Fastest on two wheels

3 min read

For mechanical engineering professor Joseph Harralson, setting the world record for a two-wheeled vehicle was a dream 18 years in the making.

For Sacramento State mechanical engineering professor Joseph Harralson, setting the world record for a two-wheeled vehicle was a dream 18 years in the making. And with expertise, determination, and a little serendipity, he and the team of five others made the dream a reality.

On September 5, 2006, the motorcycle the team built from the ground up set the land speed record for two-wheeled vehicles. Clocked at 350.884 miles per hour, the motorcycle is considered the fastest in the world.

‘I was at an automotive engineering seminar in 1988, listening to Dennis Manning - owner of a motorcycle exhaust company named BUB - talk about the motorcycle he helped build that broke the speed record in the 1970s,’ said Harralson, ‘and I realised I wanted to break that record. We spoke after his presentation, and I invited him to speak to my class.’

When Manning came to visit, Harralson had some drawings of what the possible world-breaking engine would look like. ‘They were all hand-drawn - computers didn’t have the capabilities back then that they do today,’ said Harralson.

He showed the drawings to Manning, and they decided to embark on the project. But the first of many problems arose from there.

‘This was a multi-million dollar project we were getting started on,’ says Harralson, ‘and we were just two guys with big plans and no money. But we had many serendipitous moments. When we needed a caster for the pattern parts, Dennis knew someone who would do it for free. When we needed a machinist to refine the rough materials, Dennis happened to run into one. When he explained to the machinist what we were doing, he offered his services for free as well.’

When the motorcycle was finished, the team - known as Team BUB - took it out for a run. The speed topped out at 300 miles per hour - not nearly quick enough to break any land speed records. Discouraged, the team understood that a complete redesign of the motorcycle was necessary to become a contender in breaking the world record.

‘The motorcycle was too heavy,’ said Harralson. ‘So we decided to change the frame, which was made out steel tubes, and instead make it from carbon fibre.’ Carbon fibre, he explained, is stronger than steel and much lighter. This unique feature - plus the fact that the bike had no frame - made the motorcycle unlike any of its kind.

But the motorcycle still had aerodynamic issues. Harralson said, ‘We were stumped on that one. Then one day, Dennis was watching salmon swim up a ladder at a fish hatchery. They were amazingly fast, and he was inspired to make the motorcycle the same shape as the fish.’ Sure enough, kismet struck again, and the team went to work on the new shape for the two-wheeled vehicle.

After the rebuild, the team was ready to go to the timings at the Utah Salt Flats in September 2006. But two days before the race, the team found itself coming up against yet another hurdle.
‘The governing body that oversees the competition asserted that our engine was slightly too big,’ said Harralson. And he’s not kidding when he says ‘slightly.’ The disputed measurement was less than the thickness of a sheet of paper. ‘However, it turned out it was the tools they used to measure it that were inaccurate, not the dimensions of the engine.’

After a lot of explaining—as well as some sweat and tears—the officials agreed, and the motorcycle was approved to race.

The speeds are measured over two runs on the Salt Flats. The runs are 11 miles total - five miles to reach the top speed, one mile in which the speed is recorded, and five miles to stop. Two hours later, the motorcycle takes the same 11-mile path back. The official speed is an average of the two one-mile runs going either way. Additionally, the speed must be 1 percent faster than the record to break the world record.

‘Our average speed was 350.884 miles per hour, and we broke the record,' said Harralson. The record-breaking speed came as a disappointment to the motorcycle rider who had broken the world speed record the day before Team BUB. Incidentally, that rider was the original rider for Team BUB but had parted ways – contentiously - earlier in the year. 'He was none too pleased about that,' said Harralson.

And if you think Harralson is resting on his laurels after his world-record goal was achieved, you’d be wrong. ‘Team BUB is trying to make the motorcycle even faster,’ he said. ‘Our goal now is to get the bike up to 400 miles per hour.’