Gabriel Uttley plans to take his streamlined motorbike to Bonneville and smash the speed record.
The British bulldog
By day, Gabriel Uttley carefully adheres to the speed limit as a bus driver in the picturesque cathedral city of York in England. But the 50-year-old, who ferries old and disabled people around the city, is bidding to become the fastest man on two wheels in the United States next year. The current world-best speed of 360mph (579kph) was set by an American team, known as Ack Attack, last year, but Uttley's 30-man team is bidding to "blow the record out of the water" with his creation, Angelic Bulldog, and travel in excess of 400mph (644kph).
The record has been 13 years in the making and lends itself, surprisingly, to a life-threatening accident in 1991. Uttley, riding in his third Isle of Man Manx Grand Prix, was left on a life-support machine after a high-speed shunt in which he punctured a lung and broke nine bones in his body. "After that, I decided to live for the day," said Uttley, a keen bike rider from the age of 14 when he bought his first motorbike for £6 (Dh36) and rode it on the farm where he worked.
However, his record attempt did not properly surface until 1996, when the then teacher was approached by one of his students concerning a major school project, the essence of which was to put a Cosworth engine in a bike in a bid for the British land-speed record. In the end, the teacher-student collaboration did not quite come to fruition, although British engineering specialists MIRA got behind the project and allowed the team to spend five hours in their wind tunnel for free where the bike reached a theoretical speed of 238mph (383kph).
Thirteen years on, the project has taken many different twists and turns, with Uttley nearing completion of the design of the bike in question with which he aims to break the record, which will be the first time a British rider has held the record since 1937 if he is successful. The aim is to have a working model to test in the winter with Uttley, who doubles up as project manager and will ride the bike, bidding to break the record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, US, next August.
In the last year, the project has massively taken off, with Powertec engineering supplying the £25,000 (Dh150,000) engine required for the record attempt for free and other major donors having got on board. But Uttley is still looking for a frontline sponsor to enable him to give up his day job and focus on the project full-time. "Ideally, I'd like to be able to take 18 months off and focus on the project full-time, as it's quite a juggling act," he explained. "And we're not talking big money either, along the lines of the Bloodhound guys [the team aiming for the overall vehicle land-speed record] or something like. We're looking at about £500,000 (Dh3 million) for what would be a major record."
Uttley already has the backing of Bloodhound chief Richard Noble, who has offered the team building Angelic Bulldog his expertise and has agreed to pay to take some of the team to Vermuek Pan in South Africa to gain further expertise in December when Bloodhound tests there. Also on board as part of the team is John Getty, who made his name working on the Virgin Global Challenger Balloon and with Noble on Thrust SSC, which currently holds the outright land-speed record.
Angelic Bulldog - which got its name from one of Uttley's former pupils - is also attracting a raft of expertise from across the UK, ranging from fabrication specialists through to fluid-dynamic experts and graphic designers And Uttley explained: "There's some fantastic people now involved for what is some really cutting-edge engineering. We'll be using some aerospace technology, which is unlikely to be used elsewhere for a good 15 years, and there's plans for plasma plating on the metal, both of which are ground-breaking things.
"In the past, this record has only nudged forward slightly, but we plan to blow it out of the water and we know we have the set-up to do that." Uttley is remarkably confident, despite the fact that the fastest he has ever travelled is 195mph (312kph) at Bonneville itself. But he added, "We've had full simulations done that show we'll crack 400mph and hopefully exceed it. This record is a case of when, not if. And it's about time this became a British record once more. For a country renowned for its land-speed records, it's ludicrous it's been out of British hands for so long."
The bike itself is not a motorbike in the conventional sense but a streamlined rocket on two wheels. It will measure about 6.6m and will be powered by a 2.8L V8 dual Suzuki Hyabusa engine. It will use nitrous from second gear up until the measured mile when its own horsepower ought to be sufficient to break the record, according to Uttley. And after its record attempt it will finally come to a halt with twin parachutes being deployed from the rear and a potent rear disc brake.
While Noble's Bloodhound project is backed with multimillion pound finance, thanks in part to his past record successes, Uttley's has been to date done on a breadline budget. The project is based out of his home with experts working in different parts of the country. And while it may seem somewhat mad-capped initially, Uttley clearly has both the expertise and the passion to succeed. "Richard Noble himself told me that my passion and enthusiasm is what stands us out," said Uttley, "although I appreciate I could do with reining that in sometimes. While his is run with military precision, mine is probably not, but it all seems to be slotting into place. And people might think I'm mad but I rather prefer the term 'eccentric'."
One issue currently facing the team is that it currently only has wheels capable of travelling safely at speeds of 300mph, while Uttley, for whom safety is paramount as the rider, needs something to get up to 450mph to be on the safe side. He admits that safety is an issue in a record attempt that has had fatalities as recently as last year, much to the panic of his wife Angela. "I took her out to Bonneville last year to see the bike record attempts and, unfortunately, for the first time in a long time there was a fatality," he said, "so that shook her a bit. She's lighter than me and I tried to get her in the cockpit but she's having none of it so it's very much up to me.
"It will be completely safe and we'll leave no stone unturned in our quest for safety. For starters, our roll cage will be 25 per cent tougher than anything that's been built before and my wife seems happy now that I've proved this record can be done safely." Following next year's record attempt, Uttley hopes to take the Angelic Bulldog to schools and colleges across the UK to highlight the power of engineering in the UK, which he hopes will help lure a major sponsor.
"This is not just about the record," he said. "That brief moment of riding into the record books is a secondary factor. But hopefully this is for all the people that will have been affected by it - from my former pupils to the team currently working on it and the future pupils we'll be able to spread the message to. We've already taken the project to plenty of schools and there's been masses of interest."