Dr Robin Tuluie’s meteoric career on two and four wheels

Full disclosure: due to an unpredictable path through life, I have rubbed elbows with, hung out with, ridden motorcycles with, done work with a lot of very famous individuals.  Major rock stars, huge television personalities, film stars, and ravishing beauties men tuck themselves into bathrooms to privately celebrate.  All have been interesting in one way or another, mostly for highlighting the strange separation of an actual human being with a famous simulacra the world adores.  From all these meetings with remarkable men and women, there is only one who consistently astonishes me with a combination of genius, enthusiasm, accomplishment, and humility: Dr. Robin Tuluie.  He also happens to be the one I’ve known the longest, as indeed I knew him when, having stenciled the logo of our long-defunct café racer motorcycle club on his leather jacket in 1987.  Back then he was Rob the Roadholder, the egghead kid doing undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley, who rode the same Norton Commando on club runs that he campaigned at our local track, Sears Point.  He was the same fellow then as now, being enthusiastic with a goofy humor and shy humility, and the ability to dig two layers deeper in a technical conversation than the rest of us, all of whom happened to be fellow alumni of the UC system, and no dummies, regardless our relatively harmless shenanigans aboard obsolete British motorcycles on the late-night streets of our sleepy city by the bay.

Rob the Roadholder in 1988, somewhere in Mexico on his full-race daily rider Norton Commando. [Dr. Robin Tuluie]
Robin hid motorcycle racing from his parents in fear of losing financial support at University, and slipped through his years at Berkeley undetected.  He’d moved to the USA from Germany in 1982, but had visited the campus before that with his Persian father, and happened across John Gallivan’s legendary TT Motors, the café racer hub of the Bay Area.  “I saw all these amazing café racers and custom bikes, and asked ‘you can ride those on the road?’ After that, I said I’m moving there!” California has yet to reach the bureaucratic pinnacle of the TÜV, and Robin had been nicked multiple times for hot-rodding his moped in Germany.  A native-born American might not comprehend the breath of fresh air such freedom provides, and in many ways Robin’s tale is a classic American immigrant saga: taking full advantage of our laxity, and joining the culture of mavericks that flourishes in our peculiar soil.  At first, this expression was limited to the happy hooliganism of fast motorcycling and a no-money racing effort with an aging classic.  “I started racing at Sears Point, the best and worst track to learn racing, every corner is so difficult.  At Laguna Seca, all the Roadholders came, and 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 – just a student working at a parking garage.  I loved that time, it was simple and fun. Vintage car racing is still like that.”  But a few podium places and even victories in vintage racing over the years gave no hint of what was to come.

30+ years later, Dr. Robin Tuluie still has his Roadholders MC jacket – and it still fits. [Paul d’Orléans]
After graduating UCB, he moved to UT Austin for doctoral studies in Astrophysics, and carried on racing not just the Norton, but also an AJS 7R and a Yamaha TZ750, the fearsome two-stroke beast that defined ‘wickedly narrow powerband.’ After earning his Doctorate, the now Dr. Robin Tuluie pursued post-doc studies at U Penn, and applied new methodologies to his racing machinery.  The result was the Tul-Da Eccentric 500 built in 1993, his first attempt at total chassis design.  Tul-Da’s frame is shockingly simple; a robust triangulated girder fork connecting steering head to swingarm pivot.  The ‘Eccentric’ was an all-empirical design feature, mounting both the fork stem and swingarm pivot on adjustable mounts, to alter the handling characteristics. Hung between straight chromoly tubes was a Honda CR500 MX-racing two-stroke engine, on which Robin worked black magic to produce an astonishing 75hp. The all-up weight of the Tul-Da was 197lbs (89.4kg) – a fighting man’s razor one could “just think through the corners.”  It won 13 of 16 race starts and two Grand National Championships, as well as taking first at Daytona in the 1995 AHRMA Sound of Singles race.

Your author Paul d’Orléans on his Norton Atlas road/racer in 1989, two years after he founded the Roadholders MC with Adam Fisher and Mark Merat. [Paul d’Orléans]
All of this occurred, mind you, in the middle of post-doctoral research on gravitation at Penn. But Robin would soon abandon the cosmos for Polaris, as his racing prowess attracted an inquiry from legendary moto-technical journalist Kevin Cameron: what did he know about snowmobiles? Kevin introduced him to Polaris, the USA’s largest wintersports manufacturer, and his first real job, designing the chassis for a new motorcycle project called Victory.  Sales of ‘cruiser’ motorcycles were robust enough in 1996 for the giant snowmobile company to leap into the shark-filled waters of moto manufacture, which proved generally profitable, although the Victory line was dropped in 2017 to favor their acquisition and development of the Indian brand, which they reckoned had longer legs (‘1901’ and all that).  And so it has proved.

Dr. Robin Tuluie with his Tul-Da racer, with a racing Honda CR500 MX motor tuned for 75hp, and a chassis built by Rob, with eccentric adjustments of the swingarm pivot and steering head. It weighed 192lbs dry. [Dr. Robin Tuluie]
Proximity to racing snowmobile engines at Polaris led to the inevitable.  In 1998 Robin designed a new racing motorcycle – the Tul-Aris – around a 700cc two-stroke snowmobile motor, pumped to 780cc and tuned to suit.  It was the first motorcycle designed totally by computer, and the subject of his first SAE paper. Of all Robin’s racing motorcycles, the Tul-Aris is the best remembered, a featherweight beauty with gorilla performance.  “I built the Tul-Aris as I’d always wanted to ride a GP bike, but quickly found out I wasn’t good enough!  The power was absolutely terrifying – the bike still makes more torque than any MotoGP bike, and it only weighs 270lbs!”  The Tul-Aris was a handful, a 120kg machine pushed by 183hp that wheelied right through fourth gear and gained 50hp within a 500rpm rocket-boost zone. In the hands of professional riders it collected enough wins and lap records to earn their living, and has the distinction of being the first home-built motorcycle to win a Grand Prix. It was also Robin’s first experience building a racer with a team of talented enthusiasts, a skill that would prove immediately useful when the Tul-Aris racer was abruptly packed away in 2000 for a move to the F1 ghetto of Oxfordshire.

A remote dirt campground, a little clutch trouble, and a lot of paper towels. From the Mexican adventure by Commando. [Dr Robin Tuluie]
But we’re getting ahead of the story. After the launch of the Victory, Robin made a career shift more in line with his research into fluid dynamics at Penn, to work with Materials Testing Systems (MTS) in Minnesota.  MTS is the sexiest engineering company you’ve never heard of, providing dynamic testing services to the automotive, construction, aircraft, and space industries.  If you want to be sure your space shuttle won’t crack up from the stresses of atmospheric re-entry, call MTS.  Or, if your 110-storey skyscraper needs certification that a 100mph wind won’t topple it, call MTS.  Or, if the seven-post hydraulic ram testing platform for your F1 chassis needs tweaking, call the company who built it, and they’ll send their man out for a look.  For a time that man was Dr. Robin Tuluie, who brought a physicist’s toolkit to the thinking behind hydraulic testing devices and computerized stress models, for structures large and small.  It was a life-changing job, with world-class mentors like Neil Petersen, “who was so cool.  If I had a question and he’d say, let’s sit down and figure it out, and he’d work it out all the calculations on paper with me.” Around 1980, Petersen adapted the tuned mass damper to stabilize skyscrapers in the wind: in a building, that’s a 400-ton chunk of concrete sliding around on the 59th floor, counteracting lateral forces via inertia. Automotive crankshaft dampers work on the same principle. “I have a 1930s Alvis with an aftermarket tuned mass damper on the bumper.  On old cars you can get axle tramp – left/right/left/right – and you mount this on the bumper, connected to the axle, so if the axle started twisting, it counteracts the twist.”   The past, as they say, points to the future.

A Roadholders club ride in 1988: Rob the Roadholder talking with Adam Fisher on the left. [Paul d’Orléans]
The amazing 7-post hydraulic ram simulators at MTS are used to replicate real-world stresses on automobiles and trucks, and the auto industry relies heavily on their feedback. They can also replicate an entire F1 race using data retrieved from sensors, and can accurately predict lap time changes to the hundredth of a second from minor chassis adjustments.  MTS is where Robin mastered the art of chassis design through data and simulation. “I started in the vehicle dynamics group, which is where I learned my craft.”  Among the industry heavyweights he met at MTS was Bob Bell, who leveraged a doctorate in Aeronautical Engineering at QUB to become the man making F1 cars slippery in the wind, first at McLaren, then Jordan F1, then, around the time he met Robin, at Renault F1. “Bob is really good, we got along well, and he ended up as technical director at Renault F1.  I visited Renault in the UK to improve a 7-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.’  ‘What job?’  ‘I was thinking Head of R&D.’  ‘Yeah, that would be great!’  That was it: I moved to England.”

The Menasco Pirate, using an aero engine manufactured by Albert Menasco in a period chassis and bodywork to match, here being raced by Robin at the VSCC Silverston races in 2018. [The Automobile]
Kudos to Mr. Bell for recognizing talent. While Robin had never designed an F1 car, he already had extensive experience modeling, testing, and making them faster at MTS.  The most significant idea he carried to England was an adaptation of the tuned mass damper.  “Neil Petersen re-invented the idea for buildings, and I re-invented it for F1.  It took off 3/10sec per lap, and it helped us win the World Championship.”  Twice.  His F1 system was essentially a mass and spring counteracting unwanted chassis movement.  For example, when the tires grow lighter as the chassis bounces upwards, the mass pushes down on the chassis, providing more grip. The device was compact but heavy: Renault used 5, 7.5, and 10kg masses depending on the track.  But F1 cars also carry tungsten ballast to bring them to the regulation minimum weight, so the damper simply meant less ballast. “It’s worth it” is Rob’s typical understatement: his tuned mass damper brought the under-funded Renault team the World Championship in 2005 and 2006, when the system was banned.  While every other F1 team immediately copied his device (there are only temporary secrets in F1), they didn’t have someone with Tuluie’s background designing them.

The Tul-Aris was Robin’s second major home-made race bike, using a Polaris snowmobile engine in his own chassis, designed entirely on computer. It has a better power-to-weight ratio than any current GP bike, and more torque too. [Dr Robin Tuluie]
After winning two World Championships for Renault, Mercedes-Benz F1 called. “I moved to Mercedes because if they get involved, they’ll win.”  Several F1 teams are located near Oxford, so the job swap was simply a new commute.  With the mass damper outlawed, Rob invented a wildly complex, but passive, ride-height regulator. A typical F1 car has about 6000 parts, and his passive ride height system had a further 2000 parts, connecting the front and rear of the car to keep it level under all conditions: full acceleration, deep braking, and hard cornering.  “You don’t want to dip the nose too much in braking, as instability comes when the weight is too light on the rear, it’s instant, even with a 15mm dip.  That doesn’t seem like a lot, but negating that 15mm 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.”

The gorgeous Alvis Speed 20 SA, a weekend driver full of appeal. [Paul d’Orléans]
While in Oxford, he fell into the vintage car scene with an original-paint 1932 Alvis Speed 20 SA with a Vanden Plas body. It’s a near-daily driver with enough room for the whole family, including an old friend from the States, whom Robin insisted should drive the car, despite an active load of un-belted ladies and children in the back seat.  I can report that years of experience with 1920s motorcycles using manual throttle/spark advance/shift were of little help with the Alvis’ peculiarities. I found myself approaching a left turn with more speed than desired: Robin noted the fluff, and casually yanked the steering wheel around, slewing the whole (screaming) family sideways around the bend.  “Old cars are so forgiving, the tires squirm and scrub off speed!” Indeed, nothing was harmed but my pride.  The Alvis is an elegant old girl, spacious and relaxed in proportion yet still sporting enough to excite, an utterly classic British open sports car of the early ‘30s, with timeless lines.  A car full of appeal, in short.

TLC for Robin’s Kellison sports racer, while the Menasco Pirate lurks behind. [Paul d’Orléans]
In the thick of a wildly successful F1 career, Robin decided to build his own race car, using none of the technology he’d developed at his day job.  A rising tide of very cool aero-engine specials in the 2000s spoke to his years of combining unrelated powerplants and chassis into potent racers, so his search began for a suitable donor.  He found it in a Menasco Pirate engine from the USA.  Albert Menasco was a fascinating character, who mechanic’d for pioneer barnstormer ‘Birdboy’ Art Smith in the early ‘Teens, racing midget cars at the 1915 Panama Pacific Int’l Expo (see, ‘Race Around the Rainbow Scintillator’), and taking the whole equipe to Korea and Japan for expositions.  Menasco was a wing-walker, then a flight instructor in WW1, and turned to aero engine manufacture in the 1926 as Menasco Motors.  His inverted four- and six-cylinder engine design of 1929 became the most successful American race-plane motor of the 1930s. Ever the engineer, Robin found the engine’s architecture superior, “I thought wow this is neat, it’s a lot better than a Gypsy or Cirrus engine.” As Menasco’s engine design was certified in 1929, Tuluie thought it a perfect match for a ’29 Riley chassis. He mated it to a Rolls Royce 20hp gearbox and a locked Ford Model A rear rend.  “The gearbox blew up almost instantly, so I had new internals made with a different tooth shape, and stronger.

The four Amal TT racing carbs feeding the Menasco Pirate aero engine. [Paul d’Orléans]
With a bare chassis complete, he turned to Richard Scaldwell for an appropriate body. “He has a sculptor’s feel for how the car should look.  I needed to make it look like an old car, learning how to use my eye to judge when something is cool and interesting and age appropriate.” The Pirate was finished in 2008 after an 18-month build, and first raced in 2009.  “When you follow your own path you don’t waste a lot of time asking people.  From an engineering perspective it was not that difficult, it’s not like modeling a modern race car at all.  I did use computer simulation because I can’t help myself, so that’s modern, but the bits are mostly old.  I wanted the car to say ‘aero engine car’ without putting a sticker or a propeller on it.  I’d seen the instruments of a zeppelin at the London Science Museum, they’re all hanging from skimpy little brackets that scream ‘airship!’, so that was my inspiration for the dash.” As one might expect, a man who’s won the Daytona 200 four times can handle a car.  The Pirate can be seen slinging itself sideways in various hillclimbs and VSCC events, and it had a win at Spa in 2019, the last time Robin could race it.

The Tul-Aris currently sits in Robin’s hallway at his home near Oxford, England. [Paul d’Orléans]
You’ll no doubt have noticed another, very black and very sexy racer in these photos: a 1957 Kellison.  It is in fact the very first Kellison racer, serial #1, the one Jim Kellison called ‘the grandaddy’ in his 1959 advertising, because ‘our new car is so much better looking.’  A debatable point, as Serial #1 could pass for ten years younger.  An open two-seat sports racer, it’s the only Kellison with dual headrest cowls matching the rear wheel arches.  It’s a Frankenbeast of a car, with Chrysler bones and heart, and is pretty crude beneath that sexy fiberglass body. “Jim Kellison was an engineer with the Air Force, so the design isn’t stupid, but the suspension geometry isn’t ideal.  The rear end has a solid axle on vertical coil springs – how stable is that going to be at 140mph?”  Air Force experience informed Kellison’s famously sleek bodies, but Kellisons aren’t the best handling machines, as noted in period tests. “I raced it once and it needs to be improved to be safe.  It’s very fast and weighs only 2000lbs, but I want a bit more shakedown time. I raced it on a hillclmb and didn’t get out of 2nd gear – I was slower than with the Pirate!”  So, expect more from Robin’s Kellison, which will surely inherit a period-correct yet computer-modeled rear end in the near future.

Robin racing the Kellison at Impney in 2019. [The Automobile]
Fast forwarding through Robin’s CV, after four F1 World Championships with two teams, he was ready for something new.  “I get bored easily.”  As a side gig, he’d been helping out with the Ducati MotoGP team, arranged by the CEO of Bentley, Wolfgang Dürheimer. That led to a new gig at Bentley, doing totally new kinds of simulation, “We were simulating audio systems for great sound, and the climate control system, to make it an amazing driver experience…it’s nice because these are simulations for making people happy!”  Robin had 1000 engineers at his disposal for any project he wanted, including for Ducati/Porsche/VW/Audi but also jet and yacht design, Indycars, and more.  And while all that was fun and new and interesting, he still had to answer to The Man, “stuck having to justify everything by expense and ROI.”

Dr. Robin Tuluie at his home in 2019. [Paul d’Orléans]
In 2019 Dr. Robin Tuluie bailed out the window of the corporate jet to start his own business, PhysicsX.  “I’ve got a great team that’s mostly younger than me, and we have offices in Bicester Heritage as we don’t want to be in a grey office park.  We’re under the radar, with the benefit we can smell the old cars.”  Not that old cars is the business of PhysicsX, “It’s going gangbusters now, we have 8 clients, and they’re big, like an F1 team, McKinsey, Ducati, and a medical company to develop a new type of mechanical heart.”  Wait, what? Yes, it all makes sense: a genius at modeling fluid dynamics taking on the most important pump in the animal kingdom, a human heart. “We’ve looked at the field to see what people are doing, like modeling he human circulatory systems, they’re modeling like they’re circuits. I think ‘this is ridiculous’, these are hydraulic systems – we are hydraulic systems.  It took me over Christmas to model the human circulatory system.” How does it feel to shift from relatively frivolous pursuits like racing to working on human beings? “There’s a bit of deep swallowing, but we keep following the physics. I feel 20-something years old again.”


[Note: this article originally appeared in The Automobile magazine in April 2021, with photos by Any Shore.  It’s definitely worth checking out the print version, but Rob’s photos (and mine) tell another story…]
Paul d’Orléans founded TheVintagent.com in 2006. He is an author, photographer, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.


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