennet and his father, Bob Bennet, co-owners of Bennet Performance Inc. The Bennets, like the Yeatses, are determined to “make the motor talk,” John Yeats said.

“We had too many experimental things on it so we’re going back to the basics,” he said.

Despite the disappointment, the Yeatses enjoyed their time at the flats.

“As always, it was a lot of fun to go there and see everyone,” Dexter Yeats said. “It’s sort of like a reunion for people you’ve met in the past, so that part of it was really neat.”

And John Yeats, who has built bikes for more than 40 years, has a lot of history there. In 1970, he worked with a team that set a land speed record of 265 miles per hour in a fully streamlined Harley-Davidson.

A disappointed Dexter Yeats couldn’t go that year because she had just given birth to their son, John A. Yeats. After a divorce spanning many years, the two reconnected, fell in love, and remarried in 2010. Dexter Yeats convinced her husband to build another bike, and it became a labor of love the two shared.

John Yeats takes care of the mechanics while Dexter Yeats mostly takes care of him.

“It works out pretty good that way,” she said. “I hand him a sandwich, make sure he’s eating, there for support. As far as the mechanical part, I kind of step back and let the experts take over.”

This year, the two were joined by their son for the first time, making the trip special regardless of their disappointment in not achieving their goal.

“It was his first trip to the salt, and he’s looking forward to going back again,” Dexter Yeats said. “It’s kind of one of those things that once you go, you kind of get hooked on it.”

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