Castings put the motor in record breaking cycle: the fastest motorcycle in the world was developed from a blank sheet of paper and a little help from the metalcasting process.
Joe Harralson and Denis Manning, along with several others on their team, were able to see all too well on that Tuesday, Oct. 1, 1996. The two visionaries stood on the solid ground of the salt flats in Bonneville, Utah, disappointment the only thing clouding their view. For eight years, the pair had been working on the bike that Robinson now was bringing to a stop with the drag of a deployed parachute--a bike designed to break the world land speed record. They thought they could get the machine to 350 mph, enough to beat the old mark of 322. On that day, it wouldn't top 280.
But the setback did nothing to diminish the team's dream.
"We thought that the record was within reach." said Harralson. a mechanical engineer. "We really expected to set it the following year."
The problems seemed minor enough. A few subordinate systems and the shifter needed tweaking, but the bike was still cruising under the power of an engine design that hadn't been altered since the original plans were drawn up. The engine had yet to experience a major malfunction, relying on two cylinder heads and an engine block all made in the green sand metalcasting process.
Nearly 10 years later, when Harralson and Manning finally had their motorcycle ready for another serious charge at the record, the crew had a new driver, a new chassis and a more realistic attitude.
"You're dealing with a book that has blank pages," said Manning, owner of BUB Racing Inc., Grass Valley, Calif. "It takes time to evolve."
The page on which the engine had been drawn, however, remained the same.
Two Dreams Converging
Joe Harralson had never before said a word to Denis Manning when the men began working together.
Manning addressed the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) in 1988, mentioning that he had preliminary plans to build a motorcycle that would break the world land speed record. Harralson, an SAE member, paid attention.
"I went home, and the more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became," Harralson said. "I decided to make some rough layouts of an engine." Harralson began drawing up blueprints for the components in an engine that would eventually displace three liters and make 420 horsepower.
With his layouts on the drawing board but incomplete, Harralson invited Manning to speak to a group of student engineers at California State Univ. Sacramento, Sacramento, Calif. The two had a chance to talk motorcycles over pizza later that evening. Harralson didn't mention that he already was on board.
Harralson had engineering experience with metalcastings, so drawing up pattern blueprints was well within his ability. He contacted Manning when the drawings were complete, and the two men quickly were caught up in the project.
"As a normally very practical engineer, I should have known that the project was impossible," Harralson said. "Like so many people, I was swept up by Denis and his dreams."
The central step to realizing that dream was to build the powerful 3-L engine from the ground up. It would be the largest motorcycle engine ever built, excluding automobile adaptations that have been mounted on two wheels. Previous efforts to make similar engines had sometimes involved combining two distinct power plants, but most of those piebald attempts had encountered problems.
"We wanted a single engine, a V4," said Harralson. "It had to be packaged to fit into the Streamliner, and the width of it was determined by the width of the rider s shoulders, So a 3-L engine was difficult to put in that space."
A natural division of labor developed between the men. Harralson, with his experience as an engine designer, designed the metal components that would become the engine, and Manning supervised the overall construction of the bike.
Harralson initially envisioned casting the cylinder heads, engine block, four injector bodies, two valve covers, two cam carriers and a crank case--a dozen castings all told--by commissioning a patternmaker and metalcaster. "I wouldn't have tried to make that engine without castings," he said. "It's really the only way to do it." He was only partly successful.
The first time they ate together, Harralson and Manning dined on pepperoni pizza. During the early days of developing the bike's components, they met at a Chinese restaurant. Manning reportedly has a penchant for drinking pink Chablis in a box. The team wasn't exactly vying for a position on the Fortune 500.
"At first, it was just the two of us, and we had no budget whatsoever," Harralson said. "All the while, Denis had multiple schemes to raise money, none of which ever worked. He was filled with wildly optimistic ideas and called me with a new sure fire plan every few weeks. The budget stayed at zero."
Harralson did all of the drawings for the cast engine parts with a pencil and paper. His budget kept him from investing in CAD software, and on principle, he chose not to employ a bootlegged version. Versed in programming language he was able to design some helpful programs himself, but most of those were focused on modeling the engine as a finished product to determine just how fast the motorcycle might be able to go.
By the time Harralson had finished drawing up patterns for the parts that would be cast, Manning's business had begun to grow--slightly. What started as a garage outfit expanded to become a barn outfit. So when Harralson visited a patternmaker to have his drawings turned into reality, the $20,000 price tag still gave him pause. He decided to make them himself.
"The patterns were made old school--mahogany with a disc sander and a lot of hand tools, traditional pattern-making," Harralson said.
Nevertheless, the patterns proved to be complex, and the specifications were exacting. In addition to the mold halves, Harralson made 11 separate coreboxes. And he did it all using a set of tools that were a Christmas present from his wife, measuring with a shrinkrule and gluing on fillets.
When it came time to make molds and pour molten aluminum, Harralson was unable to go it alone. Here, he needed an experienced metalcaster.
Bringing in a Caster to Go Faster
Harralson and Manning didn't encounter budget constraints when they started looking for someone to make castings from their patterns. Owing to their enthusiasm and the buzz they were able to create in their circle of acquaintances, all walks of manufacturers joined up free of charge.
Mark Thomas, Betra Manufacturing, Carson City, Nev., offered his time and resources to pour all of the castings that would go into making the engine.
"I'd known Denis for some time, and I'd done other work for him," said Thomas. "I took this job to give my people the experience of pouring different kinds of castings. We were doing some parts for [aviation] ground handling equipment and canning equipment--nothing very sophisticated. This was a more complicated casting than we had ever done, and the quality had to be high. We had to stretch our capability a little bit."
Thomas says that, at the time, Betra operated as a machine shop that happened to pour castings. They have since grown into a metalcasting shop that happens to do some machining, but in 1992, when the first heads were cast in A356 aluminum, Thomas' simplified operation was lucky to receive quality patterns.
"Joe's pretty hands on," Thomas said. "The one problem we ran into was keeping the cores in position. In both ends, we had to put a window for the core prints."
That was the only significant obstacle they encountered on the metalcasting side of the project. "Setting the cores was tough for neophytes like us," Manning said. "It took us a long time to do it." But once they did do it, Thomas was able to get a sound casting from his A green sand molds (the only mold medium he had in his shop) after only a few iterations. The first component that satisfied their requirements went straight to the band saw so they could examine how well the cores fit. The dissection led to only minor tinkering with the pattern and the next pour produced a casting that was ready to be machined and mounted. Thomas poured three sets of each cast component that would go on the bike and sent Harralson and Manning on their way.
"We made the castings way back then, and we're just pouring three more sets now," Thomas said.
This time, owing to Thomas growing his business from three employees to more than 20, the castings will be a little different. Betra Manufacturing now uses only primary aluminum, transitioning from secondary some time ago. Thomas' outfit also has improved its skills by transitioning into more sophisticated end markets. They currently produce hydraulic valves for elevators and castings for cryogenic pumps, impellers, transducers and diffusers in permanent mold and nobake. Betra also is capable of centrifugal casting. According to Thomas, the company now does a job for an injection molding machine that it won owing primarily to exposure working with the BUB Streamliner.
Harralson said he was impressed with Betra's capabilities the second time around.
"Mark likes to say he went from the 19th century straight to the 21st," he said. "[The castings] are even better."
The new set of castings is ready to be mounted on a second version of the motorcycle. But obtaining a second set of components for the next generation of the BUB Streamliner hasn't been as easy when it comes to other parts. The team is still in the market for a tire that can withstand the world's fastest speeds.
Machining Brings It to Life
John Jans, a career machinist from Grass Valley, walked into the motorcycle enthusiast's equivalent of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory when he paid a visit to BUB Racing in the early days of the Streamliner project. He expected simply to pick up an exhaust system for his Triumph and encountered an airplane-like motorcycle chassis, as well as raw engine castings and blueprints.
"It turned out that this guy was a machinist, motorcycle nut and someone who likes crazy projects," Harralson said. "He signed on and donated a bunch of hours."
Those hours proved to be invaluable, as neither Harralson nor Manning had the skill necessary to do the amount of machining that was necessary to produce the engine they envisioned. Plus, Manning's two old fashioned lathes were aging quickly.
"Quite a bit of machining went into the castings," Jans said. "I stopped counting at 3,500 hours. That was all before the motor ran."
All of that work, 60-70% of which was performed on a manual Bridgeport lathe, wasn't focused on castings, as some of the parts were fabricated directly out of billet. But the more intricate machining occurred where the cylinder heads and engine block came together, and there Jans used a CNC mill.
"There were a few dimensional errors, but I found very few defects in the course of machining," Jans said.
In the cases where Jans machined parts directly from a hunk of metal, he said he did so for expediency. However, he recognized that the castings were of a superior material. On a bike where thermodynamics are a key to success, the cast components exhibit far superior thermal qualities, he said.
"This is one of the very few purpose-built bikes to be manufactured in the U.S. in a long time," Manning said. "One of the most important things is thermodynamics; you have to make sure you can cool the thing."
Harralson believes that the project made a manufacturing convert out of Jans, whether or not thermodynamics played into the change.
"I convinced John that castings weren't such a bad thing," Harralson said. "I think we won him over."
Finally the Fastest
The minor problems that Harralson anticipated clearing up in a matter of months after their October 1996 run proved to consume years.
"We had endless problems with the bike--tires, electrical and oiling systems for the engine," Harralson said. "The shifter had to be completely redesigned, and then it took quite a while to debug. All the time, the basic engine was never changed or modified. The problems were always elsewhere."
The one engine problem occurred when they took the bike to Australia for a test run. With the Streamliner approaching 297 mph, the engine threw a rod, and the run-up was once again stopped prematurely. It was around that point that things began to look grim, and with more than a few reservations, Manning and his team decided that they would have to build a new bike. They did, however, transfer the original engine components and transmission design to the reconfigured chassis.
To complicate things further, Manning and rider Robinson soon had a parting of ways, and the team was left without a pilot for their jet on wheels. But they weren't going to let a few bumps in the road keep them from speeding into history. After all, pink Chablis from a box tastes a lot better when you're the fastest team on earth.
Once again, the team had hype on their side. Manning posted an internet ad requesting a rider who wouldn't mind becoming the fastest man on two wheels, and he received replies from 50 world-class racers. He decided on Chris Cam an accomplished street bike champion.
"Carr is the best rider in the world," Manning said. "He's a virtuoso, and I knew we'd get along."
He got a chance to prove it on Sept. 5, 2006, at the BUB Speed Trials, an event started by Manning that featured three riders who were challenging the speed record that existed for 17 years. One of the three riders made Carr's work a bit more difficult on Sept. 4. Less than 24 hours before the BUB team launched its bike down the fiats, another bike hit 342 mph, breaking the longstanding record and setting the bar even higher.
But Manning and Harralson believed the BUB Streamliner could go faster. Their goal remained the same: achieve the 350 mph they thought their bike could achieve. And the motorcycle was finally ready, the many interrelated systems and chassis finally catching up with the engine.
"The bike is decidedly high tech with two onboard computers and a monocoque chassis made from carbon fiber and honeycomb," Harralson said. "It looks like a jet fighter with no wings."
Carr strapped himself in, armed with fire extinguishers and the nerves of a competitive racer. On his third run down the salt fiats of Bonneville, he saw a reading inside the Streamliner that indicated he was going nearly fast enough to break the record. In fact, as he was soon to learn, he rode the motorcycle to 350.884 mph, a new land speed record.
"We vowed that if we ever got the record, we would drink a toast to the [people] that said we couldn't do it," Harralson said.
Time to break out the Chablis.
By the Numbers: 350.884 Number of miles per hour the BUB Streamliner, the fastest motorcycle in the world, traveled on Sept. 5, 2006.
Rapid Prototyping for a Speedy Group
The process Denis Manning and his team dredged through to build the world's fastest bike was--to exaggerate only slightly--one of the world's slowest. Future efforts to build motorcycles with super speed will be more appropriate, at least in a metaphorical sense.
"We recently obtained a rapid prototyping machine, and we're cranking out models on that," said John Jans, sitting at a motorcycle convention months after he and the rest of the crew had watched Chris Carr go 350.884 on their BUB Streamliner, breaking the world land speed record.
The group invested in a stereolithography (SLA) machine, something that BUB could have only dreamed about 18 years ago when it consisted of Manning and his wife, two lathes, a tubing bender and a welder. SLA machines, as opposed to those manual pieces, are additive process prototype makers that build plastic parts by following the design of a computer model.
According to Jans, the prototyping machine may be used to make adjustments to the existing land speed record holding motorcycle, but it will primarily be pumping out plastic for a 1,500cc, v-twin version of the engine that will be fitted on a street bike.
All of the castings for the new street bike will be based on the design of the BUB Streamliner, but Jans said that the prototyping machine will make intricate components such as oil pump castings far easier to produce.
Shea Gibbs, Assistant Editor
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|Article Type:||Cover story|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2007|
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