Salt Addiction Richard Assen

April 9, 2009
Rocky Robinson
Rocky Robinson
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Having raced everything from Flat Track to Trials, Rocky Robinson now pilots streamliners at the Bonneville Salt Flats and currently holds the ultimate land speed record at 376 mph aboard the Ack Attack streamliner.

One Fast Kiwi

A 2004 Suzuki Hayabusa was purchased and dismantled with several of the stock parts tossed in the dunny.
A 2004 Suzuki Hayabusa was purchased and dismantled with several of the stock parts tossed in the dunny.

Richard Assen’s racing background isn’t steeped in history, yet the mild-mannered Kiwi is giving the American contingent a run for their money.

“I’ve loved bikes from a young age,” said Assen. “Growing up on a dairy farm in rural New Zealand gave me the space to experience and practice off road riding.”

At 18, Assen bought a 1965 Norton Atlas 750. The bike handled great but wasn’t very reliable. “I spent a huge amount of time rebuilding and modifying it—but that’s old classics for ya. I developed a passion for getting into the workings of engines,” he admitted, which would be a huge benefit later on when he turned his attention to land speed racing.

After seeing a documentary on a couple of blokes running full tilt across a salt bed at Lake Gairdner, Australia, Richard mentioned the feat to his mate, Jason Swan.

“Get a bike,” the experienced motorbike technician chided. “So I bought a Suzuki Hayabusa, the fastest production bike you could get.”

He proceeded to strip this perfectly good bike apart, tossing stock parts in the dunny and installing a large turbo while his mate tended to the electrics.

Richard prepares himself to hunt bear.
Richard prepares himself to hunt bear.

“We took the bike to Lake Gairdner in 2006 and that’s when salt fever took hold.”

The Ack squad was there, Sam Wheeler, John Noonan, the Amo brothers; a fun-loving snarky bunch if ever there was one. “Our best run was only 186 mph,” Richard recalled. But it was enough to make him want more. Rather than get their knickers in a bunch, more parts hit the dunny. As the team gained experience, their machine took on a life of its own.

In 2007, heavy rains forced the Lake Gairdner meet to be cancelled. Richard and his mates jumped a plane, surviving 14 hours of colly wobbles to compete at, as Burt Munro so eloquently stated in The World’s Fastest Indian, “The place where big things happen. This place is holy ground…”

Mike Akatiff invited the Kiwi squad to work out of his California-based workshop, Ack Technologies in San Jose, California. Richard and his crew were welcome guests at Mike’s home, utilizing his accommodations as ground zero in preparation for their American assault. When the bike and crew were ready, they headed east, covering 650 miles in a single day.

Like Gairdner, the Bonneville surface had been recently hit with rain. Salt conditions were less than optimum when they arrived, but the team traveled too far not to give it their all. “If you don’t follow your dreams, you might as well be a vegetable,” Burt would remind us. Richard and the gang pressed on.

The Kiwis invade Bonneville.
The Kiwi’s invade Bonneville.

“At the Bub event our best run was 205 mph. A week later at World of Speed we ran 221 mph which gave us the fast bike time of the event.” The improvements were working.

Back home there was more dyno testing and special attention paid to the aerodynamics of the machine. “Reducing the coefficient of drag has more importance than increasing horsepower since 90% of rolling resistance at 250 mph is caused by drag from the airflow.”

The team is working with the University of Auckland on assessing airflow over the machine and rider. The university is home to the Twisted Flow Wind Tunnel (TFWT) designed specifically to simulate the flow of wind over yacht sails.

Wind tunnel testing at the University of Auckland. Here Richard experiments with different riding positions.
Wind tunnel testing at the University of Auckland. Here Richard experiments with different riding positions.

“Our goal is to reduce drag but also increase airflow through the radiator, which is under the tail section. Also obtaining the optimum riding position is very important although we have discovered the best position does not give the rider good forward visibility. We have made mods to work around this issue.” Improvements were also made to the turbo intake to take advantage of the front high pressure air. Modifications to the sidewalls of the front fairing were made, increasing height to the rider position. This should help attached airflow with minimum turbulence. These fairing pieces will eventually become available to interested parties.

Additionally, a new sponsor came onboard for the 2008 season: A-Ward Attachments, equipment manufacturers for the demolition and recycling industry, offering some much needed monetary support for the team.

“Simon Ward, the director of the company, has become an integral part of our team and has allowed us to do things that were beyond our budget.” New graphics were added including the indigenous New Zealand motif of the Mangopare or hammerhead shark, meaning strength and determination, famous for its “never give up” attitude.

I asked Richard how fast an open bike was capable of going. “I reckon 250 mph is possible with the right conditions,” was his modest reply. Personally, I think that’s a conservative estimate. I wouldn’t be surprised if Richard and his shark infested racer see 260 before returning to the reef for good. Lake Gairdner was again hit with heavy rains in 2008, prompting the team’s return to American soil. The Australian salt flat surface, which is among the best land speed racing has to offer, was buggered once again.

The Mangopare insignia exemplifies the teams never give up attitude.
Tucked in and on the gas, Richard charges through the 3 mile in search of a 250 mph run.

This time their hard work and determination paid off big. Jason Swan’s ongoing engine development and Richard’s “less is more” approach to aerodynamic drag netted them an AMA record of 239 mph (1350 MPS-BF). More impressive was their best run top speed of 250 mph through the kilo (249 through the mile) at the 2008 Bub event. They backed that up a week later at the World of Speed, dethroning Steve Kneckum’s 242 mph SCTA record, (1350 APS-BG) raising the bar to 248.5 mph. Crikey that’s fast!

Richard sees John Noonan and Jason McVicar as his biggest rivals at this stage of the game and I for one feel he’s a worthy opponent. When asked if he would ever consider driving a streamliner, his response was optimistic.

“I have considered streamliners and would like to build one myself. This will have to wait until I have got the fastest sit-on bike record though—one thing at a time.”

Good on ya, mate…