No trace of fear, a stream of ice water was being pumped through cooling coils sewn into his shirt.
The rider checked the instruments again. The 500 horsepower, 3000cc, carbon fiber streamliner barely purred, idling on its twin skids. At his signal, the machine jolted forward, attached to a tow vehicle. The rider retracted the skids (which balanced the machine on its two wheels) by thumbing a “Chinese Hat” switch as the speedo showed 20 mph. Another button from the Vietnam war era released the tow rope as the speedo ticked through 50. The tow vehicle pulled off the course, and he shifted the streamliner into gear.
Above — "Seven" — On the salt, Dennis Manning's seventh streamliner going through final preparations. (Photo from BUB Enterprises Press Kit)
The gear shift is electronic and is represented by a trigger switch that normally fires machine guns on an F-4 Phantom. (The controls were bought surplus and wired into the machine.) The acceleration is smooth, but utterly abrupt — like being thrown out a fifth-story window. There is a certain exhilaration that every biker knows. It is the feeling that comes from running it out in a lower gear, hitting the red line, and then popping into a higher notch, as the motorcycle draws another breath, digging its claws into the pavement. And part of that exhilaration is the sound of pistons going ballistic.
Above – The rider, strapped into the streamliner, between the unique controls of "Seven." (Photo from BUB Enterprises press kit)
This rider is no exception, but he has been become accustomed to the sensation of speed on a broader scale. This streamliner breeds speed like congress breeds contempt. Though the seat is splayed like an upholstered shovel and the rider is seat-belted like a fighter pilot, he is still shoved back as the machine winds up for the pitch.
There are purists who may contend that a streamliner is not a real motorcycle with its fully enclosed cockpit, massive internal engine, and landing gear skids... But they are wrong. This 24-foot long streamliner (with tires that cost more than I made in 10 years as a writer) may be a unicorn when it is on its skids, but headed down the salt flats, running on two wheels, it is every inch a motorcycle, just like the one piloted by Burt Munro in 1967.
And all of the risks remain the same.
The salt provides an interesting surface. It can be as hard as asphalt or as crusty as French bread. It is covered with water throughout the early spring and assumes its racing nature at the end of summer. For this event, the course is groomed for an 11-mile stretch. The salt is groomed for speed. It is also groomed for death. Without a tree or a building in sight, the wind blows free across the flats. And sometimes — often in fact — it blows with some authority. It can whip up handfuls of salt on a whim, or influence the course of a two-wheeled shooting star, tearing up the salt on contact patches of two square inches of hardened rubber.
Above — "Seven" in tow, starting the course at the Bonneville Salt Flats. (Photo from BUB Enterprises press kit)
Fourteen seconds into the course, the rider glanced at the speedo and made a decision: he triggered it into second gear — at 180 miles per hour. Decisions like these would come faster now. He had less than four miles to max this machine out, and it was already doing a little less than half speed.
Bonneville salt flat speed records for motorcycles are born between mile markers #5 and #6. Birth complications sometimes occur when crosswinds shake the nose, causing the machine to swerve. It is amazing how much lateral movement you can get in a machine at speeds over 280 miles per hour, with very little effort.
The machine gun trigger was pulled two more times and the streamliner rocketed into the timed mile at a speed in excess of 350mph. The rider was satisfied that this practice run had shown the machine ready for competition, and began the slow-down process after passing Mile 6. Even in practice, these high-speed runs are the stuff of legend. This one would be no different.
Somewhere around 280 mph, buried deep within the 19 feet of streamliner behind the rider, an oil hose parted, spraying hot parts with lubricant. The engine burst into flames, setting off the fire suppression system. A fire warning light advised the rider that things had taken a dark, and dirty turn. Yet in less time that it took to write these words, the smoking $6 million (plus) machine covered yet another two miles.
It was time to bail out. (Or at least to get out.)
There was no question of killing the engine. It had died by its own hand as the ignition wiring turned to ash. Having trained for contingencies just like this, the rider calmly hit the “torpedo” button, to deploy the pilot ‘chute. This is a small 18-inch parachute that activates the main drag chute. The effects of the sudden drag can be felt immediately.
For an instant, the cool water circulating around the rider’s chest didn’t seem quite cool enough. He was faced with a bit of a dilemma. Releasing the emergency back-up drag chute can only be done at a lower speed, as the wind-stream will simply shred it. Now the gentle reader will undoubted think, “Thank God this happened on the Bonneville salt flats, with all that wide open space. All the rider has to do is sit tight until the machine runs out of momentum, then jump out, leaving the smoldering ruins to the fire crew undoubtedly chasing the ill-fated streamliner.” This is a logical conclusion, provided the machine doesn’t blow up winding down.
It would also be the wrong conclusion.
Despite 30,000 acres of vast wide-open space before him, the rider and his streamliner were eating up the groomed course at about 4 miles a minute. The perfectly flat course extended slightly beyond the 11-mile marker, but not by much. Then it quickly yielded to coarser salt, complete with bumps, ridges and cracks that would offer no challenge to a dirt bike. But they might just as well have been cobblestones to the streamliner’s fragile suspension. The rider was under no illusions as to what could happen after mile-marker 11.
Without the thrust of 500-horsepower engine, the machine started to slow, and after the scant seconds required to hold a breath, the rider deemed it safe enough to release the emergency drag chute. It was a bad day for drag chute reliability as that unit also failed to deploy. The slightly disillusioned rider noted that the machine was still moving in excess of 200 mph, with less than three miles in which to stop.
Redundancy is the key word in streamliner technology. And with so many redundant drag chutes on board, there was little consideration for weight-consuming brakes. The streamliner has a back brake that the rider regards as useless for any speed faster than a brisk walk. With a touch as gentle as the lead man for the bomb squad, the rider carefully began to extend the skids. Sudden drag behind the front wheel can dramatically change the manner in which the streamliner handles. Fighting erratic steering with one hand, and nursing the skids with the other, the rider divided speed into remaining distance to determine if he would still need his dinner reservations that night.
The streamliner came to a stop about a half mile from the first line of cracks and ridges.
It had to stop. The skids were buried eight inches into the salt. The rider exited the streamliner with as much elán as could be mustered under the circumstances. The fire had been extinguished and the pit crew began to assess the damage to the machine.
More than anything else, the rider was disappointed by the thought that the damage done to the engine would have precluded competing for the title of “World’s Fastest Man on Two Wheels,” an honor that presently belonged to a competitor. Yet as he removed his helmet and gloves, the rider smiled sheepishly, scuffed the salt with his boot, and asked, “Who packed the drag chutes?”
Now, the average guy might have been inclined to rethink the details of the afternoon and decide that other pastimes could be more gratifying. But this rider is not the average guy. He won the 1992, 1999, and 2001-2005 AMA Grand National Dirt Track (Flat Track) championships, the 2000 Formula USA Dirt Track Championship and the AMA 600cc Dirt Track championship seven times (1988–1993, and 1995). He won his first Grand National Championship when he was 19.
Above — Chris Carr, the World's Fastest Man On Two Wheels. (Photo from BUB Enterprises press kit)
So two weeks later, on September 24th, 2009, Chris Carr strapped his butt into a repaired streamliner (owned by Dennis Manning of BUB Racing) and rode into high-speed history, at 367.382 miles per hour. He is currently the “World’s Fastest Man On Two Wheels.”
Nothing burned and the drag chutes worked... But that doesn’t mean it was routine. There’s always the wind. (To be continued...)
Above — From left, the author, Chris Carr, and James Ellenberg, who is a tee shirt salesman, attempting to make a buck. Note Riepe is holding a cane and Ellenberg is sporting a crutch. Carr has asked Riepe for advice on leaning into high-speed curves. Riepe is lying as he has never leaned into a curve in his life. The author is pleased to report he is no longer that fat. (Photo by Ansel Adams Schwartz)
• Chris Carr speaks softly, with a slight California drawl. (This is because he is originally from California.) He wanted to make it clear that the reason the drag chutes failed was due to extensive damage as a result of the fire. And he suspected so at the time.
• This is what my work looks like when I write a serious motorcycle story. Is everyone happy now?
Above — One of the author's favorite pictures, as a guest in Chris Carr's pit at Hagerstown Raceway. The author is now 25 pounds lighter than he was in the picture. Here he has more chins than a Chinese phonebook. (Photo by Jim Ellenberg)
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2010
AKA The Lindberg Baby (Mac Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)