60 years of speed: 10 top land speed records

Guy Martin and Triumph are bidding to set a new motorcycle world land speed record with their twin Rocket III-engined streamliner later this week. But what’s the record they have to beat and how did it get that high? Here are the 10 preceding land speed record bikes starting, appropriately enough, with the Triumph Bonneville-inspiring 1956 ‘Texas Cee-gar’

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1956 Johnny Allen/Triumph ‘Texas Cee-gar’ – 214.4mph
The bike that famously inspired Triumph to name its new, 1959 twin-carb sportster the ‘Bonneville’. An all-enclosed streamliner developed out of Pete Dalio’s Triumph shop in Dallas, Texas (hence the name) from their earlier record-holder called the Devil’s Arrow. Changes included the 650 Thunderbird engine now breathing through twin carbs (which was also the key feature of the later Bonneville roadster). Running on 60% nitro, it was enough to produce 100bhp and power the rider, flat track racer Johnny Allen, to 214.4mph at Bonneville Salt Flats in September 1956, wresting the speed record from Germany’s NSU. The bike itself is at Coventry’s National Motorcycle Museum having been rebuilt after being virtually destroyed in the 2003 museum fire.

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1962 Bill Johnson/Triumph streamliner – 224.6mph
Allen’s record may have been the first and most famous but it certainly wasn’t the only Triumph world land speed record holder. In 1962 aircraft mechanic Joe Dudek brought his own streamliner to the Utah salt. Inspired by an X-15 rocket- plane and powered, appropriately enough, by a bored out T120 Bonneville engine, rider Bill Johnson first piloted Dudek's machine to a (petrol-powered) record of 205 mph. The team then drained the gas from the bike, changed the jets, and refueled it with nitro methane and proceeded to set a new outright speed record of 224.57mph. Sadly the Dudek streamliner was destroyed in a fire in 1974.

 

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1966 Bob Leppan/Triumph ‘Gyronaut X-1’ – 245.7mph
Yes, yet another Triumph. Triumph’s 15-year world speed domination peaked when automotive designer Alex Tremulis teamed up with Detroit Triumph dealer Bob Leppan resulting in the Gyronaut X-1. Features included a chrome-moly frame and specially designed Goodyear tyres, while power was from two highly-modified 641cc TR6 engines that was enough to raise the outright speed record to 245.667mph in 1966, a record it would hold until 1970. Recently restored, Gyronaut X-1 returned to Bonneville in 2013 to welcome contestants to Speed Week.

 

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1970 Don Vesco/Yamaha ‘Big Red’ – 251.9mph
The start of a new, Japanese-dominated era in world speed records. Future land speed legend Vesco claimed his first record in October 1970 at Bonneville with a red and blue rocket-shaped streamliner powered, unusually, by a pair of Yamaha TR2 350cc air-cooled two-stroke twin cylinder racing engines. Incidentally, Leppan and Triumph had not given up their title without a fight. Leppan had also returned to Bonneville in 1970 with a more powerful version of the Gyronaut but a crash at 270 mph seriously injured Leppan and ended the X-1’s title-holding era. ‘Big Red’ is is now on display at the Barber Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama.

 

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1970 Cal Rayborn/Harley Streamliner – 265.5mph
Despite the exit of main rival Leppan, Vesco would not be able to hold onto his world record for long. American engineer/designer Denis Manning, (who was to devote his life to speed record attempts and would also design the BUB Seven machine which would claim the record in 2006), built a 10-foot streamliner around Harley-Davidson power. It used a modified jet aircraft drop fuel tank and, within a month, racer Cal Rayborn had ridden it to a new record. The bike was also featured in the legendary movie ‘On Any Sunday’ and is now on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum in Indiana, USA.

 

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1975 Don Vesco/Yamaha ‘Silver Bird’ – 302.9mph
Following his earlier success, Vesco returned to Bonneville in 1975 with an all-new streamliner. Now sponsored by Yamaha, his new machine was called Silver Bird and was powered by two, four-cylinder, two-stroke TZ750 engines together producing 240bhp. Ridden by Vesco himself, Silver Bird became the first motorcycle to record over 300mph on its way to a new outright record of 302.9mph.

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1978 Don Vesco/Kawasaki ‘Lightning Bolt’ – 318.6mph
Following a long association with Yamaha, Vesco switched to Kawasaki power for his next machine, specifically twin, turbocharged, KZ1000 fours in an all-new streamliner dubbed ‘Lightning Bolt’. With a combined displacement of 2032cc, they posted a best of 318.598mph at Bonneville in 1978, a record that would stand for the next 12 years. Vesco, incidentally, concentrated on car records thereafter, was inducted into the AMA ‘Motorcycle Hall of Fame’ in 1999. He died in 2002 after a long battle with cancer.

 

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1990 Dave Campos/’Easyriders’ Harley-Davidson – 322.2mph
All-American attempt on the record was devised by Joe Teresi, the owner of Easyriders magazine. It was part-funded by readers of the magazine, who could buy $25 ‘shares’ that bought them a ticket to the Bonneville attempt, and was powered by twin Harley-Davidson ‘shovelhead’ V-twins. On July 14 1990 rider Dave Campos posted a new high of 322.150mph in the streamlined machine – a record that would stand for the next 16 years.

 

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2006 Chris Carr/’BUB Seven’ – 350.9mph
American-built streamliner designed again by Denis Manning (see Cal Rayborn above) which held the record from 2006 to 2008, and again from 2009 to 2010, during the most intense land speed record rivalry in recent history. BUB Seven was 21 feet long and featured a carbon-fibre monocoque. It was powered by a purpose-built 3000cc, turbocharged V4 producing 500bhp, enough for flat track star Chris Carr to become the first rider to hit over 350mph. 

 

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2010 Rocky Robinson/’Ack Attack’ – 376.4mph
The current record was set on September 25 2010 at Bonneville by Rocky Robinson. His machine was a purpose-built 20-foot-long streamliner designed and owned by Mike Akatiff. It has a chrome moly tube chassis and is powered by twin turbocharged 1299cc Suzuki Hayabusa motors, putting out a combined 900bhp. The duo first broke the record in 2006 before being usurped by Chris Carr (above) just two days later. Ack Attack reclaimed the record in 2008 before again being overtaken by the BUB Seven the following year. In 2010, however, the record stuck.

Thanks to: http://triumphlandspeed.com/history/ for some of the background information in this article.

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