EARLY Racing


David Early  Bonneville  Motorcycle Speed Record

David Early Bonneville  Motorcycle Speed Record

David Early A.M.A. Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Record

Photo from Ford Motor Company Newsletter
With my father, Andrew Early, 1965.


by David Early

I guess I owe all this motorcycle craziness to my father, Andrew Early, and a man named Bob Leppan, the world's fastest Triumph rider............

I loved car racing and my father allowed me to start racing karts in my early teens.  Although he was a great golfer and he competed successfully in many amateur tournaments, he saw that chasing a white ball around was not going to cut it for his somewhat rebellious son.  He gave up many weekends for me.

In my senior year of high school a friend that we had made through karting recommended me for my first job- working at Triumph-Detroit. T-D was the largest motorcycle dealer by sales volume in the world.  It was also the home of what at the time was the world's fastest motorcycle.

I knew nothing of motorcycles.  I wanted to race cars.  I started working part time as a general laborer doing all the jobs that teenagers do, including walking and cleaning up after the dog.  T-D also sold Suzuki as the Jap motorcycle craze was just beginning.  One of my jobs was taking the bikes to the nearby car wash.  Tired of pushing them, I asked if it was OK if I rode them.  My boss asked if I knew how to ride and of course I said "sure!"  I then had one of the mechanics take me out back and teach me how.

I worked my way up in the dealership and was doing some new bike assembly and assisting the mechanics.  Of course before a new bike could be sold it had to be test driven.  I "test drove" about 15 bikes a day. Soon I convinced the mechanics that they were losing money every time they rode a bike to diagnose it, and again, when they rode it to test the repair. Soon I was a full time "test driver".  "Hey Dave, this motorcycle has a wobble above 80mph, go check it out for me!" The sales staff  and Bob were also tired of teaching new riders and giving demo rides.  That also became part of my job description.  Some crazy rides were had!

Through a number of lucky events Bob Leppan decided I had some natural talent (his words, not mine).  One day we went to Baltimore, MD which was the headquarters of the east coast Triumph distributor, Butler & Smith.  It was also the home of Gary Nixon the current A.M.A. National Champion.  We went to Gary's house and he suggested we go trail riding.  At that time a "trail bike" meant a Triumph Tiger TR6C, 650cc.  NEVER having done this before Gary just told, " We are both riding the same motorcycles, there's no reason yours can't do the same things as mine".  Logical I guess.  So off I went into the trails following the current A.M.A National Champion and the world's fastest motorcyclist. Great stuff for an 18 year old.

Through the years I left Triumph and later had managerial positions with Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki before being accepted in 1977 by the Detroit Police Department (oh yeah, had to do a stint with the U.S.Marines also).

I had some great adventures and experiences along the way. The ironic thing, as can be seen in these photos, I never once owned a motorcycle until I bought a touring bike in 1985.  I wanted to race cars!!!!!!! 



I had the privilege of campaigning this bike on the drag racing circuit. Owned by my friend Mike Nowicki and nicknamed the "Screaming Yellow Zonker" due to it's bright yellow color.

 Having fallen out as a rider for Triumph-Detroit, this bike was a privateer. T-D fielded a bike to "shoot us down" but they were unsuccessful.

 We won 17 consecutive events and set many track records with this bike.


Canadian Motorcycling Cover

This Yamaha 650 was owned by the Detroit Honda Shops (obviously also sold Yamaha). Fairly successful, this bike won the Canadian National Championships and many U.S. events.

(I still wore  my "Yellow Zonker" leathers and helmet).

Bonneville Salt Flats  1969


The Gyronaut held the overall motorcycle speed record of 245.667.  The body designed by Alex Tremulus who also designed a number of Ford Motor Company concept vehicles.  Originally the plan was to put a Ford small block V-8 in the Gyronaut but it was later decided that a complete motorcycle concept was the way to go. Bob Leppan, co-owner of Triumph Detroit drove .

The photos below were scanned from a brochure that was put out by Triumph Corporation after the 1969 event. 
Please click on the below thumbnails to view:

With the above two motorcycles I was able to set class records at Detroit Dragway-Milan Dragway-Motor City Dragway and the St.Thomas, Ontario Dragway.


This was the Triumph Trident  that set the Partial Streamlined 750cc World Speed Record.

Notice the Dodge Charger in the background.  This was used to tow me up to about 60 mph by hanging onto the door handle. Saved the clutch and we had no starter system on the bike. 

.Dave Early Bonneville Salt Flats Triumph Trident  

IN OCTOBER of 1970 BOB LEPPAN returned to Bonneville and went head to head with a Harley Davidson Streamliner driven by A.M.A. flat track superstar Cal Rayborn.  Harley snatched the record and Leppan was ready to respond.

The Gyronaut had been updated and the two Triumph Bonneville twins had been reinstalled, bored out to 750cc each. The following is a quote from Motorcycle Magazine;

"Then it happened.  The thing that all high speed riders fear.  Bob was winding out the Trumpet down the course at over 270 MPH approaching the measured mile.  The front suspension collapsed and before any reaction was possible (like popping the drag chute) the bike started tumbling and rolling from side to side.  Bob Leppan became a member of the Two-hundred MPH Crash Club and it nearly cost him an arm.  During one of the gyrations of the Gyronaut, Bob's arm was ground into the hard-packed salt.  The ripped and shattered limb was a candidate for amputation but Bob insisted on trying to save it.  .....Bob Leppan is now recuperating from the highest speed "get-off" any biker has ever taken".

Bob never regained full use of his reattached arm.  The Gyronaut never returned to the salt and a number of years later Triumph-Detroit, which had expanded into Jaguar and British Leyland car sales, went bankrupt.

There is an interesting book which recounts the history and the great impact of Triumph-Detroit on the brand which  reached all the way to the designers in England.  Triumph Motorcycles in America  (ISBN O-87938-746-7). Written by Lindsay Brooks and David Gaylin, with a forward by Gary Nixon.  (I even get a mention.)

I returned to the salt in 1976 riding a highly modified Kawasaki H2 750 cc two stroke three cylinder. The most evil and ill handling motorcycle I had ever driven. Although it was unbelievably fast we just couldn't keep it in a straight line or connected to the ground.  Although we achieved speeds over 170 mph we never did get the 178 mph record we were after.  Observers said the bike was throwing a 20 ft. rooster tail from it's rear wheel spinning through the measured mile.  No wonder it wouldn't stay in a straight line!

I recently learned that my racing partner from 1969, and later Kawasaki business partner, had returned to the salt at age 70.  This story about Roosevelt Lackey was published in the Detroit Free Press and,  along with many facts and illustrations about the salt flats, it is quite interesting.

AS FOR ME........all this is interesting memorabilia that I recently retrieved from the U.S.  For my Kiwi friends who had doubts, "Yes, I did REALLY meet Burt Munro".  But, the past is history so I think I'll stay here riding in Thailand.  But then again, that salt sure looks tempting...........


David Early Bonneville Salt Flats


I call this my mummy photo.  Alex Tremulus, one of the designers of the Gyronaut, thought I would be more streamlined with my leathers taped tight.  In the 140 degree heat I almost passed out going through the measured mile because the tape around my neck was too tight when in the riding position.


My final race, Aug.22, 1977, with only this typed and handrawn flyer to show for it, was a "run what you brung" street bike challenge to determine the fastest bike in the Motor City.

It was a script straight out of a B-movie.  I had pretty well quit racing already and was catching a lot of flack from the "young guns"  about the old days and the old bikes. (I was managing a Kawasaki dealer at the time).

 A good friend and customer, Chuck Jones, had spent a lot of money on building a Kawasaki KZ1000 LTD with a Turbocharger.  One of the first. He also had taken a lot guff about his bike not being worth the effort put into it, so we were a natural team.

We prepped the bike in secret the day before at Motor City Dragway.  On Sunday we showed up at the event at Detroit Dragway  and left the bike on the trailer until the last minutes of time trials. We came off the trailer and set the low E.T. of the day.

At race time one by one the modified Hondas, Kaws and most glorious of all, the dealer sponsored Harleys fell to the Turbo Kawasaki.

Kaw KZ1000
This is NOT ME or the bike, but a pretty good likeness.

.  We won the event with a 10:22 quarter mile at 140 mph with a completely street legal and rideable motorcycle.

I gathered my my money and gave it to Chuck and the mechanics, and said once and for all; "I QUIT".

By David Early         









EARLY in Thailand                                                                                               

Last updated; 08/25/2009

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