Even Fonzie would've had trouble riding this one. Joe Harralson, a former professor of mechanical engineering at California State University, Sacramento, was a part of a team in 2009 that set a then-record for motorcycle speed at a staggering 367 miles per hour. And measuring in at 21 feet, the capsule-like body looked more like something out of 2001 than Easy Rider.
So how, you might ask, did Harralson get into this to begin with and how would you? "First, I'm a gearhead. I've always loved motorcycles." And second? He met Denis Manning, a motorcycle exhaust specialist. "Denis really felt these speeds could be reached," Harralson says. "I sat down literally at a drawing board and started making trial layouts of how you would package an engine that's big enough for a motorcycle engine but that fits into a minimal container. The frontal area of a motorcycle is critical so the engine has to fit in a small frontal area. And we didn't want any roll torque for the engine, making the motorcycle suddenly decelerating or accelerating."
Joe Harralson. Image: Mark Gardiner
But he had to keep on making it smaller. "Denis said we needed room for the frame … then the cross-section of the engine was further out so we needed it even smaller." Harralson was doing it with computations while the other, a self-taught designer, used intuition. And that, he says, is one of the key lessons to setting these kinds of records.
"You need to get with a great team," he says. "People who share the same vision but have different strengths to bring to the table. Denis and I have our own abilities but we both want to be record holders. Something like this isn't usually done alone."
When they finally emerged with the record years later, one thing was clear. This is for someone with a passion, not someone looking to make millions. But many of the greatest innovators had to make a choice between dreams and commerce. "It really is for that person who has to do it," he says. "When you see someone go close to 400 miles per hour in something, it just either gets you or it doesn't. I remember seeing a video of Edmund Hillary referring to when he said he had to climb Everest because it was there. But what he meant was that he didn't know why he had to do it—he just felt it."
FEA software was used to analyze many components of the motorcycle.
Still, even though this may not directly bring you wealth, the experience it gives an engineer can be potentially priceless, Harralson says. "There's so much computer modeling of the performance and finite element modeling of engine components," he says. "For us it was the elaborate chassis, or the experience we had making a carbon fiber honeycomb composite structure that no one ever did for a motorcycle. You learn to innovate in a whole new way … Or it's when we had the problem solving of showing something that could work in place of the roll bar for safety. I could definitely see this kind of work possibly getting a young engineer the right kind of attention."
As someone who was once an engineer for Mercury Marine and worked on the original Mercury V-6 from what he called "a blank sheet," Harralson still can't ignore that voice from within, the one that begs for greater power and movement. "We really only have money as a barrier … I think we're going to break 400 miles per hour. I have thoughts on how we'll do it and I want have that feeling of when we get it done!"
Eric Butterman is an independent writer.