SINCE 1948, the Bonneville salt flats in Utah, USA, have played host to much failure and heartbreak. Yet despite knowing this, year after year hundreds of land speed racing enthusiasts roll out onto its milky white surface in the name of speed. Considering the environmental and mechanical hurdles conquered, land speed racing can be a painful to anyone suiting up in the sweltering heat at Bonneville and they’ll tell you their pilgrimage to the promised land has been worth it.
This year’s Speed Week boasted healthier salt conditions than in recent memory, and with an added fourth course to the now-customary three (long, short, and rookie) there was plenty of land for everyone.
For myself and fellow Australian Jamie Croker, the stars had aligned that we would both crew (and potentially get seat time) with different teams: Jamie with the record-hardened Montana Dodge Boys and their 240hp vintage ’28 Dodge roadster; me helping my friends Tim and Justin try to run an honest 100mph in a ’banger-powered ’23 Model T roadster.
The salt has a funny way of levelling the playing field, something that becomes immediately obvious once you’re stuck wrenching in 44-degree weather, trying to get the timing right on a questionable 60-year-old magneto, while just down from you George Poteet’s crew are sweating out an engine swap with one of five Duttweiler-built mills for Speed Demon. No matter how big or small your deal was, heads still had to be scratched and sockets still had to be spun.
There were 11 runs made above 400mph over the course of the week, with three teams running over 450mph! Steered by Dave Spangler, Team Vesco’s Turbinator II – a turbine-powered streamliner – ran the fastest pass of the meet at a stonking 463.038mph. But perhaps the most poignant record to fall was in AA Fuel Streamliner. Danny Thompson took Challenger 2 to a 450.909mph run to make it the world’s fastest piston-driven vehicle – on the 50th anniversary of his late father Mickey Thompson’s planned debut of the car at Bonneville in 1968 (the event was rained out that year, so Challenger 2 never ran). An engine hiccup got it off to a shaky start, and there was an even shakier finish, with Danny going lock-to-lock at about 430mph when the car flirted with going sideways. But eight years of campaigning the resurrected streamliner, endless coin, sweat and tears all culminated in Danny surpassing that hallowed 450mph mark.
On other frontiers, the Montana Dodge Boys, Jamie included, were playing with nitro for the first time to squeeze even more out of the Fast Four Special, attempting to put engine builder Tony Smith’s son Cialeo into the books as the youngest SCTA record holder at 15. Cialeo had only owned a driver’s licence for 18 days before Speed Week. Working sun-up to sundown each day, the boys chased niggling issues on what was ultimately a tired engine, switched back to an N/A set-up, and eventually decided to abandon record hopes for Cialeo and give Jamie a seat in the car for licensing passes. “That’s when I started to get nervous,” recalled Jamie. “I’d never dreamed, ever, that I’d get a chance to drive a record-holding roadster at Bonneville!”
You could hear it on the radio and you could feel it on the ground: The racing this year was fast. There were 39 records broken on Sunday alone, and 168 would fall overall. The immediate support for the ‘big guns’ was remarkable. If you weren’t at the starting line to watch Danny Thompson fire Challenger 2, or hear the whir of Team Vesco’s Turbinator II, then it was tools down and ears to the radio as those rockets took off towards the horizon on their way to break new land speed barriers.
At the same time, confined to a tenth of the speed of Danny Thompson, I rattled the little #142 T roadster down the return road at the posted speed of 45mph, getting a feel for it while Tim and Justin pondered. Could we even make 100mph? Tyre sizes, gear ratios, the horrendously slow rpm limits of vintage Ford ’bangers; there were still barriers for us to break, still limits to push. It’s the same maths for those thinking: ‘Can we make 500mph?’ – just on a much more archaic level. With Tim only being able to slug out a best of 90.894mph, it would be my turn next to get a rookie run before we tried any silly business for a triple-digit goal.
Our routine fluid and system check ended up with a threaded sparkplug on the soft vintage aluminium head – a definite no-go to keep pushing – and with that our attempt at a not-so-fast speed came to a close. With my eyes still gazing down the course, having been so close to getting to race towards the horizon, we rolled back to the pits.
Having completed his rookie orientation, Jamie and the MDB crew decided to run a compression test, which resulted in concerns. Running the car with Cialeo had shown up a few damaged head gaskets, and a crack from a valve seat through to the bore on one of the cylinders was subsequently spotted. “We decided to throw a gasket at it, fire it and see how it ran,” Jamie said. “If it sounded okay I’d just run it down the rookie short course once to get my licence; the block was already screwed, so it was worth a shot.
“We fired it, but it wasn’t happy, and I didn’t want to run the risk of hurting the custom expensive parts. So that was it pretty much it. What do you do? I’ll be back again with the guys.” George Poteet’s Speed Demon had been eating engines like Pringles over the week, running over 450mph early on but unable to back anything up with each new combination. A 448mph run put him back in contention for an A engine class record, but they found a problem in impound, and Poteet too was out.
Given George had achieved the fastest pass of the event seven years in a row, perhaps his pursuit seems a little different to Jamie’s or mine as far as speeds are concerned. But whether you’re trying to go 100mph or 500, it’s still just over that horizon line on the big white get raceway there that is very is Bonneville. addictive. s And even if you come up short, trying to get there is very addictive.