The world is an oddly serene place when you’re streaking across the salt at 400 mph.
You’ve wrestled your car, if that term applies to a 2,000-horsepower missile, into something approaching submission. The skull-rattling, vision-blurring vibration smoothed out somewhere around 300 mph, so you can see clearly again. It’s still a rough ride — you are moving 586 feet per second, after all — and noisy as hell. But, like the eye of a storm, it’s eerily calm.
“It’s very loud, but it’s very quiet because you’re tuned in,” said Amir Rosenbaum, who currently holds two land speed records and is no stranger to absurd velocities. “Your conscious mind is completely clear. There is no thought. You’re blank. You’re hypersensitive. You’re seeing everything but nothing at the same time and hearing everything and nothing at the same time.
“There is,” he says, “nothing else like it.”
Rosenbaum knows that feeling well. He is among the few drivers to top 400 mph in a piston-powered, wheel-driven automobile. He hopes to do so again this week as more than 500 speed freaks gather at Bonneville Speedway for one of the most iconic events in motorsports.
Infidel, under construction just two weeks before Speedweek. Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com
Bonneville Speedweek is among the purest forms of racing: A driver, a car and a straight line. The only objective is getting from Point A to Point B at the highest possible speed. Gearheads of every description have descended on the Bonneville Speedway each summer for more than 70 years to do just that. This year’s event, which started Saturday, is expected to draw some 500 contestants to the vast salt flats west of Salt Lake City.
“It’s Burning Man for car guys,” Rosenbaum said.
The event, sanctioned by the Southern California Timing Association and Bonneville Nationals, has something for everyone. Vintage roadsters. Contemporary coupes. Motorcycles. Streamliners built specifically for salt. It seems there are as many classes at Bonneville — dictated by engine size and fuel — as contestants.
Rosenbaum, the founder of automotive accessory company Spectre Performance, is competing in five classes. He hopes to set records in all of them, but he’s going all-in for AA/BFS. That’s shorthand for streamliners running the largest turbocharged or supercharged methanol-burning engines. Simply stated, it’s where almost anything goes.
“AA fuel is the ultimate,” he said. “These are the fastest piston-powered, wheel-driven cars on the planet.”
Team Spectre is running one car; the only difference is the engine bolted into the bay. The Spectre Streamliner — also known as Infidel — is a needle 37 feet long and just 29 inches wide at the cockpit. It’s heavy, coming in at 4,700 pounds ready to race, with tandem front wheels to minimize aerodynamic drag.
“The key to all of this is low frontal area so you can push through that air,” said crew chief Steve Schmalz of Performance Fabrication in San Carlos, California. That, however, is about the extent of the aerodynamic design behind Infidel’s slick hand-formed aluminum body. The car was designed largely by eye.
“If it looks right, it’s right,” Schmalz said.
Streamliners aren’t built for comfort, they’re built for speed. The cockpit is 29 inches wide. Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com
Rosenbaum is competing in essentially the same car the team ran in 2009, when it set a record, and in 2010, when it set two more. Schmalz made a few changes to boost performance — tweaking the aero, adding weight to improve traction — and make it easier to swap engines.
The team has five engines, one for each class. They all use 1960’s-era Cadillac blocks, heads and cranks with the usual race-ready components, Garrett turbochargers and an air-shifted five-speed transmission. They’re monsters, displacing between 430 and 530 cubic inches. Two of them run on methanol and put down as much as 2,000 horsepower. What’s it like having that kind of power beneath your right foot?
“Phenomenal,” Schmalz said. “It doesn’t make any power until 4,000 RPM, but when the boost comes on she wakes up in a hurry.”
That’s the engine coolant tank beneath a pair of fire extinguishers. Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com
Everything else about the cars is equally larger than life. The fuel tank carries 16 gallons, which is just enough for one run. The intercooler tank holds 32 gallons; the engine coolant tank holds 36. The carbon-fiber brake rotors are 12 inches in diameter, but they’re mere backups for the two 25-square-foot parachutes.
The team made its first run Saturday, but electrical gremlins wreaked havoc with one of the five engines, damaging both the engine and the rear differential. The team spent Sunday making repairs. But out on the salt, the biggest challenge isn’t mechanical, it’s natural.
“We have control over the car,” Schmalz said. “It’s Mother Nature I’m worried about. How windy is it? How smooth is the track? How dry is it? What direction is the wind coming from? All of these things matter.”
There’s more to racing a streamliner than mashing the throttle and holding on. A truck pushes the running car up to about 60 mph. There’s no point trying to bring the car up to speed without the assist, Rosenbaum says, because the course isn’t long enough and the gearing won’t allow it. Once the truck has him up to speed, Rosenbaum is feathering the clutch to control his launch.
“You don’t want to get away too hard or you’ll burn all the rubber off your tires,” he said.
He’s still in first gear at this point, accelerating hard and ever so gently using the brake as needed to control wheelspin. Once the run starts, there’s no letting up off the throttle.
“You don’t want wheelspin because you aren’t getting forward momentum,” he said. “But you also don’t want to let off the gas. You want to get to 100 percent throttle as fast as you can.”
He’s running full-throttle by the time he shifts to fourth gear and fighting a car that wants to go anywhere but straight ahead.
“Up to 175 or 200 mph, the car is shaking and bucking so hard it’s hard to see,” he said. “It’s all a blur, and you’re going purely by feel. By 300 mph, it smooths out.
“Your left foot is busy with the brake, your right foot is flat on the gas and your hands are busy with the wheel,” he said. “You’re constantly feeling for wheelspin and in tune with the sound of the car. And you’re looking at the mile markers.”
They’re flashing by in an instant. The track is five miles long (with another 2.5 to bring the cars to a stop), and Rosenbaum said he’ll cover the last mile in about 8 seconds.
“Figure a minute and a half for a full run,” he said. “But it feels like a lifetime.”
There isn’t much room for error when you’re running flat-out. If things go bad, they can go very bad indeed. Such thoughts don’t plague Rosenbaum out on the salt.
They plague him before he gets there.
“Weeks before I leave, I’ve got butterflies, I’m not sleeping well, I’ve got diarrhea. Anyone who isn’t cognizant of the risk is nuts,” he says. “But once I’m in the car, I’m calm.”
Once you arrive at Bonneville, all thoughts turn to the task at hand — setting the record. Rosenbaum and the Speed By Spectre crew already hold two, both of them set last year. He set the AA/BGS record at 348.342 mph, then set the A/BGS record at 356.645 the following day. He wants to defend those records, and set new ones in three others classes, including AA/BFS.
He’s already achieved 415 mph during the Top Speed Shootout sanctioned by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile. He hopes to exceed that by a comfortable margin this year at Bonneville.
“We’d like to run in the 430s,” he said. “That would make us the fastest wheel-driven car on the planet, ever. That would be nice.”
Main photo: Spectre Performance. The Spectre Streamliner, out on the salt.
The parachutes go here. The car’s got 12-inch carbon-fiber brakes, but they’re strictly for backup. The chutes do all the work. Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com
The Spectre Performance team has set three records with the Spectre Streamliner and currently holds two. Rosenbaum hopes to defend the two he already holds and set three new ones. Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com
Infidel, two weeks before Speedweek. Every shop needs a dog. Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com
The Spectre Streamliner was nowhere near finished when we visited Performance Fabrication, so Spectre provided some glamor shots of last year’s car. This year’s car is essentially the same. All photos: Spectre Performance
All of the bodywork is aluminum, formed by hand. It’s matte black because it looks cool. And yes, it gets really freakin’ hot out on the salt, Schmalz said.
The team is bringing five Cadillac engines, each built for a different class. They range from 430 to 530 cubic inches and feature stock blocks, heads and cranks. The rest is heavy-duty racing gear. If nothing breaks, the team can get a dozen runs before needing to rebuild the engine.
Each engine has a pair of Garrett GT47 turbochargers. “We’ve been as high as 29 psi,” Schmalz said. “We’re hoping to go into the high 30s, but we’re not sure how high we can go with stock Cadillac heads.”
That’s the 32-gallon intercooler tank behind the front wheelwells. The front wheels run in tandem — one behind the other — to minimize frontal area and improve aerodynamics.
The interior is all business, and very snug.
Out on the salt in 2010, when Rosenbaum set the AA/BGS record of 348.342 mph and the A/BGS record of 356.645. Rosenbaum topped the previous A/BGS record by more than 70 mph.
One run at Bonneville, 2010.