It all seems so certain. Running for a land-speed record, that is.

I've seen it a hundred times: The car, or in this case, the motorcycle, by all appearances is in perfect running order. All the shop tests point to a record run. Everything is tested and retested, and any part that looks remotely prone to breakage is replaced with a new, guaranteed-not-to-break part.

Perfect weather, good track, finely tuned machine and optimism flowing like floodwaters — all elements for a record run.

Then ... bang. A tire goes flat, a spring breaks, a fuel line clogs, a carburetor sticks, an oil line breaks, a rod bends, a sparkplug burns ... and the list goes on and on. And any hope of a record is lost.

That little old speed gremlin always shows up about the same time the engine is started.

Last Sunday was one those times. Kenneth Merena of Draper was set to break the speed record for an open-cockpit motorcycle. The target was 265.4 mph. In several attempts, Merena managed to climbed his way to 209 mph but was forced to give up when time ran out, the track become too bumpy and, on his last run, the engine on his motorcycle blew up.

Talk to any one of the 400-plus drivers who show up on the salt track at Bonneville for the annual Speed Week in August, and they all have story after story of failed attempts, typically the result of the smallest, most insignificant part going haywire.

Take, for example, the land-speed record for a carburetor-fed vehicle of 409.277 miles per hour set back in 1958. Year after year, cars and drivers have appeared on the salt in an attempt to break that record. It still stands.

Terry Nish of Salt Lake City, a legend in the racing world, has been chasing the record for years.

Two years ago he showed up on the track with a car that had all the qualifications, and a driver, his son, Mike, equally qualified to set a record.

Then ... between broken starter motors, stuck shifters, burned pistons and a slippery track, the old record remained in place.

Another driver, Tom Burkland, with a car capable of breaking a slightly higher record for a blown streamliner, ran into a stream of mechanical problems that same week, which included a broken starter. That record still stands.

Last year, Nish reserved the track again, and this time came with a larger engine, several new modifications and even more confidence the car could easily go 450 and maybe even 500. On the very first run, a test run, really, a rod went and damaged a $100,000 engine. The record still stands.

It's one thing to set a goal of running 150 or 200 or 250 mph. It's quite another to break a record another well-tuned car and another skilled driver set.

But a shot at setting a world record is addicting. Year after year, the same cars and drivers that failed the year before return to try again. This time they come with some slight change or modification that is certain to take the car or motorcycles or diesel truck up and over the record.

And I applaud them all, because there is no super bonus or contract to appear on late-night talk TV at the end of the record run, just the satisfaction of going faster than the other guy.


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