Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Sam Wheeler, remembered

Tales of the American West: High Noon
I just read that Sam Wheeler was killed in a testing crash on the Bonneville Salt Flats earlier this week. That's a bummer, as he was not just a great guy; he was also a brilliant and mostly self-taught engineer who had spent an entire lifetime in pursuit of the outright land-speed record for motorcycles. After I met him in 2006, he completely rebuilt his EZ-Hook streamliner and he was one of several guys who hoped that this would be the year he (or a rival) broke the 400 barrier for the first time.

After several consecutive years of crappy salt, this looks like a good year for the streamliners, but Wheeler will certainly be missed. After I wrote this story about the '06 showdown, I wrote profile of Sam for Classic Bike magazine. I'm bummed that I can't find that story in my digital files.

Anyway, here's an account of two high-tech, big-$$$ streamliners competing on the salt, and being beaten by Sam and a ZX-11 motor that was something like 15 years old at the time.
The town of Wendover sits right on the Nevada-Utah state line. On the west side of town, there’s a fifty-foot tall neon cowboy nicknamed Wendover Will. If Will could see, he’d see dead-eyed losers pulling off the highway into the garish casinos on the Nevada side. Beyond that, he’d see flyblown cinderblock motels and Mexican takeout places in Utah. Beyond that, he’d see the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Will’s been there a long time, but even he couldn’t remember the last time two streamliners with world-record potential have traded shots at being the fastest thing on two wheels. Normally, land speed racing meets are relatively sedate deals that are man-and-machine vs. record. Not the 2006 Motorcycle Speed Trials by BUB. It was a cross between a poker game and a flat-out duel.

Denis Manning and Mike Akatiff are both heavyset guys within a year or two of being sixty. When he was younger, Manning was known for his fast Triumphs, Nortons, and Harleys; drag bikes and streamliners. Akatiff tuned trick BSA Gold Stars for Grand National flat track stars like Jim Rice and Dick Mann.

The collapse of the British bike business was the best thing that ever happened to them. Both of them became successful, self-made entrepreneurs. Manning founded BUB Enterprises, a company that sells aftermarket exhausts to the custom Harley crowd. Akatiff’s ACK Technologies supplies electronic components to the aircraft industry. Funded by BUB and ACK—and with sponsorship from Ford (for Manning) and Top 1 Oil (Akatiff)—both men have spent the last ten years obsessively building the world’s fastest motorcycle. If they’d been collaborators, building one bike, they’d be best friends; twins separated at birth. But each has built his own streamliner. So instead, they are rivals. And their rivalry is all the fiercer and more personal, precisely because they are so similar.

Externally, the two machines seem as similar as their builders, but under the skin they rely on radically different sources of power. Manning worked with an engineer named Joe Harralson to build his three-liter, 90-degree V-4 motor from scratch. With dual overhead cams and a turbocharger, it came to the salt in a relatively mild state of tune, producing about 500 horsepower. By contrast, Akatiff put a pair of Suzuki Hayabusa motors behind his rider. The two motors (which are fitted with proprietary heads) share a turbocharger and are linked by a “Hy-Vo”-type chain. The “ACK Attack” ’liner produced close to 1000 hp.

You don’t just go down to the shops and buy a pair of four hundred mph tires. There too, Manning and Akatiff took different approaches. Manning prevailed on Goodyear to make him a few rear tires that he could pair with a front tire from a top-fuel dragster. Akatiff built his vehicle to run on Mickey Thompson car tires. Both tire manufacturers then washed their hands of the affair; the odds of a fiasco outweighed the publicity value of a motorcycle world record, considering that neither company is even in the motorcycle tire business.

Land speed racing may be high stakes poker with the fastest motorcycles on the planet, but it is played out at an excruciatingly slow pace. Streamliner records go unchallenged for years and stand for decades.

The Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) sanctions most of the meets on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Until recently, Sam Wheeler was acknowledged as the outright motorcycle land speed record holder; his E-Z Hook streamliner averaged 332 miles per hour at an SCTA event. Those meets are not sanctioned by the FIM, however, so they are not strictly “world records.” Manning didn’t even bother to bring his machine to the SCTA’s recent Speed Week. In order to ensure his place in the FIM’s record book (and perhaps just as important, the Guinness World Records book) he staged his own meet, Motorcycle Speed Trials by BUB, a few weeks later. He spent thousands of dollars flying an FIM steward in from Switzerland to make it official. Mike Akatiff jumped at the chance, and registered his ’liner at his rival’s event.

Manning had been perfecting his BUB ’liner for years, and all the development riding had been done by a BUB employee named Rocky Robinson. Somehow, the two had a falling out last year, and Manning advertised for a new rider. Chris Carr responded. Maybe he got the job because Manning thought he’d bring good luck; the BUB machine was Manning’s seventh streamliner and Carr was a seven-time Grand National champion. Or maybe it was simply that, at 5’5”, Chris easily fit in the claustrophobic cockpit.

In his first test, Carr familiarized himself with the two joysticks used to steer the ’liner, while Manning towed it behind his pickup truck. Carr toppled it first to one side, then the other. Not the most auspicious start for the most talented rider to hit the salt since Cal Rayborn.

Mike Akatiff immediately hired Robinson to pilot ACK Attack. Rocky was, after all, the most experienced man available. So Akatiff didn’t necessarily hire him because he relished beating Manning with his own rider. That would be a bonus.

The FIM-sanctioned Motorcycle Speed Trials by BUB got its start the same weekend as the Springfield Mile. There was no way Carr would skip Springfield, so Manning’s crew pimped their ride while they waited for their star rider to arrive on Monday afternoon.

ACK attacked the flying kilometer in the middle of the course at 346-and-change. According to FIM rules, they had two hours to turn the machine around and come back through the kilo in the opposite direction. The average of those two speeds would be their official record. They came back ten mph slower, but it was still good enough to beat Sam Wheeler’s old record, and set a new FIM mark. That night, Akatiff bought steaks for his crew.

On Tuesday morning, when Chris Carr climbed into the BUB ’liner down at Mile 0, I was in the ACK pits, directly across from the timing station in the middle of the course. Akatiff and his crew were still euphoric, but they gradually fell silent, to better hear the officials’ CB radio chatter. Carr appeared from over the horizon, followed by his flat, V-4 exhaust note. A moment later, when he heard 354-point-blahblahblah, Akatiff told someone to check and see if that had been a speed quoted in kilometers per hour, not miles.

Carr’s return run was slower, but still good for an average of 350 and change.  Akatiff was practically still digesting his steak when he lost his record. He ordered his crew to prepare for a second attempt.

Frustratingly, Rocky knocked out two runs in the high 340s; he said the runs had been good, so the question was, how could they even get more speed? And if Manning’s machine could go over 350 right off the trailer, how much more did it have in it? One thing was certain; a smart poker player would not show his cards until late in the meet.

On Tuesday night, Akatiff put in a call to his turbocharger guy, and was all smiles Wednesday morning when he told his crew that they could crank the boost to 32 psi. That would be good for at least 200 more[ital] horsepower. But when they started working on the bike they discovered a disintegrating bearing in the drive system.

The two principals’ relationship is formal, but their crews are on genuinely friendly terms. So when the ACK guys needed some epoxy to reinforce the area around the failing bearing, they walked across and borrowed it from Manning’s team. And when Carr’s rear tire chunked and had to be replaced, a couple of Top 1 mechanics rolled the new hoop over to the ACK trailer and asked them if they’d mind putting it on their balancer. Carr said, “That’s like Grand National racing,” meaning that the racing is no-holds-barred on the track, but the atmosphere in the pits is friendly. That said, Manning specifically instructed his guys not to let the wheel and tire out of their sight.

On Wednesday morning, as far as Denis Manning was concerned, the world was a beautiful place. Having pushed the record over 350 mph–a nice, round number–he was not inclined to run his ’liner again unless Akatiff beat his record. Sitting in a folding chair in the shade of his canopy, he was in a voluble mood as I interviewed him. Within earshot, an ACK mechanic came over and chatted with a BUB mechanic about tricky problem they were having with their intercooler. Under his breath but dripping with sarcasm, Manning said, “Yeah, that’s a shame.”

Wednesday was all about waiting. Akatiff’s crew gave that bearing the MacGyver treatment. The highlight came when Sam Wheeler took a run in his well-tested machine, powered by a nearly vintage ZX-11 motor. The contrast was stark: Sam’s crew was about half the size of Manning’s or Akatiff’s mobs. Five or six old friends fussed over the 60-something Wheeler. Not to belittle the creative efforts of the other guys, but Sam literally built the entire E-Z Hook ’liner with his own hands. Unlike Carr, who had to be towed off the line, or Robinson, who had to be pushed to 30 or 40 mph, Sam just climbed into his green machine, punched the starter button, and slipped the clutch away from a dead stop.

When Rocky Robinson went over 340, eyebrows were raised. When Chris Carr went 354, jaws dropped. But when the radio crackled back that Sam had gone three hundred and fifty five, the volunteers at Mile 0 was spontaneously cheered. A total stranger hugged me. But that elation died a moment later, when word came that the machine had come to a stop on its side, with a blown front tire. A record return run was out of the question.

Wheeler’s single pass did make him, again, the fastest man on two wheels. But Manning didn’t even tell Carr to suit up. All he cared about was the official record, and time was on his side, not Akatiff’s. The meet was scheduled to end–it would lose its FIM sanction–at high noon, Thursday.

At first light on Thursday morning, Manning grilled Charles Hennekam, the FIM steward, on the exact rules that would govern the meet’s final hours. Manning was afraid that Akatiff might hold Rocky on the line until the end of the meet and, at the last minute, set a record leaving him no time to respond.

That begged more questions of Hennekam: Did the runs in both directions have to be completed by noon? No, just the first run; after that the usual two hours were allowed for a return. Did the first run have to be over the existing record to allow a record return run, per SCTA rules? No. What if, just before noon, two machines were lined up and waiting? If one went before noon, could the other follow even though the deadline had passed?  The official was frustrated; the rules didn’t anticipate this kind of gamesmanship.

But Akatiff wasn’t waiting for Manning to draw; he desperately wanted to get two runs in the book right away. Manning decided that if Akatiff’s ’liner even got close to his record on an initial run, he’d send Carr down the course right after him to try and raise the target. So both machines were prepped on the line; whenever Rocky suited up, Chris would suit up, too.

Talk about anticlimaxes. Rocky was blown off course. ACK Attack got stuck on its push truck. Some time around mid-morning, it launched and stopped a mile or two down the course. From the sound of things, that bearing had, literally, brought the ’liner to a grinding halt. Back at Mile 0, Carr climbed out of the BUB cockpit for the third time without having turned a wheel. Denis Manning was finally sure the record was his. He told his crew to move the ’liner back to the pit area for a photo session.

When the BUB crew reached the pit area, they were dumbfounded to see ACK Attack heading back to the start. Their problem had only been a broken chain. Manning’s crew rushed after them, acutely aware of the noon deadline. Again, Chris suited up, and at about 11:30, BUB was ready to go while ACK was still counting down. Although a few onlookers thought Carr should run first and try to raise the record, Denis Manning waited for Akatiff to give it his best shot. After being plagued with so much trouble, ACK Attack didn’t seem like much of a threat–unless Mike Akatiff was bluffing.

Once more, Rocky motored away, but the twin ’busas popped and sputtered. Again, the radio brought word that Akatiff’s machine had stopped on the course. The noon deadline passed. Finally, Carr and Manning popped champagne and sprayed each other.

But it wasn’t only the racing that took place over the horizon; so did the strategy and mind games. Still soaked in champagne, Manning got wind of a rumor that Akatiff’s crew was going to go to Mile 11 and make a return run, then scrub the first run and make a third pass for the required two way average. Manning asked if Top 1 could make a run and was told no, the first pass had to be made before noon. The deadline had passed, even for the event promoter. No one could believe that a third pass by ACK Attack would be legal and it didn’t satisfy them that the AMA’s steward agreed. Carr finally got mad. “Get that FIM guy down here! I want him to tell me to my face.”

In the end Akatiff folded. He told his crew, we’re done, pack up. Denis Manning got his record, but there was no crystalline moment for Carr; no checkered flag or victory lap. So, I had to ask him, was riding the streamliner fun? Or just an opportunity to lose, without the corresponding chance to win?

“It’s fun,” he said, “when they open that hatch at other end of the course.”

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