Salt Addiction: Rocky Racing Down Under

April 26, 2012
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.

This was the Bub crew back in the day. Tenacious II was a great stepping stone for better things to come for both Robinson and Manning.
This was the BUB LSR crew back in the day. Tenacious II was a great stepping stone for better things to come for both Rocky Robinson and Denis Manning.

Flash Back: Racing Down Under 2000

Our weathered caravan slowly approached the apron of Lake Gairdner, as the BUB team aimed to put the Tenacious II streamliner in the world record books. The endless miles of dirty, dusty, unpaved transit were behind us. The squeaking and creaking noises of the abused tour buses went silent as the dirty tires rolled effortlessly across the user-friendly surface. It was an eerie feeling, making our entrance onto the salt bed. All eyes were upon us. It’s not everyday that a group of Yanks make the long journey across continents to compare toys with people from another land. But here we were.

I quickly realized the nearest town was 200 miles away, and there was no ambulance to be found. They had a ‘flying doctor’ on call, but even he would take a while to arrive if needed. Instead, the Kimba Fire Brigade was at our service. These young, athletic, adventurous race fans would be responsible for keeping us alive in the event of an emergency. Typical Australian logic – no worries. I’m sure they were properly trained in administering CPR, and their youthful courage (the oldest of the bunch couldn’t have been over 30) may have come in useful had they been required to pull an unconscious victim from his burning wreckage, but it made me wonder how good my chances really were if I had to depend on these young lads to keep me alive for several hours until a trained professional could finally examine my broken, bleeding body.

The good news was they were a lot of fun.

As for the racing, from the start we had numerous problems and a few close calls. On one occasion I nearly took out the entire Kimba Fire Brigade. I was running mid-course when a huge gust of wind hit me from the right. Before I knew it, I was blown off line and heading right for them at 260 mph!

I have to mention that the boys weren’t running on all eight cylinders at the time. The previous night was spent in celebration. The crew had thrown a party for my birthday. The Kimba Fire Brigade showed up in full force, offering to help with the inebriation process. We had brought along two of our ‘race version’ margarita machines. The blenders had two-stroke engines; one ran on race fuel, the other sported just a taste of methanol for added performance. One had a custom-made straight pipe that made you wince with pain when running at full throttle.

It’s the simple things that make life so rewarding; like watching innocent young men from the opposite side of our planet taste a favorite drink from back home for the first time, then guzzle down the frosty contents and have a salty musatache form on their upper lip.

Or watching them reel with pain as brain freeze sets in.

One of the younger members of the Brigade was so bent on being just like us that I had to seize the moment. On the table next to one of the two-stroke blenders was a large bottle of tequila. There was still well over an inch and half of the harsh liquid remaining in the bottom. He held up the bottle into the light and asked the inevitable. It was almost like he was challenging our drinking capabilities. I responded as any red-blooded American would under these circumstances.

Tenacious II was Denis Mannings first streamliner using a purpose-built V4 engine to attempt the motorcycle world land speed record. This earlier rendition wasnt turbocharged or intercooled.
Tenacious II was Denis Manning’s first streamliner using a purpose-built V4 engine to attempt the motorcycle world land speed record. This earlier rendition wasn’t turbocharged or intercooled.

I lied…

“Back home, that much is no big deal.” I was laying it on pretty thick, “We’d just down it, mate…my sister could drink that much.”

“Serious?” He stared closer at the contents in the bottle, determined to be one of us.

“Well then, no worries.” He tilted the bottle skyward. That was a lot of tequila. We watched as the resolute young lad gulped and swallowed. His eyes watered, closed, crossed, and possibly even bled…but he kept drinking. The party fell strangely silent as we watched his self-induced sacrifice. In his mind he was one of us when he finally lowered his arm. He wearily examined the bottle. He was proud.

Soon he would be nauseous.

“Damn, mate. That much?” He was amazed at what studs us Americans must surely be.

“Well…maybe not that much!” I finally let in. Laughter filled the air. Not long after, he was seen practicing the art of projectile vomiting behind one of our motorhomes.

As mentioned earlier, at over 260 mph I was blown off course, heading straight for the Kimba Fire Brigade. I missed them by probably 50 feet, but at those speeds it seemed much closer. On another pass at high speed, the front end wobbled terribly. At 280 mph the front end shook so violently it forced me to abort the run. The vibration was so bad I couldn’t see where I was going. When I finally brought the ill-handling machine to a stop, I was shaking a little myself. I asked Denis Manning, none other than BUB himself, to have a look at the front tire. As suspected, the tire had lost air pressure during the run.

And then there was the final day on the salt. Our last chance.

We had come to be champions. The fastest. Anything else wouldn’t do. On the final day, we still hadn’t reached our goal. Wayne O’Grady, the man in charge, kept us up to date on wind conditions across the course. Tension was high among our crew. The bike was wounded. We had a vibration in the engine that was an inevitable death sentence. The question wasn’t if, but when. The decision was made that we would keep running until either the record was ours, or until Tenacious II gave up the ghost.

It seemed like hours, but finally the wind settled. I suited up and climbed inside. Denis gave me his best and told me not to hold anything back. The starter motor was engaged to the crank and readied for deployment. Suddenly, Wayne O’Grady put a halt on the whole operation. “It seems we’ve got company.” he warned. “There’s a kangaroo on the track!”

Robinson and Manning worked and raced together. Robinson was the GM VP of Mannings exhaust manufacturing company for nearly 15 years. After their split they became fierce rivals on the salt.
Robinson and Manning worked and raced together on Tenacious II and later the BUB 7. Robinson was the GM/VP of Manning’s exhaust manufacturing company for nearly 15 years. After their split they became rivals on the salt.

Only in Australia… Our window of opportunity was beginning to close. If the wind picked back up, it might already be over.

“No worries, we’ll run the little bugger off,” Wayne assured us. Thirty minutes later Wayne reappeared. “The winds have settled, but we’re running out of time. If this isn’t a record pass, we’re going to have to close up shop. My mates need time to tear down the course and tidy up the place.”

I reentered Tenacious II a final time. There weren’t a lot of words spoken as I was strapped in for one last go. Everything had already been said. I received the thumbs up from John and began my final descent down the salt from behind the tow vehicle. Everything had to be in perfect order for us to accomplish our mission. The winds weren’t completely gone, but at least they were tolerable. As the motor picked up rpm, the unwelcome vibration returned. I made the shift from first to second at around 170 miles per hour. The shift was clean.

Second gear is always amazing. Acceleration in second gear is so powerful that you have to be careful not to light up the tire and lose momentum from unnecessary wheel spin. Too much wheel spin can literally tear the tire apart. Chunks of rubber will rip from the tire’s carcass and throw the wheel out of balance, or worse yet, cause the tire to blow out or lose air.

This would not be one of those times. We were spot-on. Wheel spin was minimal, acceleration maximized. The rpm’s climbed at an unusually high pace.

Second gear took me to nearly 250. I shifted to third and once again, the shift was clean. They say that sometimes an engine runs its best right before it lets go, and ours was running stronger and faster than ever before. The vibration was still there, but it definitely wasn’t holding us back. Here I was, doing damn near 270 mph, and I was just barely past the 2-mile marker. This was the run we were waiting for!

Everyone held their breath as I reached for the final gear. So many times the transmission would fail and the run would have to be aborted. We were having the run of our life, and it was possible that if we could get one more clean shift, we would go home heroes. I’m sure no one was more nervous than John?the transmission was his baby.


That’s all it took. A press of a button and we were in fourth and moments away from climbing into the record books. 275, 280, 285. By the 3-mile marker I was convinced we’d done it. We had tons of room to continue accelerating, and at the current pace, the record was ours.

Sometimes referred to as Medusa  the mighty V4 engine would later power the current Bub 7 streamliner to two land speed records.
Sometimes referred to as Medusa, the mighty V4 engine would later power the current Bub 7 streamliner to two land speed records.

Somewhere between the 3 and 4-mile markers what we feared most finally happened. One of the connecting rods broke and punched a hole through the block. Oil spewed everywhere and smoke filled the engine compartment. The handlebars went lock to lock as I countered the jolt, followed by an unexpected weight transfer as the 20-foot streamliner went from acceleration to deceleration in the blink of an eye.

Once I had the bike straightened out I found myself coasting through the measured mile. Oddly enough, even though there were only three pistons and connecting rods left, the motor was still running. I reached up and switched off the ignition, hoping to salvage whatever was left.

As the bike slowed, smoke began to fill the cockpit. It was a little scary not knowing whether I was safe breathing in the smoke-filled air, but I had no choice. I put down the skids and brought the wounded racer to rest on the right skid. The smoke became thicker and more dense. I scrambled to release my harness and reach for the latch to open the cockpit. I popped the release and pushed the canopy open. Fresh air filled my lungs and dissipated the dark cloud of smoke.

Much to my relief, there was no fire. A dark puddle formed underneath with large chunks of aluminum from the engine block in it, along with various rod and piston fragments. The Kimba Fire Brigade showed up first, followed closely by our crew.

“It looks like you’ve got a leg out of bed, mate,” one of them said. That’s his version of the rod breaking through the cases. The Aussies find humor in everything, even at the most peculiar moments.

Just then, Wayne O’Grady showed up with some interesting information. He’d just received word from the timekeepers that even with a blown engine we managed to coast through the lights at 289 mph. That was good enough for top time of the meet. Not only were we the fastest motorcycle to ever set foot on Australian soil, but even the high-powered streamlined cars couldn’t contend with the pace we’d set. John and Denis crunched the numbers and concluded that before the engine let go, we’d gone in excess of 297 mph and had done so in just over three miles.

The potential was there. We returned to the States where work would begin on a new design utilizing a carbon fiber and Kevlar exoskeleton built around the already proven V4 engine. It would be lighter and more aerodynamic. It would be the seventh streamliner in Denis Manning’s racing stable, and it would be painted red…

Enjoy the ride…