Fifth 1997 to 1998

Fifth 1997 to 1998

Having finished the restoration, I now had money to start building the new streamliner--number five. I was going to have to build another new frame, the reason being primarily the cockpit length, along with a lot of other reasons too numerous to mention. I had to extend the cockpit 11" in order to get more leg room for the pilot, but prior to building the frame, a new body, or shell, had to be made. So I stripped the old liner down to it's frame, and chopped it, extended the cockpit with pipe, and placed the old bent up and scarred shell back on the frame. I made pivot stands so that the liner could be turned like a pig roasting over a pit fire. All the holes were plugged by pop riveting soft aluminum sheets over them.

Then the real work began. Using 52 gallon cans (yes, I said 52 gallon cans) of Bondo fiberglass body filler, a bit of help from my daughter, Kim, and about two months of hard labor, finally out of all the dust emerged a long and lithe, sleekly aerodynamic shape, which would be the male plug required to make a mold. A mold was made from the plug, and then two bodies were cast and pulled out of the mold. All of this was at a cost of about $4,000 US, for materials alone.

Then I built the frame, doing all the work myself. I set out to powder coat the frame, and discovered that an industrial size powder coating oven was in order, as the fifth streamliner's frame was about 20 feet long. I finally found one about 80 miles from home. They had a big contract with the John Deere tractor company, so my choice of color was either green or yellow. I chose the yellow. This I hope, answers the question once and for all, for the hundreds of people who have asked, "Why did you paint the frame yellow?"

All of the necessary improvements were made to the liner. I bought and shaved new tires, cost: $1,000, new fire bottles, cost $1,000. I overhauled the engines, lots of polish, I wanted this one to be pretty. The blower was sent off to Hampton Blower Works. The blower had to be overhauled, as it had taken in a big gulp of salt when Stu crashed it the year before. Hampton tightened the blower up by placing V shaped teflon strips in the rotors, and the rotors and blower housing were anodized to run fuel. The blower was returned with a price tag of $450. The Hilborn fuel system I had built from various parts, was sent off to be flowed, and the pump overhauled. Another $400 spent.

I reassembled the engines, and finished making the liner ready, decals and all.

Several backfires through the blower were experienced when I fired the liner. Two things were causing this. One, the injector flow job proved to be a waste of money. In order to get it to run properly I changed pill sizes, pressures and so on. The set up used wasn't even close to the recommended set up given to me by Hilborn. I was running 50% nitro, and that's what they flowed it for. I finally ironed out the fuel problem. It was starting good, no backfires, and the engine response was really scary when I wicked it.

I knew the local diesel shop had a dyno, so I took the liner over there to see if I could use it. It was in it's own room, with huge rollers placed in the floor. The men in the shop were quite interested in what I had created, and all five of them stopped what they were doing to spend the rest of their day on the dyno at no cost to me.

The only problem I found using the wheel driven dyno, was traction, but by piling all the guys who had come from blocks around onto the liner, (when you fire the liner on 50% nitro, it does draw a crowd) I was able to pull 336 hp out of those 50 year old push rod Vincents. I wish Phil Irving and Phil Vincent had been there.

I went back to the shop to fix a few oil leaks and tighten up a few bolts. I thought I would fire it one more time before Mid Ohio.

Also at that time I hadn't quite finished building the new salt trailer. It has four wheels, and straddles the liner setting on the ground. The liner is then lifted with come alongs, and wheel supports are swung into place to support the liner as it's being lowered onto the trailer. It works great. One of my few designs that worked the first time as expected, since I first began the project.

I fired the bike, and brought it to 6500 rpm a couple of times, then it happened. At about 4000 rpm the engines came to an abrupt halt. This was to be, as it turned out, a major problem. I found that the nut had come loose on the rear engine main bearing support sleeve. I had made it out of steel, which was a modification to strengthen the primary side main bearing bore. The nut had walked it's way out, and jammed against the double sprocket in the primary drive train, thereby locking the engine solid. The nut was put back on and both front and rear nuts were welded, as this was not something that would ever require disassembly. The primary drive and cover was reassembled, and after a lot of turning over, the engines were fired. It just didn't want to start. When it finally did start, yellow flame belched from the exhaust on the front engine--lots of vibration. Something major was wrong.

I pulled the engines, and completely disassembled them. The sudden stopping of the engines at 4000 rpm, where the engines were developing a lot of kinetic energy in the flywheels, had caused that energy to go somewhere--and somewhere it did, ripping both main shafts out of their flywheel bores. Now what to do? I knew at this point I couldn't do it alone, there was no time.

I called Sid Biberman, who had seen the liner when he visited my shop in 1997, and asked for help. Without hesitation he said, "Send me the cranks, and I'll have Bill Jean fix them and get them back to you as soon as possible." I sent the cranks, Sid called Bill Jean, and in less than 10 days I had two cranks back in my shop, and was reassembling the engines. Talk about turn around time!

I remember working 24 hours straight through, finishing up around 7 o'clock in the morning. I was dead tired, but just had to hear it run, so I fired it up. It really sounded good. Before hitting the sack I told the wife that the trip to Mid Ohio was off, that I didn't have one ounce of energy left to make the trip. However, I woke up about noon feeling rested, so I changed my plans. I really wanted to go to Mid Ohio. After all, I had promised I would be there, and the Vincent Club that was putting on the show had already told everyone that I would be there. The bike was loaded, and I arrived about 3 o'clock in the morning of the last day of the meet. I parked by the Vincent tent and slept in the truck.

I awoke about 7 am to what turned out to be a great day. Many Vincent people were there. A couple of guys were there with Vincents I had restored for them. Dave Matson was there. Sid Biberman was there, selling his new book. There were about 150 people standing around, most of whom had never seen the liner before, so I gave them a quick show and tell, and afterward fired up the bike. The noise was thunderous. After a couple of run ups the beast was silenced by turning off the ignition switch. A big applause came from the crowd. They liked what they heard. I started the bike eight more times that day. The fuel system was dialed in perfectly. I held out my hat to raise a little money for the upcoming trip to Bonneville. Somer Hooker threw in $150 to start it off. I think I raised about $900 that day for the project.

Back at Joplin I loaded up everything for Bonneville, tent and all. The only problem with the bike was oil leaks. The engines had been assembled hurriedly, and they were leaking quite badly between the cases, but there was no time left to disassemble the engines again, and fix the leaks. I was just going to have to live with it and keep the thing wiped down.

About that time I received a phone call from Dan Smith. I didn't remember who he was at first, but after a brief conversation a bell rang, and I remembered that he had come down from Canada with three other guys, and had helped the year before. He wanted to know if the liner was going to run in 1998. I said I'd taken off from my restoration business the entire year, built a new liner, and it would be there. He asked if I'd like help. I said sure. Dave Breeden and a couple of other guys had bailed out of the project for financial reasons. Keep in mind all the pit crews have gotten to the salt on their own nickel from the conception of the project to this day, except for Stu Rogers, who was paid to ride the liner, and the two crew members he brought over from England. Anyway, Dan said he would be there to help in any way he could, and that he would also bring along Ron Peers, John MacDougall, and Robert Watson.

We were set to go to Bonneville again. The caravan was formed for the 1400 mile trek to the salt, and for the first time, we would arrive there the day before tech. I was to lead, with Larry and Kim following. Kim had just designed new "T" shirts and caps for the pit crew, with lots of extras to sell, paying for them out of her own money. It was the 50th anniversary of Bonneville salt racing; a lot of people were sure to be there.

As had happened in the past, the weather when we arrived was not on our side. We went to the salt from Wendover to find out what was going on, and were told that nobody would be allowed on the salt to set up their pits. So we waited in Wendover to see what the next day would bring. Black Lightning was parked outside the motel. Pretty soon everyone started to show up. The Vancouver bunch, and the San Diego bunch arrived. Others I recall dropping by to say hello, and to do a bit of bench racing, were Ron Vane, Marty Dickerson, and Dave Matson. This made my day bearable, and took my mind off the anxiety I was feeling in getting on with the 1998 attempt. I was about to find out if my one year of hard labor was going to capture that ever so elusive world record.

The next day we were allowed on the salt. We set up the pit and the routine began, getting the bike teched, getting the pilots to the meeting, and so on. Several things came out of tech that are worthwhile mentioning. The most important being that, because the streamliner was laid over the year before by Stu Rogers, the scrutineers wanted to put the liner through handling observation by BNI staff observers. They wanted to observe 125 mph, 150 mph, 200 mph runs. Also the pilot, Don Angel, had to be observed for licensing purposes. The plan was to let Don Angel take the liner through it's paces to get the liner qualified at the 200 mph. Then the ride would be turned over to Don Vesco for the record runs. Don Vesco was allowed to climb into anything on the salt and go as fast as he thought safe.

Some padding around the helmet, and a different way to safety wire the axle nuts, would be required, and the balance of the liner had to be corrected. The tech inspection was not completed until about noon on the third day of the meet. The next thing was an observed tow up with Don Angel in the cockpit. We found a place, but it was really wet from the rains the night before. Four tow ups were made getting him used to the liner. On the third tow up, a disaster almost occurred, which would have ended the 1998 attempt. At the end of the salt where we were towing, there was a white Buell H.D. on it's stand, just sitting there, with nobody around. Don didn't see it until the very last moment that it took to miss the thing. He steered the front wheel of the streamliner to the left, hitting it's stops. The liner collapsed on it's right skid, went on it's side, and slid by the Harley, barely missing it by inches. Nothing was hurt, it only skinned some of the decals and a little paint off. When we got back to the pits, I increased the pressure to 300 pounds, to eliminate premature skid collapse.

The rest of the day was spent fighting oil leaks. Don Angel spent a lot of time talking to Don Vesco, to get pointers on how to ride a streamliner. The liner was fired a couple of times experiencing minor backfires through the blower, nothing serious. This is when I discovered I'd left my entire tuning kit on the work bench in Joplin--all the pills, can, springs, nozzles, and so on. This wasn't good. I'd just have to make do.

The fuel tank had 35 % nitro in it, as the first run was to be kept at 125 mph, a low gear run at just above idle. We brought Black Lightning to the line on the fourth day of the meet in the morning. Don Angel made the run, and for the first time the liner made it to the end of the track. He had left the skids down on that run, speed being somewhere just over a ton. The liner was brought back to the pits.

I had assigned Robert Watson to take care of the parachutes, after I schooled him as to how they were to be loaded. Dan Smith was to take care of the oil changes. Don Angel was pulling the plugs. Ron Peers was taking care of the front end and tires. Sonny was lowering the gear. John MacDougall and Larry Feece were doing the cockpit things, and I was out looking to borrow some bigger pills, as the engines were running real fat. I couldn't find any pills the right size, so 50% nitro went into the tank to lean out the rich motors. After all was ready, it was back to the line for the 150 mph run. The wind was up, and so we waited until it was determined safe to make a run. The wind died down finally, so Don fired the engines. At that time all controls were inside the cockpit, including the start button. He pushed in the clutch and found no resistance in the pedal. Motors were shut down, and the pants were taken off to find out what the gremlin was. It was found that the 1/4 " stock Vincent clutch push rod was not up to the task to release the now 1500 pound spring pressure, which the new A.R.T. clutch had. The only test in actual running condition had been Stu Rogers' run the year before, and Don Angel's run earlier that morning. The clutch cover was removed, the clutch rod pulled, and found to be usable in this emergency, but it had to have a design change or something--perhaps a harder ball bearing, as the bearing had melted and welded itself to the shaft. I adjusted the clutch, knowing it would only be good for one run. With everything buttoned up, the run was made all the way to the end again, running 151 mph at the 2 1/4 mile, 149 mph at the 4 mile, 148 mph at the 5 mile and 150 mph out the back door. The run had been made with the skids down, still in low gear.

Black Lightning was performing very well indeed.

Back to the pits. The liner was prepped for the next run, lots of nitro in the oil. The thing was leaking oil like a sieve. Dan did what he could to stop the oil leaks, and I took off again to find some larger pills. I found what I needed this time, and leaned the puppy out some more. The day ended with high expectations for the third run the next morning. I remember Sonny Angel saying, "I've made over 30 runs on the salt trying to get to 150 mph, and my brother, after only two runs, went 151 mph! Life just isn't fair." He laughed.

Don took the timing slip to the licensing official and was signed off to proceed to the next plateau. They waived the 175 mph, saying, "For his next run, keep it under 200 mph." Don had reported the air speed indicator on his 150 mph run was spot on. All in all it had been a good day.

We arrived the next morning, the fifth day of the meet. The liner was prepped for the run, and taken to the line. I knew I was making some serious power, over 300 hp on the 50% nitro load. My only concern was the Surtees 5 speed transmission. As Don Vesco had pointed out to me on several occasions, "The transmission will never hold the power of two blown Vincents." He had experienced transmission failure no less than 7 times with his 318 mph record breaking Kawasaki double streamliner. Oh well, nothing I could do about that now. At least I had solved the clutch problem. It was putting horse power to the salt without any signs of slippage whatsoever.

Before the run began, Don Angel said the observer told him that he wanted the skids to be raised on this run. I didn't know this happened. I had earlier told Don to make the run with the skids down. This confusion caused the liner to crash at 150 mph at about the five mile mark.

Here's what happened. While Don was being towed up to speed, he veered to the left of the tow vehicle. When he hit the tow release, the liner came off it's right skid and shipped violently to the left skid. The pendulum on the emergency roll over switch for parachute deployment swung, making the electrical contact which deployed the high speed chute. The run proceeded, Don not realizing the chute was out. He reported later the engines would go to 6500 rpm anytime he asked them to, but the liner seemed sluggish in it's acceleration. The liner at the 2 1/4 mark was running 148 mph with the high speed chute deployed. Don, wanting to make the 200 mph mark this run, commenced to go through the gears. It was a manual hand shift that year, 2nd 6500 rpm, 3rd 6500 rpm. The air speed indicator was showing speeds between 145 mph to 155 mph. He later reported, "I was trying my best, but it just wouldn't go any faster." He had "hit the wall", where the aerodynamic wind drag becomes greater than the rear tire to salt friction coefficient.

You could have 1,000 hp and it wouldn't go any faster. All that happens is that the tire spins faster, breaking traction, and rooster tails salt off the rear tire.

Don crossed the five mile mark with the rear tire spinning at a speed of 145 mph. The cross winds, and a later determining factor, i.e., the chute tether being 120 feet in length--too long, was causing the parachute to dance behind the liner a good 30 feet from side to side, probably 25 feet in the air. Don raised the skids as the observer had requested, and the liner went immediately onto it's side, rolling and tumbling, and at one point the entire liner was five feet off the ground, as shown on the television network, Speed Vision. They were covering the liner that year. The crash was horrific, much worse than Stu Rogers' crash the year before. Again I was in the chase vehicle, and hurried to the crash site. By the time I got there Don was out of the liner, and was being attended to by the rescue crew.

Don said he was a bit shaken but all right. I saw that he had a bleeding leg, and a large knot on the top of his foot, but nothing broken, and he was alive and breathing. I gave a sigh of relief--he was an old friend.

We gathered up the debris from the crash. Robert Watson and Ron Peers wrestled with the liner, getting it on it's wheels, or I should say wheel. The front axle had been sheered on both sides from the crash. I was told to take the liner to impound. There the officials looked the streamliner over. The things that had to be done before running the liner again, were recorded in the liner log book, which included magnafluxing frame, and analysis of front axle fractures. New tires would be required and so on.

Back at the pits I discussed with Don Vesco why the parachutes had danced around, and also talked to Don Angel to get as much information as possible from him while it was still fresh in his mind.

Ron Vane came over and slipped me $100. He has been a real contributor to the project from day one. Goodbyes were said, and thanks were given to everyone for all the hard work. I vowed to return. The battle might have been lost, but the war was far from over. I headed back home to regroup for next year's attack on the record.