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Fraternity of Speed

Fraternity of Speed
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Photos by Mitzi Valenzuela
Story by Christina Michelle Evigan

Kurt “Lucky” Weber has his own hook: his arm! Pun definitely intended, for you see, where his right arm once was resides a daily reminder of the accident, which left him with one arm. That’s not what defines him because “Lucky” is a racer. His pride and joy is a modified, custom built 1929 Ford Roadster, also known as the 109 racer that was featured in the movie ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’. Kurt’s roadster has been over the world record in the D street roadster class at Bonneville five times and is now a gas roadster; by removing the back fender, headlights and the radiator, thus, making the roadster even faster.

Racecar driver, Kurt Weber, lost his right arm from the elbow down in a train accident at the age of 27; however, for him, racing with one arm comes easy. It’s more about his lead foot and balls of steel. “You don’t drive Bonneville cars, you coax them: you let them do what they want and then you slowly bring them back to where you want them.” Steering through a modified reversed Corvair steering box helps “Lucky” steer straight with his left arm.

Raised in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Kurt Weber has always known the value of hard work: “To build something with your own two hands and know how it works really makes you grow. That accomplishment flows into the rest of your life.” As young kids from Wyoming, Kurt and his buddy Flory first made a road trip to Bonneville as “tourists” in 1985 to watch the races as spectators. It was love at first sight. Racer Al Teague had just blown his engine racing on the flats at 380-390 mph, but he still peaked his head out from under his streamliner to talk to the curious big-eyed newbies and offer advice. It was that sense of community that welcomed the boys into Bonneville and had Kurt hooked for life. Growing up racing streetcars and motorcycles, he knew he had to come back to Bonneville as a racer.

Paul VanderLey saw the potential in Kurt: he drove well and never let up. In other words, he had a lead foot. Mr. VanderLey, from Biloxi, Mississippi, was a well-known engine builder, designer and racecar driver that started out in the late 50’s. The legendary Paul VanderLey helped Kurt by sponsoring him and building him a racecar engine out of leftover parts he had in his garage. Kurt Weber built his own racecar over the course of the next year after his first awakening at Bonneville as a “tourist”. In the beginning of the build Jim “Brillo” Harris, acted as “crew chief” and helped on these long, draining nights, as well Jorge Chisholm, Tommy Hanson and Thom Tisthammer, who worked along side Kurt to build the dream in his 2-car garage, a bunch of kids from Wyoming chasing the American Dream to break ‘top speed records’ at Bonneville Speed Week. “If you want to be a winner you have to stay focused,” are words of the wise Kurt Weber.

Building a race roadster car can be a bit tricky. One needs to keep the center of gravity as low as possible to keep the car going straight. Roadsters tend to lift at over 175 mph, so they need weight added to them to stay on the ground at the salt flats. To overcome this problem, Kurt melted 1,500 Lbs of lead into the roadster’s frame before welding the boxing plates on. Using an old 1929 Ford body as well as hand fabricated parts for most of the inner frame, Kurt kept the outside pretty by using parts from a 1932 Ford for most of the outer frame. The 1932 Ford grille is chopped 3” and the metal grille cover was custom fabricated by friend and wheelchair bound welder and “do-er of all things” Bob Westbrook. The 109 racecar was painted white and ‘1956 Chevy tropical-turquoise’ by Kurt Weber in his very own front yard. Mr. VanderLey created the 301 cubic inch power plant by boring a 1957 Chevy out 1/8 of an inch. The engine runs two four-barrel carburetors on a VanderLey fabricated intake ram manifold. The heads use huge titanium valves and valve keepers. Kurt fabricated the homemade exhaust. This year, the MSD electronic ignition features a brand new rev limiter.

The 109 racer is equipped with a master cylinder from a 1975 Harley Davidson. The drive train consists of a Chevy 2-speed TCI power glide transmission and vintage Halibrand quick-change rear end from Culver City, California. The suspension is made of a buggy spring in front and coil overs in the rear. The two front tires are15”x23” M & H’s while the rear tires are 15”x27” Good Year’s. For racing at high speeds the centrifugal force expands the tires, so most of the tires tread needs to be shaved off the fronts until they are almost bald, but not so much as they cut the cords. You will find there are no front brakes on this race car, only rear breaks and those are from an old 1956 Ford pickup truck. Weber jokes, “The idea is to go fast, not to stop.” However, rules require all racers that go over 175 mph must be equipped with a parachute for stopping. “Bonneville is a way of knowing who you are and proving who you are. You take all of your fears and lay them out there. That makes you a fuller person in the rest of your life.”

Kurt Weber has been to Bonneville every year since his first visit in 1985. “Bonneville has cost me a couple of wives. It’s a lot of hard work and long nights to be a Bonneville racer, not to mention, costly.” An art teacher, father and good racer, Kurt loves to ride his 1969 Triumph motorcycle when the weather is nice. Kurt is a member of the San Diego Roadster Club, which was the first club to race on the dry lakebeds. Kurt grew up driving on black ice, which also helped him prepare for driving in the salt’s conditions.

Speedometers became obsolete: Kurt’s roadster isn’t even equipped with a speedometer; the tachometer tracks the revolutions per minute. “There is nothing like driving on the salt. “It’s just you, your car and your balls.” Early morning runs are best on the salt; by 2pm the moisture from underneath the surface of the crust starts to rise. Kurt has been racing on the salt for over 25 years. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into racing on the flats. It took Kurt five or six years not to spin out while hitting speeds over 180 mph. Kurt Weber once spun around nine times and for the first two revolutions his rear tires were completely off the ground (and to put that into perspective, a spin out at high speed is faster than the speed of a tornado!) Kurt has gone through a couple engines, four or five transmissions, two roll cages, re-fabricated the front and rear end, as well as the frame, but he has always driven his one and only love, the 109 racer, and the car has always been turquoise and white. This year at Bonneville Speed Week, the 109 racer ran with a 1957 Chevy engine with 656 horsepower and a redline of 8,000 RPM built by Paul VanderLey and hit the top speed of 200.787 mph.

At the Bonneville Salt Flats on Saturday, in honor of Bob Westbrook’s memory, Kurt Weber dispersed the ashes of good friend and fellow fabricator into his parachute that deployed at the 5-mile marker going 200 mph, sprinkling the ashes over the Bonneville race course. Bob and Kurt go all the way back to when the 109 was being built. Bob moved to Wyoming and sought out Kurt to be a part of his team, and they became very close over the years. It meant a lot to Kurt to honor Bob at Bonneville. The crew is the most important part of it all, and this year as a reward, Kurt let his whole crew drive. “I was never in a fraternity, but if I had been, this would be it: a fraternity of speed.” People of all ages, shapes and sizes come out from all over the world for Bonneville Speed Week. Kurt “Lucky” Weber does it all to be a part of the infectious Bonneville land racing community.