The Salt Ghost: Return of the Nitro Express, movie review by Richard Parks
Submitted by jason on
Wes White and Tyler Malinky have a story to tell in The Salt Ghost; Return of the Nitro Express. The two men own motorcycle businesses and came across an old land speed racing bike that fired their interest. Wes is the owner of Four Aces Cycle Supply and Tyler is the owner of Low Brow Customs. The two friends couldn’t be more dissimilar in appearance and yet they share a love for bikes and land speed racing. Standing side by side Tyler towers over Wes and seems ungainly on the racing bike that he rides, yet he masters the course and nearly sets a record. Together they raised the money to have a video made on the Salt Ghost, a bike that Theo Ozen and Fritz Kott raced back in the late 1960’s through the early 1980’s. The video is approximately an hour in length. The executive producers are Wes White and Tyler Malinky, which means they came up with the cash to make it. The list price for the DVD is $29.95 and you can go online to www.lowbrow.com to purchase the film. The Director/Producer is Hugh Swingle. Robert Erbeznik is the photographic director. The editor is Todd Schroeder and the music score is by Christopher Hoag. You are probably wondering why I mention all of this when most of you just want to know one thing; is the video any good? Well the video is very good and on several levels. But I like to give you as much information as I can and if the people doing the work do well or poorly, then you know their names.
Wes and Tyler found the Ozen bike and knew that it was special right from the beginning. Usually these finds of old racing bikes have a checkered past and it is very hard to figure out where they came from. Sometimes the bikes are in such bad condition that they are simply scrapped or used simply for rough usage. But Wes and Tyler know a good bike when they see one and there were tell-tale marks and a numbered plate on the rear fender. They did some poking around with motorcycle clubs and the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) and established that the bike was previously owned by Theo Ozen and that Fritz Kott helped him. Ozen had moved away from the area and then he passed away in 2004; but Kott was still alive and they enlisted his help in learning more about the Salt Ghost. The video is unscripted though White and Malinky have a very easy and pleasant manner about them. They could almost be refined actors in how they react with each other. Their bantering and conversations are so natural as they poke and prod at the bike, taking it apart and reassembling the pieces to learn how it was originally made. I’m not a bike guy and it would be easy for the director to lead the two men into complicated jargon that gets lost in the translation; but the director and the two bike builders keep it simple and understandable. The action was also deliberate; not slow, but with a pace that made it
easy for the novice to keep up. As the two friends pointed to parts and to problems they gave just enough information to keep the action moving along and to educate non-bike guys about the mechanics of the Triumph motorcycle.
Wes and Tyler also have an infectious enthusiasm to go along with their patient mechanical knowledge. Fritz Kott was a real find. This long-bearded man really appreciated the love that the two mechanics put into the restoration of the Salt Ghost and he shined in his interviews. “I was there in the 1960’s with Theo,” Kott said. “The last time I saw the bike was in 1982 and I rode it with a good load of nitro in it. The bike went over 140 miles per hour at El Mirage,” he told the two men. Wes was the narrator and he has an unusual voice that commands our attention. The early scenes of the dry lakes and Bonneville added a nice touch. There were a few dry lakes guys that had speaking parts, but I didn’t get their names. One that I know who was interviewed was Julian Doty and he goes back to at least 1937, and there are few men and women who can make that claim. Julian can tell us about that early period in our land speed racing history because he was just a young kid when his uncle dragged him to a meeting back in 1937 that established the SCTA. The other thing that is remarkable about Doty is his clear and precise memory. He is simply a delight to be around and to listen to. “They run this bike for five years that I remember. Ozen was a big tall fella who wore a protective suit that was black, with white stripes; kind of like a skunk. I remember that was around 1970-71,” Doty said in his joking manner. Then Kott added, “Theo was a very smart guy. He always dressed kind of grubby, like land speed guys normally do on the dry lakes. But when he went to the awards banquet he dressed up and looked very distinguished in a suit and tie. We were heavy into nitro at the time,” Kott told the narrator. “Theo was also president of the Rod Riders, which was affiliated with the SCTA as one of its member clubs,” Kott added
The video’s director moved the action around from Wes and Tyler working on the bike to scenes of the dry lakes and interviews with Kott, Doty and others. I really enjoyed the interviews and wished that they were longer and brought out the real humor of the men and women who raced so long ago. That sort of humor is so delightfully barbed. It represented an age created by the Great Depression and World War II when pomposity was set upon by wit and sardonic glee. No man set himself up over others without risking serious ridicule. But these men were also loyal and honest to a fault. “We never locked up our tool box in those days. We would lend our tools to complete strangers and we trusted everyone,” Doty beamed. I wish that the director would have introduced some of the volunteers in the video that had speaking parts at El Mirage and Bonneville. Perhaps the narrator did, but I may have missed it. Most of the action occurred at the Inspection tent and Registration trailer. As the narrator asked questions or spoke to the volunteers at the timing meet it seemed so natural. Usually non-actors are tongue tied but that wasn’t the case here at all. The conversation wasn’t rehearsed either, though I’m sure that the film’s editor probably left a lot of tape on the editing room’s floor. I’ve reviewed other dry lake’s movies and I am amazed at how well the SCTA officials handle their speaking parts. Perhaps they are natural born actors; good ones too.
Kott continued with his interview, “Theo was injured in a racing accident and the last time that I saw him he was in a wheelchair. He left his shop and moved away and it was as if he had disappeared from the face of the earth.” The movie reverted from the dry lakes back to the motorcycle shop as the partners prepared for the trip to the Bonneville Salt Flats. The photography was very good, almost excellent. The background guitar music was soothing and didn’t get in the way of dialogue. One of the most irritating things about some videos is the feeling by the producers that the music has to be loud and aggressive. Yet if there is no musical background the viewers have a hard time focusing. Here the music fit the topic and added to the tempo of the film. The other plus was the way Tyler and Wes played off each other as if they had been acting in films all their lives. I’m pleased to see a younger generation take over and promote the sport of land speed racing as Wes and Tyler are doing. Finally the partners were ready for the road trip to Bonneville. I timed the sequence of events from their shop to Bonneville and it lasted about a minute. Too short for me as the desert, rolling hills and familiar landmarks brought back cherished memories of the trip that I had taken years ago. Then the broad panorama of the Bonneville Salt Flats spread out before us. My father was there in 1947 when Cobb ran for the unlimited land speed record. He went back in 1948 to convince the Chamber of Commerce in Salt Lake City to let the SCTA lease the salt flats for timing trials. In 1949 he was the first man to run down the course at the first SpeedWeek and the first to spin out.
There were some nice photographs of Roland Free on his bike in that famous pose of his; laying horizontal with his legs straight out from the bike. Free was aptly named, for he raced in shoes, swim suit and helmet back then. That shows you how far the safety rules have changed at SpeedWeek since the 1950’s. Burt Munro’s Indian motorcycle was also shown in old photographs. His story is retold in The World’s Fastest Indian, a movie that deserved more attention than it received. Ozen’s old Triumph is chain driven and Wes and Tyler discover a problem with a pushrod. They run the bike up a ramp onto a platform and then show us what happened and how to repair it. How easy it is to work on bikes instead of cars. They also show the viewer how land speed racers adapt to problem way out on the lakebed with minimal tools and equipment. Improvising is the key to success in racing. With the Salt Ghost repaired the men make an official run down the course. Tyler goes first and it is a funny sight to see this tall, gangly man get on this rather small bike. It is as if he was going to overpower the bike and yet man and machine blend together. The close up and zoom photography is very good and it doesn’t last long enough for me. The run is aborted without going through the timing lights and the men are left without a standard to judge the bike.
Most of the time there is a lively discussion between the two men as they try and overcome all the gremlins that get in their way, but on a few occasions their frustration boils over and some strong language comes through. Such language is normal at the lakes and Bonneville and most will not find it offensive, but it does pose a problem if children and wives are viewing the video. The second day Wes gets on the bike after the team has discovered the problems and worked on them. Wes is shorter and stouter and looks more comfortable on the bike, but looks can be deceiving sometimes. Tyler will bring out the best in the Salt Ghost on this trip to Bonneville. Wes is unable to get the bike out of third gear and into fourth, but still manages to attain 85 mph and their first official timing slip. They find and fix a problem with the carburetor. There are always problems to face when racing. Tyler takes the third turn on the Salt Ghost and the photography is excellent as he manages to up the speed to 119 mph, just a few miles off the record that they are trying to reach. As long and gangly as Tyler is he has found a symbiotic relationship with the Salt Ghost and takes the fourth run as well, increasing the speed to 121 mph and just missing the record. That’s it for this year and the partners head for home and will prepare the bike for the next SpeedWeek. The camera ends the odyssey with a shot of Theo Ozen’s grave with the notation, “1926-2004, WWII Vet,” and then a close-up of Fritz Kott, who sadly passed away after the movie had been made. Fritz was born in 1945 and passed away in 2011. Somewhere, both of these pioneers are proud of the film and the restoration of the Salt Ghost. I rate this a 6 ½ spark plugs out of a total of 8 and recommend this film for your library.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.