The first guy to pony up the Top of the World Shootout’s $10,000 entry fee was Al Lamb, the owner of Dallas Honda. That was just an entry fee; Lamb also paid to outfit a 40-foot shipping container as a portable workshop.
Lamb, as you can tell, is not afraid to open his wallet. His turbocharged Honda CBR1000 has been the fastest partial streamliner in the world for a few years.
Land-speed racers call bikes like Al’s CBR “sit-on” motorcycles, to differentiate them from streamliners. In the same way that Mike Akatiff, Dennis Manning, and Triumph all want to be the first to go 400 mph, Al Lamb and a few of his rivals are equally obsessed with being the first sit-on bike over 300. That was what drew Lamb to Bolivia.
The whole Bolivia thing came together quickly, but two more teams pulled the trigger. Ralph Hudson, who runs a Suzuki GSX-R1000-based partial streamliner, asked if he could come, too. He’s sort of the David to Lamb’s Goliath. Ralph’s “A” bike is a 2003 GSX-R1000 frame with a 2005 motor.
That old Gixxer has the distinction of being the fastest motorcycle of any kind at El Mirage Dry Lake. Ralph, too, harbored the dream of being the first guy to crack 300 mph on a sit-on bike. He talked Akatiff into letting him tag along.
Ralph also called Lamb to ask if he minded another bike in his class. Al said that was fine by him, but he pointed out that Ralph’s bike was built to SCTA rules, with a tail-section that enclosed too much of the rear wheel for the FIM. Ralph spent the next few weeks building an FIM-legal tail.
There was one more part of their gentleman’s agreement. Since the meet was being run to FIM rules, there’d be a measured mile and a measured kilometer within that mile. Any record pass would probably qualify for both of those records.
“I told Al that if I went fastest, I’d only apply for ‘mile’ record and leave the ‘kilo’ for him,” Ralph recalled. “Al thought that was a good idea, and said he’d do the same thing for me.”
Each team was responsible for its own logistics. As Ralph was sorting out a shipping container, he got a call from Salimbeni-Genetti Racing who wanted to bring a conventionally aspirated Aprilia RSV4RR. Ralph and the Aprilia guys agreed to share the cost of getting a 20-foot shipping container to Bolivia and back. On the way down, it was held up in U.S. Customs and missed the original boat, but it was eventually cleared and Ralph got word their bikes were South America-bound in early July.
Meanwhile, Al Lamb’s 40-foot container was loaded and delivered to the dock in Houston. Everything was hunky-dory, until the global shipping giant Maersk was victim of a cyber attack that totally screwed up the company’s ability to track shipments.
The Shootout was only days away when Lamb realized that his container had never left Houston. He frantically repacked the CBR into one crate, with the most essential tools and spares jammed into a five-by-five-by-eight-foot air cargo container. Those were forwarded to Miami, which is an air cargo hub for Latin America.
At that point Al, too, ran afoul of Customs. Even though Houston officials had already cleared the motorcycle for temporary export, Miami feds held it up until just after the last scheduled cargo flight. Strings were pulled from somewhere way high up in the Bolivian government, and a cargo plane was diverted to collect the Honda.
So picture the first couple of days of the Shootout: Mike Akatiff and Rocky Robinson; Ralph Hudson; Mike and John Salimbeni and Nick Genet; and Al Lamb have all journeyed to the remote and beautiful Salar de Uyuni to run their motorcycles. Mike Cook, another Bonneville regular, has cut and polished a 15-mile course on salt that’s dry and almost as hard as concrete. The Rice brothers have set up timing equipment and the FIM’s Charlie Hennekam is on site ready to sanction records. There’s just one catch: There are no motorcycles.
To kill time, the teams and Shootout staff drove to Cactus Island, which is a rocky outcropping in the middle of the Salar. They came across the scene of recent blood sacrifice. Maybe that was an offering to the “salt gremlins,” but if so, it was not particularly effective.
The attack of the salt gremlins
The first container to arrive was the one with Ralph Hudson’s Gixxer and the Aprilia.
Salimbeni-Genetti Racing got to work with the ’Priller pretty much according to their plan, which was first to set a baseline run sans nitrous. They were pleasantly surprised to go slightly faster on the Salar than they’d ever managed to go (on that motorcycle) in the United States.
Ralph Hudson had been told to expect below-freezing temperatures on the Salar at night, so before packing up his bike, he drained the cooling system. When he opened his container, he decided to test-fire the motorcycle to make sure all systems were go, before refilling the cooling system. That was a mistake. A little water had collected in the water pump. It was frozen solid, and instantly sheared off its drive shaft. Luckily, Ralph brought a spare motor, and he was able to pull the parts he needed off that one.
On Friday, Bolivian President Evo Morales came out with a whole Latin American media circus. The only motorcycle that looked like a proper race bike was Ralph’s, and he just got it running again in time for el presidente to watch him make a demonstration run. That was Ralph’s first real taste of the Salar. He thought he felt the clutch slip a little, but otherwise it was OK.
“I should have checked the clutch as soon as I got back to the pits,” Ralph told me. “But there were about 100 Bolivians who all wanted their picture taken with the bike, and I wanted to be a good ambassador. And Mike Cook said, ‘No it was just tire spin’ and I wanted to believe him.”
It wasn’t tire spin, it was salt gremlins. On Ralph’s first full-throttle pass, he demolished the clutch, clogging the fine screen on his Oberg oil filter. Cue a sinking feeling as he realized he’d forgotten to pack a spare.
After laboriously hand-cleaning the screen with water and solvents, and replacing the oil pickup (again, with parts from the spare motor.) Ralph set out after Lamb’s existing record. Ralph wasn’t greedy; he geared for a top speed of about 275 mph. But one of the many subtle ways FIM rules and procedures differ is that he was allowed to start as far back as he liked, so he went back five miles. That proved to be a strategic error.
“I was out of rpm after about two miles,” he told me. “I should’ve backed off, but I wrung its neck for three more miles and overheated badly.”
World record #1
Al Lamb’s crates arrived. His first run was underwhelming, because an electronic module that controlled the turbo had failed. And, he didn’t have enough compressed air in his system to properly work his air-shifter, either. With no boost, and stuck in third gear, he still clocked 204 mph. Consider that proof that the days he spent in the wind tunnel were not wasted.
Land-speed racers being what they are, Ralph Hudson loaned him a module from his spare motor.
“If he hadn’t loaned us that, we’d have been shut down before we even started,” Al admitted. “It’s not as if you can ‘next-day air’ any parts you need to Uyuni.”
“It accelerated like never before,” Al told me as he described his first full-power run with the benefit of his rival’s boost controller. He went through at 265 and change.
There was one problem: “I knew something was wrong with the tire,” Al recalled, “because at around 260, all these little flecks of black rubber flew up and stuck on my visor!”
As soon as they pulled off the front wheel, they could see that centrifugal forces stretched out the front tire and caused it to rub on the aluminum heat-sink (mounted where the radiator would normally be.)
With a new tire in place, Lamb made a return run over 266 mph — just fast enough to make him the first person to set a land-speed record on the Salar.
World record #2
Calling it a “Shootout” creates a great mental image, but often one guy draws and fires (two shots) and then hours or days later his dueling partner returns fire. On Sunday, Ralph fitted gearing that, in theory, would allow him to go 290 mph, but the Gixxer ran poorly. He retreated to his pit area and eventually spotted a small hose that had come off his Xona Rotor turbocharger’s wastegate.
The Salimbeni-Genetti guys were really having their own little meet; it was more target practice than shootout. There was no way that a conventionally aspirated motorcycle running on gasoline was going to set a record at 12,000 feet altitude.
So, Plan B was to switch on the nitrous oxide injection system. They did that by pushing the horn button. A controller looked at rpm and the input from the throttle position sensor, and turned on the flow of nitrous if revs were high enough, and the throttle was wide open. (Addition of nitrous under any other conditions can lead to Big Trouble.)
Nitrous, as it burns, releases oxygen into the combustion chamber. To capitalize on that, they’d programmed their Bazzazz fuel system to add 25 percent more fuel, too. All that went a long way towards balancing out the horsepower-sapping thin atmosphere, and they pushed the RSV to something north of 206 mph. That would have put them within spitting distance of an SCTA record but it was still well shy of the FIM record, which was set by a motorcycle with a custom aerodynamic fairing similar to the ones on Al’s Honda and Ralph’s Suzuki.
“The existing record was something like 221 miles an hour,” Nick Genet told me. “We were tickled pink to get within 15 miles an hour of it with stock bodywork.”
Plan C was, to run the Aprilia with nitrous, but sans bodywork; naked. In that thin atmosphere, it turned out the Aprilia’s bodywork was only good for 12 or 13 miles an hour, anyway. Nick Genet’s two-way average in the low 190s was enough to secure another FIM world record.
World record #3
Monday was their last day on the Salar; all the timing gear had to be packed up, for shipment back to Bonneville where it was needed for events later in the season.
Al Lamb could only make two runs, since he only had two more front tires. His first was a stunner — at 285 and change, it was almost 20 mph faster than the record he’d just set. That set a pretty high standard for Ralph Hudson, who laid down an “out” pass of 281.
Ralph waited under the FIM’s awning, thinking it was all over, when he heard that Al’s return run was only 274-point-something.
“I thought, ‘He’s left the door open for me’,” Ralph recalled. So, at sundown, he set off on his own record return run, starting three miles back — far enough to reach top speed, but not so far as to overheat the motor.
“I’m hitting all my shift points, going up through the gears,” he told me. “Then a big gust of wind took me all the way to the right edge of the course. I’m thinking, Do not sit up! I put all my weight on the left footpeg [to steer it back on course]. It’s the longest mile of your life, the engine wailing, and you thinking, ‘Don’t blow, don’t blow’.”
As he coasted up to the FIM tent, they started jumping up and down. Erin Sills, who was the FIM’s steward at that end of the course, asked, “Can you repeat that speed?” into a walkie-talkie.
One of the Rice brothers started reading it off: “Two. Eighty. Nine, point…”
Ralph stopped listening. His final record will be ratified at over 285 miles an hour.
As soon as he got back to the pits, Ralph sought out Al and told him that per their agreement, he was prepared to apply for the mile record only, which would leave Al with the metric record he’d set an hour earlier.
“No, you earned them both,” Al said.
Of course, both of them were already second-guessing their gearing choices. Why hadn’t they geared for 300-plus? Maybe because experienced racers know that those salt gremlins hate hubris. And, there’s always next year.
Or is there?
I spoke to Mike Cook recently, and he told me that for the first time in decades, there seemed to be a little more salt this year than last. Both Dennis Manning and the Triumph team plan to run their streamliners at Bonneville later this season.
If either team breaks 400 at Bonneville, Bolivia will suddenly look like a long way to go for a little bit of PR. And without Ack Attack and Top 1 Oil’s committed sponsorship, it’s hard to imagine the sit-on bikes footing the bill.
To say nothing of the fact that if some sit-on bike breaks 300 at Bonneville later this year, that “first” will also pass into history.
My prediction: Those historic 300 and 400 mph runs will not be made until the boys are back in Bolivia.