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Resurrecting Triumph’s Glory Out on the Salt

  • Don

    Posted November 22nd 2013 1:02AM

    castrol-rocket-4-blog480BONNEVILLE, Utah – There can be only one “fastest motorcycle in the world.” The Castrol Rocket, with a pair of outrageously powerful Triumph Rocket III engines fitted to a motorcycle cloaked in streamlined Kevlar-carbon bodywork, might just be able to grab that title.

    But top speeds were still a future goal as the Triumph development team came to the Bonneville Salt Flats here in late August for the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials. The Triumph team’s purpose, for now, is to begin the long process of translating engineering expertise into rubber-meets-road – or salt, in this case – reality.

    Streamliners are among the fastest terrestrial machines on earth, encapsulating the rider, engine and running gear into a highly aerodynamic body. The Castrol Rocket, a visually stunning 25.5-foot monocoque speed machine, is Triumph’s effort to get back into the land-speed record chase.

    From 1955 to 1970, the brand owned “world’s fastest” bragging rights, thanks to American land speed racers who were able to squeeze speed from stock machines, and Triumph’s best-known model was named for this brilliant white expanse of ancient lake bed. When the factory abandoned the speed trials – and direct support of land speed attempts – Salt Flats racers returned the favor and defected to Japanese bikes, where they found technical and parts support.castrol-rocket-1-blog480

    The Triumph team is the first factory-backed motorcycle land speed outfit in decades. Bob Carpenter, 65, a  drag racer in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category and a first-timer on the Salt Flats, is in charge of engine development. In preparing the Castrol Rocket, he detuned the linked engines powering the streamliner to give the rider a more controllable power curve and increase engine life across the five-mile speed trials course.

    “We shortened the stroke and used titanium rods which takes strain off the bearings,” Carpenter said, detailing some of the modifications done to the engines. “A single engine has a bigger chance to spike the tire loose.”

    The design and build responsibility fell to Matt Markstaller, 49, a mechanical engineer who has been coming to Bonneville since the early 1980s.

    “The timeline was our toughest hurdle,” he said. “To get to the salt in a year from the initial conversation was huge.”





    To set a world record the machine has to top 376 miles per hour, the mark set by the Ack Attack streamliner, which is powered by two Suzuki Hayabusa engines, in September 2010. The Castrol Rocket team’s goal is to reach 430 m.p.h., which presents an enormous challenge in what amounts to a five-mile drag race.

    “We need to have all the available traction right from the start,” said Markstaller, who tested the bike sideways in the wind tunnel to improve stability. “Our limitations come mainly from salt conditions.”

    Tom Burkland, who piloted a car to 417 m.p.h. on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 2004, is the technical inspector for all closed cockpit vehicles for the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme and for the BUB speed trials.

    “This is a well-built, complex machine,” Burkland said, adding that he put the bike through a 90-minute exhaustive inspection. But, he added, “as competent as their engineering team is there are design issues specific to this sport that still need serious attention. Top of the list is thermal management.”

    Burkland also found the cockpit to be congested, and questioned the hand-operated throttle used by Jason DiSalvo, the team’s rider.

    A streamliner rookie whose cockpit also includes aviation-style joysticks, DiSalvo has a straightforward explanation for the hand throttle. “After 27 years of riding motorcycles I don’t trust my foot to be as exacting as my hand,” he said. “The cockpit is very intuitive to me.”

    Nevertheless, at low speeds DiSalvo experienced the dreaded “fish dance” wobble as he struggled to keep the Rocket upright.


    “It was really hard learning to go in a straight line on the salt,” DiSalvo said, despite his experience in setting a class record at 174 m.p.h. on a street bike. “Once I equated that the streamliner’s balance control was similar to why I hang off a road racing bike it made me think about motorcycling in a whole new light.”

    Another critical lesson for the first-time salt racer: how to bail out quickly in an emergency. Burkland and Rex Svoboda, the race director for the speed trials, watched as DiSalvo demonstrated he could exit the 1,000-horsepower Castrol Rocket in 22 seconds. On a second try, he slashed his exit from the tiny cockpit to 11 seconds.

    When the bike later caught fire on its second 95-mile-per-hour shakedown run, DiSalvo bailed out in eight seconds flat. “I had a bit more motivation,” he chuckled.

    DiSalvo made only three runs during the speed meet, which was shortened by wind and rain, taking home a time slip that read 104. Svoboda pointed out that it is unrealistic to expect any level of speed the first time out. “There is no manual,” he said. “The institutional knowledge is held in the heads of a few people.”

    The Castrol Rocket team and sponsors all understand this is a multiyear program that requires excellent course and weather conditions to set a world record.

    “This is such an unknown thing,” Markstaller said. “The learning curve is not on paper, no matter how sound the engineering.”

  • Shannon

    Posted January 27th 2014 6:17PM

    Got to see this at the Barber Vintage fest... it is absolutely beautiful.