Salt Addiction: Anatomy of a Crash

December 9, 2011
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.

The Top 1 Ack Attack as it looked the day we arrived on the salt for Mike Cooks Top Speed Shootout
Just shy of smashing the 400 mph barrier, Top 1 Ack Attack prepared to make history at Mike Cook’s Top Speed Shootout.

Some things are better left alone. Of the countless attempts at setting a land speed record, only a select few who have done the work, put in the time and had lady luck shine on them actually leave with the all-important timing slip in their possession that states they are officially the fastest.

Of those holding various class records, the field narrows considerably when talking about the outright two-wheel record. Names like Vesco, Campos and Carr have been there. Once they’ve achieved their goal, they wait. There’s no where left to go when you’re already on top. It makes better sense to wait for the competition to catch up. It’s a dangerous game, and the losses – at times – can be catastrophic.

The Top 1 Ack Attack team has taken a different approach. Mike Akatiff’s original goal was to design and build the world’s fastest motorcycle, set the record, and move on. If only it were that easy. For many, land speed racing truly is an addiction. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word addiction as follows: “The condition of being habitually or compulsively occupied with or involved in something.” Mike started competing with his Twin-engine streamliner in 2004. He and his team have three outright motorcycle world land speed records, multiple AMA National outright records, as well as multiple club records.

In 2010, the team set what is still the current outright motorcycle land speed record at 376.363 mph. What was a game-changer was our final run on a wounded motorcycle with a broken transmission. With 5th and 6th gears no longer functional, the bike was geared taller, the rev limiter raised, and the boost maximized. It was doubtful the bike could even pull the gear, but we gave it a shot. The first mile and a half the bike bogged as expected, and we were quickly running out of real estate. Then the turbo finally spooled up…

The rest, as they say, is history. It was a drag race to the lights. Had we had more real estate, we would have gone faster. Consider that entry speed was 379 mph with a 394 exit. The bike was still accelerating as we exited the lights. Tom Burkland suggested we check our data acquisition as

The traction control calibration box and shifting light were mounted front and center and hindered my view. Theyve since been removed…
The traction control calibration box and shifting light were mounted front and center and hindered my view.

the rate of acceleration implied we probably exceeded 400 mph before decel. Unofficially we did, but that doesn’t count.

Mike’s first words to me after congratulations was: “Six mph under 400, but it was real close…” We’d achieved our goal and once again the Top 1 Ack Attack was the world’s fastest motorcycle. For most that would be enough. For Mike, our team and myself, the chance to be the first officially over 400 on two wheels is a milestone even bigger than the record. To put it away and wait, we might miss our window of opportunity. That is why we continue to press forward with everything we’ve got.

Mike Cook’s Top Speed Shootout is the ultimate testing ground for the world’s fastest wheel-powered streamliners. In the past, the Bub meet was also a viable option, but in recent years he hasn’t offered a course long enough to meet our needs. We showed up for the Shootout with one goal in mind: to reach 400 mph within the lights.

Changes for this year’s attempt included a new fly-by-wire throttle with an electronic traction control. We run Mickey Thompson LSR tires and have only one decent tire left, and a spare that’s been ridden hard many times and would only be used as a last resort. Mike figured the traction control would save the tire from excessive wheel spin, and hopefully put more power to the ground. I understand his decision and was onboard with putting the new system through the paces.

The deep groove in the salt is from the spinning rear tire moments before the bike went down. The ambulance and safety crew are already at the scene assessing the situation.
The deep groove in the salt is from
the spinning rear tire moments
before the bike went down. The
ambulance and safety crew are
already at the scene assessing the
situation.

Recent rains left the course wet and loose on the pit side of the course. By the third mile the salt was hard and dry. The plan was to wait for a day or so to give the salt a chance to tighten up. By the end of the first day some of the team’s were making some pretty fast runs, so we were of the impression it was good enough to do some initial testing.

At days end, Mike approached the promoter and asked if we could make a couple low speed test runs. The course was open as most of the teams had either packed and headed in for the day, or were in the process. We got the go-ahead, loaded up and headed to the third mile. The goal was to do a couple of low speed calibration runs to synchronize the wheel sensors with the new traction control system. The bodywork was left behind so we could access the tc unit to make any necessary changes.

The first thing I noticed after being strapped in was that my vision was severely hindered by the traction control box and the new shifting light mounted front and center. This, and the new SA 2010 rated Simpson helmet I was wearing was physically bigger than my previous helmet, lowering my line of sight. I made a mental note this would have to be changed before we started running with any speed.

The first test run went off without a hitch. I ran a little over 100 mph, pulled in the clutch and allowed the traction control monitor to collect data. No drama. The next pass was where things went all to hell…

Starting from the zero-mile marker in the wet, slippery stuff, I had to get released from the push vehicle and get the gear up quickly. There was a trench that ran across the course was filled with loose salt from water that ran across the track earlier in the week. With the gear up the bike felt squirrelly in the wet, but I managed to get underway without much hassle.

The upper left frame rail snagged against the salt and tore free from the chassis. The tube lying on the salt in the background connected the nose tank to the engines.
Moments after the accident the bike righted and the emergency crew tends to the driver.

The engines seemed to lay down, like the gearing was too tall. In actuality it was the traction control minimizing available power against the slippery surface. By now I’m at ¾ throttle and gingerly picking up speed. I hit a patch of dry salt with a little grip and like a light switch, the full magnitude of the Twin engine powerplant hit all at once. The engines revved hard, the tire spun and started coming around on the left. The bike leaned right and for a moment I thought I might low side. I steered into it and picked the long streamliner back upright. The rear tire was spinning so fast that the rear shot to the right, snapping like a whip, this time low siding to the left at a 90 degree angle to the direction of travel.

With no bodywork on the bike the frame caught, digging into the salt and catapulting the Ack Attack into the air. The bike was spinning clockwise and hit hard, directly on the roll cage and nose of the bike, crushing the aluminum nose tank, spraying hot water everywhere. The impact was so great that I felt my neck and back compress against me, even though I tightened my torso and fought to keep from collapsing fully.

The bike caught and lifted again, spinning in the air, coming down on its lid a second time, the tail hitting hard, smashing the exhaust cone in the process. Part of an upper frame rail ripped free from the bike, digging into the salt as it continued to tumble. One of the water pipes that run the length of the bike from the nose tank to the engines ripped free, spouting boiling water into the air. The bike came to rest under a heavy rain of coolant, salt and flying debris. In a matter of seconds it was over, as was our season and our hopes of reaching 400 mph.

The bike can be repaired. I was lucky, escaping with minor injuries. The team remains determined and The Top 1 Ack Attack is still the reigning champion of speed. And, 400 mph is only 6 mph away… waiting.

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