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Big Ugly: The Story Behind the Landspeed Record

In September 2009, Chris Carr set a new motorcycle land speed record of 367.382mph in the BUB Seven streamliner. And the shape of the fastest bike ever built was inspired by, erm... a fish. Here’s how it all happened

Like countless other 65-year-old gentlemen, Dennis Manning was flicking through the documentary channels on a Sunday afternoon when he happened upon a programme about migrating Coho salmon and settled down for a pleasant hour’s viewing. But unlike his peers, Manning wasn’t looking for tips on which flies were best to catch a salmon. He had another problem to solve – like, how he could propel his motorcycle to half the speed of sound.

Marvelling at the salmons’ superb fluid dynamics as they struggled upstream to spawn, Manning had a ‘eureka’ moment and figured that a salmon-shaped streamliner motorcycle would offer the lowest possible coefficient of drag and allow him to break his bike’s existing world land speed record of 350mph. Now that’s interactive viewing at its best.

Back in 2000, Manning had hit a wall with top speed and couldn’t get his bike to go any faster. ‘I eventually realised it was the aerodynamic shape of the bike that was holding us back’ he says. ‘I needed a shape that was neutral – that didn’t give us lift or down-force. Watching the salmon, it occurred to me that here was a shape that had evolved over millions of years and that if it wasn’t a good shape, it would get eaten! I called an icthyologist friend and asked how fast a salmon could swim and he said they could reach speeds of 50mph over short distances. And that’s in water – which is eight times denser than air! So I figured that, out of the water, that’s a 400mph shape right there!

‘My wife and I went up to the Columbia River and studied the salmon through a glass viewing chamber and it just clicked. The salmon was the perfect aerodynamic shape that didn’t produce lift or down-force and it even looked like a motorcycle streamliner should look – only without the wheels. So I studied the shapes of fish and compared them with aerodynamic research and found that a lot of the research included fish. Someone had even put a Bluefin tuna into a wind tunnel and it was so aerodynamically perfect that they couldn’t even get a (coefficient of drag) reading off it!’

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That may sound a touch eccentric but there isn’t much Dennis Manning doesn’t know about going very, very fast. He’s been chasing land speed records for 43 years and of the 11 fastest bikes in history, he’s built six of them. In September 2009, his BUB ‘Lucky Seven’ Streamliner set a new world record when legendary flat-track rider Chris Carr posted a two-way average run of 367.382mph and a one-way outright top speed of 372.534mph at Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, USA.

To put that ludicrous speed in context, that’s 538 feet per second or five American football fields in 3.3 seconds. Even more impressively, if Carr had managed to coax just 11.46mph more out of the BUB, he’d have been travelling at half the speed of sound – on two wheels!

The BUB Seven (the acronym stands for ‘Big Ugly Bastard’, an affectionate nickname for Manning) houses a custom-built 3,000cc V-four turbo engine. With 500bhp on tap, it makes more than twice the power of a MotoGP bike and can travel at almost twice the top speed of a factory World Superbike. The BUB is so fast that it even out-performs the tyres that Goodyear makes especially for attempting world land speed records. Th e firm’s LSR (land speed record) tyres are only certified to 300mph, a full 72.534mph slower than the bike’s highest recorded top speed.

Before 2009, there wasn’t a tyre in the world that could cope with the BUB’s top speed. ‘That’s why we didn’t run last year – because we couldn’t get tyres that would go fast enough’ Manning says. ‘Goodyear was apprehensive about us doing 350mph on their 300mph tyres but I said to them “Look, Goodyear is in the business of making tyres and Goodyear is in the business of making money. Now, if I pay you enough money, will Goodyear make me some tyres?” Eventually, after a year of development, they came up with a tyre.’

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Setting a world land speed record isn’t just about a one-off top speed reading. In order for a record to be officially accepted, a bike must accelerate over a punishing five-and-a-half-mile strip marked out on those Utah Salt Flats before decelerating, turning around, and returning at full speed back down the straight. An average time for the two runs is then calculated to give an official record. Th at means the bike has to be strong enough, and reliable enough, to cover 11 miles at over 350mph.

Manning has favoured a V-four engine configuration as the ideal tool for record-breaking since 1990. ‘We looked at a lot of different configurations before deciding on a V-four’ he explains. ‘We considered a square-four, a V-five – lots of options. It’s fun when all you have is a pencil and a blank piece of paper! But ultimately the V-four engine was compact, it did what I wanted it to do drive line-wise, the transmission was very easily tucked behind the rear cylinders, and it just seemed like the best choice overall.’

The BUB Seven is essentially the same bike that cracked 350mph in 2006 so what changes were made that allowed it to go so much faster in 2009? ‘Just refinements’ Manning says, reluctant to give away too much detail in what is a fiercely competitive arena. ‘Since 2006, we’ve been in the wind tunnel and found out some things there. I followed them up and we found more speed straight away. Th e air pressure at the speeds we’re doing is so great it’s like trying to run in a swimming pool so we can only make small refinements at a time. But if you know what it’s like to do 350mph, as we do, then you can learn from that and build up to 360mph. It’s about learning from your experience and progressing one step at a time.’

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Rider, Chris Carr says having more time on the bike has helped too. ‘It was the same motorcycle but I had more experience of riding it’ he says. ‘More experience in dealing with traction and how to get the motor to hook up better. When we set the record at 350mph, that wasn’t everything that the bike was capable of – and we still have power in reserve right now. As a rider I’m more aggressive through the range now than I was in 2006 and that has just come with more seat time on the bike. I’m able to ride the bike more aggressively now and the sooner you can get up to speed on the early part of the run then the better it is on the far end of the run.’

But even experienced record-breakers can run into trouble and during a test run three weeks before the record attempt, the BUB Seven almost self-destructed.

‘The exhaust pipe blew up during a 355mph run and the bike burst into flames’ Manning says. ‘The quickshift gear-changer we have turns the ignition off during a shift but not the fuel, so there was an explosion in the exhaust system and the pipe opened up in the carbon tail and created a big fire. Chris didn’t even know he was on fire. He’s insulated by a bunch of fire walls and all this was happening about ten feet behind his head so he didn’t even know it was going on. He got stopped safely anyhow.’

Carr plays down the incident. ‘Yeah, the bike caught fire on deceleration but I was able to change my shutdown procedure and get it stopped before it destroyed itself. I wasn’t in any danger – the fire was in the engine department which is separate from me. I never felt threatened by the fire at all.’

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In fact, Carr had more of a fright during the record attempt itself when cross winds threatened to take him out at unimaginable speed. ‘I always get asked what it feels like to travel at that speed’ he says, ‘but I’ll say this; that when it goes bad, it feels frighteningly fast. On my outrun, I had a bit of an issue with a crosswind as I approached the timed mile and it blew me across the track, so over the span of 9.7 seconds the bike veered left by 31 feet. You just have to steer into the wind to counter it but you have to be careful not to over-correct. I have two controls out of an F4 Phantom fighter jet to steer it but the corrections at that speed must be miniscule.’

So with a 17mph increase in top speed in just three years (two, if you consider the bike didn’t run last year), the team must be confident of breaking the 400mph barrier in the near future. ‘I’m fully confident this bike can go 400mph’ Manning says. ‘As it exited the run – from the last kilometre light to the last mile light – it averaged 372.mph. Our on-board data said it went even faster than that going out the door. I think we’re within 20mph of going 400mph.’

Carr also thinks 400mph is possible but, as the rider who might have to do it, he’s a little more cautious. ‘The sky’s the limit as far as the bike’s concerned. I look forward to getting to ride the thing within the next year and seeing what we can do. Three years ago, we went 350mph and I thought it was easy, to be honest with you. This year we went 367mph and getting to that point was very difficult. Now 400mph is going to be a lot, lot tougher. I don’t expect a 33mph jump in speed. We’re going to need more power and we may need a longer race course. As soon as you bring in more power you bring in all these other factors like lack of traction and, of course, Mother Nature may have a say in it – we might get terrible weather conditions for the next few years so I don’t want to say when we’ll be able to do 400mph.’

But one thing’s for sure, Carr doesn’t intend relinquishing his title as the fastest motorcyclist on earth. ‘I went through a two year period where I could sit and think there’s no-one in the world – no-one in history – that’s gone faster than me on two wheels, and that was a pretty cool feeling. For the last year I haven’t been able to say that (after Rocky Robinson set a new record of 360.913mph in 2008) and that was kind of a bummer. But now I feel better – I can say it again, and there haven’t been many people who have held the motorcycle land speed record, lost it, and got it back again. I’m fortunate to have it back.’

And Chris Carr, land speed record holder, is not going to give it up again without a fight.

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Who is Chris Carr

Chris Carr is a legendary American flat-track racer. A seven-times Grand National dirt track championship winner and six-time AMA 600cc dirt track champion, the Californian won the Grand National series every year between 2001 and 2005 to become the second most successful flat-track racer of all time (behind great rival Scotty Parker). He’s even surpassed his hero Kenny Roberts’ all-time tally of short track wins in the US. Carr also tried his hand at road racing for two seasons and won the AMA rookie of the year award on a Harley-Davidson VR1000 in 1996. He first broke the world land speed record in the BUB 7 in 2006 when he achieved an average speed of 350.8mph before losing out to Rocky Robinson last year when his rival recorded 360.913mph. A professional racer since 1985, Carr is now 43 but still rides in the AMA series.

Who is Cal Raybourn

Few riders deserve the tag ‘Mr Harley-Davidson’ more than Calvin Rayborn. A despatch rider in San Diego, California before he made a name for himself as a racer, Rayborn was a dirt tracker whose speciality was tarmac racing (or ‘pavement’ as they say in the USA). He won the Daytona 200 in 1968 and 1969 on a KR750 Harley and took the motorcycle land speed record in 1970 on a Hawg. But he’s remembered best for his rides in the Transatalantic Match Races. These USA v GB series were big news in the seventies and eighties, and Rayborn arrived in Britain for the first time in 1972 with his tuner Walt Faulk and an iron-barrelled KR750. Fellow American racer Don Emde had sketched out the layout of some the British tracks on the back of a fag packet on the plane. Cal finished joint top points scorer with Brit Ray Pickrell that year – a stunning achievement. He was killed at Pukekohe, New Zealand in 1973 testing a Suzuki.

Who is Don Vesco

Another product of the speed-crazed California scene of the fifties onwards, Vesco hailed from Loma Linda in SoCal. A dirt rider, track racer and record chaser he opened a Yamaha dealership in 1966 and ploughed nearly all his efforts (and money) into sponsoring riders. Cal Rayborn and 1969 World 250cc Champion Kel Carruthers both started out as Vesco riders.

In 1970 he powered to the land speed record with a twin TZ750-engined Yamaha at 251.66mph. In 1975 he took the record past the 300mph mark and then in 1978 he upped it to 318.60mph with a Kawasaki-engined device.

Maybe his finest hour was in 1999 when, aged 60, he took the wheel-driven land speed record for cars at 427.83mph in ‘Turbinator’ a gas turbine powered projectile. And just for fun he upped it to 458.44mph in 2001. All this having lost an eye in 1996. Still the only man to have held two- and four-wheeled LSRs at the same time. He died in 2002.

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Dennis Manning - 43 years chasing speed

Dennis Manning started drag racing in 1966 with a normally-aspirated 450 Honda that ran the quarter mile in 12.12 seconds with a top speed of 128mph. After he fitted a supercharger, the bike ran 11.80 seconds at 130mph and he’s been at it ever since.

In 1968 he used a drop-tank from a Korean war fighter plane with a tubular frame inside as the basis for his first streamliner. He fitted an air-cooled 500cc Suzuki engine and intended to run at Bonneville with rider Don Blessing but the project never got to ‘the salt’ because it was under water that year due to heavy rain.

But the bike lived on, forming the basis for Manning’s 1970 Harley-Davidson-engined project. Featuring hub-centre steering, monocoque frame, and a tuned Harley Sportster engine running on 70% nitro-methane, the streamliner set a new world record of 265.492mph with legendary American racer Cal Rayborn at the controls. The bike, and the record attempt, featured in the biking movie On Any Sunday.

By 1972, Manning had switched his attention to a British bike and designed a Triumph streamliner. The bike used two 750cc lumps and rider Boris Murray was timed at 272mph on it at Bonneville, though only on a one-way run. It remains the world’s fastest Triumph.

More Brit power was behind Manning’s next project in 1973 when he swapped the Triumph engines for two 800cc Norton motors running on 92% nitro-methane. The engines were prone to detonation however, meaning the Norton project was never fully realised but it still managed the fastest speed ever recorded by the marque with a one-way pass at 279mph.

Streamliners were dropped in favour of more conventional motorcycles between 1980 and 1984 when Manning worked on the Tramp III project. This bike featured Manning’s own engine which he dubbed the Tenacious. Essentially a test mule for engine development, the bike still hit a speed of 239mph making it the fastest conventional motorcycle in the world for several years.

The Tenacious engine was fitted to a streamliner for the 1984 Tenacious I project running 95% nitro-methane with a nitrous kit. Although rider Dan Kinsey reached 286mph, no records were broken, but it’s still the fastest ever single-engined Harley.

The Tenacious II project ran from 1990 to 2001 and utilised the BUB V-4 engine and Manning’s own ultra-strong transmission system. The project culminated in 2001 with a top speed of 297mph being reached before Manning went back to the drawing board and set to work on what is now the BUB Seven world record holder.

Click next for the records and specifications of the BUB

Records

1903 Yonkers, U.S.
Glenn Curtiss
Curtiss 1,000 cc (61 cu in)
64 mph

1920 Daytona Beach, U.S.
Gene Walker
Indian 994 cc (60.7 cu in)
104.12 mph

1923 Brooklands, UK
Bert le Vack
Temple-Anzani 996 cc (60.8 cu in)
108.41 mph

1930 Ingolstadt, Germany
Ernst Jakob Henne
BMW 735 cc (44.9 cu in)
137.58 mph

1930 Cork, Ireland
Joseph S. Wright
OEC Temple JAP 995 cc (60.7 cu in)
150.65 mph

1932 Tát, Hungary
Ernst Jakob Henne
BMW736 cc (44.9 cu in)
151.77 mph

1937 Autostrada A4 (Italy)
(Brescia-Bergamo route)
Piero Taruffi
Gilera 492 cc (30.0 cu in)
170.27 mph

1951 Ingolstadt, Germany
Wilhelm Herz
NSU 499 cc (30.5 cu in)
180.29 mph

1955 Christchurch, New Zealand
Russell Wright
Vincent-HRD 998 cc (60.9 cu in)
184.83 mph

1966 Bonneville, U.S.
Robert Leppan
Triumph Special Gyronaut X-1
1,298 cc (79.2 cu in)
245.60 mph

1975 Bonneville, U.S.
Don Vesco
Yamaha 1,480 cc (90 cu in)
302.92 mph

1978 Bonneville, U.S.
Don Vesco
Kawasaki 2,030 cc (124 cu in)
318.598 mph

1990 Bonneville, U.S.
Dave Campos U.S.A
Ruxton Harley-Davidson 3,000cc (180 cu in)
322.150 mph

Sep 2006 Bonneville, U.S.
Rocky Robinson
Top Oil-Ack Attack streamliner
2,600 cc (160 cu in)
342.797 mph

Sep 2006 Bonneville, U.S.
Chris Carr U.S.A
BUB - Lucky 7 streamliner 2,997cc (182.9 cu in)
350.884 mph

2008 Bonneville, U.S.
Rocky Robinson U.S.A
Top Oil-Ack Attack streamliner
2,600 cc (160 cu in)
360.913 mph

2009 Bonneville, U.S.
Chris Carr
BUB - Lucky 7 streamliner 2,997cc (182.9 cu in)
367.382 mph

Specifications

Engine: Custom-built 3000cc, 90 degree V-four, turbocharged, liquid-cooled, 16v, dohc
Bore & stroke: 104x76mm
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Transmission: Computer-controlled air-shift four-speed
Clutch: Indy car dry clutch
Frame: Carbon fibre monocoque
Weight: 727.27kg (1600lb)
Length: 21 feet
Height: 32 inches
Width: 22 inches
Coefficient of drag: 0.08
Brakes: 3 parachutes plus six-piston PM calipers
Skids: Air-actuated
Suspension: Datum machined front and rear
Power commander: MoTec
Fuel: Methanol
Power: 500bhp@ 8,500rpm
Top speed: 372mph+
Colour options: Red

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