The streamliner’s handbook

Grass Valley’s Denis Manning chases the land speed record for motorcycles

The BUB streamliner “Seven.”

The BUB streamliner “Seven.”

Photo By Richard Voliva

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. Manning’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 archrival 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.

180 cubic inches of solid grunt.

Photo By Richard Voliva

“I never gave up wanting to go after the record,” he said 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 thus it has 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 the Utah-Nevada border in 1960. For those who’ve never been, 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 recalled. “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 as a designer and 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 said. “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 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.

Racing champion Chris Carr behind the controls.

Photo By Richard Voliva

“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 said. “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 chuckled. “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. In an additional warehouse, 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 facilities have been unable to keep up with the demand for BUB products, so last year Manning opened another manufacturing plant in Janesville, Wis.

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 Motorcyclist Association’s Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport and the industry.

Denis Manning stands behind his pride and joy at Bonneville Speedway.

Photo By Richard Voliva

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 said. “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 his own motor. The time, the development work, the equipment and materials required are simply too cost prohibitive, particularly when compared with large motorcycle manufacturers with outsized research and development budgets. Then again, none of the major manufacturers is 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 Harralson designed the V-4 engine and its four-speed transmission. Richard Farmer assisted in its development. Grass Valley machinist Jon 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.

Manning downplays the difficulties developing the motor. It’s everything else that’s the hard part.

“OK, I want to build a motorcycle that goes 350 mph,” he said. “Who do I ask what it should look like? I once said the streamliner’s handbook is filled with blank pages. We’re going places nobody’s been.”

Where they’re going may be straight to the record books. To set the record, the motorcycle must run the 11-mile-long course twice within a two-hour period. Earlier this summer, Carr hit 300 mph in a trial run, getting up to speed in just 2.7 miles, compared to 5 miles for the current record holder, Easy Rider, which Dave Campos piloted to 322 mph in 1990.

Carr exudes confidence heading into September’s record attempt. “The outright record is 16 years old,” he said. “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. Promoted by BUB, the trials will be held September 3-7 at Bonneville. The Discovery Channel, National Geographic and the Speed Channel all will be there, along with hundreds of competitors in individual motorcycle classes from tiny 50-cubic-centimeter engines on up. Manning likes his chances to set the outright land speed record for all motorcycles.

“We just pulled a 300 mph rabbit out of the hat, and that’s pretty darn impressive,” he said of this summer’s trial run. “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.”