Land Speed Record
Dave Campos, a holder of the motorcycle land speed record for 16 years sums it up nicely: "Having the record is like standing on a block of ice with your hands tied behind your back and a noose around your neck." In my case, it had been a long, fast journey to the block, but the ice was already melting before I stepped up.
In March 2006, Mike Akatiff was considering new drivers for Top 1 Oil’s Ack Attack streamliner, and asked if I might be interested. My wife had just gotten over the stress and uncertainty of my previous life as a streamliner pilot for the Bub team, and was privately hoping that part of my life was over.
There had been many close calls during that development period with Bub Seven. An engine seizure at 160 mph had put me on my side, with me peering through the canopy as the abrasive salt ground away at the composite shell. Another time, while approaching 300 mph, the fire extinguisher had gone off inside the cockpit, blinding me. The parachute then failed, forcing me to apply the brakes. They overheated, caught the machine on fire, and that caused the rear tire to explode.
But I was desperate to achieve my own block of ice. So that spring, I auditioned for my seat in the Ack Attack contender at an airstrip in Silver Springs, Nevada. The previous riders had tested with wide, tip-over bars attached to the bike, in case they were unable to control it or keep it on two wheels. I ran without them, and had no problem burning rubber from one end of the strip to the other. The twin-engine streamliner felt bigger and heavier than Bub Seven, but had so much horsepower none of that mattered. I couldn’t wait to try it on the salt.
In August 2006, the Ack Attack team arrived at the Bonneville Salt Flats for Speed Week. Everything was new, right down to my blue and gold Nomex racing suit and matching sneakers. I finally had my opportunity to stretch her legs.
Right off, the tire began to spin in the loose salt and the rear began to dance around. Once I was past the first half-mile of burnouts and trenches dug by the heavier four wheel machines, it was full speed ahead. I pushed forcefully against the manually operated foot shifter, the linkage tying the two transmissions together requiring positive action for a clean shift. The acceleration pushed me back in the seat pan as I continued twisting the throttle with no end in sight.
At speed, the bike handled really well. The turbocharged Suzuki Hayabusa motors, with a combined displacement of 2600cc, ran smoother than the one-off Bub V4 engine. This was only my first pass at speed, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. "You went 309," a crewmember said. I smiled to myself. I had spent seven years trying to break 300 with my former team, and in just my warm up run in the Ack Attack streamliner, we were already there.
This was not an FIM-sanctioned event, so no matter how fast we went it would not count toward the official world land speed record. This would be a test-and-tune for us, and it went rather well. We left with a top speed of 338 mph, 16 over the record. During the 500-mile drive back to the foothills of Grass Valley, it sunk in that I was finally living my dream.
The FIM-sanctioned Bub Speed Trials were next and ran the first week in September. The conditions were amazing-11 miles of smooth, hard salt. We couldn’t get to the staging area fast enough and, by the time the rider’s meeting was over, we were already prepped and ready to run.
I powered away from the push vehicle-Mike’s Dodge Ram 4×4-and quickly disappeared over the horizon. The engines were capable of 800 horsepower at full boost, and quickly got up to speed. I remember having to roll out of the throttle on occasion because the rear tire would spin and drift sideways. It was not uncontrollable, but precious momentum would be lost if I let it get out of hand. The Ack Attack utilizes Mickey Thompson LSR car tires designed to run over 500 mph. Many thought they wouldn’t work on a motorcycle due to their flatter profile, but we proved the naysayers wrong.
The measured mile came quickly. I had gone through all six gears and was racing to the finish. I exited the lights and prepared myself for the big hit of the parachute while fighting to stay centered on the course. I placed my feet against the front bulkhead and braced myself.
Crosswinds can be a handful at these speeds, especially when it is time to throw out the laundry. If the wind is blowing right to left, the parachute will open to the left and you have to steer in front of it. It becomes second nature over time.
I wrestled the machine to a stop, knowing it was a good run. Crew members stationed at the end of the course were jumping up and down high-fiving anything that moved. The average through the lights was 344 and change. But, we were only halfway there, as a two-way pass is required by the FIM for an official record.
We made the turnaround in record time-new chutes were installed, the intercooler filled with water and ice, the tires inspected, and so on. "Don’t screw this up," I kept telling myself. The record was ours to lose. On the return run, I found it more difficult to keep the rear tire hooked up. I was pushing too hard, too early in the run, but not about to let up. I could feel the speed building and hoped it was enough as the run comes quickly to an end. I coast to a stop, and find myself mobbed by the press and our fans. We’d done it. It had been 16 years since the record changed hands, and for me the sense of accomplishment was a feeling that is difficult to describe.
We had raised the bar to 342.797 mph, but the block of ice had already begun to melt-quickly. Two days later, seven-time AMA Grand National Champion Chris Carr, driving the 3000cc, V-four-powered Bub Seven streamliner, took advantage of the perfect conditions with a two-way average just shy of 351 mph.
Later, Sam Wheeler in the Kawasaki-powered E-Z-Hook streamliner ran an amazing 355 mph. His front tire came apart at the end of the run and the liner went on its side. Damage to his machine prevented Wheeler from making the mandatory return run to officially take the record, but he left knowing there was no one faster. Our best was a 349 pass before mechanical gremlins sidelined us for good.
During the off-season, the Ack Attack underwent many changes. More horsepower was coaxed out of the engines, and a set of tail doors were added that allowed the rear of the machine to taper to a point like the trailing edge of a wing for better aerodynamics.
Unfortunately, the 2007 Bub meet was a huge letdown. The course was wet, loose, and only 9 miles in length compared to 11 miles the previous year. My tires left ruts in the soft surface on takeoff. I feathered the throttle, but could not find much grip. It was a handful, fishtailing down the short course and 300 was all I could muster. We either had to pack it in or push harder. I was determined to do the latter.
This time I ran hard from the start. The bike fishtailed again, but more violently than before. I backed off the throttle and she straightened out-then I pinned it open. It started to fishtail again.
Initially, I stayed on the gas, gambling I could make it through the lights. The wobble got considerably worse. There came a point when I realized I was not going to be able to save it. It was a horrible feeling because I knew I was going down at well over 300 mph.
I opened the tail doors and deployed the parachute. But, by the time the chute opened, the bike was turned 90 degrees. It yanked the rear in the opposite direction, and the canopy jettisoned a hundred feet into the air while the bike began to tumble. I tucked in as best I could and squeezed the bars with all my might.
As the cockpit and my full face helmet filled with salt, I closed my eyes. I remember thinking to myself, "Don’t pencil roll; please don’t pencil roll." When a vehicle crashes at high speed and pencil rolls, that is when you are most vulnerable.
The parachute straightened out the bike, which slid for what felt like an eternity, leaving a mile-long trail of debris. I escaped with mild salt abrasion to my face and a stiff neck. Mike had designed a safe machine that was put to the test, and it passed with flying colors.
For 2008, the Ack Attack had to be rebuilt from the ground up. The composite body had to be replaced, the frame straightened and the old motors discarded for new. The canopy needed to be redesigned to ensure it would stay intact in any situation.
We showed up at the September Bub meet with the paint still drying, and a checklist a mile long. Mechanical and electrical issues plagued us the entire meet. A dark cloud was cast over the event when friend and fellow competitor Cliff Gullett suffered fatal injuries after losing control of his streamliner exiting the mile. We had top time of the meet, but a 319 mph exit speed from a machine capable of 350 or better, was nothing to write home about.
Our final chance would be the Top 1 Oil World Land Speed Shootout. This unique Bonneville event was by invitation only, pitting the world’s fastest cars and motorcycles together on a 12-mile course. Team Bub was invited but chose to sit this one out, thinking they had a firm foothold on their new block of ice. By the end of the meet I am sure they would agree it was a bad decision.
We had our share of problems during the event, including a broken mainshaft which required an engine change. On day two of the meet we had an unusual incident-running through the measured mile I was nearly taken out by a gust of wind that was caused by a hovering helicopter carrying a camera crew searching for that perfect shot. Stability concerns prompted the removal of the new tail doors, which tended to make the bike weave at high speed. On Thursday afternoon, after the course was closed to clear debris from a fallen racer, Mother Nature played a role with steady winds increasing into the evening. With only one day remaining, our hopes were beginning to fade.
We arrived for that final day ready to go at sunrise, hoping the winds would remain calm for our attempt. When the meet officially opened, we were staged and ready, pushing off against the tall shadows of the rising sun. Eleven hundred horsepower churned the still morning air, echoing off the distant mountains as a lone silhouette accelerated across the salt at an unequaled pace.
Without the tail doors, the Ack Attack’s stability returned and I could run flat out with renewed confidence. It was one of those rare occasions when everything seemed to work perfectly. Through the lights we ran 361 and change. It would have been faster had I not backed out of the throttle midway through the mile when the canopy suddenly began to rise on the right side.
Fighting a light tailwind, there was no time for celebration as we rushed to make the turnaround. There was little we could do about the canopy lifting, other than know that it might happen again on our final run. The air does strange things at those speeds, and sometimes all you can do is press on. The return run was nearly a mirror image of the first: 360.913 mph-a new world record.
I had retaken my place on that familiar block of ice, thankful my dream had finally been realized.