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Daredevil for Life

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Typically it’s 100 dry desert degrees this time of year on the Bonneville Salt Flats outside Wendover, Utah, where the test bomb for Hiroshima was dropped in 1944. Each August and September since, it’s also where Mark DeLuca, Steve Knecum and other determined daredevils of the world risk it all—their lives, basically—to set explosive land-speed records on the backs of monstrous motorcycles built for one reason: to go faster and faster every year.

It’s so hot before a run that a driver’s support crew—usually one or two kindred souls—either holds an umbrella over his head to block the sun or rocks ice packs back and forth on his neck before he takes on the five-mile, 90-foot-wide strip of prehistoric salt. “The adrenaline’s going,” says DeLuca, who lives in Malvern.

“Yeah, I’m thinking, ‘I might not come back alive at 250 mph,’” Knecum adds. “I bet you have a 95 percent chance of dying if you fall off. But I’ve promised my wife that if I ever fall off, I won’t be dead. I just don’t think I’m a bad enough person that I’d die doing it.”

Then there’s West Chester’s Larry Forstall, a good guy who, for as long he’s been racing, could easily be dead several times over. Instead, he’s thrived and survived long enough to have now assembled a racing team to carry on his legacy. “Everyone calls him Land-Speed Larry,” DeLuca says.

The trio—63-year-old Forstall, driver-protégés Knecum and DeLuca, and crew chief, special parts fabricator and mechanical engineer Bill Cross of Newtown Square—are preparing for a September attempt at breaking three world land-speed records for fastest conventional, production and gasoline-engine motorcycles at Bonneville’s BUB (“Big Ugly Bastard”) Speed Trials, which are sanctioned by the granddaddy of the racing world, Switzerland’s FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motorcyclisme). As of press time, they hadn’t broken any records (or bones).

Forstall, whose eyesight has forced him into owner status, still lives the thrill vicariously through the others. “This is a team,” he says. “But they take all the risks now.”

Wearing one reward from a rich life in racing—a blue Bonneville 200 mph club sweatshirt with a “life member” patch—Forstall reflects fondly on a race career that lasted from 1975 to 2000. There was a brief return in 2004 when, against all good sense and warnings—including those of his wife, Elaine—Forstall made one last run because he simply couldn’t get speed out of his system. Low-tension glaucoma, cataracts and eventual hemorrhaging in his eyes retired him. While virtually blind in his right eye, Forstall was absolutely blind to everything except his pursuit of eclipsing the 200 mph mark. He accomplished it in 2000, when he hit 201 mph in his last run at Bonneville. In the process, he clipped the last five-foot A-frame mile marker with an elbow, the result of a case of double vision.

“I’d see two markers and was never sure which was the real one,” Forstall says now. “At that speed, there’s no time for last-second decisions.”

Once off the cycle, Forstall called Elaine, who has a preference for show dogs, not speed. “I told her, ‘I’m retired,’” he says. “She was overjoyed.”

In June 2004, Forstall registered for a rather reduced modified event in Maxton, N.C., on a bike that would’ve peaked at 150 mph. On the run, the vibrations and acceleration caused his good eye to hemorrhage. Driving home, alone and “literally blind,” the 500-mile, eight-hour trip took him 15 hours. It’s the last time he drove a car, although he still operates a motorcycle when he must. “I’m more confident on a motorcycle,” he says. “I just prefer it.”

On the way to Forstall’s last runs, there were other serious health scares, too. In 1998, he survived lymphatic cancer. The experience made him refocus on life’s “unfinished business,” which, more than anything, was surpassing 200 mph “It inspired me to do it,” he admits. “I got my goal. I got my 200 mph patch. I’m proud if it. There are only 50 of us in the world.”

Age retires most, but that’s not really so for Bonneville loyalists. “Actually, you’ll see more gray hair at Bonneville than anywhere else,” Cross says.

As for Elaine, she’s far more interested in the white hair of her Bichon Frises. The current king is 2-year-old Jabree’s Be Still My Heart, whose call name is Echo. (“If your heart stops, then you need an echocardiogram,” Larry explains.) Just back from a national dog show in Lancaster, Echo finished fifth in the Best of Breed category out of 800 entries. Forstall is honest in comparing the judging to figure skating. “It’s somewhat subjective,” he says.

The same goes for invitations to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York, but Echo is in well-positioned hands. And while Elaine may be president of the Devon Dog Club, she’s probably the last to let Larry know he’s a top dog in his sport. Two months after they married—in a hot air balloon (he suggested a ceremony in a live volcano in Mexico or Hawaii, but Elaine wouldn’t bite)—she went to Bonneville with him. It was traumatizing. She’s never been back.

“Maybe if we put a picture of you on those motorcycles,” Elaine tells Echo in a ploy they’re plotting. “Then these guys wouldn’t want to go so fast on them.”

“She has a lot of fun with [Echo], so what can I say if I do all this?” Larry admits.

In fact, Elaine has two large wall showcases—one for Orientalia, the other for Bichon Frise collectibles and honors. Larry has his own lighted trophy case in the living room. And when it comes to awards, he says he’s ahead of the dogs.

“Absolutely,” Cross chimes in. “If you count the room at the [Sea Isle City, N.J.] Shore house.”

There, Forstall displays 30 years of Bonneville event posters—and he laments that he’s never been featured on one. “I think we’ve earned it with what we’ve done out there,” he says.

Bonneville has what’s called the “flying mile.” In this car-dominated challenge, drivers are timed from one mile marker to the next after using a two-mile stretch to build speed. There’s a two-mile slow-down after the timed stretch.

At Maxton—where Forstall’s team competes five times a year, including the end of this September and October—there’s a “standing mile,” which is essentially a drag strip. There, a driver is clocked at top speed start to finish on an old, minimally maintained macadam on a World War II airbase.

“This is an amateur sport,” Forstall says. “No one pays—or makes—millions to repave the strip or build a new one, so we use the one that’s there.”

He reaches into his own empty pocket to prove just how amateur an adventure sport it is. Forstall is his team’s lone sponsor. He offers Knecum, DeLuca and Cross no salary, but he does buy them all bikes, including the three parked across from his garage at the end of the driveway.

“He’s a very special person,” Cross says. “There’s no one else like him.”

“He’s very generous,” DeLuca adds. “He’s good-hearted—and brilliant, too. We often call him The Professor.”

Knecum might just sum it up best, though: “Nothing else matters to him but Bonneville—his heart’s been broken too many times.”

A 40-year-old pro motorcycle mechanic from Edgewater Park, N.J., Knecum is out to set the world record for fastest conventional motorcycle, a mark that stands at 252.8 mph. He hit 251 mph at Bonneville in 2003, and says he knows he can go faster on Forstall’s revamped and improved “big bike,” a custom-built 300-pound motorcycle that features virtually no driver-safety features. There are no breaks. The tire treads have been shaved bald.

Forstall calls the “big bike,” which is a base model $11,000 Suzuki’s Hayabusa (Japanese for “falcon”; it descends on its prey at 186 mph, is street-legal and is as fast as a motorcycle can go), the most advanced and modified he’s ever built. It’s 600 horsepower (160 factory-built), although it could never run that high on the slick salt flats. A radiator has been replaced by a seven-gallon water tank. There’s a three-gallon fuel tank over the back tire. The design, Forstall says, is a result of 30 years of trial and error.

“Others say, ‘Well, you’ve prepped the bike,’” says Knecum, a graduate of the Motorcycle Mechanic Institute in Phoenix. “Well, they can do it, too. So much gets shared on the Internet, but we don’t know of anyone else building anything like it.”

It was on the “big bike” in ’03—the last time Knecum and DeLuca raced at Bonneville—that Knecum topped 250. Electrical and equipment malfunctions prevented faster times, Forstall says. The last two years, while the local team made the 2,300-mile journey, the weather and resulting conditions prevented runs.

“Hopefully we’re going to prove ourselves,” Forstall says. “Mother Nature could determine that, just as the salt flats are where Mother Nature put them.”

As much as these missions are about precision and perpetuity, they’re also about patience and luck. Weather is one reason Bonneville events run over several days. Waiting it out is common. You can race at your discretion (everyone signs releases), and Forstall says some guys let adrenaline and desire overcome common sense. Still, he’s the first to admit, “If it’s wet, you can’t go as fast—and that’s the whole purpose.”

Because of the salt base, rain creates totally different conditions for mechanics, “It’s probably the most horrible environment,” says the 59-year-old Cross, who spent 20 years building boats in Florida before meeting Forstall in the early ’70s. “I can’t imagine anything worse for mechanical instruments.”

“It’s like driving in the ocean,” says Forstall, explaining that the salt flats actually become a lake in the winter. “[Cross] solves the problems—and on the salt flats, you have problems. When you do, you might as well be on the moon.”

Participants can get one or two passes a day, and maybe five to eight for an event. Many have their machines blow up on the first run, or they get disgusted and leave, which creates extra run times for the persistently fearless.

For Knecum, a 20-year drag-racer who met Forstall in 1999, a time over 260 mph on the “big bike” is realistic. “With the law of physics, I’d say you could [eventually with technology] go 300 mph,” Forstall says.

“Not me,” Knecum says amid their early-summer preparations. “I’d say I wouldn’t have to do that.”

“Well, we might be able to—if you change your mind,” Forstall replies. “It becomes a psychological pursuit.”

Setting a record is a two-day affair at Bonneville. If you break it one run, the bike is impounded overnight. Then, the next day, you have to hit the same speed or better at the same mile marker coming from the opposite direction. Usually, you hit peak speed at mile marker 4, or just after mid-strip. If it rains the next day, you’re out of luck.

“I want to do this for him [Forstall],” Knecum says. “If I don’t, I think I’ll have failed him. As long as we hit the goals we’ve been shooting for, he’ll be more than happy. I don’t think the high point’s come for him yet. It’ll be this year—knock on wood.”

Knecum says this isn’t about ego. It is, however, totally about Land-Speed Larry and the need for speed. “It’s better than any other drug,” DeLuca says.

“You can never get enough of it,” Knecum adds. “You’re never satisfied. You want to go faster. Everyone asks, ‘What’s it like to go 250 mph?’ It’s fast. You’re definitely paying attention. When I accomplish this, I’ll be the fastest guy on a motorcycle—period.”

DeLuca, a 35-year-old detailer who bought an unfinished Suzuki Bonneville project from Forstall two years before they joined forces, is out to set two records for the world’s fastest gasoline motorcycle engine (currently 220.5 mph; DeLuca went 220.0 mph in 2003) and fastest production (stock model) speed, which stands at 201.7 mph. In both 2001 and 2002, DeLuca went 201 mph in the very same category in which Forstall twice established the record, once in 1977 at 135 mph and again in 1986 at 166 mph. By 1999, Forstall had hit 196 mph, and when he hit that dream-time 201.0 mph in 2000, his record was broken two minutes later—and so, regretfully, was he.

Now, 200 mph is relative—even if Forstall and DeLuca are Pennsylvania’s only 200 mph motorcycle club members; Knecum is New Jersey’s lone member. With technology, Knecum says 200 mph is a cakewalk.”

Forstall calls it the “next generation.” Once he bought into Suzuki’s Hayabusa, he also had to buy a laptop computer to program it. “You can push a button and go 200 mph,” he says.

Mark DeLuca grew up riding street bikes in Berwyn. He first met Forstall at a speed shop in Frazier, where the latter sold specialty parts for 10 years. It wasn’t long before the master driver asked if DeLuca wanted to go fast—or, in other words, “Do you want to go to Bonneville?”

“He had no idea what I was getting him into,” Forstall recalls. “It’s not for everyone—to want to go 250 mph”

To put that into perspective, a driver is traveling 366 feet per second. At Maxton, it took Knecum just 24 seconds to reach a then-record 235 mph. At that speed, a gust of wind can throw a rider off course by a couple hundred yards, he says. No problem at Bonneville, Knecum says. “There’s nothing to hit”

Except those mile markers.

Close calls? Well, again, Forstall could very well be dead.

Forstall has jumped off at 100 mph It was 1991, and his bike blew its engine, which then ignited. His brake line melted, so he stood up at 150 mph to let his body act as a sail; 50 mph later, he jumped, landed on his buttocks and slid. “Nothing was hurt,” says Forstall, who adds there are lots of accidents each year at Bonneville, and maybe a death a decade.

One time Forstall was late to his own funeral. In a 1972 traveling stunt show, driver Art Arfons, an important American land-speed record holder in the ’60s who once went a world record 575 mph in a jet car, was doing exhibitions in two-pod cars (the ones with the seats off to the side). He was scheduled to eclipse 300 mph in Dallas, so Forstall went down to ride with him on one of two exhibitions. Forstall’s flight arrived on time, but his taxi blew a tire, and the wait for a tow truck extended past his scheduled ride with Arfons. In his place, TV sportscaster Eugene Thomas Alfred rode along. But at 280 mph, Arfon’s stunt vehicle blew a tire, flipped, and Alfred flew out and died. “It would have been me,” Forstall says.

Actually, Forstall’s most daredevilish acts may not have come at Bonneville. Beginning in the 1970s, a series of worldly stunts wowed even him. They were all-natural, done without inhibitions and ample ambition—and always on summer vacation.

A decade earlier, at 16, he scaled Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, a 19,340-foot inactive volcano, as part of a New England Mountaineering Club event. There, he survived frostbite in mid-summer. In 1971, he was gored by a 1,100-pound bull in Spain, where he was cliff diving. Because he didn’t know which doctors to trust, he flew back to the U.S. for treatment.

But that’s not the half of it.

He once rode a puma with his bare hands in the highlands of Guatemala. Wearing only a bulletproof vest and fencing pads for protection, he suffered three broken ribs and an arm bite that required 12 stitches to close—all in two minutes. “I knew I made a mistake when I jumped on his back and hit his backbone with my knife, which bounced off and landed on the ground,” Forstall says.

He still has one fang mark on a finger. For years after, he says, the Lincoln Mercury commercials—the ones where the cougar roars—brought back memories.

Forstall swam the Rio Grande River and the Panama Canal in the same weekend. He’s hang-glided from the tallest waterfall in the world, the 2,647-foot Angel Falls in Venezuela. He’s been towed 30 yards by sharks in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Forstall even talked about—and researched—crossing the Sahara Desert, north to south, by motorcycle. It never materialized. Now, with GPS systems, it’d be easy if it weren’t for his eyes. Even so, one wrong turn would’ve left him lost, out of gas, without water—and dead.

In 1976, he also had a hankering to ride a polar bear. So he went to the Arctic ice cap. “How do you research that?” he poses. “Maybe how many cc’s of tranquilizer it takes to slow down a polar bear.”

When he arrived, however, his pilot wouldn’t back him up with a gun, so the plan was foiled.

All this from a Haverford High School graduate who spent three years at Lehigh University before dropping out in favor of his adventurous interests.

“I guess I’m the black sheep,” Forstall says about his rather sophisticated suburban roots. “I’m the exception to the rule.”

Yes, to a lot of rules.

The daredevil in him comes from his mother’s side. “My sister’s like my father’s side: conservative,” he says.

Working in retail his whole career, he’d get bored easily, then get to thinking. Or someone would suggest something, and he’d take it as a challenge. Don’t think he can’t produce photos of each adventurous accomplishment. He can.

“He’s well-documented,” Cross affirms.

But modest. “Only on all those long or rainy trips [to Bonneville] does it comes out,” DeLuca says.

“You don’t provide a clue,” Cross tells Forstall, who still stores one of the world’s only known twin-engine motorcycles in his garage. “You look at you and think, ‘Maybe he raises petunias.’”

Forstall can even tickle the ivories, though he says he’s no sophisticated pianist. In three days, an electric guitar he ordered was due to arrive by UPS.

“Larry’s as honest as he is interesting, and he’s never disappointed me with any of his stories and tales of racing and adventure,” says Albert Bold, president of Phoenixville’s Bold Precision, Inc., where Forstall has had fabrication and design work done.

Forstall could have just as easily been the subject of the 2005 movie The World’s Fastest Indian, the real-life story of New Zealander Burt Munro, who spent years building a 1920 Indian motorcycle that helped him set the land-speed world record at Bonneville in 1967. Anthony Hopkins plays Munro, whom Forstall knew. Of course, everyone on his team has seen the movie. Forstall and DeLuca saw it together.

When confronted with numerous obstacles, Munro’s ability to make friends in every situation—also a quality of Forstall’s—was one of his strengths.

“They’ve always treated me as an equal and not as an old man,” Forstall says about his real-life script, his three closest friends revving their Hayabusa engines in his West Chester driveway before pulling out into the night.

“That’s music to our ears,” Forstall says of the roar. “It’s all kept me young. But if I could see, I’d still be doing it myself. Now, I couldn’t do any of this now without them.”

The “big bike” was called Project 260, but because of the bad weather—and luck—it’s unnamed for 2006. As Knecum explains, “We just want it to go fast—maybe 260, 270.”

Which is also music to Forstall’s ears.

“In reality,” he confesses. “I’m at a point where, at my age, if we hit a real good number—like 270—that would probably be it.”

Forstall freely acknowledges that it likely would mean he’d retire altogether—and the first thought is that he might join the Bishon Frise show circuit.

But Cross has other ideas. He’s in a bit of a mid-life crisis himself and is considering a North Carolina-style barbecue stand on the Main Line. (“I’ve made enough things out of metal, so why not a huge barbecue?”) Cross has also pledged to drag his friend fishing before he ever lets him go to the dogs.

For the time being, though, Forstall’s not looking to weave a fish tale, but rather a top-dog speed on a salt flat in Utah. It’s about racing the “big bike” to set a big time, and not letting it get away again.

“It would give me a chance to say, ‘It’s my bike’ or, ‘We did it,’” Forstall admits. “Well, if we get it, it’ll be because we worked for it. This isn’t Deal or No Deal, where a girl opens a bag.”

Still, there are guys who have gone to Bonneville their whole lives to accomplish a goal—and they never do. “Some die trying,” Forstall says.