Sep 18, 2016

Cannonball Update: Rest Day?

On the official schedule, today is listed as the Rest Day in the 2016 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run. But I just checked, and it doesn’t seem as though anyone is actually resting. Instead, out in the parking lots of three hotels in Dodge City, Kansas, miracles are happening: Bikes that were carefully assembled over months in well-equipped shops are being rebuilt in a single day using whatever tools are available.

In other words, it’s just like every other Cannonball “Rest Day” ever.

The motorcycles in this year’s run, each of which is at least 100 years old, have completed 1,754 miles out of the 3,314 they’ll need to cover on the coast-to-coast route from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Carlsbad, California. That means they still have 1,560 more miles to go in seven stages that include an 11,000-foot pass in the Colorado Rockies and a crossing of the Mojave Desert. The bikes, and their riders, need to be ready, which means there is very little resting going on today.

Here’s a little of what’s happening outside the window of my hotel room:

Perry Ruiter has had a very tough time with his 1912 Excelsior twin in the first half of the Cannonball. So far he’s been officially credited with just 3 miles, as the machine has refused to perform. But instead of giving up and going home, Perry has stuck with it, traveling along with his support crew and hoping to get a chance to actually ride one of these days.

Today, when asked what was wrong with the motorcycle, Bob Beatty, serving as a mechanic for Perry, said, “It would be easier to list what’s right—we think the seat is fine.”

But Bob was optimistic that the bike was finally coming together in a way that would give Perry a shot at the final seven stages, which begin with a 272-mile run from Dodge City to Pueblo, Colorado, tomorrow.

“We know he’s technically listed as a DNF (did not finish) because he’s missed eight stages already,” said Beatty, “so the goal now is to get him as many miles as we can.”

Nearby, Linda Monahan and her crew were hard at work rebuilding her 1914 Indian twin from the crankshaft up. She’s only gotten credit for 9 miles so far, but again, there’s no interest in packing up and going home.

Linda started the ride with a set of original, 102-year-old engine cases. But the rebuild will provide a test of brand-new reproduction cases being produced by a company founded by Larry Struck. And he’s here to oversee the rebuild process as the perfect test for the first cases to be offered for the Oscar Hedstrom-designed (pre-1916) Indians since they were new.

Dave Volnek, who got his first taste of Cannonball competition two years ago when he was hired to wrench for another rider, is back this year with a Hedstrom Indian of his own—a 1913 twin.

The 2010 Cannonball, which was limited to motorcycles made before 1916, revealed a number of shortcomings of those early Indian motors, particularly in the intake system. So Dave has re-engineered the entire intake tract of his machine for greater reliability. So far, he’s completed 1,482 miles, and he’s just performing normal maintenance to get ready for the second half.

“I learned a lot out of the 2014 ride,” he says. “And I know these bikes go through hell over 16 days. So I’m just trying to make sure it will hold together.”

The intake problems faced by those Hedstrom Indians back in 2010 are very similar to the issues that several Thor riders have encountered this year. Doug Feinsod, Jon Szalay, Todd Kraft and Dan Kraft have all struggled to keep their Thor twins running, and Doug says that’s no surprise, since the Aurora Automatic Machinery Co., which produced the Thor, was also the company that built Indian’s earliest motors.

Doug says he’s done a dozen roadside valve jobs on his 1913 Thor twin prior to today. And one of the most-serious problems he’s faced is breaking valve springs on the inlet-over-exhaust engines. So Doug started buying springs at hardware stores and adapting them for use in his engine. He’s been unable to find the perfect replacement yet, but his crew continues to stop at stores whenever possible, bringing back more springs to add to Doug’s collection of Thor-replacement candidates.

Stu Surr and Mike Gontesky are another pair of riders serving as their own mechanics on the Cannonball. Stu faced a serious rebuild project here as the exhaust valves on his 1916 Triumph single have receded into the cast-iron head over the 1,653 miles he’s covered. Back in the old days, this was the main reason tetra-ethyl lead was added to fuel, since it served as a cushion for the valve slamming back into the valve seat thousands of times every minute. In recent decades, manufacturers have come up with harder valve-seat materials that don’t require the use of poisonous lead.

Stu has been using a lead additive in his fuel, but that hasn’t stopped the exhaust valve from receding nearly a quarter-inch since Atlantic City, which is well beyond the adjustment available in the engine. So he has taken to grinding off the valve stem each night to get his bike back into its adjustment range for the next day. Here in Dodge City, he’s installing a replacement cylinder he brought with his selection of spares. It, too, is made from cast iron, so the recession process is likely to begin again right away, but he’s confident he can nurse the bike through the final seven days to the finish line.

The problems with Mike’s 1912 Harley single are more numerous, and they’ve prevented him from getting more than 366 miles so far. But here in Dodge City, he’s solved enough other issues that he’s now working on the clutch and the rear-wheel bearing.

The good news is that he was able to successfully “shop the parking lot,” going to other teams and finding the exact bearing he needed for the rear wheel. The guy with the bearing said he bought his at an auto-parts store chain as a part for a new Lexus. So Mike immediately ran out to the chain’s store here in Dodge City and got one for himself, meaning that his Harley will be part Lexus when it heads to Pueblo tomorrow.

Interestingly, some riders were just getting their bikes in riding shape as we reached the rest day. Victor Hugas’ 1913 Harley came in on the sweep truck in each of the first six days. But he kept working on the bike, understanding it better with each repair. And yesterday, he proudly crossed the finish line, completing the full 184 miles within his time limit.

Brent Hansen has faced a more serious challenge with his 1913 Shaw, a clip-on engine in a bicycle frame that was made in Galesburg, Kansas, not far from our rest day location. The bike is only capable of about 20 mph, so Brent didn’t come in with any illusions of challenging for the Cannonball championship. But his performances have steadily improved, from 17 miles the first day to 34, 46 and 58 on subsequent days. Yesterday, as his Shaw made its nearest approach to the old Shaw factory, Brent kept chugging along to complete 76 miles, and he was only stopped by a number of broken spokes, which are being replaced with stronger replacements today. His next goal? Triple digits in a single day.

Of course, the highest-profile project in the parking lot today is the repair of Frank Westfall’s 1912 Henderson, which finished all 184 miles yesterday running on just three of its four cylinders after the connecting-rod bearing failed on its front cylinder the day before. With Frank holding down second place in the overall Cannonball standings, yesterday’s ride and today’s repair could have significant implications for the 2016 Cannonball standings.

Yesterday, while Frank was limping the Henderson into Dodge City, his mechanic, four-cylinder guru Mark Hill, was busy manufacturing a new bearing at a local machine shop. Last night, that bearing was installed, and this morning, the cylinder was reattached in the parking lot, giving everyone a rare peek inside one of William Henderson’s original creations.

Mark and his protege, Tanner Whitton, checked their work from last night, prepped the gasket surface and lowered the cylinder into place.

“There,” Mark said, “it’s a four-cylinder again.”

While Frank’s crew has had a busy Rest Day, Dean Bordigioni, the guy ahead of him in the standings, actually sounded rather rested this afternoon after performing a bit of maintenance on his 1914 Harley-Davidson single. No Class I (single-cylinder, single-speed) motorcycle has ever completed every mile in the Cannonball, but Dean’s belt-drive bike continues to defy the odds by putt-putting along, mile after mile, day after day.

Today, Dean says, they took the machine to the local Harley shop, which made its service area available to all riders. There, they replaced the rear tire and the lashing—the friction coating—on the front belt-drive pulley. Other than that, he says, it was just normal maintenance.

“It’s a very happy little motorcycle,” Dean says.

Tomorrow, we’ll find out how well it and dozens of other Cannonball machines perform on a route that doesn’t look terribly challenging. But it will be the longest riding day in this year’s cross-country adventure, and we will climb from about 2,500 feet of elevation here in Dodge City to 5,000 feet in Pueblo. Oh, and the temperature is expected to be in the mid-90s.

Put all that together, and it’s likely that the Cannonball mechanics will be busy again tomorrow night after today’s “Rest Day.”—Bill Wood

No new results tonight, but here’s where things stand at the halfway point:

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