Bonneville Salt Flat Racer; go fast or go home

Bonneville Salt Flat Racer; go fast or go home
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Documentary DVD movie by The Kickass Factory
Review by Richard Parks, photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz

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Quality of the DVD, sound and content ranks a 7 sparkplugs (out of a possible 8)!

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Bonneville Salt Flat Racer; go fast or go home is a documentary DVD movie by The Kickass Factory, produced in Wallan, Australia, by Norm Hardinge and Vicki Howard. There are two discs and the story line concerns Australians and New Zealanders as they take their cars to the Bonneville Salt Flats for the 2008 SpeedWeek.

There is a magical and mystical lure to Bonneville, ever since the first pioneers in covered wagon and fur trappers tried to cross the huge inland lake. There is something very exotic about the Kiwis from New Zealand and the Aussies from Australia. It could be that they are at the ends of the earth, or their strange twisting pronunciation of the English language, but I prefer to think of it as the youthful exuberance and zeal to anything that they put their hand to. I am never quite sure what the filmmaker has in mind until I review the movie. The Down-unders always seem to surprise me, so my expectations were high for this movie. There are two discs with about 2 ½ hours of action, interviews and unrelenting rock and roll music. The music is intense and I suppose the proper genre would be rock-a-billy with an Aussie twist. Most of the music blended in quite well with the video and the music was never a distraction. There were two bands involved; The Flattrakkers and Wild Turkey and one would never have thought they were from Australia withoutreading the enclosed jacket that came with the plastic disc holders. There were more than 60 interviews, often one interview overlapping on another and for the first hour it was hard to keep track of the various teams. By the end of the second disc I had no trouble understanding which group belonged to which racing team.

I thought about matching up people to vehicles and giving you a background, but then when you viewed the movie, you would already know what happened. But I will give you a summation of who was in the DVD and my impression of their value. Before that I should tell you that the video far exceeded my expectations as a documentary. The filmmakers are trying to reach several audiences; the die-hard land speed racers, the novices to this sort of racing and those who enjoy action of a sort not seen except in straight-line racing. The officials seem to have understood that mandate and make every attempt to explain what they are doing in the simplest terms possible. Land speed racing pits man and machine against time itself. There are no prizes for the winner and the competition is not with other racers, but against nature. The clock, mechanical problems and the elements are the enemies of the land speed racer. Records are meant to be made and then broken, by others or by yourself. It is a sport that constantly seeks greater speeds and demands more endurance. Land speed racing began with the invention of the automobile, as each car builder tested his car against the clock to see how it would perform. Today’s sport is much more complex and the safety rules vastly superior to those of the past. Bonneville Salt Flat Racer; go fast or go home gives the viewer a sense of that past, while providing us with a picture of modern day land speed racing.

Lee Kennedy and Steve Davies lead off the introduction to Bonneville Salt Flat Racer; go fast or go home. Kennedy is the Technical Committee Chairman and the Cars and Special Constructions Chairman for the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) and the BNI, which oversees the land speed trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah during the August Speed Week each year. Steve Davies is the Chief Car Inspector at Bonneville. Next to be interviewed was Jerry Kugel in his shop. Kugel produces some of the most beautiful roadsters and has exhibited them at the Grand National Roadster Show. He also builds some very fast machines, one of which demolished my brother’s record by 81 miles per hour (mph). For the 2008 Speed Week, Kugel was building a roadster for his daughter to race. Jerilyn Kugel is enthused about joining her family in going fast. There are always rookies at Bonneville each year and they approach their first runs with trepidation. Yet the officials are there to help them and those who have raced before are eager to give them advice. Jerilyn would make her first trial run and keep the speed under 150 mph to earn her BNI D license. Her next run would exceed 150 mph and earn her a C license. To earn her B license she had to go over 175 mph but not go over 199 mph. She made her third run with her father as her crew chief and sped to a time of 181 mph. She had now only to exceed 200 mph to achieve her A license. The officials of the SCTA/BNI enforce this rule as a means to see how a driver can handle speeds in a safe and knowledgeable manner. When a driver receives his license, he can drive his car down the course as often as he wants as long as he stays within the parameters of his license. When a driver receives his A license, he can race as fast as he wishes.

Chico Kodama from Moon Eyes was interviewed in his shop. The clip also showed a moon disk being made on a metal bending machine. Ghost, a well-known pinstriper from Japan, now living in California, did the pinstriping on the car Chico was building to honor Fred Larsen. Greg Sharp was interviewed at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California. He is the curator for the museum and one of the most knowledgeable hot rodders around. Sharp is a retired policeman whose love for the car culture, racing and hot rodding is well known. There isn’t much that Greg doesn’t know about the sport and when you get this shy man to talk about his love of cars, he can be very interesting. The next interview was special. Art Chrisman spoke about going to Bonneville in 1951, just two years after the first Bonneville SpeedWeek was held. Art has done it all. He is a pioneer in the sport of drag racing and his son Mike carries on today as a racer and a hot rod builder. Art is still active building engines and cars. There just aren’t very many originals left in the sport of drag and land speed racing and Art is one of them still active and still searching for records. Tim Kraushar was interviewed next and he is another pioneer. Tim is from Seal Beach, California and his Bonneville car was built by Steve Davis, another well known race car and hot rod builder. Tim and John Rodek have built over 12,000 small block Chevy motors and you can expect that whatever powerplant Kraushar puts in his cars will go very fast. Dion Wilcox and Craig Sutton are two Aussies and they were interviewed on their trip to Bonneville. The cameramen follow Dion and Craig as they explain how they bought their hot rod, then to several car shows and on the long, hot and dusty drive from Southern California to the Bonneville Salt Flats.

There is a pilgrimage of sorts for land speed racers as they retrace the original trip to Bonneville from Los Angeles over 60 years ago. That first trip occurred in 1947, just after World War II when the servicemen were being discharged and sent home. John Cobb brought his famous land speed car from England to go after the ultimate record and magazines and newspapers published accounts across Europe and America. Many young men made the long and lonely drive from Southern California to the salt flats to see this event. My father, Wally Parks, led a contingent of young men from the SCTA, and was so enthralled by the hard, flat surface and miles of runway that he lobbied for the SCTA to promote land speed racing at Bonneville. As the Secretary and General Manager of the SCTA, he wielded great influence and backing him up was Ak Miller, President of the SCTA. In 1948, Parks went to Salt Lake City, Utah, with Robert Petersen and Lee Ryan, to see Ab Jenkins, the Mayor of the city, and see if they could lease the salt flats. Ab took to the young men and put in a good word with the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, who was at that time in charge of the lease agreements with the salt flats. They were given a lease to run one meet there in August of 1949, and if these “hooligans” from Southern California behaved themselves, the CC would consider a second lease. The SCTA/BNI organization must have been model citizens for they are celebrating their 60th anniversary racing on the salt flats. All land speeders make that first trip to Bonneville and if they are traditional they will do it the same way as the first trip was made, in a truck hauling a trailer with the race car. The truck won’t be air-conditioned and the crew will squirt each other with a water bottle and try and keep as cool as possible while they travel down two lane highways across the Mojave desert in California, through Las Vegas, Nevada and then north along the old Snake Highway, going north through eastern Nevada. The long, monotonous and tiring 13 hour trip is offset by the stunning beauty of the dry, sere desert, the tall mountains on either side of the valleys along the way. Ely is like an oasis and then comes the trek through the White Horse Pass. More than one person has encountered a run-in or into the wild horse herds that cross the road.

Nevertheless, Dion and Craig successfully made the trip and glide out on the great salt flats. The nostalgia for Bonneville burns deeply in the Aussies and Kiwis, but they have their own rite of passage in their trek from Adelaide to Port Augusta and then west across the desert to Lake Gairdner, a pristine salt lake some 60 miles across. Dion and Craig join others at the Silver Nugget in Wendover, Nevada, where a car show was staged. Gail Phillips was the first woman to go over 200 mph at Lake Gairdner, Australia, at a sanctioned timed meet. She hopes to go over 300 mph with her new Streamliner, which she crashed at Speedweek 2008. Gail has set records in a Modified Sports Healey and in her 1999 Corvette. Gail is a friend and one of the fastest women drivers in the world. The car show paraded street rods, Bonneville cars, rat rods, traditional hot rods and all sorts of unique and interesting cars. Tex Smith, an original Bonneville racer from 1949’s first meet, was interviewed. His interview alone is worth the cost of this DVD. Tex is an old friend of the family, who worked for my father and step-mother at Hot Rod magazine and the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). Tex is a writer, photographer and publisher and he has seen and done it all. I was hoping for much more on this grand old man of hot rodding. Finally we are on the salt flats and Dave Green, who is a car inspector, is interviewed on what the inspectors look for in a race car and any danger signals that have to be resolved before they give their okay to let the driver race. Inspectors have been maligned and cursed for decades, but their job is paramount. They make the final decision and if they say you can’t race, then you have to fix the problem or go home.

The interviews are mixed in with live action scenes, rousing music and various officials examining the cars and going through their routines. The bedlam is actually quite organized and thorough. Scott Goetz and Pete Aardema are members of the San Diego Roadster club, a club with a long history from the very early days of the SCTA. Frank Morris was a newby at the lakes and part of the Morris/Grieve team. Paul Sattler and Dave Alexander came from New Zealand and they recreated Art Chrisman’s #25 car which raced at the dry lakes in the early ‘50’s. Casey Hill is from New Zealand. Garth Hogan was part of the Hogan/Martin/Rea team. Erik Hansson displayed a belly tank car that was last run in 1955 by Bob George. Belly tanks were extra fuel tanks used by fighter planes and bombers in WWII to extend the range of our warplanes. When they were emptied they were ejected. They were built to be very aerodynamic and after the war the land speed racers found them to be perfect bodies for a race car. Larry Bohnen was interviewed about his motorcycle streamliner. These motorcycles are built low to the ground and are elongated, then covered with a shell to create better aerodynamics. The goal of the motorcycle streamliners is to exceed 400 mph. Cliff Gullett gave a passionate overview of his attempt to set a record. When he first started to race his young son was his only pit crew. Sadly, Cliff was killed in a crash shortly after this interview was recorded and it remains in the video as a memorial to a brave land speed racer. While injuries and deaths do occur, the safety rules, equipment and training make this one of the safer sports in car racing. Bill Taylor was interviewed on what it is like to be the (main) Short Course Starter at Bonneville.  Jim Jensen, from San Diego, has been the chief starter at Bonneville since 1996. The job of the starter somewhat parallels that of the inspectors, in that the starter has to make sure that everything possible is done to insure the driver’s safety before he is allowed to make a run down the course. The starter will check the safety harnesses, helmet, suit, neck and arm restraints, fire suppression bottles and other gear. He will check the driver and see if he has any questions or doubts. When the starter is certain that the course is clear and the driver is prepared, he will give the signal to the push truck to give the car a start down the race course.

The next voice is that of Glen Barrett, the timer, who will record the speeds and announce them back to the starting line and to anyone else on the same radio frequency. After all, the race teams have spent a lot of time and money and they want to hear whether their driver has done well. Some very good racing footage was shot by Ray Crowell. Most of the scenes show a normal run, then the parachutes pop out and slow the cars down, but Crowell caught a few spins and the pencil roll crash of Gail Phillips’ streamliner. Gail spoke to the interviewer about the crash and how she came out of it without a scratch and just a headache. The cars are all designed to save the driver’s life in a crash, but nothing is a certainty when one is going 240 mph as Gail was speeding at the time of her accident. Jerilyn Kugel reached a speed of 181, but is going to return in 2009 to attempt to go over 200 mph. Rick Vesco was interviewed. The Vesco’s are another pioneer racing family. Betty, Gene and Tom Burkland raced their streamliner and set a record over 400 mph, though not at this meet. Betty related how she was supposed to race the car after her husband had set a record, but one thing led to another and her son Tom took over the racing duties. It wasn’t until years later when another racer offered to let her drive his car that Betty set a record over 200 mph and joined the prestigious 200 MPH Club. Norm Bradshaw, an Aussie, said in his interview that he was glad that Bonneville had “no flies,” a reference to what Australians have to suffer through on their dry lakes. He also averred that Lake Gairdner had much harder salt to race on.

Greg Samson, from Maine, explained how his father had passed away, but that the team was dedicated to continue racing in honor of his dad. Richard Hollywood, a New Zealander who raced at Lake Gairdner, spoke about the different venues.  Two other Kiwis who were at Bonneville were Chris and Lincoln Harris. Lincoln drove and his father, Chris Harris crewed on the car. Chris had an accident at Bonneville about 20 years ago that left him wheelchair bound. Eric Langstroth talked about his team from Canada. “I’m the first Canadian in the 200 MPH Club,” he said. He was wearing the “cool shirt” which cools down the body temperature, especially when the drivers are wearing the required fire suits. Dave Green, a member of the Canadian team said their door slammer is capable of 250 mph and later the car went over that speed. Ron Tesinki was interviewed about gaining entry into the 200 MPH Club. Casey Hill painted the words, “Kiwis can’t fly, but they sure run fast,” on his car. The interviewer took us through the impound area where cars are kept until they can back up their record run. Then we were shown the fuel check area, where the gas is checked to make sure that it is legal for the class the driver is running in. Isaac Harper showed the camera crew the Ford Ballard electric car capable of going 225 mph. Ron Ceridono, editor of Street Rodder was interviewed. Ron worked for Tex Smith Publishing. Tex Smith said, “It’s only you against you. Parks used to talk about that all the time, this is pure hot rodding out here. The only important thing is what you can do with a car, not how fancy your car is.” The grand old man of hot rodding summed up this movie video better than the rest of us could. Bonneville is all about what you can do with a car, but it’s also what you can do with a man, or a woman, in testing them against the clock, the elements and life itself. The video gives a snapshot of the 2008 SpeedWeek as seen from the eyes of our racing frineds from Australia and New Zealand.  As a documentary, this is definitley a film for your library. I rank the quality of the film, sound and content as a 7 sparkplugs (out of a possible 8).

Bonneville Salt Flat Racer; go fast or go home can be ordered at www.kickassfactory.com or contact Norm Hardinge at [email protected].

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