The Streamliner’s Handbook
Denis Manning heads to Wendover to chase the world land speed record for motorcycles
Denis Manning is one big ugly bastard. Strike that. Manning, a hulking 6-footer, is big. But the bespectacled, mustachioed face beneath a mop of graying hair can hardly be called ugly, and judging by the congenial way he’s greeted by his employees at BUB Enterprises in Grass Valley, “bastard” seems entirely inappropriate.
“Hey bub!” they’ll say.
“How ya doin’ bub?” he’ll answer.
BUB stands for—you guessed it—big ugly bastard, a sobriquet pinned on Manning in the 1960s by Dutch Mueller. “The Flying Dutchman,” as he was known in racing circles, owned the Southern California motorcycle shop where Manning cut his teeth in the motorcycle industry. He’s been at it for more than 40 years now, and today his company, BUB, is one of the leading manufacturers of custom exhaust systems for motorcycles and ATVs.
While making motorcycle parts is Manning’s business, his pleasure is building motorcycles that go fast. Hella fast. In 1970, a Harley-Davidson “streamliner” designed and built by Manning set the world land speed record for motorcycles. With the late Cal Rayborn at the controls, Manning’s orange, torpedo-shaped creation zipped across the Bonneville Salt Flats at 265 mph. The record stood for five years before arch-rival Don Vesco broke the 300 mph barrier with his Yamaha-powered streamliner in 1975.
Manning has been trying to get the record back ever since.
“I never gave up wanting to go after the record,” he says in the clean, tidy workshop where his latest streamliner, a 24-foot-long, fire-engine-red missile, has taken shape. It is the seventh streamliner Manning has designed in his lifetime, and has thus been christened Seven. At Bonneville in early September, Stockton-born motorcycle racing champion Chris Carr will attempt to break the current land speed record for motorcycles, 322 mph, riding this gleaming red rocket.
Manning’s obsession with chasing land speed records began after a family camping trip brought him past the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, on the Utah/Nevada border, in 1960. For those who’ve never been there, the salt flats are an awe-inspiring geological anomaly, 159 square miles of dry, blinding white lakebed, totally inhospitable to any life-form. It’s some of the most barren, level real estate on the planet, smooth as a sheet of ice and obstacle-free for miles in every direction.
That makes it the ideal location for Speed Week, an annual summer gathering that pits human and machine against a straight, 11-mile-long black line etched in the salt. That first summer Manning passed through Bonneville, motor sports legend Mickey Thompson broke the 400 mph barrier in an automobile. For Manning, then a kid growing up in hot rod-crazed Southern California, the attraction was inescapable.
“That was the inspiration,” he recalls. “I went home, and every other kid in school wanted to be Mickey Mantle. I wanted to be Mickey Thompson.”
Manning began racing cars and motorcycles before he was old enough to qualify for a driver’s license, gravitating to the burgeoning drag racing scene. Like his idol Thompson, he proved adept both as a driver and a designer/engineer. At 19, he gained a spot on the prestigious USA drag racing team in England. However, Bonneville’s lure proved irresistible, and in 1968, Manning built his first streamliner.
“Bonneville is not racing,” he says. “It’s history making. Any other race you go to, you have to beat the winner, you have to beat the second-place guy. At Bonneville, you have to go faster than any of the first-place guys have ever gone.”
In 1970, at the age of 24, he did just that, when road racer Cal Rayborn set the land speed record of 265 mph in Manning’s second streamliner, the orange bullet he designed for Harley-Davidson. It was a vindication of sorts.
“When I was 23, and I said I was going to go after the land speed record, I could have used one of those ticket machines they have at Baskin Robbins to count all the people who told me I couldn’t do it,” he says. “I didn’t have enough money, I wasn’t skilled enough, I wasn’t smart enough—all the ‘wuzzants’ came out. When I got the land speed record in 1970, many of those people came back to me and said, ‘I knew you could do it.'”
If they expected Manning to move on, they were sadly mistaken. Immediately after setting the record, he began work on a new streamliner for Triumph. The Japanese factories courted his skills. When the Triumph project fell through, he adapted his third streamliner to run Norton engines. Like most speed addicts, Manning just couldn’t get enough.
“Now those same people would say, ‘You know, Denis, you could be doing something else,'” he chuckles. “They didn’t understand the passion.”
Manning founded BUB in 1978, making exhaust systems and other aftermarket accessories for Triumph motorcycles and later for Harley-Davidsons as well as European and Japanese machinery. Although the motorcycle industry stagnated in the 1980s, Manning managed to keep the company afloat, moving from Southern California to more affordable Grass Valley, where he operated out of the 3,000 square foot building that now serves as his racing workshop.
Since then, the motorcycle industry has recovered nicely, and BUB has grown with it, expanding to a brand new 15,000 square foot building designed by Manning and an additional warehouse, where 100 employees, many of whom answer to the name of ‘Bub,’ make and market exhaust systems for Harleys, big Japanese cruisers and ATVs. The Grass Valley facilites have been unable to keep up with the demand for BUB products, so last year, Manning opened another manufacturing plant in Janesville, Wisc.
Through it all, he’s never lost his taste for Bonneville salt. In the early 1980s, he again teamed with Harley-Davidson, propelling a bored and stroked Shovelhead to 285 mph on the flats. Harley, then struggling with financial woes, lost interest in the project. Manning turned to four-wheels and took an active role in projects that developed the fastest wheel-driven car and the fastest conventional car. Earlier this year, he was inducted into the American Motorcycle Association’s hall of fame for his contributions to the sport and the industry.
The land speed record for motorcycles, however, continues to elude him. When his fifth streamliner failed to break the record in the 1990s, Manning decided upon a new approach.
“When it came time to go after the record again, Harley-Davidson was really the last thing on my mind when I wanted to put a motor in it,” he says. “Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, weren’t really the first choice, either, because I didn’t think they could do it. That’s why I wanted to design my own motor.”
It’s difficult to explain to the layperson the madness behind the idea. No one builds their own motor. The time, the development work, the equipment and materials required are simply too cost-prohibitive, particularly when compared to large motorcycle manufacturers with outsized R&D budgets. Then again, none of the major manufacturers are actively seeking the land speed record, so Manning had to start somewhere.
Fortunately, insanity is contagious, and once Manning announced his intention, people popped up out of the woodwork to help with the effort. Joe Harrolson designed the V-4 engine and its 4-speed transmission. Richard Farmer assisted in its development. Grass Valley machinist John Jans fabricated the engine block and cylinder heads from solid blocks of steel and aluminum billet. The finished product displaces 3,000 cubic centimeters (180 cubic inches) and churns out 424 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and a stump-pulling 275 foot-pounds of torque.
John Jans, who has joined Manning in the shop to help prepare for the record run in September, downplays the difficulties of developing the motor.
“The thing about motors is, you can ask people for help,” says Jans. At this point in history, the internal combustion engine is pretty much a known entity. It’s everything else that’s the hard part. There’s no manual for building a motorcycle that can break the land speed record.
“Who do I ask what it should look like?” Manning queries. “I once said the streamliner’s handbook is filled with blank pages. We’re going places nobody’s been. You can’t know how many times John and I have almost killed ourselves experimenting with this shit.”
Once, they tied their previous streamliner down on rollers, fired it up in the shop, and ran it through the gears.
“Just off idle, it was going about 180 mph,” Jans laughs.
“Then we put it in the air to get the rear tire up to 300 mph,” Manning adds.
“We’re taking pictures of it to determine what the tire growth is,” Jans explains.
“Because Goodyear won’t tell us!” Manning finishes. “We scared the shit out of ourselves!”
Tires seem to be a sore point. When traveling at high speeds, centrifugal force distorts the shape of the rubber, potentially creating deadly clearance issues—thus the test run in the shop. Goodyear hadn’t specified the correct air pressure either, so Manning and Jans started pumping. And pumping. And pumping. The pressure got up to about 300 psi before the rubber crimped the metal rim.
“We were hiding behind a forklift,” Jans says. “We destroyed the wheel, not the tire. Folded it up like a Coke-bottle cap.”
Much of their learning is done on the fly. The streamliner’s body is made of ultra light carbon fiber, a material the pair previously hadn’t worked with much. They were warned not to fabricate pieces that were too long, but they didn’t heed the advice. The finished hull is smooth, slippery, sleek. In testing, they towed the streamliner with a truck to 60 mph, then cut it loose to coast. A mile later, it was still going 58 mph. That’s aerodynamic. Such educated guesswork is all part of a process that Manning calls the thrill of creativity.
“People say over and over and over, how much does it cost?” he says. “They’re all coming from a corner of the room that says, if you want it, you pay for it. But if you ask John, ‘John, I want that front end,’ you know what he’s thinking? He’s thinking, how do I build it? The cost is not how much it costs to go buy it, the cost is time, the cost is brain matter. The cost is that thrill of building it and designing it and seeing if it works. That thrill of creativity is something that’s amazing; it’s a lot of fun. It’s not a ‘Gentlemen, let’s sign your checkbooks’ kind of deal.”
For those who must know the cost, it’s a lot: way deep into six figures and more likely seven if Manning, Jans and the others involved in the project had actually been paid for all of their labor. Testing alone, “private time” on the salt flats, costs $15,000 per day.
“The problem with this whole thing is, where do you test something like this?” says Manning. “Where the top of first gear is 180 mph? You don’t.”
That’s why they loaded up the streamliner and headed to Bonneville earlier this summer, with seven-time AMA Grand National champion Chris Carr in tow. Carr’s a dirt tracker, one of the all-time best at sliding a booming Harley-Davidson XR-750 around circular mile courses. Even though he’ll be going pretty much straight with the streamliner, Carr, who was passing through Montana on his way to a race in Washington state when the RN&R caught up to him, says there are definite similarities.
“Flat track and Bonneville aren’t all that different,” he explains. “In flat track, they throw a few corners in. At Bonneville, we have no turns, we just get in and go. I’ve never had any problem pulling the trigger in a straight line. The other thing, at Bonneville, there’s nothing to hit. No haybales!”
Although it looks more like a rocketship, Seven is a motorcycle, which must be balanced on two wheels. Thanks to its long wheelbase, that’s not easy to do when starting from a standstill. Side skids keep it from falling at slow speeds and are retracted once the bike is up to speed. According to Manning, that’s when things start to change.
“When it gets up to 200 mph, it ceases to be a motorcycle in a conventional way because the aerodynamics are definitely the dominant thing going on,” he says. “You’re flying without the benefit of being off the ground.”
In practice, Carr has cranked out some impressive runs.
“Chris got in the bike, took off, and got it right up to 275,” Manning says. “He noticed that he had a little bit more real estate, and the bike was running really well, so he decided to take it to 300 mph. When you consider the record is 322, we’re knocking on the door.”
The record currently belongs to Dave Campos, who piloted Easy Rider to 322 mph in 1990. To set the record, the motorcycle must run an 11-mile-long course twice within a two-hour period. Carr hit 300 mph in just 2.7 miles, compared to 5 miles for Campos, which bodes well for the upcoming record attempt.
“The outright record is 16 years old,” Carr says. “I don’t want to go 300-plus just because. I want to set the world record.”
This year, thanks to the success of The World’s Fastest Indian, the movie starring Anthony Hopkins as Burt Munro, the quixotic New Zealander who set the world land speed record for Indian motorcycles, there is a renewed interest in the International Motorcycle Speed Trials, which are promoted by BUB and will be held Sept. 3-7 at Bonneville. Manning thinks the film’s depiction of life on the salt flats is spot-on.
“They captured the whole business of how intense, how dedicated you have to be,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many Sundays and late nights Jon and I have had to deal with this thing.”
The Discovery Channel, National Geographic and the Speed Channel will all be at this year’s event, along with hundreds of competitors in individual motorcyle classes from tiny 50 cc engines on up. Manning likes his chances to set the outright land speed record for all motorcycles.
“We have a lot of horsepower, we have one hell of a good rider and the bike is very, very aerodynamic,” he says. “We just pulled a 300 mph rabbit out of the hat, and that’s pretty darn impressive. Let me tell you: It stands a very good chance of being the world’s fastest motorcycle, and that’s what it’s all about.”