IF A little car-freak kid could somehow see his crayon-drawn rocket car magically fall off the kindergarten wall and roar to life, it would probably look like Jim Knapp’s streamliner. This car’s stunning profile certainly has the simplicity and purity of a child’s drawing, with its snout beginning just inches from the ground and flowing up over a slit-like windscreen, past two holes for the engine and finishing in the flourish of its high, plane-like tail.
This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of Street Machine
And during Jim’s 291mph practice run on Thursday morning of 2019 Speed Week on the wide, flat and fast salt surface of South Australia’s Lake Gairdner, for a few gleeful seconds I felt like a four-year-old me, babbling excitedly and pointing at the blue-and-white ‘rocket’ car.
Of course, grown-up me knows that land speed racing – aiming for maximum speed across the sun-baked mud, sand or salt of a dry lake – is far more complicated. It takes commitment, ingenuity, engineering, determination, respect, obstinance, maybe even a bit of madness – and the only place in Australia to see or participate in it is Lake Gairdner.
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This salt thing gets under your skin; it seems most of those who made the 200km dirt-road trek from the turn-off at Iron Knob (nearly five hours’ north of Adelaide) are repeat offenders. The fact these salties come back year after year is not only indicative of the allure and addiction of running fast on the salt, but a testament to the mateship and sense of community the racers share. It’s also because of the sheer effort that is needed to construct a car for the salt.
The laidback nature of the event means that many racers treat the week as an annual holiday. The personal rewards for going fast are pumped up by the stunning outback scenery (sunset beers at the canteen are awesome), the camping and the camaraderie.
This year there were around 240 entrants; around 75 were first-timers. Two-thirds brought bikes; the car contingent ranged from multi-million-buck efforts such as Knapp’s streamliner to purpose-built lakesters to more modest machines such as Skip Telford’s self-built, chopped and Subie-powered VW Beetle. In the middle were a stack of street car-based Holden and Ford stuff, which, although appearing familiar to most street machiners, are built for speeds approaching and surpassing 200mph. That’s 320 kays. And there were a few trucks this year, too!
The combination of cars, speed and sometimes-experimental engineering means that mechanical gubbins are a fact of life for many competitors. In fact, the pits started to noticeably thin out by Wednesday: Many had either done the numbers they wanted, or their week was brought to a premature end by mechanical mayhem or breakages.
Regular at the lake, Mark Dunn, ran 243mph on Wednesday, but on Thursday, chasing a record, the Chev in Mark’s family-entered lakester (daughter Gemma and son Kurt also drive it) popped some rods out. “It’s had a good run,” Mark said of the engine as his family and crew packed on Thursday. “It’s due for a freshen-up. It’s had dozens of passes out here.”
He wasn’t the only one; a bold black Hudson Terraplane also spat some spinny bits, as did one of the little Beetles. All around the pits there were stories of clutches frying, tyres popping and compression or boost mysteriously disappearing from engines.
Flashback: Norm Hardinge's Aussie assault at Bonneville
The weather was a bit ‘broken’ this year, too. Two days prior to racing it was 49°C. Prep-day Sunday and the first race-day Monday were well into the 40s. On Monday afternoon the usually clear blue desert sky darkened as a high storm rolled in; later that night it slapped the campsite and lake with rain and some almighty lightning, too – which killed the track timing equipment. Thankfully the efforts of the track ‘staff’ – made up entirely of competitors, each of whom is rostered an organisational task during the week – had the timing system operating again in a few hours. Wednesday lunchtime it was 20°, and only 12 as we drove onto the lake on Thursday morning.
But that’s Speed Week for you – it’s the salt, mate. Competitors swear by it as much as they swear at it. If you’re into fast stuff, it’s worth the trek: Save, plan, organise, road-trip – do it.
1. Jim Knapp’s US-built streamliner runs a 520-cube Brad Anderson Fat Head Hemi inhaling boost from two 88mm Garrett turbos. Incredibly, the 2000hp car is four-wheel drive, with the Hemi, B&J five-speed and driveline squeezed in a body that’s only around a metre wide. “It should run 315mph at 21/4 miles,” Jim said after his Thursday run. His run on Friday yielded 309, so there’s some set-up and development remaining for this first-timer to Aussie salt
2. Imagine the plums you’d need to pilot an LS-powered bike across the salt at almost three times the legal speed limit? Russell Lowe has done it on this weapon, with a best of 181.5mph
3. “We wanted to a do a mile per hour per cubic inch,” said Greg Telford of his 140mph bellytanker, Olden Grey. Internally, the 138ci Holden grey motor has a balanced stock crank, higher-than-standard 8.8:1 comp and a lumpier cam. It breathes through an ex-Porsche triple-throat carby and delivers just under 100hp to the treads. Next year it will have a blower on board
4. This is Australia’s fastest Barra! Craig Rogers’s Typhoon lakester runs an SRE-built BA-with-FG-induction mill and has seen 255mph. Upstairs, it’s modded with Crow Cams hardware and is backed by a Tremec five-speed, pumping 645hp to a very narrow spooled 9in. Craig’s ambition is to beat the E/BGL class record held by a USA lakester, so he’ll be looking at a sequential shift and a bigger turbo before next year
5. Norm Bradshaw and team arrived at the salt determined to have a good time after three unlucky years in their 250mph, 438ci turbo taxi. Aaron Bradshaw’s 215mph shakedown run went well, but fellow cabbie Simon Barclay popped the chutes when the car became unsettled at 220+. Ballast was moved, but a turbo-line oil leak while Norm was driving caused a fire
6. Gavin Manning’s big blue salt truck has a 23L Cummins QSK23 plonked into an ex-race Ford Supertruck chassis. Rebuilt over six years, the 1800hp rig showed a maximum 145mph on its shakedown run. “But there’s no soot!” said Gavin, which meant that not enough fuel was being fed into it. That couldn’t be improved at the event, so the team headed home to sort things out for next time
7. James Gunn’s EF Falcon ran a 205 on Monday and backed that up with a 208 on Tuesday. Not bad for a pre-Barra six-cylinder! Jim runs single-cam Intech power in his Falcon, but it’s boosted big to 22psi for 650hp at the wheels
8. Mike Drewer debuted this ’63 Beetle-based, Subaru WRX-powered Volksrod last year, and it was back this year with his US-based son Tom behind the wheel. The internally standard but upgraded-turbo Subie puts around 350hp to the salt. “We think the open diff means we’re spinning one wheel as soon as it makes boost,” Mike said. “As soon as it spools up it’s all over the place!” PB? 148.7mph
9. Jeff Haley’s good old Falcon ute has a 406ci Cleveland tucked under its bonnet. “It’s just an old shitbox that was lying around,” laughed Jeff. “I bought it for a carton of Jimmy cans!” On debut last year it ran a 151, and this year went home with a 162mph pass and the promise of more for 2020
10. The family of Mark (dad), Gemma and Kurt Dunn work seamlessly as a team when prepping their lakester for a run. All three drive, so there are revolving roles depending on who is in the car. Unfortunately, it was rods-out for the team on Thursday as they chased a record
11. Regular salty Tom Noack double-entered his new-nosed VN Commodore this year with good mate Darryn Weeks. The 6.0L L98-powered car, which has competed since 2013, was run on both E85 (in the C/FCC class) and petrol (C/GCC class) this year. Tom wrestled the VN on soapy salt to 180mph during his first settle-in run on Wednesday, but managed to power on for a best of 209.241mph