Flat-out fast: Pursuing speed record on salt flats - The Daily Progress: Entertainment/Life

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Flat-out fast: Pursuing speed record on salt flats

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Posted: Sunday, October 16, 2011 7:00 am | Updated: 2:21 pm, Wed Jan 23, 2013.


The first thing you hear is static on the CB radio, telling you that there’s a car on the track. Then there’s nothing but the silence of sun, sky, distant mountains and salt.

When the car first appears, it’s a mirage. Five miles from the starting line, through binoculars or your camera’s telephoto lens, it shimmers motionless, a mere speck hovering over the surface of the salt.

The illusion evaporates as soon as it registers. Sound returns as a steady drone, turns into a wail and quickly becomes the anguished shriek of a race-tuned V8 engine being pushed almost to the breaking point.

The car itself is no longer a speck and hovering mirage. The speck has transformed itself into vintage hot rod, a jet-black roadster hurtling forward at an improbable speed.

As the car passes, the shriek subsides. A parachute blooms; the car slows and drifts out of sight, disappearing again below the curvature of the earth.

Welcome to Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, the fastest place on earth.

You’ve just seen Robin Dripps, a Batesville resident, University of Virginia professor and record-setting land speed racer, at the wheel of her 1932 Ford roadster. On Aug. 13, the first day of competition at the Southern California Timing Association’s Speed Week, she was going more than 200 miles per hour at the end of her run. Later in the meet, she’d cover a measured mile at 204 miles per hour and qualify to run for a new class record.

Dripps is no newcomer to Bonneville, or to motor sports in general. Her fascination with speed goes back to her high school days in suburban Philadelphia, when she was drag racing motorcycles and shoehorning a big Corvette engine into a tiny British sports car. She still has a warm spot in her heart for that 1954 Austin Healy.

“It was an amazing car — incredibly light and incredibly fast.” Even then, Dripps dreamed of racing on the salt flats.

“Bonneville was Mecca,” she said. “Anybody interested in hot rods just had to be there.”

The Bonneville Salt Flats has been casting its spell on racers for nearly 100 years. This otherworldly landscape, located about 120 miles due west of Salt Lake City, is without question the finest place for land speed racing on earth.

A vast, dead-level, unbroken expanse of hard-packed, 90-percent-pure table salt, covering 30,000 acres and stretching for 12 miles in one direction and 5 in the other, it’s what had been the floor of ancient Lake Bonneville. Now, 17,000 years later, it offers land speed racers plenty of room to accelerate up to speed and, just as crucially, to come to a stop.

Louise Ann Noeth, a leading historian of land speed racing, calls Bonneville “the ultimate speed laboratory, where you can spin out at 200 miles per hour and not hit a darn thing.”

The Southern California Timing Association has been hosting Speed Week at Bonneville every August since 1949, about a decade before Dripps started dreaming about setting records on the salt. For the next four decades, however, it was a dream deferred.

After graduating from high school, and, later, from Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, Dripps embarked on a career in architecture that has brought her international acclaim and an appointment as the T. David FitzGibbon Professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia.

Dripps says that the dream came back to life only in 2002, when a friend “suggested the crazy of idea of racing at Bonneville.” That friend was Robert “Rob” Gibby, who had been a running mate when they were teenage hot rodders and who is now a successful businessman.

Dripps and Gibby quickly agreed that if they were going to go to Bonneville, they were going to do it the “classic” way — in a vintage Ford roadster, the sort of car that hot rodders have been building and racing since before World War II. The team’s 1932 Ford, powered by a distinctly non-vintage 600-horsepower V8 engine and supported by a sophisticated racing chassis, is as classic as land speed racing cars come.

Choosing to race as “classic roadster” was the easy part. Designing and constructing a car that was capable of challenging the existing class record took three years.

Gibby said that Dripps is both “an engineering genius” and a perfectionist. The car’s design, based on extensive research, is largely hers. So are many of the parts. Those that she didn’t fabricate herself were made to her specifications. As Dripps said, “There probably isn’t a nut or bolt on the car that we haven’t been engaged with in some kind of way.”

The car was ready to run in 2005, but the salt flats weren’t. Speed Week was entirely rained out that year.

In 2006, the Gibby and Dripps racing team went back and, at Bonneville for the first time, set a new record in the E/STR “street roadster” class of 168 miles per hour. In 2007, they raised their own record to 173 miles per hour. That speed has been eclipsed since then, so year’s team agenda was clear — reclaim the record. If they did that, they also would surpass, for the first time, 200 miles per hour — the gold standard of land speed racing.

The Gibby and Dripps Ford was one of 368 cars competing at this year’s Speed Week. There also were 198 motorcycles on hand. It is as diverse a group of vehicles as you can imagine.

The vehicles vary from slick streamliners that look more like rockets than cars to sedans that would look at home in a shopping center parking lot. Running in scores of different classes, the fastest of them will exceed 400 miles per hour. The slowest will struggle to reach 75.

About 2,500 drivers and crew members accompanied the vehicles. Adding in the 2,000 or so spectators, race officials and media representatives suggests that the salt flats were well populated during the race.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. The “vast whiteness” of Bonneville, to use Dripps’s phrase, is so large that it dwarfed the human presence. It’s a truly disorienting landscape, something that challenges everyone who sets foot on it.

The first two days of Speed Week are devoted to “tech” inspection. Officials go over each car and motorcycle with a fine-toothed comb, looking for rules violations and, especially, making sure that all the required safety systems are in place.

The inspectors know what they’re doing. Some are experienced land speed racers, while others are automotive engineers and race car constructors. The Gibby and Dripps team quickly fixed the minor flaws that the inspectors found in the roadster, and the car was certified to race. It was a good sign. As Dripps said, simply “getting through the tech inspection is a huge accomplishment.”

Racing began at noon on Saturday, Aug. 13. Tension hangs in the air before any run, and it’s particularly heavy on the first day of the meet. No matter how carefully the team has prepared the car, there is always a worry that a small mechanical gremlin can spoil the run.

More ominously, there’s the largely unspoken fear that something terrible can happen to a car and driver that are racing down the salt, at an unimaginable speed, on the fine edge of control. Bonneville has been its share of fatalities. The Southern California Timing Association’s rulebook doesn’t hesitate to spell out the risk — “Land Speed Racing is a dangerous sport. There is no such thing as a guaranteed safe high-speed run.”

One of those mechanical gremlins appeared on Dripps’s very first run. The roadster’s tachometer malfunctioned, giving Dripps a false reading while she was speeding down the course. Thinking that the car’s engine was turning over too fast, she backed off the accelerator early. The result was disappointing run at 186 miles per hour — much slower than the team had anticipated and nearly 20 miles per hour shy of the class record.

After returning to the pits and downloading the data that engine sensors store into her computer, Dripps identified the problem. It was an electrical glitch that was corrected easily.

Back on the course in the late afternoon, the car showed the sort of performance that the team hoped that it would. It passed through the last measured mile at 196 miles per hour and reached a top speed of a fraction more than 200 miles per hour. The pass wasn’t quick enough to qualify for a record attempt, and to be accepted as a 200-mph pass, the speed has to be achieved in the measured mile. But the car showed the team that it had the power to challenge the record.

Tomorrow, everyone was sure, would be their day.

On Sunday, however, the team rediscovered what it already knew — that there’s rarely a straight path to a land speed record.

Sometime during the run, a brake caliper broke its mount and began to drag on the rotor, slowing the car to 195 miles per hour. It was disappointing, but Dripps thought it was a good sign that the car could run that fast with a malfunctioning caliper. Once it was fixed, she was sure that the record would be in sight.

On Monday, the car, the team and the driver were ready to go for the record, but the salt and the weather were not. The salt had become hard and slick, making it difficult for cars and motorcycles to find the traction that they needed. In the late afternoon, a thunderstorm brought racing to halt.

Lucia Phinney, a team member and Dripps’s personal and professional partner, points out, “This is a nature-driven event.”

Tuesday was even worse than Monday, as far as the racers were concerned. The rain had caused the salt to deteriorate even further. Several cars spun out, and all posted relatively slow speeds. Late in the day, race officials decided to move the racetrack to fresh salt. This is a common enough occurrence at Speed Week. The racing surface easily deteriorates, and officials have learned to change to a new course overnight. Racers, knowing that a new course is likely to be a fast course, bring their cars to the staging lanes at the crack of dawn.

Wednesday morning was cool and dry — perfect weather for speed. As Dripps accelerated down the course, the fresh salt proved to be everything that the team hoped it would be. It was smooth, and she could tell that the traction was good. At the starting line, the team thought that the engine note was deep and clean, as it had been all week.

It’s a peculiarity of racing at Bonneville that teams lose sight of the car as it dips below the horizon about two miles from the starting line. From that moment on, teams rely on the voice of a timer, coming to them over a CB radio, to let them know whether a car is running fast and true or whether something unplanned and unwanted has happened.

On this run, the Gibby and Dripps roadster was golden. It ran faster before, reaching a speed of 204 mph, which was faster than the existing record and qualified it to make a record attempt.

It was a spectacular pass, and everyone knew it. The jubilation wasn’t confined to the Gibby and Dripps team. With their short wheelbases, high centers of gravity and brick-like aerodynamics, roadsters become highly unstable at speeds approaching 200 mph. That’s why, as Dripps says, “There’s a huge amount of respect for going over 200 mph in one of these things. Two hundred miles per hour — that’s the magic number here.”

After the run, the team bypassed the pits and headed straight to the impound lot. When a car or motorcycle qualifies to make a record run, it’s impounded until the next morning. Only a minimal amount of maintenance can be performed. The goal is to make sure that no changes are made and that the vehicle that makes the record attempt is exactly the same as it was when it qualified. Despite the restrictions, every driver and team member at Bonneville will tell you that one of the most beautiful sights on the salt is one’s own car or motorcycle in the impound lot.

Every morning during Speed Week, there’s mad dash out of the impound lot, as the teams race to the staging lanes, hoping to secure a place near the front. The earlier a car or motorcycle runs, the cooler the air, and the faster it goes — in theory, at least.

On this Thursday morning, the Gibby and Dripps team was part of that mad dash, but didn’t manage to grab a spot near the front of the line. Still, conditions remained favorable when the team pushed Dripps and her roadster to the starting line. As he always does, Gibby leaned into the car to give Dripps some calming words of encouragement. Giving her a fist-pump, he backed away, and the roadster headed down the track. Another run like yesterday’s would set a new record and bring the record back home to Batesville.

It was not to be. Even before the car disappeared from sight over the horizon, the team knew that something was wrong. The transmission refused to shift from first gear to second, and everyone at the starting line could hear the engine straining raucously against the rev limiter. Under the circumstances, it was the ugliest sound imaginable.

Dripps’s top speed on her final run was 199 mph, too slow to establish a new record. That left the door open for California driver Kevin Banks and the SPD Exhaust.com team, who set a new class record of just more than 204 mph.

After the run, Dripps was surprisingly upbeat. Setting a new record, she pointed out, is extraordinarily difficult. “Everything has to be right. You can’t mess up.”

Besides, the team had managed to put several feathers in its collective cap. There was, of course, the unalterable fact of having made a pass at more than 200 mph. In addition, as Dripps said, the team had “bumped up” all of its speeds significantly and had built a car that was “handling beautifully.”

New records are important, but they’re far from the entire story. Summing up Speed Week 2011, team member Phinney said, “We’ve had more fun than ever.”

In a sport that offers nothing in the way of prize money and little in the way of fame, fun is its own reward. Looking forward to next year, Phinney added with a smile, “The program’s in awfully good shape.”

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