A pair of local men have turned their passion into an ongoing quest for motorcycle land-speed records around the world. Their next stop is the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) Land Speed Grand Championship, which will be held Aug. 25 to 30 at Bonneville Speedway in northwestern Utah.
David Damon, 62, is a retired manufacturing engineer who lives in Oakley. His friend Jim Higgins, 66, retired after 29 years with the Vallejo Fire Department — 20 as fire captain — and now lives in Brentwood. They’ll be heading to Utah later this month with a couple fellow riders from Australia and the goal of adding to their already impressive list of world records and land speed accomplishments.
For Damon, land speed racing represents an opportunity to live life to the fullest. After being diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2010, his outlook on life changed.
“I had a hell of a Silicon Valley run for 20 years,” he said.
This meant working 50 to 55 hours per week and occasionally traveling to places like Singapore, Ireland and China to build factories and launch products.
“Before, I defined myself as a manufacturing engineer,” Damon said. “Today, I will tell you I want to race. I want to live life for me. I wanted to redefine myself, and I found it in land speed racing.”
In 2011, Damon met Higgins at El Mirage Dry Lake, a land speed track in the Mojave Desert. Higgins helped Damon modify his motorcycle, and they hit it off immediately. They soon discovered they were practically neighbors, with Higgins living in Pleasant Hill at the time and Damon living in Walnut Creek. They’ve been racing together ever since.
Higgins started riding motorcycles at 15 years old and started racing in Bonneville in 2000. He had volunteered to work as an EMT with a race team and quickly found himself drawn to racing.
Higgins now competes as part of the Black Art Racing Team with Australian riders Greg Watters and Kim Krebs. Watters holds several Australian records, and Krebs has been the fastest Australian woman land speed racer since 2006.
Higgins is no slouch himself, having won several “red hats,” an award given to riders who not only set speed records above 200 mph, but also exceed speeds expected of a bike in a particular class. To earn one of his red hats, he beat the previous land-speed record by more than 20 mph.
Damon and Higgins work on the bikes themselves, with the assistance of Damon’s son-in-law, Matt Osterman, heavily modifying the 600 cubic centimeter (cc) and 750 cc engines. More than 300 pounds of lead are added to the bike’s frame as a ballast to ensure as much weight is on the rear tire as possible, which adds traction and aids in acceleration.
Both riders participate in the “naked” class of racing, which prohibits fairings or aerodynamic aides. This makes for some unique riding conditions, particularly when pursuing world record speeds.
“I hang on, into the wind at 200 mph, while the front wheel is drifting back and forth about six inches to the right and left,” Damon said. “The rear wheel is spinning, moving back and forth like a dirt bike, with a mind of its own, while sidewinds push you towards the edge of the track.”
Despite the danger, Damon says it makes him feel alive and want more.
However, it’s not all success stories for the pair. Higgins described a situation last year that prevented him from setting another world record at Bonneville, and left him with some embarrassment among his peers.
He had registered for the 750 cc class, and struggled to get the motorcycle above 170 mph. The record was 160 mph but his calculations showed the bike should be able to run at about 192 mph. However, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get there.
“We tuned and tuned, scratched our heads and looked at the data,” Higgins said. Yet, they couldn’t figure out why the bike wasn’t going as fast as expected.
“That hurt,” Damon recalled, “watching you guys work on that thing for four days.”
After Higgins’ run — which was still good enough for a new record, despite the disappointment — officials were inspecting the motorcycle, as is customary to validate record-setting times. Confusion set in when, after multiple inspections, the engine measured at only 600 cc.
“It was a perfectly good motor,” he said. “We were just asking it to do something it was never supposed to be able to do. Somebody sold me a motor under false pretenses.”
Because it was a different engine than Higgins had listed on the registration, it didn’t count at all. To this day, he still hears about it from his peers in the land speed racing community.
“It’s going to take me years to live that one down,” Higgins joked. “Every time I’ve said something about getting the 750 ready, they’ve said ‘are you sure it’s the 750, Jim?’”
This year, they’ll once again attempt to beat personal bests and set records in multiple motorcycle classes. Higgins’ long-term goal is to earn his Class AA license from the Southern California Timing Association, an accomplishment that will require at least two runs exceeding 250 mph.
“To run 250 mph naked at Bonneville, I’m not sure it’s been done,” said Higgins. “There are a few guys who have done it at pavement events we’ve been to, but the pavement is easier because of the traction.”
Damon will be riding his 2006 Suzuki Hayabusa and competing in the class M-1650-AG, — a “naked” class with engines no larger than 1,650 cc. He’ll attempt to break the record of 196.053 mph, which was set in 2007.