This article was originally published in the November 2009 issue of Street Machine magazine
ROD Hadfield straps his old mate Norm Hardinge into his flamed ’34 roadster and talks him through the run. Getting him focused, reminding him about the debris on the right side of the track they’d spotted on the observation run that morning. Brand new belts are super-tight around Norm’s chest and his trademark beard makes his fire-resistant head-sock look like a bulging bag of ferrets. It’s a hot, dry 38 degrees but thankfully the flies that plague Norm’s Lake Gairdner home track in South Australia are absent — Lake Bonneville in Utah, the fastest speedway on earth, is a long way from home.
Norm (left) stopped off at DJ Safety in LA on the way to the salt to stock up on some new protective gear. “The most flammable thing in the world is that beard,” the DJ guys told him, so he bought a flameproof head sock, while the other boys bought new SCTA-approved helmets — the days of racing in your old motorcross lid are long gone!
Bonneville is a place steeped in go-fast history. Blokes have been coming here to race since 1914 and the meeting Norm is competing in — the Southern California Timing Association’s (SCTA) Speed Week — has been running since 1948. It stands shoulder to shoulder with Indianapolis, Daytona and Le Mans for history and prestige but unlike those events, it’s open to anyone with a safe vehicle and the $510 in fees. There are many big names in the SCTA’s 200mph club – Malcolm Campbell, Ed Iskenderian and Mickey Thompson for starters — but plenty more are just average Joes with a dream and a way with spanners.
Of course, living in Australia makes the task of racing at Bonneville an extra challenge but Norm has been suffering a serious case of salt fever for more than 10 years and that can make a bloke do strange and sometimes extraordinary things. He first tackled Lake Gairdner in an FJ Holden streeter, sharing the driving duties with his partner Vicki Howard and mate Wayne ‘Oggie’ Belot. The trio then conspired to build a ’34 roadster as a dedicated salt car, which they did in just three months and for a paltry ten grand.
Today we are waiting for that same little hot rod to appear at the ‘two-door’ — the two-mile marker on the special course that the SCTA uses for licensing runs. We hear the car long before we see it, its new 800hp Ford big-block singing strongly. Once he has passed the two-and-a-quarter-mile mark, Norm pulls the ’chutes and turns off. We rush up to meet him, help him out of his helmet, arm restraints and belts before he can clamber out. Rod puts the pins back in the fire extinguishers and drops the guard over the scoop to stop salt finding its way into the engine. Norm has a grin from ear to ear.
“It’s got plenty of balls; it was just idling. And that track — it is so smooth,” he enthuses. This run was just a 150mph licensing pass, however; the eventual goal is to break the 200mph mark that has so far eluded the Big Knob Racing team.
If you’re wondering how difficult it is to make a short wheelbase roadster run past 200mph, consider that it’s foot flat to the boards for up to five miles. Then — if you’ve managed to build an engine that can handle that abuse — you have to think about traction. While the Bonneville salt is smooth this year, it’s as slippery as ice. Too much power to the ground too soon will at best result in a slow run, at worst, the car will spin like a ballerina. You have to ease into it.
“At a buck and a half [150mph] out there, it seems pretty slow,” says POP Motorsport’s Doug Odom, a laconic Californian who’s drier than the Bonneville salt and a veteran of US speed sports having learned his chops with the likes of Carroll Shelby and Holman Moody. “Once you’re used to it, you can start to notice if there’s anything new or different happening. Not too many things that are new or different are good.”
There are 500 other competitors running on three courses today, the first day of the week-long meet, but everything runs smoothly, thanks to the 100 volunteers and more than 60 years of experience. This means we should be on the long course by Monday, today being Saturday.
It’s been an anxious time for Norm. He’s fulfilling a childhood dream to race at Bonneville and just getting the car to the US was a big job. Castrol came to the party to cover the cost of shipping, then there was insurance and a heavy bond paid to customs, but he has a good team around him. Vicky is a whiz when it comes to cutting through red tape, while Rod Hadfield and his wife Carol know a thing or two about transporting cars to the US — Rod topped 200mph in his Studebaker at Bonneville in 1998.
Norm and Vicky had mates at the receiving end too. Al and Gail Phillips, and Doug Odom, who make up the POP Motorsports team, collected the ’34 from the docks and took it back to the Phillips’ home in Pismo Beach, California. This meant SCTA officials could conduct a pre-scrutineering check on the roadster, saving Norm from a World’s Fastest Indian-style knock-back on the salt itself. Lucky they did too, as the officials wanted a couple of extra bars on the rollcage and a couple of pieces of flat bar replaced with tube.
Again, Norm had plenty of help, with Rod, Oggie, team sparky Neil Davis and West Aussie Ian ‘Nashty’ Willis all fairly handy on the tools. The officials must have been impressed with the result, because the ’34 went through the thorough scrutineering processes with ease — the only hitch came when Norm fronted up to the starter to get his helmet inspected, only to discover it was packed full of socks and undies!
Neil gets his time slip signed by starter Wes Hutchens. The SCTA officials — many of them 200 and 300mph club members — are an impressive bunch, who command much respect from the racers and run the meeting with smooth good humour
The Big Knob Racing team for this event is rounded out by Neil’s better half Bev, engine builder Mat Lagoon and me; observer, tent erecter and beer consumer. We arrived in Utah two days before Norm’s first run, after an epic trip from Los Angeles, stopping in a blazing hot Las Vegas on the way. I’ve been told Utah has some amazing national parks, but the road out to Bonneville was just dust storms, fires and trigger-happy state troopers. Unlike our Lake Gairdner, which has miles of dirt road separating it from anything resembling civilization, Bonneville has the small casino town of Wendover located right next door.
Next to the lake is what looks like a posh refugee camp, featuring hundreds of Winnebagos, but the scene on the salt is stunning, with more than 500 entrants. They range from streamliners capable of pulling more than 400mph to tiny motorbikes, and everything in between. What the teams have in common, from the megabuck operations to the battlers, is their friendliness. While everyone is here with their own goals, the social aspect of the event is like nothing else in motorsport. After all, no-one is racing for sheep stations — for most competitors, the only tangible rewards are the blue or red SCTA caps awarded to those who break records faster than 200 or 300mph. The fastest car of the meet receives the perpetual Hot Rod trophy but even that comes without prize money. Bragging rights are the only currency worth a damn on the salt.
Come Sunday, the boys are still on the Special Course and have to run up to 175mph, being careful not to go too much quicker — if the officials think they’ve gone too fast too soon, they’ll be sent back to try again. Norm completes his second run at 179mph and is as pleased as punch.
“From 5700rpm it really comes alive. The cam kicks in and it starts pulling hard,” he says. “It feels like it’ll do 200mph easy.”
Oggie and Neil get through their runs quickly and we head back to the pits so that Mat can replace the plugs, change the oil and put a spanner over everything to make sure nothing has rattled loose.
The next day we are up before the sun to get the roadster out to the line for the start. We’re all in the groove now, getting used to finding our way around the massive course, with the pits, start-line and finish-line all separated by miles of salt. What’s more, we know the boys are just three passes away from their first chance to try for that 200mph run.
As we watch Norm make his first pass of the day, we are shaken out of our comfy routine. The car doesn’t sound right and Norm runs past the five-mile mark without any sign of the parachute opening. We give chase and find ourselves in the ‘crusties’, where the salt is far rougher than we have seen closer to the start line. We get to the car only to find the rough salt has torn up the fibreglass grille. Norm gives us the bad news: the engine won’t run over 6000rpm.
Back in the pits, a crowd of gawkers gathers, among them Aussies just there for a sticky-beak, watching engine-man Mat Lagoon pull out the ’plugs and report that two cylinders are not looking healthy. He removes the rocker covers and finds two broken roller rockers, a torched piston and two bent valves. It’s bad but Mat gets on with it, pulling off the manifolds and heads. Norm starts searching for a new set of rockers, while the others repair the grille.
The closest big town is Salt Lake City and while there are performance shops there, none has a set of big-block Ford roller rockers on the shelf. Norm then puts a distress call out over the PA and starts searching the pits, only to discover that Chevs seriously outnumber Fords on the salt. Finally he speaks to Chico Kodama of Mooneyes, who points him in the direction of Californian Mustang racer Gary Hahn. Even though it’s only Monday, Gary has achieved the goals he set himself for Speedweek — to run 198mph in his ’68 Mustang — and is kicking back.
“He sat us down, gave us a beer and started pulling down his engine,” Oggie says. “He not only gave us the roller rockers but also the girdle and rods. ‘Just get ’em back to me when you can.’ Simple as that.”
Gary’s kindness is a big help but the torched piston is not so easily solved and Mat has a full day’s work ahead of him on Tuesday.
“I’ll just put on my blue and white striped apron, scatter some sawdust around and get to work,” Mat jokes but he knows the job is risky. Trimming the daggy piston with a chisel does sound like butchery but produces far less debris than a grinder. Even with a little shade, it is long, hot work and with the pits closing at 8pm, it’s a race against time.
“Who’d believe I’d be out here trying to resurrect a Ford?” Al jokes. He’s a Chev man to his bootlaces.
“How do you think Doug feels?” Oggie counters. “He started working for Carroll Shelby and he ended up working for us!”
Bobby Moore’s Maro Special
Mat gets the heads back on, and the roller rockers fitted and adjusted. Then all the ancillaries go on and he fires it up to see how healthy it is.
“It sounds just like it did at home,” he smiles. “It might last the rest of the week or go bang first run back. We won’t know until we try.”
The team is understandably a little tense but our worries are thrown into sharp perspective when the news comes that a racer has been killed on the long course. Details are few but it emerges that 46-year-old Barry Bryant crashed on Sunday while running in excess of 200mph, his car rolling and disintegrating on impact. The first reports had the car listed as a roadster, so when we learn that it was actually a coupe, we feel a guilty sense of relief. That omen aside, it’s a sobering reminder that despite the wonderful sense of mateship and good vibes that land speed racing has to offer, it’s still a motorsport with real and serious risks.
Come Wednesday morning, Norm is ready to attack the long course for the first time. He wants to run the 200mph right off the bat, so Mat gives him a new redline of 5700rpm that should enable him to do just that with comfort. He has also upped the jet sizes significantly, so there should be a good margin of error. Then there’s the personal battle. Norm has put a lot of pressure on himself — after 10 years of running at Lake Gairdner, he wants the 200mph pass badly. Add to that the pressure of a sponsor who wants to see a result from his investment, and it’s a new ball-game.
We all know it too, and the tension is palpable as we cruise up to the three-door to wait for Norm and his $10,000 roadster. Again, the car sounds strong as it approaches. But at the two-mile mark he pops the ’chute and turns in. This time the car won’t go past 5000rpm, so it’s back to the pits for another ’plug check. The news is worse. There’s water on the ’plugs, so the bore is split. The ultimate culprit might have been a leak in the inlet manifold and there are rumours of other engines going bang on the SCTA’s control fuel, but for Big Knob Racing, the game is up.
The disappointment is sharp. The engine could have done the job with ease on the first day, and perhaps that’s on Norm’s mind as he rests his head on the rollcage for a couple of minutes. There’s some consolation in the fact that the team got eight runs in — far more than they would ever get in a week at Lake Gairdner — and to be licensed at Bonneville is a pretty special feeling in itself.
None of this has done anything to abate Norm’s salt fever — he knows for sure he’ll be back, as early as next year if he and Vicki can manage it.
“Even if we had run the 200mph, we’d have come back again to go faster anyway,” Vicki says. “The place is grouse, the people are amazing. We wouldn’t be able to help ourselves.”
Despite the disappointment, Norm agrees. “I’ve wanted to do this since I got involved in hot rodding. This is where it’s at; this is the ultimate. Some people got it fucked up and think hot rodding is about polishing cars but I reckon it’s about getting together with your mates and building something to go fast.”
AUSSIE ASSAULT 2: BIG KNOB’S REVENGE
THE motor for the 2009 assault was a ‘piece from here, piece from there’ deal in the best Mad Max tradition, based on a sleeved four-bolt 460 motor bought out of SA, wth Cobra Jet heads, twin 1050 Dominators, and the pistons and cam pulled from Norm’s previous engine. The next time Norm hits the salt, Mat will have built a donk using all-new bits, based on a siamese-bore SVO block, with a set of Kaase F51 or fettled Trick Flow heads and a new intake manifold with low-profile induction. The new engine will come in at around 430ci, putting the ’34 into B/Gas, which has a 232mph record, a smart move now that the Vintage Roadster A/Gas record has jumped to 252mph!
The car is also currently hampered by the overdrive top loader, which suffers some big rpm drops between gears and has a weak fourth gear, so Mat will donate a close-ratio Jericho ’box from his NASCAR.
MORE AT BONNEVILLE 2009:
1. Harry Soenksen’s ’50 Olds was back on the salt, after setting a record way back in 1958! Harry is no longer with us but the car has been fully restored by his mates and runs a blown Caddy motor and La Salle three-speed, just like it did back in the day, with only a few concessions to modern safety requirements. “Back in ’58 the only safety requirement was a lap belt. A race suit was a pair of Levis and a T-shirt,” the car’s owner, Larry H Maas, says
2. Gail Tesinsky’s Studebaker was a record-setting car for Gene Buckland and continues to be a barrel of fun for Gail as she chases a 262mph record. The car is powered by a blown 304ci iron-block Hemi
3. Bobby Moore’s Maro Special bristles with innovative thinking. The powerplant is a 498ci KB Hemi, assisted by a monster centrifugal blower, water/air intercooler and nitro fuel. Oh yeah, it runs four-wheel drive and hydraulic steering too! “This car can do 450–500mph if everything happens just right,” Bobby says
4. Brian Dean’s ’64 Fairlane runs a very angry 557ci Ford big-block, backed by a Richmond five-speed. “It gets a lot of attention. It’s fun to take a 60s square-body Ford and go 200.” So far they’ve done a best of 211mph in the old girl
5. Lee Sicilio’s Dodge Daytona was one of the prettiest cars on the salt. Packing 498ci of Ray Barton Hemi, the car goes well too, and ran a best of 214mph
6. Tim Boyle’s Salty Box Racing ’30 tudor runs a 10/71 Littlefield-blown and injected 519ci Caddy motor and ran a best of 209mph
7. Bill Harris’s Camaro runs a 320ci GMC six, with an Arias 12-port head. Good enough for 210mph without nitrous!
8. Ron Attebury has been building race cars for years, including Top Fuellers for the likes of Tommy Ivo, Shirley Muldowney and even one Graeme Cowin! His new creation is a Modified Gas Roadster, which runs a 351W mounted sideways in the rear
9. The Poteet and Main Speed Demon has been built to accept a number of engine combinations and this year was running a Duttweiler-built 299ci Dodge V8 assisted by a single 98mm turbo and pulled an exit speed of 401.285mph to take home the Hot Rod trophy for the fastest car of the meet
10. The Nebulous Theorem III streamliner runs a reverse-port flathead V8 and has coaxed a stunning 286mph out of the ancient powerplant
11. Erik Hansson from Scandinavian Street Rods punts an historic P38 belly tank, powered by a ProCharged flathead, set up blow-through style with two 500cfm Holleys and a water/air intercooler. The chassis and suspension are exquisitely crafted. Erik smashed his class record with 225mph but blew the engine and was unable to back it up
12. Hot Rod Lincoln was built by Ray Spears and Tom Kennington as a tribute to the Panamerica racers of the 1950s. The ’54 Lincoln Capri runs a 322ci Y-block for a best of 125mph, complete with a/c and fast glass
13. Jeff Brock’s bare metal ’52 Buick Super was one of the stars of the salt. Body mods include an 8in roof chop and a narrowed and wedged front clip. It runs a 324ci straight eight from a ’50 Roadmaster and reset the class record with a best of 133mph