Events: Racing

‘Champing at the bit’

Guy Martin & land speed: one in a million

It takes a special kind of human to even seriously consider travelling inches above the ground at 377mph.

To actually do it you’ve got to be either crazy or superhuman. Guy Martin, by his own admission, is neither.

But Matt Markstaller, the engineering genius behind Triumph’s imminent land speed record bid, is optimistic the motorsport legend has the right mix ‘to be the guy’.

“It’s the most challenging thing he has ever done. It’s probably only one in a million people who would do this and would be capable of doing it,” said Matt.

With testing well advanced ahead of August’s attempt, Matt hailed the Triumph Infor Rocket Streamliner as ‘aerodynamically, as good as it gets’. Guy has the messianic look in his eyes of a man determined to power his way into the history books as he coos over the Triumph machine like a kid in a sweet shop.

But he is aware of the fact that he will become the latest in a long line of pilots vying to cross the iconic Bonneville Salt Flats at speed that would paralyse most mere mortals.

Indeed, much has changed in the 50 years since Bob Leppan rattled and rolled across the harsh and unforgiving Utah white-out.

Technology has raced ahead, putting more emphasis on construction, aerodynamics and engine than on the human spirit needed to even consider the challenge. But it’s still a mental mountain to climb.

Most riders will have had a moment in time where the comfort zone gets kicked into the long grass. They’re called the ‘what if’ milliseconds.

They might happen, infrequently, as we push our Speed Triple down an unfamiliar road, deliciously unsure what’s around the next bend.

Usually we click back into safe mode and continue on our way, simultaneously delighted and freaked at the thoughts we had seconds earlier.

But there are no bends, no hiding places for the rare breed of men, like Guy Martin, who continuously strive to stretch the limits to be the fastest in history on two wheels.

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We’d all secretly love a shot at it, but it takes a unique and yes, utterly driven, type – one for whom fear is fuel – to go the whole way.

Bob Leppan, who in 1965 set a record of 212mph in the Triumph-powered Gyronaut X-1, admitted: “You cannot be a normal person to be doing this.” A year later he conquered the flat White Everest of Bonneville Salt Flats once more, upping the record to 245mph and proving that he was anything but normal.

The Gyronaut was the first time streamlining in conjunction with Triumph’s groundbreaking technology had started to break through the numbers, thanks to body designer Alex Tremulis.

But despite inbuilt ‘I could do that’ preconceptions, it takes a rare breed to push the limits and stare unblinking into the eyes of oblivion. So why even try?

Leppan explained: “If you’re not prepared to lay it all on the line, it isn’t what you should be doing. You have to be a little bit over the edge. When things are correct, it is a great ride, but when things don’t go well, it’s absolutely terrifying. On my second run I thought ‘if I’m going to crash it, I’m really going to crash it. This is it!’ Of course there’s fear, but you have to work your way past the fear.”

It takes guts and incredible courage to strap yourself into such a tight space just inches off the ground

Bob Leppan

Unhinged or not, racers with little in common but a desire to go quicker have banded together to support each other in their quest to be the world’s fastest in conditions offering no traction on an 11-mile stretch of Utah salt desert.

It’s motorsport in its purest form, where human strength and frailty sit at the same table as ingenuity, resource and determination to cheat the elements… and fate.

Leppan’s inbuilt spark would see him return in 1970, after years of modifications, for another run, this time with engines tuned to run on straight alcohol. He recorded 264mph until the front suspension disintegrated. He fought to straighten the veering from inside his 2ft diameter aluminium tube and was rushed to hospital, where doctors successfully saved his arm. He still bears the scars as a badge of honour.

“It takes guts and incredible courage to strap yourself into such a tight space just inches off the ground. Remember, 300mph on a track feels like the equivalent of 700mph in a car. You have to have a ‘no one will die today, attitude,” he said.

For pioneers like Texan Johnny Allen, who took the aerodynamic glass-fibre on metal framed Streamliner to 214.40mph in 1956, the fear of the unknown was an added factor.

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His record-breaking run in the Triumph-powered, methanol-fuelled motorcycle was to kick-start a land speed precedent, which, to the end of last year, saw Triumph-branded bikes hold 38 current AMA National class speed records and four FIM World Records.

Equally important from our perspective is that his achievement led to the classic 1959 Bonneville being named as a lasting tribute to the team’s efforts, its latest iteration, this year’s five new Bonnevilles.

Little has been recorded of how Allen felt as he cut through the salt at approaching a third of the speed of sound – guys didn’t speak of their feelings way back when – but throw forward more than half a century and Guy Martin is well aware he’s following in the tyre tracks of giants.

And in his own words ‘he’s champing at the bit’.