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BUB 7 STREAMLINER LIVES--Rebuilding The Perfect Day

Inside the Rebuild of the BUB 7 Streamliner, as the Race for 400 mph Continues

Story and Photos by Jean Turner
11/19/2019


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Denis Manning and crew prepare the BUB 7 streamliner for a run at Lake Gairdner 2018.
Denis Manning and crew prepare the BUB 7 streamliner for a run at Lake Gairdner 2018.



“I’m still hungry, but I’m tired of chewing,” Denis Manning said with a laugh. The 73-year-old always seems to have the perfect one-liner to illustrate a point—in this case, his undying passion for building the world’s fastest motorcycle streamliner. “I knew when I was 15 years old that this was what I wanted to do,” Manning said. “And now, 55 years later!”

Dawn at Lake Gairdner—zero wind at mile zero. It’s a long road to get back to this moment.
Dawn at Lake Gairdner—zero wind at mile zero. It’s a long road to get back to this moment.



Fifty-seven years later, to be exact, the perfect moment was upon him and the Team 7 Racing crew on the salt of Lake Gairdner, Australia, at the 2018 World Speed Trials Australia meet. It was the final day of the meet, dawn was breaking and wind was at zero. It was the day the team and rider Valerie Thompson had been waiting for. But what was the most hopeful moment of the week quickly turned into a disaster when the BUB 7 Streamliner went into a spectacular wreck at 363 mph with Thompson on board. Much to everyone’s relief, Thompson was uninjured in the crash, but the damage to the machine was severe.

Valerie Thompson takes it all in the morning of the fateful crash in Australia.
Valerie Thompson takes it all in the morning of the fateful crash in Australia.



Wreckage was strewn out over a mile on the salt, and by all indications, the dream was over. Aside from the validating the safety of Denis Manning’s streamliner design, he and the Team 7 Racing crew were left with little solace. As they surveyed the damage and tried to figure out what went wrong, they could only wonder how to pick up the pieces after such a devastating wreck. How do you keep moving forward? Or more importantly, do you keep moving forward?

Even with a career’s worth of accomplishments to her credit, Valerie Thompson is entirely focused on what she has yet to accomplish.
Even with a career’s worth of accomplishments to her credit, Valerie Thompson is entirely focused on what she has yet to accomplish.



The thought of going back to a ground-up rebuild of his BUB 7 streamliner left Denis Manning at a loss. “I’m not kidding myself,” Manning said as the mangled BUB 7 streamliner was being wheeled into the container at Lake Gairdner. “I’m getting advanced age and so the question is, can I do it again? And the sad answer right now is, I don’t know. I’m tired, I hurt… but I still have that spirit in me. I still want it. Give me a couple months on my ranch at home and let’s see.”

Thompson studies the crash site in Australia.
Thompson studies the crash site in Australia.



For Thompson, it was a much easier question to answer: she wanted more than anything to get back in the cockpit and deliver a win for her team. “I’ll find a way. We’ll find a way,” Thompson said a month after the crash. “We’re right there; it’s at our fingertips. We just need a perfect world and a perfect day.”

The carbon-kevlar monocoque chassis of the BUB 7 streamliner held up remarkably well in the 363-mph crash.
The carbon-kevlar monocoque chassis of the BUB 7 streamliner held up remarkably well in the 363-mph crash.




Following a thorough post-mortem from the ill-fated run, Manning, John Jans and Team 7 Racing announced months later that they were going to rebuild. The good news is they didn’t need to go back to the drawing board—just back to the shop. They came away from the wreck at Lake Gairdner knowing one thing for sure, “The design worked,” Manning said. They knew they had a winning model. Now it was time to rebuild it.

Denis Manning approaches the crash site at Lake Gairdner in 2018.
Denis Manning approaches the crash site at Lake Gairdner in 2018.



BACK TO THE STARTING LINE

The long trip back to the starting line begins with building an all-new carbon-Kevlar monocoque frame. Earlier this summer Manning invited me to visit his ranch in Grass Valley, California, where the carbon Kevlar was being laid for the first of the new bodywork. The new BUB 7 streamliner was officially underway.

The wreckage from the Australia crash reveals the inner contents of the carbon-composite-core construction.
The wreckage from the Australia crash reveals the inner contents of the carbon-composite-core construction.



“I want you to come see the shop for yourself so people don’t think we’re just some chicken-sh*t outfit,” Manning said over the phone. “Well… it is a chicken-sh*t outfit, but I’d still like you to see it.”

From there, I would head to Arizona to meet with Valerie Thompson in her Scottsdale home to spend some time with one of the fastest women in racing. Not only was there a physical need to rebuild after Australia 2018, but a mental one, as well.

Jans prepares to remove the vacuum pump that was pressing the carbon into the mold as it set.
Jans prepares to remove the vacuum pump that was pressing the carbon into the mold as it set.



BUILDING A CARBON COPY

Denis lives a humble means in rural Grass Valley; he drives a decades-old Toyota Camry, carries a flip phone that only sometimes receives text messages, and resides in a modest but comfortable home with his wife, Melissa. The outward appearance of the shop down the hill from his house is even more humble. You’d never suspect that a custom-built world-class racer and all its accessories lay inside.


Once inside the workshop, I began to notice things like one-of-a-kind machinery lying dormant under a shop rag, faded old photos of historic moments in land-speed racing, dusty trophies and memorabilia. It’s quiet and unassuming, oftentimes with no one more than goats to marvel at the innovative engineering happening inside, but make no mistake—Manning’s shop is a hub of world-class speed. His dedication to land-speed racing is palpable, and it was no surprise to hear they planned to rebuild.

Removing the sealant from the plastic sheet was a sticky job.
Removing the sealant from the plastic sheet was a sticky job.



John Jans and Archie Owens were already started on the day’s task when Denis and I arrived. I was just in time to see the first side panel emerge from the mold. The 21-foot BUB 7 streamliner molds sat side by side atop two long tables. The damaged bodywork from Australia was propped against the wall behind the tables—a fitting backdrop for staging the rebuild.

(L-R) Archie Owens, Denis Manning and John Jans peel back the layers to reveal the first panel of the new BUB 7 carbon bodywork.
(L-R) Archie Owens, Denis Manning and John Jans peel back the layers to reveal the first panel of the new BUB 7 carbon bodywork.



“You see the result of our ‘test,’” said Jans, pointing to the remains of the previous model. “What we learned that we’re not going to deviate too far from what we did last time. If this had been a fiberglass skin on a steel tube we’d still be picking up pieces in Australia.”



Jans described the formula for building the streamliner frame “it’s made from carbon and Kevlar composite core construction. That means that you have a skin of either carbon or Kevlar and a honeycomb core in the middle and another skin of carbon or Kevlar or combination of the two. The honeycomb is 98% air. It greatly increases the rigidity without adding any weight. When you bond these two skins together with a short rigid honeycomb, you’ve increased the rigidity exponentially. And it’s still very light.”

The nose piece is the only section made with Kevlar, for better intrusion resistance in the event of a tire blowout.
The nose piece is the only section made with Kevlar, for better intrusion resistance in the event of a tire blowout.



The nose is the only Kevlar section of the frame, which Jans explains. “Kevlar has a greater intrusion resistance. If the tire blows up, you have a better chance of containing it. Kevlar doesn’t shatter. That’s why they use it in bulletproof vests.”
After chatting for a bit about the construction process, I helped as the crew began to peel off the sealant and materials that were holding the carbon composite pressed into the mold.

The carbon was so effectively pressed into the mold that it wouldn’t release without some gentle coaxing.
The carbon was so effectively pressed into the mold that it wouldn’t release without some gentle coaxing.



It was sealed tighter than a snare drum by a plastic sheet with a vacuum applied to it that sucked the carbon into the mold as it set. Jans had to gently tap a wedge under the edge of side panel before it would dislodge. When it did, we lifted out the first completed side panel of the BUB 7 streamliner and placed it directly on a scale. The eight-foot section of the monocoque frame weighed in at a just 20 pounds.

The entire eight-foot section went straight from the mold onto the scale where it checked in at a scant 20 pounds.
The entire eight-foot section went straight from the mold onto the scale where it checked in at a scant 20 pounds.



The lightweight strength of the carbon composite is quite a thing to behold. Manning began to describe their learning process behind their carbon-working skills as he dug through some old samples. “Remember these, John? This was our carbon-fiber, Kevlar, fiberglass 101. We were trying to learn about the material,” Denis said as he handed me one of the carbon-composite samples. “Try to flex it.”



The sample, about the size of a paperback book, was as rigid as a bathroom tile and didn’t weigh a thing. Once they completed the original monocoque frame, Manning explained the method they came up with the measure its rigidity.

“We took the machine and we bolted it to the ground at the swingarm pivot. And at the front put in a pin on a swivel so what we could do was torsion this thing, coming off of that pin and putting lead weight 60 inches (5 feet) out. Like a big lever. By putting more and more weight on it, we could calculate the torsional rigidity.”

“That was the bare chassis,” John added. “Then we put the doors on and it increased the rigidity. And we put the tail on and it increased the rigidity. We put the canopy on and it had a small but measurable effect on the rigidity of the whole structure. So all these pieces worked together. They’re all stressed components.”

Over their previous steel-tube streamliner model, the carbon monocoque chassis was 40% stronger, while also going from 800 pounds down to a svelte 260 pounds.

“We achieved the goal of increasing the strength and reducing the weight dramatically,” Jans explained. “I would never, under any circumstances, consider building a steel-tube chassis for anything. This stuff works too good.”
 
 
“That’s kind of the nature of this whole project, just doing stuff we’re not qualified to do. So far it’s worked out real well.” – John Jans 
 

So effective was the structure of the BUB 7 streamliner, it did more than protect Thompson in the crash. Aside from a bent swingarm, the engine and components were unscathed in the crash, leaving only the monocoque chassis to be rebuilt.

Just as important as the material is the shape of the BUB 7 streamliner. Like all aspects of Manning’s lifelong passion, there’s an intricate story behind that as well. Upon discovering that their previous steel-tube streamliner design was hitting an aerodynamic wall at 283 miles per hour, Manning knew he needed a new shape.

“We found out that at that speed, the nose was diving into the ground and the tail was coming off the ground,” Manning explained. “That’s when we had this come-to-Jesus with Joe [Harralson, mechanical engineer and team consultant]. He said it’s gotta be slipperier, it’s gotta be lighter, and you gotta make more horsepower. It sent me on a chase to find an aerodynamic shape that was better than our first shape.”

The svelte shape of the BUB 7 streamliner is inspired by the Coho salmon. “Fish know more than we do,” says Denis Manning.
The svelte shape of the BUB 7 streamliner is inspired by the Coho salmon. “Fish know more than we do,” says Denis Manning.



Manning found his inspiration in an unlikely place—underwater.

“I saw a program on 60 minutes and they were talking about salmon going up the Colombia River, and how efficient they were in the water.”

Manning consulted an ichthyologist and found out that salmon, for a short distance, could go up to 50 miles per hour underwater. “Well, that’s 400 mph in air,” said Manning, “Water to air is an 8:1 scale, so at atmospheric pressure of 14.7 psi (at sea level), going 400 mph is the equivalent of going 50 mph underwater. Imagine trying to design a motorcycle that could be stable going 50 mph underwater and you start to see the aerodynamic/hydrodynamic challenge.”

Using the Coho salmon as a model of hydrodynamic efficiency, Manning and Jans came up with a shape that was “half fish and half motorcycle,” and set out to create a mold.
“We sculpted two male halves of this shape.”
Out of what? (… I had to ask.)

Manning burst out laughing as John answered my question.
“Styrofoam, fiberglass, beer cans, there was some cow sh*t in there, just to fill in some gaps,” Jans said with a chuckle. “Then we ordered about 27 gallons of Bondo. It got to the point where we would go to the body shop and buy more Bondo and the guys would say ‘Do you guys know what you’re doing?’ We were going through so much Bondo it was crazy, because that isn’t normally how you do it, but we didn’t know that.”

Their self-deprecating tales of unorthodox techniques are entertaining, but they belie the true nature of the craftsmanship that takes place in Manning’s shop. Even as first-timers using their own peculiar method, they managed to achieve their goal of creating a mold, then going on to build with carbon, guided by little more than a few books on the topic.

“That’s kind of the nature of this whole thing,” said Jans, “doing stuff we’re not qualified to do. We just do it. So far it’s worked out real well.”

How well did the mold work out? Manning took the finished BUB 7 streamliner to a wind tunnel where they found out the coefficient of drag—0.08. To put that in perspective, a NASCAR is around 0.45.
“Don Tilley was there when they announced it. He’s a NASCAR guy. And he said ‘You boys better check and see if that f***er’s still in there!’” Manning said with a laugh. “Point zero eight! It takes nothing to make it go through the air.

“Fish know more than we do.”

With the first of the new carbon and Kevlar composite bodywork now complete, the team is well on their way to rebuilding a proven machine. “This is a premier endeavor,” said Manning. “It’s crazy, you work for 20-some years, for… nine seconds? That’s how long it takes to go through the mile. If we can get there in under nine seconds, it’ll be a happy day.”



A HARD RESOLVE

The flight from Sacramento to Phoenix was a passage into a different world. After being dropped off in Denis’ Camry, I was picked up by Thompson in her Bentley sedan. Arriving at her Paradise Valley home was another stark contrast, the sprawling estate, home to her husband Ray Garcia and their three Maltese pups, Bentley, Speedy and Britt, looking more like a resort than a cozy home for two.


She gave me the grand tour of her beautiful Spanish-style home, which I was happy to successfully navigate without needing a GPS. Thompson’s office is adorned with all her racing accomplishments. A bookshelf filled with trophies and glittering memorabilia tells the story of her career, which started with drag racing and graduated to land-speed racing.
 
“I told my husband I’d retire at 200 [mph], because we were trying for 200 on that BMW in my garage. And when the 300 opportunity came up, I said, ‘Yeah, 300 I’ll retire, sweetheart.’ And now it’s 400!” Thompson said with a laugh. (The following week Thompson was revealed to be the new driver for the Target 550 streamliner, so now it’s 550 mph.)

With eight land-speed records (the first two with 5-Ball Racing Bikes built by the Bikernet team in 2006 and 2007), a 300-mph club membership and touted as the world’s fastest woman on a motorcycle, America’s “Queen of Speed” has plenty to hang her hat on. But you wouldn’t know it from the weight of the world currently on her shoulders. Her focus is not on what she has done, but fixed entirely on what she has yet to do. After coming home from Australia in March 2018, she’s had plenty of time to contemplate everything that happened at Lake Gairdner.

“You see that bike and it’s like, ‘Ugh… I did that,’” Valerie said with a sigh. When the topic of the crash comes up, there’s a somber shift in Thompson’s typically upbeat tone. More than a year later, her memory of the crash is still hazy, which makes it even more difficult to reconcile.

“All I remember was skidding,” said Thompson. “I had no idea with all the flips and turns. I didn’t even know until I got back to the hotel and saw it on video. I said, ‘I did that?’ I don’t remember any of it.


“I remember specifically thinking, ‘Oh… wow! It’s going to be a great ride! Let’s stay focused.’ And after that, the crash occurred and so that was…” Valerie fell silent.

“We were on a hell of a record. Just to go that fast was the most incredible thing.”

“I want to be released of my duty. But I need to conquer my duty first. Because I’m going to bring home the record for Denis Manning one way or another.” – Valerie Thompson
 
 The trauma of the crash was compounded by an even worse trauma when she returned home. Thompson’s mother passed away a few short weeks later.


“The process that I went through from being on that high and then coming home and facing that… When she finally let go, that was just… the end. I didn’t know how to process it,” said Thompson. “I didn’t know what to say, who to talk about it with, so I just kept it all to myself. I don’t share too much with Denis or with any of the team about exactly what I went through with all that.”

Visits with two doctors revealed Thompson was suffering from PTSD—a sizeable mental hole from which she had to pull herself out, without relying on the person she always turned to.
“I have lots of support. But finding that right one to support you and talk through things, that person was always my mom. It really hurt. She was my rock. I could tell her anything. But I didn’t have her to talk about it with.


“But I am taking a lot of steps into healing myself, to not keep blaming myself for what if I could have done this better, what if I could have done that… you know, the what-ifs. It was a heavy burden on me.”

Thompson’s path to mental healing has also involved a lot of time in the gym.


“I’m just building my strength and it’s going to build my confidence,” she said. “That’s what I think I need to bring to the table. Step up my game, match my performance of my body and my mind to the performance of the race bike. That is my cure to get myself back in that seat.”

While some might hesitate to get back in the saddle after such an intense wreck, the thought of getting back into the cockpit of the BUB 7 streamliner is Thompson’s driving force. Her dedication to the team is the new core of her motivation.
“Now it’s for the team. Where before, it was like, I want the record,” Thompson said. “I want to be the fastest. I want to win it for the team. I think that’s the most important part of this whole thing. I want to give back. And give Denis Manning back the title of being the world’s fastest again. He is all about that world record. And if he didn’t believe I could do it, he wouldn’t put me in it. It’s not for the money, it’s not for the fame. He’s got his name on the line. This is our time. These are going to be our days ahead.”

Thompson has a lot to hang her hat on, but won’t rest until she delivers Manning a new world record.
Thompson has a lot to hang her hat on, but won’t rest until she delivers Manning a new world record.



It’s moments like these when her confidence is unmistakable. Despite hearing her talk about the challenges of the past year, her resolve shines through like it never left. “I always knew I was going to be in Denis Manning’s streamliner one day,” Thompson continued. “When I was watching Chris Carr in 2007, I wanted to be in that seat. I watched and studied Chris’ every move.”

A bonus for Thompson is a small modification that will be made to the new BUB 7 streamliner. The new seat, previously molded for Chris Carr, will be molded for her.

?“We’re going to fit the seat to me. Now instead of racing in Chris Carr’s seat, I’m racing in Valerie Thompson’s seat! That’s a feather in my cap!” she said with a laugh.

The road back to the start line will no doubt still be littered with mental hurdles and emotional confrontation along the way, such as the release of the documentary film Rockets and Titans that has chronicled the team’s efforts. I asked Valerie what it was going to be like to watch the movie and see the drama unfold on the screen.

The wall in Valerie’s office tells quite a story.
The wall in Valerie’s office tells quite a story.

 
“I don’t know. I feel emotional just thinking about that right now. I don’t want to relive it. I want to go to Australia with a clean piece of paper and a brand-new attitude of coming home with a world record!”

For Thompson, it’s all about looking ahead and being able to deliver a win for her team. “I can’t wait to be on the ground again [at Lake Gairdner] and see all the people, all the staff of the DLRA, because they treated us so wonderful. But I don’t know what that feeling will be like. I don’t know what that fear will be like until we get a little closer time for it.”


But one thing is clear in Thompson’s mind, a thought she shares with the rest of the Team 7 Racing crew. All the ingredients are there, and all they need is the perfect day again. “It’s going to be our day. We have what it takes. It was there in Australia. It’s just sitting there waiting for us to grab it.”



WHY DO WE DO THIS?

In many ways, Denis Manning and Valerie Thompson couldn’t be more opposite. At the same time, they are two sides of the same coin, and that coin remains fixed on rebuilding and accomplishing their goal.

Through my visits with the team, I asked the same question of Manning and Thompson: “Was the decision to rebuild a difficult one?” The short answer—no.

While it might have been a simple decision, it hasn’t been an easy one. And another point became clear to me: this goal of regaining the land-speed world record is a burden—one that everyone, including Jans, longs to be relieved of. But the only way to be released from the task is by accomplishing it. The only way out is through.

“For me, it was very difficult,” said Jans. “My intent was to go to Australia, go really fast, and go whoopie! I’m f***ing done! But I couldn’t leave it in the shape it was in. I want to go until we can’t go any faster. Then I’m done.”


Finding the limit of the machine is the goal, and whether or not that limit is beyond 400 mph seems almost irrelevant. (Though considering they had reached 328 mph on a “bad run” running on only three cylinders and in third gear in Australia strongly suggests it will be.) The current record sits at 376, and going beyond that to the limit of the BUB 7 streamliner is the aim.

“We don’t have to be the first motorcycle to go 400 mph,” said Thompson. “But we have to be the next motorcycle to break the record. I’ll squeeze as much out as I can. I won’t give up! I won’t back off the throttle! [laughs] But to get the record is the main focus here. Who’s going to go 400 someday? Somebody will. If that’s us, that’s great.”

With a sparkling touch to match her personality, Thompson proudly displays her latest Arai helmet.
With a sparkling touch to match her personality, Thompson proudly displays her latest Arai helmet.



Being within reach of the goal makes it even more impossible to walk away, especially since the team expected to be reveling in their victory at this point. “We really thought that we were going to be done with this,” said Thompson. “We thought that we could enjoy ourselves after all this hard work and move on. But our thoughts going forward, it’s very clear I can do it. And it’s very clear that I will do it. It’s just going to take me a little longer.

“I want to be released of my duty. But I need to conquer my duty first. Because I’m going to bring home the record for Denis Manning one way or another. I think Denis is so deserving of it. He’s gone through so much; he’s been on top of the world and he’s been on the bottom. He knows he’s got the rider, he knows he’s got the equipment, he’s got the crew and he knows it. He can taste it.”

As for Manning, it circles back to his simple adage; he can most certainly taste it after chewing for so many years. Only time will tell if and when he is finally able to savor that world-record bite.

###
If you would like to sponsor this team reach out me. I'll hook you up with the Number 7 crew: Bandit@Bikernet.com

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