Best known for his pursuit of TT victories on the Isle of Man, one of Britain’s most celebrated racing motorcyclists last month set his eyes on a new target in a very different environment
writer Guy Martin | photography Triumph Motorcycles
I didn’t have any childhood dreams. I’m from Grimsby: you have them beaten out of you. I was a happy child, but it never occurred to me that I’d ever get a chance to race a motorbike. It’s not that I thought it was impossible, just the idea never entered my head. I was happy taking lawnmowers to bits in the shed and riding field bikes. But somehow these opportunities, which other people dream about, crop up for me now.
One of the latest things I’ve been offered is an attempt to break the outright motorcycle land speed record in a machine called the Triumph Rocket III Streamliner. The current record is set at 376.363mph, but the man behind Streamliner’s design and build, Matt Markstaller, wants to break 400mph. With me inside it.
Last year I flew to America to meet Markstaller and make sure I actually fit in the streamliner. It’s 25-and-a-half feet (7.8 metres) long, but only two feet wide and three foot tall. I do fit, but only just. It’s snug.
I first learned about the bike a year or two before that, because I read a feature in a magazine called Race Engine Technology. When I met Markstaller, close to his base in Portland, Oregon, I found out he is the head of research and development at Freightliner Trucks and runs a company called Hot Rod Conspiracy. He’s a truck man, like me, so we were on the same wavelength.
Triumph has a long history with land speed record-breaking. Except for 33 days in 1956, when NSU rider Wilhelm Herz held the record, Triumph engines powered the world’s fastest motorcycles for a 15-year stretch between 1955 and 1970. Their most famous model was named the Bonneville after the place they attempted the records, but Triumph hasn’t had a look-in since.
In a bid to change that, the British company supplied the engines and the budget, while Markstaller designed and manufactured the carbon-fibre monocoque body and the chassis. Markstaller doesn’t tune engines, so they were sent to the other side of the country to New Jersey-based Carpenter Racing.
To comply with the motorcycle land speed record rules, the streamliner can’t be powered by more than 3000cc, but you can use twin engines and motorcycle land speed record holders have been doing that since the mid-1960s, when the Triumph-powered Gyronaut X-1 raised the record to 245.667mph.
The current Triumph Rocket III engine, out of the company’s big custom-style cruiser, is 2300cc, so Carpenter takes two motors and sleeves them, but retains the same stroke to make them 1485cc each, a total displacement of 2970cc. The two engines are turbocharged and use standard gearboxes, but they’re linked to a single output shaft. The engines are running 20-25psi of boost pressure and fuelled by methanol, so the pair of them should put out a combined 1000 horsepower without being stressed. Or that’s the idea.
Markstaller believes his streamliner is so aerodynamically efficient it could do 400mph with only 300 horsepower if it had enough room to get up to speed, but we’re limited to, at best, 11 miles of straight to run on. Of that 11 miles we need five to get up to speed, a mile to attempt the record and five to slow down. The course at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah measures 11 miles and every motorcycle land speed record since 1955 has been set there, but there are other options, like Lake Gairdner in South Australia.
So while 300bhp is enough in theory, it would take so long for a motorcycle of that power to accelerate to the speed that you’d run out of room. At 400mph, it takes only 9sec to cover the measured mile. Land speed records are set by working out the average speed over a timed mile, then turning around, within two hours of the first run, and making a return in the opposite direction and averaging the speed of the two timed miles.
Markstaller doesn’t strut about like he’s saying ‘I am the man’, but the more he explains about the streamliner the more I realised, ‘You are the man.’ When I visited him in Portland I don’t know if he was impressed that I’d raced in the TT. We didn’t get into in-depth conversations about it, because the Isle of Man isn’t Bonneville and Bonneville isn’t the Isle of Man. I think he realises I half-know what I’m doing, because I’ve raced there, but that’s not the measure of a man. If someone had told me they had finished the Tour Divide bicycle race or they were a Red Arrows pilot, then that’s different, but any Joe Bloggs can go and do the TT if they set their mind to it. So I reckon he liked me because I was asking him loads of questions about what needed to happen when. He could answer anything I quizzed him on, and I think he realised I wasn’t a messer.
The Streamliner’s steering mechanism is a good example of why I have a high opinion of him. Markstaller explained that to get the steering geometry he wanted, in such a tight, low-profile space, right down in the nose of the streamliner, he had to design a hub-centre system. You might remember versions of this method of steering on the Elf-Honda Grand Prix racers of the 1980s. Markstaller’s design required very specific bearings that had to be the right size and rated for wheel speed when the bike’s shifting at 400mph or more. After searching he found a bearing that was used in a German CNC milling machine. He was told the bearings he wanted cost $8000 each, and he knew he needed two. There was no alternative, so he bought them.
The rear brake was designed for a plane and made by the company that supplied the brakes for the space shuttle. The shape of the monocoque was designed by NACA, the forerunner of NASA. Markstaller has covered every area. His attention to detail is impressive. I would say the streamliner is a work of art. You compare that to the current record holder, the Ack Attack, and it looks 20 years further on.
There are three teams looking to build the first motorcycle to break 400mph: me in the Triumph; Valerie Thompson in Denis Manning’s BUB; and the current record holder, Rocky Robinson in Mike Akatiff’s Ack Attack. There had been another name on the list, Sam Wheeler in his turbo Suzuki Hayabusa-powered streamliner, a machine Wheeler had designed and built himself. The 72-year-old had been competing at Bonneville since the late 1960s and had set some impressive 350mph-plus speeds, but died of injuries caused by a crash on the salt a few days before I flew out to Utah for my first practice week.
You need a lot of patience in the land speed record business. I was supposed to ride the streamliner for the first time at Bonneville in August 2015, but the salt flats were flooded (and I’d broken my back in an accident while leading a superbike race at the Ulster Grand Prix). It wasn’t until August this year that I first got to steer the streamliner in a private test organised by Triumph.
This streamliner project had been on-going for four years before I got to ride it on the salt. For all its potential, it had done only 236mph. I’ve had 205mph out of my classic 1968 Volvo Amazon, so it had a long way to go. An American motorcycle racer, Jason DiSalvo, who is a quality rider, was in it when it did 236mph, and it was explained to me, by someone in the team, that he didn’t want to go any faster. He was complaining that it felt uncomfortable at that speed and that it was unstable, but I’ve seen the on-board video footage and it looks all right to me. He’d just become a dad of twins, so perhaps that took his mind off the job – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The Rocket Streamliner is technically a motorcycle, because it has two wheels, but nothing about it is like riding a bike. The controls are joysticks that pivot forwards and backwards and are mounted to the sides of the cockpit. The throttle is a twist grip, like a regular bike, but it’s on one of the vertical joysticks. There is only a rear brake, worked by a foot brake, and two parachutes. Shifting gears is done by pressing a button on one of the joysticks. The clutches are automatic, centrifugal lock-ups, so there isn’t a clutch lever or pedal.
Because of all this there is no experience that translates to riding a streamliner, you’ve just got to get in and practise. For the first test training wheels were fitted, like stabilisers. With a normal bike so much of your control is down to body movement and position, but the streamliner weighs a ton and you sit in it, in something like an F1 car’s cockpit, so all the balance is done by constant movement of the joysticks.
For the first few practice runs, the streamliner, with its training wheels on and its engine off, was towed behind a car at 60 to 80mph. I got the hang of it quickly enough and moved to powered runs by the second day, a week ahead of when the team thought I might be able to ride under my own steam. The first powered runs were with the training wheels, and then I moved on to runs without them.
Anyone new to the land speed record game has to prove they can handle the bike by building up to the target speed, in our case more than 376mph. My first run was limited to 120mph, but before I knew it I was doing 219mph and everything felt totally calm. Then the next run was clocked at 256mph. By the end of the practice week, I’d done 274.2mph. I would like to have done 300mph before coming home, but Matt and the Triumph folk felt we were on target, there was no point in putting more miles on the engines to go 20-odd miles faster, because when I came back for Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme-observed record attempt, the first thing they’d want to see me do was a 300mph qualifying run.
Late in that practice week, the bike felt like it wouldn’t go any faster than 274mph. I described what it felt like to Matt and Ed, from Carpenter Racing, and they thought the coils they were using weren’t man enough for the job, so they’d find better ones.
I’d also had a big wobble on the 256mph run. I thought I was going to crash, the bike was all over the place, fishtailing so much I was sure I was going down at 190mph, but I backed off the throttle, locked my knees against the elbows and it straightened out. Then I got back on the power. At that point I should have put the parachutes out. As soon as it gets wild you’ve got to get the parachutes out, because they act like a pendulum and pull the thing straight. If it starts rolling or going end over end the parachutes won’t come out straight. Some people reckon Sam Wheeler might have survived if he’d got his parachutes out, but I don’t know about that.
We think a rough patch of salt, where some member of the public had done a burn-out or doughnut on the course, had caused the 190mph wobble. Mark fitted a bigger tailfin to add stability and said he’d look into other tyres, or altering the profile of the Goodyears we had, for the next meeting.
Five weeks later, in the middle of September, we were back at Bonneville, for the Mike Cook Land Speed Shoot-Out meeting, and looking to see if we could challenge for the record. The week started badly when rain flooded the track and we couldn’t run for the first two days, but the weather improved. The salt dried out, but its condition wasn’t great and some car teams decided to pack up and go home without turning a wheel. A car called the Challenger, driven by Danny Thompson, had a blow-out at more than 300mph on the first day of running and people were saying the rough salt caused it, but people say a lot, don’t they?
The Ack Attack guys were at the same meeting, waiting to see if we did anything, but didn’t run, because they reckoned the salt wasn’t good enough to better the speed they’d already set. We still had a lot to learn and I was itching to get out.
I’m not patient at work. If I’m waiting for parts, I hate not being constructive, but here you have to be patient. I’m a bit nervous, but only when that tow rope becomes tight. I get my eye in with that. Whenever I’m in it and it’s moving, I’ve clocked on, the nerves start and the adrenaline is flowing.
On the first suitable day we had a slot to go at 11am, but the FIM tech inspectors asked the team to lockwire some parts that the team had never lockwired before, and that took a while. So it was gone three in the afternoon when I was ready to be towed out. It had been more than five weeks since I’d ridden the thing and I’d asked if I could go out with the training wheels on, just to get the hang of it again, but Matt looked at me like I was daft and told me I didn’t need those.
The streamliner has 12in long retractable legs with small wheels, called the landing gear, which I use for balance at very low speeds, but they retract once I’m happy. I hadn’t had them in for long when the streamliner got cross-rutted in soft, slushy salt that had been chewed up by one of the cars. The towrope was trying to turn me tighter than the streamliner wanted to turn and it went down on its side. We were doing only 60mph, but the day was over.
The next morning we’re out on the salt at six. Canopy on. Matt holds up one finger to start engine one, two fingers to fire engine two, then looks over the bike and taps on the screen. I give it 10sec before setting off. It’s already in gear, so I just open it up. I get it into second fairly soon. They’re trying to encourage me to rev it out in every gear, but I’m not keen on that. They want me to rev it so the lock-up clutches are fully engaged. That’s why it got half a gear in practice, because I was changing before the clutch was fully engaged, but if you rev it out when you’re going up the gears you start generating big boost and the chassis doesn’t like it. The back wheel is trying to overtake the front; too much boost, too much power.
There’s no grip here but the streamliner has traction control, which will take care of it, but that’s reactive. By changing gear earlier, I’m proactive. I’d rather get it in top as soon as possible and open it up, but the team says the wide-open throttle is giving it a lot of stress. I think I’m right. It’s going to have to cope with more than I’m asking it for now if we get to 400, so let’s make sure it can deal with it.
I’m at a constant throttle, above 50 per cent but not fully open. There are no big movements. It’s not like a normal motorbike that, when it’s up to speed, you can let go of the handlebars and it’ll self-centre and keep going straight. I always need to be teaching the streamliner, with very small movements, just feeling the weight of it in my hands.
On this first proper run at the Cook Shoot-Out, even on a constant throttle, the ignition keeps cutting out, sounding like I’m twisting the throttle for two seconds, then letting off, then back on, then off. It’s good to be running again, but the speed is only something like 180mph. The team reckons the new drag racing coils are demanding too many amps, so more power has to be diverted to them. Just as I got to the end of the run, an oil pressure warning light came up on the dash, so that needed looking into.
I wasn’t losing faith. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette and we’ve done that – it’s just that the clean-up took a bit longer than we hoped.
The next day we had another early morning run. I got moving OK, but before I’d reached 100mph I’d cross-rutted and crashed again. I was all right, but this time the swing arm was damaged and that was game over for this meeting and, probably, this year.
The first practice went better than expected, while the second wasn’t as good as we hoped, but I want to keep coming back. Only a few people are chasing streamliner land speed records: Chris Carr, Rocky Robinson, Valerie Thompson. Who else has the knack? It’s a very small bunch of people and I want to be one of them. I want people to think, ‘Get in touch with him, he’s not a messer.’