Story by Robert Higdon and Mike Kneebone, Photography by Steve Hobart
The 15th running of the 11-day, 11,000-mile Iron Butt motorcycle rally concluded Friday, July 1st, 2011 in Ontario, California. Originally conceived in 1984 as a 10-day motorcycle circumnavigation of the continental United States, the rally has grown enormously in popularity from the initial contest that involved 10 riders to starting grids in recent years that have grown to allow 100 competitors. The complexity of the event has also increased over time. From the first straightforward ride involving three checkpoints and a finishing location, riders in modern versions of the rally have faced more than 100 pages of bonus locations, staggering problems of route selection and optimization, and total miles that have risen more than 50 percent from the earliest events.
The rally has best been described as a motorcycle scavenger hunt of North America. In past rallies entrants have ridden as far north as Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, as far south as Key West, Florida, through most of the Canadian provinces, and over millions of miles of large and small roads all over North America. They have seen travel oddities and roadside attractions without end, all the while compiling a record of safety that far exceeds that of the typical motorcyclist.
To be considered a finisher of this year’s rally, each rider was required to visit each of the lower 48 states, while still making narrow time windows of checkpoints in Buffalo, New York, Jacksonville, Florida and Ontario, California within 11 days. To do well in the rally, Route Master Tom Austin gave riders the option to visit bonus destinations in Alaska, complete the SCMA USA Four Corners Tour as well as each of the U.S. Capitols.
The first section of the rally would take a little over four days and terminate in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York. The second leg required a two and one-half day ride down to Jacksonville, Florida. The final section was a four-day sprint to the barn in Ontario, California.
The value of the capitol was in direct proportion to its distance from the straight route from the beginning of the leg to the finish. Austin also threw in two other lures: on the first leg a huge bonus for a visit to Hyder, Alaska was offered. Three riders actually made that demanding ride to Alaska and arrived in Buffalo with time to spare. The other brass ring would require documentation of a ride to the four corners of the U.S. by completing the SCMA USA Four Corners Tour–Blaine, Washington; Madawaska, Maine; Key West, Florida; and San Ysidro, California. That would require a ride of more than 10,500 miles, almost unimaginable for the average rider but entirely doable for a capable and experienced endurance rider.
Ken Meese, Roger Sinclair, and Dick Peek–all veterans of prior Iron Butt rallies–took the lead in Buffalo by virtue of having made successful rides to Alaska. At the second checkpoint in Jacksonville, they managed to hold their positions. Then time began to take its toll, as it always does in the waning days of the event. Peek had to back off to conserve energy, managing to finish the ride in 8th place. Sinclair continued steadily to the finish, but dropped a position to wind up fourth overall. Ken Meese, who seemed almost to have a lock on first place, was hit by a coyote in the high plains of Nevada with just 16 hours to go. He was hospitalized following the accident but he will make a full and complete recovery.
With an impressive second leg, Jim Frens, who had collected 33 capitols, all 48 states, and the USA Four Corners Tour, seemed poised to win the rally, but lateness penalties at the finish dropped him from first to third overall.
At the final banquet two riders were left: Californian Eric Jewell and Minnesotan Peter Behm. Jewell is a master route planner and IBR veteran, who hovered near the top of the standings in each of the first two legs. Behm, perhaps the quietest and most self-effacing rider in the entire field, comes from a collection of north country riders known as Team Strange, a group that in the past has produced one previous IBR winner and a host of top five finishers. It was thus not much of a surprise to find that Behm, with an amazing final run in the final leg, had jumped over 12 other riders to take first place in the 2011 Iron Butt Rally. For Jewell it was a heartbreaking loss, though it should be partial consolation to him that this would be his sixth top-10 finish, a record of achievement in the event that is unmatched by anyone.
With a new bonus system that saved long hours of sitting in front of computers struggling to find a winning route, riders had significantly more saddle time in the 2011 IBR. As was predicted, the average mileage in this year’s rally would skyrocket, and it did just that. Jim Frens smashed the 13,349 mile record held by George Barnes since 2001, cranking out a total of 14,185 miles during the event.
The oldest motorcycle to finish this year’s Iron Butt Rally, entered in the Hopeless Class, is a 1969 Triumph Trident T150 Triple ridden by UK resident John Young. When John needed a fairing for the wide-open spaces of North America, he turned to Craig Vetter himself for a solution. John paid back Craig by successfully beating the odds and finishing a grinding ride that included hail, endless rains, a raging sandstorm in Arizona, and temperatures over 110 degrees.
With 35 riders exceeding 11,000 miles in 11 days and riding through all 48 states (and many capitols) in the process, three making Alaska and 21 also completing the USA Four Corners Tour at the same time, there is no doubt the Iron Butt is “The World’s Toughest Motorcycle Rally.”
Overall rally detail reports, score cards, ride documents: www.ironbuttrally.com/ibr/2011.cfm
USA Four Corners Tour: www.usa4corners.org