Streamliners are to land speed racing what MotoGP bikes are to road racing. They are the elite: sophisticated, complex, and often times the most difficult to operate. While sit-on machines are the meat and potatoes of the sport, it is the streamliners that routinely lay down the big numbers.
Having said that, designing and building a streamliner is a huge undertaking. Most would rather pass than commit to such an overwhelming endeavor. I remember the first time I laid eyes on one. It was my first day on the job at BUB Enterprises’ old shop in the foothills of Grass Valley. There was a giant poster of Gyronaut X1, Bob Leppan’s twin-engine Triumph streamliner hanging on the wall. I remember I thought it looked sort of strange, like a fish out of water. I later found out this peculiar looking motorcycle ran 245.667 mph at Bonneville in 1966.
I raced Triumph’s for a while in my younger years on TT tracks across the country. There was an odd tri-oval course on the side of a hill in Clackamas, Oregon. Practically the entire field ran the popular British Twin there and for a time, nothing could touch it. My Triumph was pretty competitive but it shifted like…well, like an old Triumph. It wasn’t the fastest machine either, but the power was usable and in the day it seemed everyone was running them. There was no way any Triumph I’d ever seen would go 200 mph, let alone nearly 250. Leppan’s long, skinny racer was beginning to make sense.
Another famous streamliner I remember from the early days was the Texas Ceegar. Built by Stormy Mangham and driven by Johnny Allen, this single-engine Triumph- powered machine went 214 mph in 1956! Legendary tuner Jack Wilson built the motor and his success on the salt inspired the factory to lend the Bonneville name to their line of production motorcycles.
Five decades later the streamliner is still the fastest machine on the salt. Technology has advanced to the point that the world’s fastest motorcycle has exceeded 360 mph, and yet there are a few records from the ‘50s and ‘60s that remain unbroken. Wilhelm Herz took his 500cc Delphin III to a top speed of 211 mph in 1956 when the NSU team invaded the salt flats at Bonneville, breaking records in nearly every class they competed. Herz was the first to break the 200 mph barrier on two wheels, inspiring modern day racer and builder, Bob Williams, to build a 500cc machine to compete against the still unbroken NSU record.
Bob’s racing background includes drag racing and road racing. One of the highlights of his career was finishing third behind Canadian road racing legend Yvon DuHamel and Dwayne McDaniels. An unexpected accident on his Honda Gold Wing resulted in a broken back and loss of use of his legs. Confined to a wheelchair, Bob is now the chief designer and builder for Team Arrow Racing. “You have to play the cards life deals you,” he says.
Under Bob’s direction, the team constructed a beautiful, state-of-the-art machine: 24” diameter, 18’ long. The powerplant is a 600cc Honda Four. Center hub steering was used up front for a lower profile and less drag. They didn’t stop there. Bob decided to eliminate the driver’s compartment windshield. There is no protruding canopy. Instead, his driver lies on his back and looks into a periscope to see where he’s going.
Right side of engine compartment. The team is based in Canada, as the logo on the beer can “catch tank” implies.
Total frontal area is a miniscule 3.4 square feet. “The smaller the hole punched in the air, the faster you can go.” And fast it is. Gary Hensley powered the tiny streamliner into the 200 MPH Club with a two-way average of 210 mph. This is the current SCTA record; S-650G. (streamliner, 650cc, running on gasoline)
The engine has been de-stroked to 490cc, turbo charged, and is running ice water intercooling. The plan now is a full-on assault on the long standing NSU record. The streamliner shell started life as a drop tank from an F-4 Phantom fighter jet. This aircraft came into production in 1958, so technically, Bob’s Team Arrow Racing streamliner utilizes a shape that was designed from the same era as Wilhelm Herz’ Delphin III machine.
Gary Hensley took me through a controversial attempt at the NSU record that resulted in a high speed crash and a reported 271 mph run! The team waited most of the day for nagging winds to settle. They returned first in line to run the following morning. Bob pushed him off with his sidecar bike. (A custom push vehicle Bob created that allows him to drive the contraption from his wheelchair on a platform mounted to the bike’s side.) Somewhere between the 4th and 5th mile the front tire came apart and boom, the Arrow went down on its side.
Bob’s push vehicle is as interesting as his streamliner. He operates the vehicle from his wheel chair!
“As crashes go, this was a smooth one. I’ve crashed the bike half a dozen times and it usually rolls over or bounces from one side to the other and produces a very uncomfortable event.” (Bar Hodgson rode the bike at last year’s BUB Meet crashing around 180 mph. He rolled 19 times, broke his left wrist and injured his knees.) The impact forced the hatch to open wide, but luckily the bike settled on its side and slid to a stop.
The safety crew arrived and put out a small turbo fire. “The EMT’s put me in the ambulance to check me out. I was thinking about how I destroyed a year’s worth of our team’s efforts. Several teammates came running and shouting you went 271!” It turns out that number came from the bike tripping the wires short of the end of the 5th mile as it slid off course. “The ambulance crew said my heart rate was just fine before the announcement, but was too high afterwards to leave the ambulance!”
This is what the front tire looked like after a blowout while attempting to capture the NSU 500cc record. There were so close!
Gary claims they were running just shy of 250 mph when the tire let go. The run netted them the fastest 1 mile average, 228.58 mph and makes them unofficially the world’s fastest 500cc motorcycle. Congratulations to Bob and the Team Arrow Racing crew.