IT’S not been a fun time to be a land speed racer in the US in recent years. Ongoing problems with crust thickness at the famous Bonneville salt flats saw the annual Speed Week trials cancelled in 2014 and 2015, leaving many speed-chasing hot rodders with an itch they can’t fully scratch. The dirt course on the dry lakebed at El Mirage in California also had some patchy weather conditions last year, shortening the season there.
Fortunately, this year the US land speed racing season began as planned with the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) opening event at El Mirage on the weekend of 14-15 May. It’s always a big deal, and I decided that the best way to really experience what goes on behind the scenes was to camp out.
My first conclusion was: lots of beer. I awoke at 5am on the Saturday to meet up with fellow racing enthusiasts Tim and Primo at the base of the Angeles National Forest, where they were already hauling cases of Budweiser out of the servo and into the back of Primo’s deuce roadster. Then we blasted up through the fog-shrouded mountains before finally emerging into the sunny desert on the other side.
As we passed through the gates of the El Mirage Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area, everyone became visibly excited. Cars were making their way to the pit and camping areas, trailing giant plumes of super-fine dust. It would be the last time I could savour being clean for the entire weekend.
It was all smiles once we hit the camping area. Everyone was setting up their RVs and tents, fuelling up their pit bikes and shaking hands with friends they probably hadn’t seen since the last time at the lakebed. Before long we were erecting an E-Z Up and unfolding deckchairs, my trusty ute’s radio tuned to the local broadcast frequency to hear the speeds of the cars out on the course.
It was only 9.30am but the Esky was already getting a work-out.
People came and went, stopping to say hi and escape the bright Californian sun under our tent for a moment before rolling off in their hot rods. The return road rolled right past the camping spots, affording onlookers the opportunity to rag on their mate for making a slow pass, or congratulate them on hearing through the radio that they’d broken a record.
The best place to get close to the action was right at the starting line. The five staging lanes were chockers and the variety of cars rubbing shoulders was impressive. Vintage bellytankers seemed like ancient kids’ toys next to high-dollar, high-tech streamliners and blown competition coupes waiting patiently behind Honda Civics.
The lanes were slow-moving but constantly bustling, with over 160 cars and bikes participating in the weekend’s racing. Marshals, photographers and punters snaked through rows of streamlined machines, and every few minutes another one pointed down toward
the business end of the lake, roaring off the startline with a friendly kick up the bum from its crew’s push car.
You could tell the blokes that had been doing this for ages. They were calm and jovial amidst the stress of race prep, and when the cars took off they didn’t watch. Instead, they listened to the shift points and the engine note, nodded or grimaced depending on their opinion of the run, then carried on working. Sometimes the old fellas around the lanes would all nod simultaneously on a top run, often followed by the commentator announcing another broken record.
Racers normally get only two runs per day, and that’s if conditions are good. Some records proved hard to beat, while others were blown to smithereens. Some gave their all only to fall short by 0.04mph (yes, this happened to a poor motorcyclist), and the crowd listening on shared the frustrations of these drivers and riders who would have to wait until the next day to roll the dice again.
One team that came to kick arse and take names was Salty Box Racing. Tim Boyle and Adam Rogers run Tim’s insane Dodge truck, which is powered by a 1115hp twin-turbo diesel six-banger (see breakout below). I met them up at the impound lot, where cars undergo inspections if they break records, to find they’d just topped their own B/DT record, hitting 190.8mph through the traps.
With no trees or mountains to disrupt it, the desert wind howled something fierce after lunchtime. The fine dust, which had already penetrated every last vehicle air vent and punter’s shoe, turned into a sandblast, relentlessly battering your face and eyes and all the shiny paint lying around.
As more cars either broke or finished their day’s runs and the wind picked up, the racing slowed down and out came the barbecues. At Bonneville, there’s traditionally a big ‘weenie roast’ (Yankee-speak for sausage sizzle) on the Saturday afternoon, where everyone gathers to share food, booze and some bench racing, but with Speed Week cancelled the past two years, it had been a long time since everyone had enjoyed a weenie and a yarn. Happily, the guys from Hop Up magazine decided to bring the tradition to El Mirage, so the burner was lit and people came from all across the lakebed to down a sanga and catch up with their racing buddies.
As the wind continued its assault and the sun began sinking, both the skies and the stories got more colourful. I had a chat to Dan Hostetter of the San Diego Roadster Club, who’s better known as Dr Flamo. He was bitten by the land speed disease in the 80s, having grown up a street-racing delinquent in the 50s, and went to town on a ’32 coupe, continually modifying it in the pursuit of better aerodynamics. So much so, in fact, that he effectively ruled himself out of any racing class; before it was retired the car ended up with a canopy from an F16 fighter jet. And yep, you guessed it, it was flamed.
Over 12 years Dan had managed to gain nearly 50mph from the body mods alone, with only a little work done to the Dodge Hemi
TIM Boyle is the mastermind behind this Dodge Ram 2500 truck. While it may look like a push car, it’s actually a record-holding land speed racer. The Salty Box Racing entry is powered by a twin-turbo Ram six-cylinder diesel. A monstrous 96mm Garrett turbo dwarfs the secondary 78mm Garrett plumbed inline, and the whole combo is good for a whopping 1115hp and 2528Nm. That’s more pulling power than five LS1s combined!
Tim, from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, was joined by experienced crew member Adam Rogers, and went 190.8mph on his first run of the season, already smashing his own B/DT class record.
The truck was running so well he decided to bump up the tune to try and break that magical 200mph mark. Things were looking great on his Sunday run, until the input shaft on the transmission sheared clean in two with an ear-splitting crack.
Aside from holding the El Mo record, the Salty Box Dodge also has the Bonneville record at 190.2mph, and a standing-mile PB of 192mph. All that, and Tim regularly picks his son up from school in it – no de-tune, no removeable ’cage, nothing.
For more Salty Box action search ‘Boyle’ on streetmachine.com.au.
in that time. So he did what any normal racer does: built a tomb to completely brick the car in so he wasn’t tempted to mess with it again. It was time to start a secret new project.
As the evening wore on, everyone’s excitement to be back out on the lake saw proceedings take on a party atmosphere, with groups gathered around barbecues or fires, playing music and relaxing with a few coldies. My liquid gold ran out surprisingly quickly – as did everyone else’s – and the exhaustion from the heat of the day saw people soon retiring to their beds.
As morning alarms go, a blown Hemi makes for a pretty good one.
I rose on Sunday to find half the crowd bleary-eyed and nursing headaches, and the other half already getting strapped into their cars to race. The wind was still present, but this time it worked in everyone’s favour, with a steady 25mph tailwind giving racers the perfect opportunity to bag a record. Some joked that mounting a sail to the top of your car would probably squeeze out an extra couple of mph through the traps.
I hung out with the Salty Box guys again to get a rundown on how they get prepped for racing, but before they rolled their Dodge up to the staging lanes, we decided to take some time exploring the nearby yard of land speed racing legend George Callaway, full of rusting relics and Mad Max-style vehicles (see breakout opposite).
Then it was back to the pits to enjoy the day’s racing.
The two fastest times of the weekend were recorded on Sunday, with a motorcycle piloted by John ‘Big Balls’ Noonan topping 251mph and change, and the #911 roadster driven by Dave Davidson lighting up a 255.96mph through the traps. That was no real surprise given it’s the first and only roadster to join the 300mph Club in the A/BFR class at Bonneville.
As the weekend wrapped up, over 300 runs had been made, with 25 car records and eight motorbike records broken. If that isn’t how to start a season in style, I don’t know what is.
Tents were pulled down, trailers were packed and everyone slowly made their way off the lakebed late on Sunday afternoon.
Windblown and exhausted from two days of preparation and racing, there were still smiles for miles as tyres hit the tarmac to head home.
For many, the land speed itch had been scratched, at least for now.
If you’re keen to experience El Mirage for yourself, camping is the only way to do it, even if you’re not entering your own car. That way you’ll get a real sense of all the small details that go into prepping and racing one of these land speed beasts, and you’ll meet a ton of great people along the way. s FOR more information about the 2016 racing season at El Mirage, visit www.scta-bni.org. It’s also a great place to keep up with developments concerning the health of Bonneville.
GEORGE Callaway, ex-NASA engineer and long-time land speed racer, is unofficially the Mayor of El Mirage. His property is out past the lakebed and he serves as the custodian of the lake, helping out with organisation and duties with the SCTA officials.
Within his property’s boundaries is a mindblowing collection of automotive treasure, amassed over decades. There’s a sun-beaten Ferrari body, the shell of an experimental rocket, hydroplane boats, a matching-numbers Barracuda, blown Rolls-Royce engines, and the original SCTA timing tower from the 1940s.
Accompanied by a friend of George’s, I was lucky enough to get to hop the fence and have a look around. The guard dogs and shotguns may not deem others so lucky!
For the full story, search ‘Callaway’ on streetmachine.com.au.