“News of Rob”—it was always that, like pings from a satellite gone out of our orbit, sending snaps from other planets. The first news of Robin Tuluie reached our San Francisco café racer club—the Roadholders—in 1986, before we’d actually met him: some German kid with a Norton Commando, studying physics at the University of California, Berkeley, keeping secret his weekend vintage racing on his daily rider so Dad wouldn’t cut off his allowance.
We were sufficiently amused to dub him Rob the Roadholder, because of the Norton. I had a 1965 Atlas, other members had ’62 Atlases, and one had an 850 Commando in stylish white John Player bodywork. The club was proud of our egghead racer, even when he didn’t win, and sometimes crashed. He soon graduated, moved to the University of Texas at Austin, to earn his doctorate in astrophysics, and carried on racing with less crashing and more winning.
News of Rob included his fantastically successful home-built specials, and wins at Daytona. After finishing his doctorate and postdoctoral studies, news in the mid-1990s was that he’d taken a job at Polaris, developing the chassis for a new motorcycle to be called Victory.
Tuluie has had a spectacular career arc involving four Formula One car championships using later-banned systems, ongoing consultation with Ducati’s MotoGP effort and development work at Bentley—and it defies easy explanation. His family arrived in the United States from Stuttgart in 1982. (His father is Persian, if you’re puzzling over Tuluie.) He was a two-wheeled teenage hooligan in Germany, regularly busted for illegally hot-rodding his moped, and itched to ride a motorcycle. A summer tour of the UC Berkeley campus included a stop at TT Motors, the legendary shop owned by John Gallivan.
Having grown up with Germany’s strict TUV-motor-vehicle laws, he was amazed at the home-built cafe racers, bob-jobs, and choppers parked at this former gas station, and marveled: “You can ride these on the road? I’m moving here!”
Gallivan’s shop was where Tuluie bought his Norton Commando, once he’d started university. “I used to sneak out from my parents’ place early in the morning, ride my bicycle to Udo’s Auto Repair where my Norton was parked, and head up to Sears Point to race, taking off the license plate and lights,” he says. “I tried not to crash. My father didn’t like me riding a motorcycle but didn’t know about the racing—he didn’t find out until years later.
“Sears Point is the best and worst track to learn racing, because every corner is so difficult,” Tuluie continues. “When I raced at Laguna Seca, all the Roadholders came; I managed to get on the podium, and we had one hell of a party! I was the only racer sleeping in a tent on the infield. I was a student, working at a parking garage. I loved that time—it was simple and fun. Vintage car racing is still like that.”
It should be no surprise that he later built his own vintage racecar—which he calls the Menasco Pirate—using a 1920s aero engine of that name mounted to a Riley chassis with 1920s-style GP bodywork. It’s fantastic.
After Berkeley came masters and doctoral degrees at UT Austin, where he continued racing his Norton, until he built the Tul-Da Eccentric 500 in 1993. The Tul-Da was built around a Honda CR500 water-cooled two-stroke motocross engine, in a “tiny chrome-moly frame” that Tuluie built “with straight tubes from the headstock to the swingarm.” It was called the Eccentric “because it had lots of eccentric adjustments, from the steering-head angle to the swingarm pivot location because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
The geometry could be quickly modified for rake and squat, and he tuned the CR500 motor to road-race specs, its ports welded up and recut, with a nickel-carbide cylinder bore. He experimented with “the biggest carbs I could find—44 mm Lectrons” and handmade expansion chambers (running vertically between the swingarm and wheel) until the motor put out 75 hp. He laid up the carbon-fiber tank and seat by hand, which took a month but kept the weight to a ridiculously low 192 pounds dry: a flick knife on the track.
“You think it and it’s there,” he says.
Another Daytona victory, on his Norton, was particularly sweet. He’d been banned by the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association for a year, and in his first race back, he won.
“AHRMA pissed me off, and I told them what I thought about them in no uncertain terms,” Tuluie says. “And they suspended me.”
As a “welcome back,” he was gridded in 63rd position at Daytona. He ripped around the outside of the pack as riders bunched up tight on the inside, and was fifth after lap one, then drafted to the win on the last lap. AHRMA was displeased and insisted on tearing down his bike after the race even though no one had protested—and it was legal.
“The revenge was so lovely,” he says.
Tuluie was doing postdoctoral research on gravitation in the early 1990s when he got a meeting with Polaris in Roseau, Minnesota, which is closer to Winnipeg than Minneapolis.
“It’s freezing there, and in the spring it turns to mud,” he explains. “In the summer there are clouds of mosquitos, and in the fall the mud dries and makes this superfine dust that goes everywhere. There’s dust on the development workbenches. I thought, How can you do motorcycle development there?” Still, it was a remarkable first job in the motorcycle industry.
While working at Polaris, a racing snowmobile engine caught Tuluie’s eye: a 700cc two-stroke twin that became the basis for his most outrageous racer, the Tul-Aris (CW, March 2001). It was the first motorcycle to be simulated entirely by computer, and was finished in 1999.
“I built the Tul-Aris because I’d always wanted to ride a GP bike, but I quickly found out I wasn’t good enough to ride one,” he says. “The power was absolutely terrifying—the bike still makes more torque than any MotoGP bike, and it weighs only 270 pounds. It’s like a 250 with a really vicious GP motor.”
His next side project was a Supermoto racer around a Yamaha YZ450 motor, in his own modified chassis. He’d met Keith McCarty, head of Yamaha racing, and asked if he had a rider who’d campaign it. McCarty replied, “I’ve got two guys, but you have to decide: Eddie Lawson or Doug Henry.”
“I fell off my chair,” Tuluie says. “We decided it should be Doug because there’s so much motocross involved.”
Taking the Yamaha to a go-kart track to test was a revelation in several ways.
“After practice Doug said, ‘Wow, it’s got so much grip!’ The tires? ‘No, asphalt!’ He’d never ridden on pavement. He’d slam on both brakes and leave black streaks from both tires. He could drift both wheels in a full lock, and I was running data acquisition on the chassis, so we designed a custom shock linkage for the unusual loads.”
As usual, Tuluie’s team won races against factory teams with riders such as Ben Bostrom, Kevin Schwantz, and Jeremy McGrath.
While working at Polaris, Tuluie encountered MTS Systems in nearby Eden Prairie. MTS is as sexy an engineering firm as you’ll find, creator of the world’s largest driving simulator—a $70 million machine he helped design—and testing everything from motorcycle chassis to F1 cars to skyscrapers to space shuttles. Its seven-post hydraulic-ram simulators can replicate an entire F1 race using data retrieved from sensors, and can accurately predict lap-time changes from even minor chassis adjustments.
MTS is where Tuluie mastered the art of chassis design through data and simulation, leaving “eccentric” empirical methods behind him for good.
“I started in the vehicle dynamics group, which is where I learned my craft,” he says. “Some skyscrapers have a tuned mass damper, and the guy who invented it was working there, Neil Petersen, an old guy who was so cool. He’d sit down if I had a question and say, ‘Let’s figure it out,’ and he’d work out all the calculations on paper with me.”
One of the industry heavyweights Tuluie met at MTS was Bob Bell. “Bob is really good, we got along well, and he ended up as technical director at Renault F1. I visited Renault in the U.K. to improve a seven-post simulator, and Bob asked how I was doing.
“I said, ‘I’m getting a bit bored of hydraulic oil.’
“He said, ‘That’s good—I think I have a job for you.’
“‘I was thinking head of R&D.;’
“‘Yeah, that would be great!’ That was it: I moved to England.”
Tuluie brought one of Petersen’s ideas to F1: a tuned mass damper for a car.
“Neil reinvented the idea for buildings, and I re-invented it for F1 with Renault,” he says. “It took off three-tenths of a second per lap, and it helped us win the World Drivers’ Championship.”
The device was compact but heavy: Renault used 5-, 7.5-, and 10-kilogram masses depending on the track. But F1 cars also carry tungsten ballast to bring them up to the regulation minimum weight, so adding the damper simply meant removing a chunk of tungsten from beneath the car.
“It’s worth it,” Tuluie says, in his typical understatement. His tuned mass damper brought the underfunded Renault team the championship in 2005 and 2006, after which the system was banned—the true mark of success.
Mercedes-Benz F1 called not long after. Several F1 teams are located near Oxford, England, so the job swap didn’t mean a move, just an altered commute. He had other tricks up his sleeve—such as a wildly complex, but passive, ride-height regulator. A typical F1 car has about 6,000 parts, and his passive ride-height system added another 2,000 parts, connecting the front and rear of the car to keep it level in all conditions: full acceleration, deep braking, and hard cornering.
Tuluie explains: “You don’t want to dip the nose too much in braking, because instability comes when the weight is too light on the rear. It’s instant, even with a 15 mm dip. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but negating that 15 mm gained half a second per lap. At every point on the track, the body was within a millimeter of where we wanted it. It was a flying hydraulic computer, with dozens of passages and jets and pistons and shafts and seals, with elements in the front and back. We also invented a fully tunable air spring, so there were no coil springs, no torsion springs—all air. I got a patent on another system we used, called a fluid inverter.”
With his flying hydraulic computer, tuned air springs, and brake-by-wire inventions, it’s no surprise Mercedes-Benz also won two championships under his guidance. But constant rule changes meant his inventions were soon outlawed, and he felt the game was getting repetitive after 12 years.
As a side gig, he’d been helping out with the Ducati MotoGP team, after Bentley CEO Wolfgang Dürheimer recruited him. A move to Bentley in 2015 was a natural next career step because it meant he could also return to his first love—two wheels—while carrying on his simulation testing.
“I’m especially glad to be working with Ducati,” Tuluie says. “I’ve worked with its MotoGP team for three years, and visit Bologna about once a month to develop the chassis.”
Exactly what he’s doing with the Ducati MotoGP team is classified, but it’s an easy guess that it might have something to do with tuned mass dampers and high-tech inventions. It’s only logical, given his experience playing with the sky-high budgets in F1—where shaving a tenth of a second on the track is worth tens of millions of dollars—that he’ll bring his experience to bear on two wheels next.
Despite four F1 World Drivers’ Championships, a couple of WERA National Championships, and Daytona wins, Tuluie is surprisingly humble, with the same boyish enthusiasm we witnessed in the 1980s. He’s well-known at vintage events in the U.K. for slinging his Menasco Pirate sideways, and flogging his outrageous home-built racing motorcycles at Goodwood and the Festival of 1000 Bikes. All those racers still live in his garage, and his Roadholders jacket hangs in the closet because they bring him joy.
Ducati’s MotoGP fans hope he’ll also deliver some joy, after two years of placing second in the rider’s championship —and nary a top prize since Casey Stoner’s championship in 2007. To my reckoning, there’s no better candidate, and we expect more News of Rob soon.
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