There is a long-held misconception that at the heart of a global community like ours is the motorcycles that we ride. Sure, they play a role, but they only exist because of the real beating heart of who we are, the amazing people who make up our numbers. And amongst the flock, there are few characters quite like Mark Atkinson, who lives for machine and motorsport with an uncompromising attitude of ‘Ride Fast, Safety Last’. You simply have to have some skin in the game and under his Speed of Cheese Racing banner he’s certainly left a mark; stories of which are literally built into his collection of Yamaha RD two-stroke screamers.
Growing up in the wide open spaces of small-town Utah, Mark came from a hard working but poor family and that meant he didn’t have the flashy toys of his friends. A hand me down in the form of a ’71 Yamaha YZ80 came his way, and with his Dad on hand they rebuilt the engine, but it still didn’t keep up with his friend’s bikes, until one day his Dad came home with an expansion chamber, “But oh my what a transformation it made to that little bike. I could now not only keep up with the newer bikes but outrun them. This was pure heaven. All in a strange looking pipe. I have been chasing that feeling and trying to understand that magic ever since.”
As he got older his Dad took him out to Pamona California to witness the NHRA Winternationals, kids racing their hotted-up RDs and Kawi triples, the smokey haze, and the smell of Castor bean oil in the air, Mark was hooked! And to put himself at the coal face, he’s been working as a machinist for the last four decades. A job that he’s really bloody good at, the clincher wheels on Max Hazan’s wild twin Velocette engined custom, Mark made them. The wild BMW ‘Alpha’ concept drawing by Turkish designer Mehmet Doruk Erdem, Mark went and built it! “Two guys with differing ideas, coming together for a common goal. A Mormon and a Muslim, across the world from each other. We’ve become friends.”
But when it comes to his own personal motorcycles, the old ’70s two-strokes are what wet his whistle and he’s built some of the most powerful ever created! “I built The RD350 20 years ago. It was my formal entry into really trying to make power with a two-stroke. I read everything I could on RD modification and there was a lot. Some good some, not so good. I think I tried a lot of poor advice in the process. I learned a lot. It now has one of my old air-cooled land speed top ends on it now, so it is 424cc and makes more power than it needs.”
Not prepared to go without that sweet smelling two-stroke power on the roads, the Black bike is Mark’s go anywhere machine. It doesn’t get much love, and that’s not surprising with such a stable of highly-strung race bikes, but it never lets him down and always starts first kick. Proof that those who unlock the dark art of making two-stroke power can also build them into very reliable motorcycles to munch the miles. And it’s seen plenty too, crisscrossing the US of A. “It has done the Tail of the Dragon, to the 101 and everything in between.
But, it’s big power that runs through his veins, “I own a lot of motorcycles. The land speed bike is the most cherished. I bought it from legendary racer Ed Erlenbach in 2005. It was the fastest RD in the world with the fastest of several records at 165 MPH at ElMirage.” That’s quick, insanely quick and the thing that people really don’t appreciate about land speed racing is how long the engine has to last at wide-open throttle; in some very adverse conditions! “I found that on gas you could not get rid of the heat. Getting rid of heat in a two stroke is a challenge. I fought it for years trying to make it work.”
Mark even tried running water cooling jets aimed back at the front of the cylinders, it nearly worked he tells us. “In 2012 I gave up and made my own water-cooled cylinders which turned into a complete engine. I used an RZ350 case because it had the water pump built in but the 350 crank has smaller webs than the 400, so I ended up making the crank, and rods as well. It ran well and with the clutch slipping set a record, at a proper two way, 140 mph.” As piston supplies started to dry up, Mark ever the machinist not only made his own, but made two-piece items to get rid of the wrist pin hole.
To add to the ever growing list of challenges, he took up road racing this year in the ARHMA series with the white RD400. But rather than build the most powerful engine in the pack, which he no doubt could, he’s learning the art of being fast on a track with corners and claimed an impressive third at the Willow Springs round. The new season will see him return to the grid, but it will also mark his return to land speed racing, with the new engine already on the dyno making power.
Mark Atkinson simply lives the bike racing life, with the enthusiasm of a child and the wisdom of a master, “I’m still an 8-year-old kid trying to understand how that beat up exhaust pipe turned my YZ from a gentle nice bike into a screaming animal.”