“IT WAS like glass!” enthused David Freiburger of Roadkill and Hot Rod magazine fame. He was grinning beside Jack Rogers’s 1968 Camaro, which he’d just piloted to a top speed of 249mph (400km/h), and he was talking about how flat the salt was this year at Lake Gairdner, South Australia, scene of the Dry Lakes Racers Australia (DLRA) Speed Week.
He’d come as part of Rogers’s land-speed circus – three Camaros, a massive transporter and crew – all the way from the east coast of the USA.
If you ever go to Speed Week, you’ll feel like you’ve travelled halfway ’round the world, too – it ain’t easy, brother. But once you’ve been there, you’ll go back time and again. You’ve been bitten, and there ain’t no cure.
A small, devoted team of volunteers run Speed Week, which means organising an event in a remote part of the country, with no power, no internet, and flies, dust and rough roads. That they’ve kept it running as well as it does is a testament to their dedication.
It can be easy for entrants to get frustrated with the conditions here, but there’s a sign at the registration van that puts things in perspective: “Before you complain, have you volunteered yet?”
The condition of the salt at Lake Gairdner is always a cause for concern; high tides and full moons affect the water table under the lake and hence how dry the salt is. Some years, the event has had to be cancelled altogether due to poor salt condition, but happily, the 2017 event was the fifth in a row to go ahead, with the salt better than ever.
The weather was as forgiving as the Aussie desert can be; I’ve been there when it was 47 degrees, and I’ve been there when the heavens have opened and seemed like they’d never shut again.
This year it topped out at 42, and we got a short, sharp shower on Thursday that left an inch of water on the southern end of the track. But the startline was simply moved to the two-mile mark and it was business as usual.
IF YOU WANT TO FIND A WEAKNESS IN YOUR OILING, COOLING, FUEL SUPPLY OR ATTENTION TO DETAIL IN ASSEMBLY, TAKE IT TO THE SALT!
Racing started at 8.30am Monday on two tracks. The main track is marked for nine miles, while the second shuts down after two-and-a-half.
Dressed head-to-toe in white, the startlines are run by Brisbane’s Leikvold brothers, who form part of a crucial communication network that also comprises race director Steve ‘Animal’ Charlton; Peter Hulbert and Paul Lynch in the timing van; Carol Hadfield and Greg Wapling in the registration van; and finally two safety crews. This is the nerve centre of the event. After all, the track disappears over the horizon, and when vehicles are travelling over 200mph you need to know where they are and that everything is okay.
Each year there’s a buzz around entries that have been some time in the build. It might have taken 10 years or only 12 months, but Speed Week is when the makers of these rides come to meet their maker, so to speak. This year, stand-out debuts included Richard Assen’s insane Hayabusa-powered altered bike with centre-hub steering, Tony Cooke’s new lakester, and Gus Cooper’s 1936 Hudson Terraplane from Perth. Assen went home with a record just under 209mph, giving him the coveted red hat that signifies admission to the 200mph Club. To join you need to break a record that’s over 200mph; if you exceed 200 but don’t set a record you’re in the Achievers Club, and receive a red hat with black visor.
Some records and lots of parts got broken at Speed Week 2017, and that, friends, is what it’s all about. Yes, the salt can a be a harsh mistress, but it is forgiving on drivetrains, as the traction at best is only 60 per cent of concrete or tarmac, so you don’t see many smashed gears or twisted axles. But motors? That’s an entirely different story. If you want to find a weakness in your oiling, cooling, fuel supply or simply attention to detail in assembly, take it to the salt! If you don’t break records or parts then you just aren’t trying hard enough – that’s what they say.
Just ask David Ogilvie, who took the Clevo out of his lakester and stuck it in a Magna with a big turbo and a dump pipe in the driver’s-side guard. It had started to miss, then shoot ducks. When we caught up with him he was staring intently at a piece of forged aluminium with an oil glaze on it that he’d found in the valley of the motor after pulling off the manifold. How it got there and exactly what it was, no one knows, but it wasn’t supposed to be there, and it signalled the end of the week for this 200mph-capable car.
Two-Bob Racing consists of two Roberts (Lambert and Wilson) from Broken Hill with a blown Honda CBR250RR running on methanol. One day the bike will go really fast, faster than any 250 in the world, but for the past seven years they’ve managed only to blow it up. Not this year. No, this year they had fuel contamination issues; it didn’t run well enough to hurt itself. Are they giving up?
No, that’d be weak, this is what they live for.
DLRA president Norm Bradshaw is a long-time favourite, who despite the app age and the advent of Uber steadfastly sticks to his 410-cube Ford dressed as a Melbourne taxi, with a turbo that could ingest a large child. This year he was in the mid-200s when a puff of smoke attracted the interest of the emergency crews and the scrutineers. At first it was thought to be an oil line to the turbo, but shortly after the word was: “It had metal in it.” But Norm has been to Bonneville, and he’s broken lots of things – will he be back? Of course.
Sacrifices to the Gods of Speed aren’t always just engine parts though; support cars, trailers, wallets, even marriages have all been found wanting on the big white dyno. But salt heads, like gambling addicts, just keep coming back no matter how badly they get burnt. On the way home they’re finished: “That’s it, I’m done, never going back, I’ve had enough.” Three weeks later they’ve got a drawing, they’re searching for parts, and best of all, they’ve diagnosed what went wrong. Next year they’ll be back with a close-ratio ’box, a ratio change for the diff, more compression or a better valvetrain. Yep, they’re hooked. s
GUS Cooper, John Harvey and Darren Banks all work different shifts on the mines, so they passed the baton over nine months on the non-stop build of this 1936 Hudson Terraplane.
Starting with someone else’s half-built hot rod, the boys treated the Hudson to a bitching roof chop and a million other mods to make it fast and safe. It’s a kind of gospel in landspeed racing that you run things a little rich, because if any oxygen makes it to the exhaust valve it’s gonna take some piston with it. Sure enough, after reaching the 150mph mark without any trouble, the 406-cube Chev said goodnight. But of course, the boys will be back, bigger and better next year.
ONE of the young turks of the DLRA, 24-year-old Kurt Dunn became a hired shoe this year, taking the tiller of Mike Davidson’s Flatattack blown twin-flathead streamliner. It’s taken a few years to get the bugs out of the big red beast, which is easily the most complicated piece of kit gracing the great white straightaway at the moment. Sitting back behind the rear axle, Kurt described it as big and gentle on the steering compared to sitting up front of a twitchy lakester. On 60 per cent throttle it ran 230mph; next year, the gloves are off.
USA’s Jack Rogers had a red hat (for a record over 200mph) from every landspeed venue in the world except Australia’s Lake Gairdner. So this year he brought three Camaros, a huge semi and a bunch of parts across the pond, and he got his hat. So did some of his buddies, including Roadkill’s David Freiburger and Keith Turk, who we know best as the chief scrutineer of Hot Rod Drag Week. The ’68 Camaro pictured is a 250mph ride wrapped in historical photos of some of the most famous salt cars. It’s drop-dead cool and seriously fast.
The push car was built from a mid-70s GMC motorhome. Featuring a shortened fibreglass body, it is powered by a 455 Oldsmobile V8 with front-wheel drive.