Testing Is The Key To Success

With India’s Hero MotoCorp. resources and manpower, will Erik Buell Racing become a winner in World Superbike?

Geoff May race action shot

Although the idea of formal research, testing, and verification is now well established, it was not always so. Scurvy, a deficiency disease caused by inadequate intake of vitamin C, was a constant problem for the British Navy. Yet because there was no formal process of testing possible cures and adopting what worked, it would take 200 years for the simple solution, a daily dose of lime juice, to be adopted. Individual commanders repeatedly discovered this preventative but could not get it accepted by the Navy bureaucracy. As a result, during the Seven Years' War of 1756–1763, of the 185,000 men who served aboard Royal Navy ships in that war, 120,000 died of scurvy. So much for the Age of Enlightenment.

In the US in 1913, Naval cadets attended lectures by Columbia University’s Dr. Charles Lucke, who said to them, “When the practical man and the theorist combine their talents as…engineers, they set the world on fire.” His obvious message was that, while theory can guide us to new discoveries, their practical implementation must come from practical men.

As World War I chewed its way to its end, Britain's Air Board adopted a new static radial aircraft engine, the ABC "Dragonfly" designed by Granville Bradshaw. Facilities were put in place to produce thousands of these, but without the intensive testing essential to reliability. The engine was a disaster, for not only did its largely unfinned cylinder heads attain red heat in operation, its crankshaft chanced to be designed to operate at a major vibratory resonant frequency. If heat-driven detonation did not wreck the pistons first, the vibrating crank would break within 30 minutes of operation at rated power.

In fairness to Bradshaw, his skimpily finned cylinders were inspired by those of rotary engines, whose rapid whirling produced 250-foot-per-second airflow over their heads. On Bradshaw's static radial, there was only the aircraft's forward speed of perhaps 100 mph to push air through its fins. And at that time, crank vibration studies were in their infancy.

US aviation efforts in WWI are described in the book Wingless Eagles. Although millions of dollars were spent on US aircraft and engines for that war, none fought in the air. There was, in the words of Eugene Wilson (a Navy man who later became chairman of United Technologies Corp.), "a childlike faith in the magic of mass production." It was assumed that the methods of the auto industry could build a mighty air armada, but not one US-built engine or airplane saw combat.

Aaron Yates race action shot

In 1922, the US Navy had a standard 50-hour qualifying test that it would apply to aircraft engines it contemplated buying, but Admiral Moffett’s plans for a powerful carrier air force required a higher standard of reliability. An Army plane might dead-stick safely into the proverbial farmer’s field, but a Navy pilot with a “stopped prop” could not. The Navy’s Bu Aero contracted with Packard to push a new dirigible engine through a 300-hour test, whose theme was “run ’em, bust ’em, fix ’em, and run ’em again.” Similar work was going forward at the Army Air Development center at McCook Field, near Dayton, Ohio (this was the seed from which the giant Wright-Patterson AFB would grow). One of the dyno technicians at McCook was motorcycle dirt-tracker/hill-climber Maldwyn Jones.

When parts failed, even little stuff like nuts and bolts, the pieces went to metallurgy for complete analysis—a costly process. But it was often the only way to know how the failure had occurred. As knowledge accumulated, materials and design practices improved and so did engine reliability. McCook’s tested, proven air-cooled cylinder design powered Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 historic flight from Long Island to Paris.

In England, former rider Joe Craig was tasked with making Norton's factory entries win the TT. With the experience he had, he knew that "wizard design" could only take you so far. Norton's new ohc 500 lucked into a Senior TT win in 1927, but it desperately needed solid development. Craig began to make full-length dyno race simulations. He has written eloquently of the change in exhaust smell and engine character as light detonation gradually destroys the seal of an engine's top piston ring. He had previously experienced all this from the saddle, and now he documented the process in the test house. His constant testing may have diverted talent better occupied with new-product development, but it did result in rugged engines that could not only finish those three-hour events but could win again and again. Craig knew in detail what it took to make a big-end roller set go the distance, what could prevent main bearings from wallowing-out in the cases, and how much fin area was needed to control detonation when an engine ran for hours at peak power.

Norton also tested on the track. When Rex McCandless designed Norton’s new twin-loop racing chassis for 1950, the company tested it at the Montlhéry speed bowl in France, at the Motor Industries Research Association track in England, and on the TT course itself. It was testing that made those Nortons fast, not lore, heart, or “sweet numbers.” Only by eliminating what did not work could solutions be found.

Team Hero EBR pit box image

When you read the history of the TT races, many names appear only briefly. The great Jimmy Guthrie rode a New Hudson into second in the 1927 Senior TT, but the company’s sales could not provide the cash for the testing required to win again and again. It’s romantic and heart-warming when an underdog succeeds, but winning again and again requires testing that only an overdog can afford.

When Mr. Honda entered the motorcycle business, he followed the example of his wartime piston-ring research and employed the most talented engineers he could find, equipping them with up-to-date research and production equipment. In time, the result was a 2000-hour motorcycle-life test that would make sure Honda products kept buyers coming back again and again, not driving them to other brands by early failure. In the mass shakeout that took place in Japan in the '50s, the survivors were those with strong dealer networks and reliable product. The number of brands dropped from more than 200 to fewer than 10, of which just four survive to this day. Testing is the keystone of their success.

Computer analysis has reduced the amount of physical testing required today but cannot eliminate it. When will torsional vibration break the crankshaft? Is the cam drive stable? Or are there operating modes that will break its parts? Does reality agree with the computer models? Validation required!

The cost of testing determines who can afford to stay in the market. Over the years, we've seen little Bimota come and go, showing an attractive design, fading from the scene then bursting forth again with new funding and prototypes. They have pioneered important innovations but remain small, idea-rich, and cash-poor. It's a sad fact of industrial life, but I am happy to see Erik Buell's company ally itself with India's Hero MotoCorp., which has cashflow driven by mass sales. Don't despair at the EBR Superbikes being 25 mph down in top speed and four to five seconds off in lap time at Phillip Island. If Hero decides to make a winner of EBR, it has the engineers, prototype shops, and rows of test cells. Does it have the determination?

Geoff May race action shot #1

Aaron Yates race action shot.

Geoff May race action shot #2

Team Hero EBR pit box.