Guy Martin, Triumph and the race to 400mph

Guy Martin

The race for 400mph is on as Guy Martin and his Triumph Infor Streamliner line-up in the alien landscape of Bonneville Speedway. It’s an 11-mile runway of two-inch thick salt crust and home to the fastest men and machines on earth. If only it was that easy though, as our man found out when he went behind the scenes for Triumph and Guy’s record attempt.

When you’re sat strapped into a 1000bhp, methanol-burning, 25-foot-long carbon-fibre monocoque motorcycle as it slides down the salt crust at 70mph, you’d think you might want to get some time out. Take a breather maybe? But not Guy Martin. Instead, he pulls the canopy off, and takes a walk down to the ruts which caused him to crash the £1 million pound Triumph Infor Streamliner in the soft salt at Bonneville Speedway, Utah, and says: “Let’s go again!”

Guy Martin

Bonneville is an extreme place and this is the race to become the first man and first motorcycle to get to 400mph, and Guy is at the forefront of putting himself on the line, risking everything to try and claim the title as world’s fastest motorcyclist, and the world motorcycle land speed record holder.

Triumph has backed the Triumph Infor project, which is led by American hot rod builder and experienced salter Matt Markstaller, and last month they made a good start by becoming the fastest-ever Triumph with Guy piloting the bike to 274.2mph, smashing the previous fastest Triumph record of 245.667mph set by Bob Leppan in the Gyronaut X-1 in 1966. That’s a great start, but if you’ve ever met Guy Martin, or watched one of his ever-growing avalanche of TV shows, Guy Martin, TV star, former bike racer, finisher of a 2500-mile mountain bike race, and the world’s most famous truck mechanic, you’ll know he doesn’t do things by half. Go big or go home? You bet.

The outright motorcycle land speed record stands at 376.363mph and was set by Rocky Robinson in 2010 by the twin-engined Suzuki Hayabusa-powered Team Ack Attack streamliner. And, Ack Attack aren’t about to let Guy and Triumph have it their own way. They’re back at Bonneville to try and reclaim their title, if need be. As it is they leave without running, saying that it wasn’t 400mph salt. But not our Guy, who is determined to get a run in.

Guy Martin

Most people take a week or more to learn how to pilot a streamliner which has next to zero steering lock and uses two joysticks to balance itself. After a couple of runs back in August, Guy came back in and told the team to get the stabilisers off. Men who live and breath the Bonneville Salt Flats are still amazed, and reckon that Guy is the fastest-ever to get used to balancing on the salt in a streamliner. He had recumbent experience from riding a 24-hour race in a feet-forward bicycle, and riding the TT itself is balancing the laws of physics and risking your life. Day-to-day, Guy’s pulse must barely get off tickover. 

Guy Martin

Just riding the thing is no mean feat. It has hydraulically operated stabilisers which Guy has to lift up using a lever on one of the joysticks. It runs on slick Goodyear tyres at 150-psi and designed to spin on the wheels even at 400mph without overheating. The joysticks balance the bike, there’s a lever for the parachute, an F1-style carbon fibre brake with ABS, there’s a race seat, a fire extinguisher and the riding position is almost horizontal. It’s designed in a wind-tunnel which has been made especially to fit the machine in.

There’s so little room inside it you’d struggle to get a banana in the cockpit once diminutive Guy is locked in for a run. His helmet scrapes on the carbon-fibre ‘roll cage’. Being strapped into it at standstill would put the fear in most people. Being strapped into it approaching 300mph+ is terrifying. But this is Guy Martin – the world’s most loved TT rider despite never winning a TT race – but with 15 TT podiums and a 132mph lap under his belt he’s not afraid to stick it on the line.

But getting to 300mph and on to 400mph on salt is a whole new world. At Bonneville there’s an 11-mile course, graded by a sledge towed behind a truck to pack the salt. Competitors have five-miles to get up to speed, are measured over a flying mile, and then have five-miles to slow down. To gain a recorded speed run, teams in the Division C (streamliner category) must turn their vehicles round and ride in the opposite direction within two hours. That in itself isn’t all that easy. The streamliner has a turning circle of one and a half miles.

Guy Martin

Making a methanol-burning twin-engined Triumph Rocket 3 with a combined 2970cc and two massive Garrett turbos bolted on run properly is one thing. Getting the consistency of the salt right is another, keeping it on the blue line and aiming at ‘Floating Mountain’ some 28 miles in the distance takes nerves of a fighter pilot. Guy’s experience breaking the record for fastest man ever on a Wall of Death at 78.15mph helps too. Doing that earlier this year he blacked out, but still kept going. It all adds to the experience you need to be a land speed record holder at Bonneville.

No other streamliner this year has gone more than 306mph, as it has been one of the wettest years in Bonneville’s 102-year history. This week the salt is around two-inches thick but old timers tell me the salt used to be more like two feet, and in 2008 was so hard you could do a burnout on it without digging it up, like it was concrete. Today you can dig through the salt down to mud with your shoes.

Game on!

The day after his towing incident, we watch as Guy gets towed off for another run, with Triumph sponsor stickers scuffed on the right-hand side after his incident earlier we chase the streamliner along the salt in a back-up van. It’s just after 7am and the sun is rising, it’s an epic picture of man versus machine, the sun’s orange glow glinting off the carbon bodywork. 

Over the last four years the team have spent 1000 hours developing the streamliner on the Bonneville salt and this could be it. It feels like it’s on, but as we’ve already found out this week – going fast on salt isn’t easy.

Excited and full of adrenaline we park at mile five, where Guy should be going fast enough to get to the next level of his licence and hit 300mph. Five miles away we hear the motor fire-up and it’s on song, accelerating hard filling the empty salt with a cocophony of six-cylinder sound. An aeroplane takes off at 180mph. Guy has just exceeded that in a single-seater rocket without wings, but there’s a fault.

But around mile three the streamliner gets a fault. Guy is on full-power but a set of new coils the team fitted the previous night are robbing power from the engine. This is turn means the bike won’t spin up enough to change gear using the air shift, and the run is abandoned (see video below). He hit 209mph before the electrical fault. Also, the streamliner’s speedo is usually set to mph, on this run it was set to kph. Guy saw 320 on the speedo. as a racer he knew it didn’t feel like 320mph.

We get back to the pits and all Guy will say is: “It’s a big job boss, we’ll get there. It’s all learning,” before waving and heading back to his crew of mates from his old TT team, and back on to his hotel. You can feel the frustration in the team that it isn’t going to happen this week. But as team boss Matt Markstaller told me earlier, going fast on the salt is a science that combines grip, horsepower, and mental agility. All of those three things need to be right on the day. But Guy and Triumph aren’t about to give up.

The next day the team try for another early morning run. It’s going well, the bike is on song, but the salt isn’t right.

Frustrated and desperate to make the use of the week the team have had at Bonneville, they make a run. Under acceleration the bike spins up in the soft salt at mile one, and basically highsides. It’s still soft and tearing up under acceleration. Dig your toes in it and the crust is just a couple of inches deep. The streamliner has salt in the turbos and needs stripping of salt before it can run again.

Unfortunately, it’s game over, for now at least. The team and Triumph will be back, and Guy is desperate to make it to 400mph. I wouldn’t bet against it. If going fast at Bonneville was easy, everyone would do it.

Guy Martin
Guy Martin