Thursday, September 28, 2006

Bonneville Salt Flats

Drag racing is a contest to see who can travel a quarter mile the quickest. Oval track racing is a contest to see who can make laps the quickest. Speed is secondary to quickness in both sports. Landspeed racing, on the other hand, is about speed and speed only.

The Bonneville Salt Flats is where racing occurs in its purest form. Since 1914, when Teddy Tezlaff drove 141 mph on the salt, it has provided a huge, flat, solid proving ground for people to officially time the top speeds of their vehicles. Officially timed speed runs have occurred there since 1933. The flats date back to the last ice age, when over one third of modern day Utah was covered by a great salt lake -- Lake Bonneville. Today, the Great Salt Lake has shrunk to a "mere" 1,700 square miles. The mountains surrounding the 150,000-square-mile salt flats have water marks representing the lakes slow retreat over thousands of years.

Every year, from November through May, the Salt Flats are covered by about six inches of water. The water packs down and flattens the millions of tons of salt left by the old lake before it evaporates in the Spring. Nothing can survive on the dry, hardened salt, so the white, barren land has an otherworldly quality to it.

Summertime at Bonneville is extremely hot and dry. Check out the brush fire up in the mountains.

Almost since the invention of the automobile the salt has been a magnet for people wanting to go as fast as possible. In 1939, a British team ran 368 mph with a streamliner powered by two Rolls Royce V12 aircraft engines. In 1949, the Southern California Timing Association began hosting Speedweek every August on the salt, which allowed racers to be formally timed running in different classes determined by engine size, vehicle body style, fuel type, etc.

Being strapped into a streamliner at the start of Bonneville's long course provides a unique opportunity to decide just how big your balls are.

To set a record at Speedweek, you have to run faster than the existing record. Then your car is impounded over night and you have to run again at 7 a.m. the next morning. If the average of your two runs is faster than the record, that average becomes the new record and your name, car and average speed go into the record books. If your average is slower, it doesn't matter how fast the first run was, all you can do is try again. There are no cash prizes and little corporate sponsorship.

At the 1960 Speedweek, drag racing legend Mickey Thompson hoisted four supercharged Pontiac V8 engines into his streamlined car, Challenger 1, and ran 406 mph -- the fastest a man had crossed the surface of the Earth at that time. A driveline failure marred his return run and kept him out of the record books.

Jet-powered cars are not allowed at Speedweek, but have broken the sound barrier on the salt. In 1965, Craig Breedlove drove his jet-powered Spirit of America streamliner at 519 mph, the first officially timed run over 500 mph for a wheeled land vehicle. On the return run, he hit 539 mph. The force of the air at that speed ripped his parachute off when he attempted to stop. Without a parachute, his brakes incinerated instantly when he tried to stop. He coasted down the salt until he ended up in a lake roughly 30 miles from the starting line, where he was able to walk away from the car's wreckage with a new 526 mph landspeed record.

I attended Speedweek 2006 with my friend Gene and members of the Memphis Street Rods car club to watch club member George Poteet run against the record books with the Poteet-Main Ecotech powered streamliner Ecofire -- and his Troy Trepanier-built 1969 turbocharged Barracuda the Blowfish. His also brought along a 1961 Ford Starliner with a Jack Roush- Built Nextel Cup motor, just for fun.

The Blowfish uses a giant turbocharger to push 1,200 horses through a custom-built Mopar four cylinder.

You need a giant turbo with a lot of tubing to get that kind of power from a 180 cubic inch motor.

The technology involved creates an interior that looks more space shuttle than 60s automobile.

We got to the Flats on Friday afternoon, while the cars were going through tech inspection. We were hanging out in the Camel Toe Racing pit with the Blowfish and the Starliner. The Ecofire was in a separate pit area near ours. Camel Toe Racing is the name George uses for his various personal automotive projects.

The Camel Toe Racing pit area.

The Camel Toe logo.

Bonneville is in Wendover, Utah near the Nevada state line. The state line runs through the middle of the town, and the Nevada casinos start at the very edge of the line. We stayed in a casino hotel at the state line. At nighttime there was a rat rod show in the casino parking lot where we could drink beer amongst the primer and patina of old school hot rods.

We'd drink beer in this parking lot until about 11 p.m. then get up a 5:30 a.m. to have breakfast on the salt while watching the sunrise.

Its hard to top the kink value of a vintage Kaiser supercharger pushing air into an old Flathead Ford V8 by way of a modified Hamm's Beer mini-keg. Dig the 33 Mopar with Hemi power in the background.

The sun rises on a Studebaker.

The Ecofire is a streamliner power by the 2.2 liter Ecotech four-cylinder used in the Satrun Ion, Chevy Cobalt and HHR, and Pontiac Solstice. Thanks to a lot of time, money and boost, the Ecofires four-banger is pumping out over 800 horsepower. On its first pass it ran 255 mph against a 247 mph record, so it went to impound. The next day it only ran 225 on the return run, so it was time to try again. The next run was 7/10s of a mph below the record, which at Bonneville means you've accomplished nothing. Towards the end of the day George put down another 255 mph pass and it was back to impound.

This should give you an idea of the money and technology it takes to stuff 800 horses into a Saturn motor.

The next morning the Ecofire made its return run at 288 mph, setting a new record and earning George a 200 MPH Club red hat. The only way to get one of the hats is to set a new record above 200 mph. People have spent fortunes and lost their lives trying to get one of the hats.

Tech officials look over the Ecofire before certifying the new record.

George's new hat.

Now it was time to try for the record for the same size motor in a streamliner on fuel -- 307 mph. The first pass on Monday afternoon was almost a disaster for the engine. When George shifted into third, the engine lost power. He immediately killed the motor and pulled the parachute. A sensor had blown, causing the engine to think it was running without a turbo so that it was extremely lean. If George hadn't lifted, the motor would have been toast in seconds. The car "only" ran 296 mph.

The next day it made a pass 271 mph due to seatbelt problems -- drivers are strapped in tight for obvious reasons. Then he made a pass at 317 mph. "Get that thing over to impound. You know the way," came the call on the CB. Wednesday morning was beautiful with a nice tailwind. The Ecofire responded with a mindblowing 338 mph pass. Keep in mind, this is running with a 2.2 liter four-cylinder. George got to step up to the 200 MPH Club's 300 MPH Chapter, which meant a switch to a blue hat.

George shoots down the salt at 338 mph in the Ecotech.

Very few people have worn both these hats.

The Burkland streamliner is the worlds fastest piston-driven vehicle. You know you're serious when you're packing TWO blown fuel Hemis -- one for the front wheels, one for the back. On Wednesday I saw this car make a 410 mph pass -- the fastest I've ever seen a vehicle move across the ground. It holds a record from 2004 of 417 mph, and in 2000 it had a one-way end-speed of 450 mph. Clausterphobic? When the driver is belted in with the hatch closed, there are about five cubic gallons of air surrounding his body in the cockpit.

The SCTA has two courses marked off during Speedweek. A three-mile short course and a five-mile long course. To qualify for the long course, new vehicles must go over 175 mph on the short course. While all this was happening the 61 Starliner had run 171 mph on the short course. After some suspension adjustments, it ran 198 and went to the long course where it made a number of 200 mph passes. It was never a threat to its classs 214 mph record but it looked and sounded wicked.

The Starliner in the starting line. It has a Roush-built Nextel Cup Ford V8 running through open exhaust with no restrictor plate and a bigger-than-Nascar-legal carburetor. At idle it sounds like the Allied invasion of Normandy. Going 200 mph at 8,000 rpm, it sounds like the best sex you've ever had.

The Blowfish had its first run on the short course. It had to run over 175 mph to qualify to run on the long course against a 230 mph record. It ran 236 mph in the first mile of the short course. The shakedown run revealed some problems that had to be addressed before the car could run again. It returned to the pits where Troy and his team worked on it all day Tuesday and half of Wednesday. It was cool watching a high-dollar pro builder thrash on a vehicle to get it back on the track.

The Blowfish gets a push start on the short course. Most of the cars at Bonneville get a push start since they are built entirely for top-end power.

Troy's to-do list of things to take care of before the Blowfish could run again.

Troy and Dan pack the parachutes onto the Blowfish. Troy built this car. Dan built the 61 Starliner. Both cars are owned by George

Gene (right) and I hang with Troy in the Camel Toe pit.

By the time the Blowfish was ready to return to the track on Wednesday afternoon racing had been called of for the day due to 28 mph winds. We had to fly out Thursday morning and sadly missed its 254 mph first run on the long course. Friday morning it ran again to make the record official at 255 mph.

This 82-year-old man set a record of 256 mph running a 302 gmc six in the streamliner behind him.

Greg Boren of Southaven was representing the Memphis Street Rods with his Flathead-powered modified roadster. He was consistently runnning in the 130s.

Greg goes down the three-mile course at 130 mph.

Gotta love the nose art on this car.

Throughout the week, Gene and I spent a ton of time walking the pit area making friends and talking to people about their cars. The atmosphere was amazing since everyone on the salt is in a great mood just from being there. Since people are competing against records in a book instead of each other, they gladly share all the details of their cars with you.

With a top speed of 114 mph, this father/son team from Nevada was trying to creep up on a 128 mph record. They were running a GM six and Gene, who is building an old GM six, spent a lot of time picking their brains.

The Red Dog Racing team from Illinois was having a blast running in the 160s and 170s againt a 214 mph record. They were running a 351 W with a five-speed, like have in my car (only they have a lot more aggressive heads, cam and intake). When things got slow in our pit, Id wonder over to their tent to drink beer and talk small-block Ford.

The truly crazy people at Bonneville are the motorcycle racers. This guy is going 191 mph. The ultimate speed record for a motorcycle was set by a 3,000 cc Suzuki at the 2004 Speedweek at a mind-bending 328 mph.

There are lots of cool old rat rods and jalopies running around the salt in the pits and spectator areas.

Hop Up magazine had this car in impound after a 114 mph pass. Thats an impressive speed considering the car is running an old flathead four-banger,

Fords flathead four cylinder made about 40 horsepower from the factory and was obsolete by 1932. 114 mph is screaming for one of these dinosaurs.

The Hot Rod Magazine Special gets wrenched on in the pits.

Check out the skull in the fuel reservoir.