Speed Week Preview: Three Racers Talk Bonneville With Roadkill

Vast. Sacred. Alien. You’ll probably hear all of those words and at least a dozen more to describe the Bonneville Salt Flats in the next few days. With the commencement of the Southern California Timing Association’s annual Speed Week, the fastest men and women on land will ride on and in some of the most incredible land-going machines ever built.

The SCTA’s record book, like Bonneville itself, sprawls out over an immense number of classes. This year, the SCTA has received at least 428 entries. It’s so hard to cover the breadth of that many entries with everyone chasing their own goals in some of the most incredible vehicles on the planet. We will have some coverage here and there–Freiburger is going along with Lohnes and Dulcich, but for minute by minute action, keep your eyes glued to HOT ROD Magazine for coverage from Speed Week.

To give you a few folks to root for,  we talked to a trio of very, very fast Bonneville experts about the upcoming Speed Week: Danny Thompson, Aron Cranford, and Ken Hardman.

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Danny Thompson, Challenger 2

Last year, Danny Thompson set a class record with a 406 mile-per-hour average in Challenger 2, an evolution of the streamliner his late father, Mickey Thompson, built. After letting it sit for decades, Danny revived the project on his own and redesigned it from its original pair of Ford 427 SOHC V8s to run on a pair of dry-block Hemis—like the kind you’d see on a Top Fuel engine except without superchargers—running nitromethane and making up to about 5,000 horsepower.

We caught up with energetic Danny a bit more than a week before Speed Week starts and he was chomping at the bit to get back on the salt.

RK: You told HOT ROD Magazine last year that running the Challenger 2 last year was the hardest thing you’d ever done. Can you elaborate on what’s gone into reaching this point?

Thompson: It really is the hardest thing I’ve ever done because you can’t go ask anybody anything. Nobody has a car that’s like that. There’s a couple that are similar in some ways but then again, not at all. I think that’s been the hardest part because you just have to make everything and invent everything as you go.

Financially, it was difficult, but we managed to put together some really, really good people and they’re all volunteers, taking a week’s vacation to come work for me. The quality of the group is just phenomenal. At first, it was real hard because I think not many people thought we could do it, but a core group was watching closely from afar. As things started to come together, that group started to get a bit closer. Pretty soon, all those people ended up being on board. That was pretty damn cool to bring people in like that.

RK: You picked up the project after it had been sitting for more than two decades and you were working on it by yourself. Where do you even start digging into it from a standstill?

Thompson: That was kind of the hardest part. Where do you start and how far do you go and what do you throw away from the original ideas? First, it was an engine change to go to the Hemis. The good thing about them was you could just go out and buy those parts: The drag-racing guys blow them up on a regular basis so their test-bed is strong when they’re making 10,000 horsepower.

The steering was probably the hardest part to do on the entire car. When my dad had it, it had wagon-wheel steering in it, just like a little red wagon, you know? And you know what happens when you turn a little red wagon too far: It tips over. Tim Gibson, our team engineer, we started talking with him about this thing and making drawings. I made little mock-up parts for the ideas I had and once I made the parts up, they failed. Tim got ahold of it and it took him months and months and months to design the front end. And when he did, it was magical.

It’s hard when you have only 36 inches of room and a rear end that’s 14 inches wide. Then you have to put a tire, a wheel, and brakes in there. We have five axles on the front end to make all of that work. We made all our axles, U-joints, everything. That was a task and it worked. That was a smiler, right there.

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RK: You mentioned the magic of it. During the run itself, for lack of any imagination, you’re basically the meat in a 5,000-horsepower sandwich. What is that sensation like? Is there any time to appreciate what you’re doing in the moment?

Thompson: I need to come up with a really bitchin’ answer for that question, you know, like “I WAS SLIDING SIDEWAYS AND…” but you’re so busy doing your job, paying attention to two engines—although my engine guy says I don’t ever look at any of that stuff, which is probably true.

You know, trying to steer it, you have five degrees of steering, that doesn’t sound like a lot. You would think an 80-foot-wide track is plenty, but when you’re going 400 miles per hour, it’s like, “Well, I’m drifting a bit over to the side, so I’ll correct…Way too far to the right! Way too far to the right!” Then when you get the end, you’re trying to get your guys as much information as possible so they can tune it.

Then later at around midnight when you’re sitting there alone, you go, “Wow, that was pretty bitchin’.”

RK: What was the emotion of besting your dad’s speed?

Thompson: Just beating his time by a tenth, that took six years. I thought I was gonna do this whole thing in a year. Six years later and man…It’s just that same thing: Ten hours later when you’re by yourself, it’s the coolest thing I’ve done.

That being said, when you’re a new record holder and you’re jumping up and down, at the same time, how can you be happy and disappointed at the same time because you wanted to go so much faster? We were going to retire the car after last year, but we felt—my wife and I—that we left too much on the table. I think there’s more there. How much more? I don’t know, but there’s more.

When we had that incident at the Cook Shootout a month after Speed Week, that was 415 miles per hour when the driveshaft came out of it. We still had three-quarters of a mile to go before the first trap. This thing was on a pass and there was another mile to go after [the trap]. So there was still a mile-and-three-quarters to go. So I hope it will go out and go faster. That 406 was bitching, but it wasn’t enough. You always want more.

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RK: Last year on your run, your engine wasn’t running correctly and you weren’t running at the maximum nitromethane mixture that you could have. Are those things you’ve changed and you’re going to ramp it up this year?

Thompson: Yeah, we’ve addressed those things. We had a needle jet in the [carburetor] barrel-valve that backed out and the thing just ran fat—Blat, Blat, Blat—all the way down. It did not sound good when I heard the tape of it. And then we ran 73 percent nitro at Speed Week.

When we went FIA at the Cook Shootout, we bumped it up to 84 percent and did that wake that bad boy up! It was like a whole different car. With all the changes we’ve made to strengthen the things that broke and then we’re going to run 84 or 85 percent, that’s gonna wake it. I’ve been around nitro kind of all my life, but I’ve never driven it. I like that nitro.

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Aron Cranford, Ace’d Autoworx

Aron Cranford has a hand in a number of Bonneville builds, a couple of which belong to George Poteet (who Danny Thompson called “the baddest guy at Bonneville”). When we talked to Aron, he had just wrapped up a dyno-tuning session on the Blowfish, a 300 mph car built by Rad Rides by Troy. His next project: Dyno-tuning the fastest piston-engined car in the world, Poteet’s Speed Demon, that exited the course at 442 mph last year.

We chatted with Aron on his lunch about how he built the latest Speed Demon, what it’s like to be in charge of 400 miles per hour runs, and how the Speed Demon team has applied modern technology.

RK: Speed Demon has been around for some time, but this is a new chassis, right?

Cranford: This is the new chassis. We built the car two years ago and it rained out. The car has pretty much been ready since then; we raced it last year and this year, George wanted to go for an A-class record, which is 440 to 500 cubic inches. We opted for a [Dart LS Next] engine because the parts for our Small-Block Chevy weren’t available and also our cooling system is a little bit better on the LS engine. It was in the car about a half-hour ago and the short block is mocked up and ready to run. It just needs to run on the dyno now.

RK: What is it like to change engines? How does that change how the chassis performs?

Cranford: It doesn’t really change much. The difference between the Small Block and the LS is that the Small Block has a bellhousing extension where the LS has it recessed in the block. The LS block is about an inch shorter lengthwise so we had to make some spacers to fit our motor plates. We made everything pretty modular on the last car so everything bolted in and out just the same. Everything else is pretty much the same.

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RK: What’s the goal this year?

Cranford: We ran 442 last year. We’re hoping to be in the same range. One of George’s big goals is always the Hot Rod Trophy. Always the Hot Rod Trophy before anything else. And we’re also hoping for an A-Class record that we’re going to be up against Al Teague’s record from 1991. I want to say it’s a 408, you’ll have to check on the record books.

RK: 400 mph is never enough for the people who get there at Bonneville. How do you rectify that in your head that you’re basically going to this extreme and you still want more?

Cranford: We’re just trying to push everything to their limits. Everybody who’s on the program now, when we started the Speed Demon program back in 2007, we were happy in the 350 range. It was amazing to crack 300 and we were all stoked. Now, if we don’t click off a 400-plus run, we’re kind of like, “Well, what broke?” It’s kind of jaded us. Cumulatively, both our cars have 38 runs over 400 miles per hour and we’ve hit every mile per hour number from 400 to 416 or 417. It’s kind of just a tried-and-trued program that we have built up incrementally over several years. We change it every year to make it just a bit better.

When George rolled the car, the crew chief and I had been talking about building a new car about two years before that. We had a lot of that stuff in our brain about what we were going to change on our car for the new one. We’ve executed a lot of those changes and it’s greatly improved the program. Everything is pretty modular on the car and that much easier to work on.

The chassis is stiffer and weighs about 95 or 100 pounds more but the car itself is 1,000 pounds lighter. We’re right at 4,000 pounds on the scales. That helps quite a bit. We moved the center of gravity-to-center of pressure relationship, too. We moved the engine forward 9-½ inches and made the water tanks and everything from stainless to aluminum and dropped them lower in the chassis.

Going back to your question, it’s just one of those evolutionary things. Luckily, we have a guy like George who lets us push it to the extreme and lets it be where it needs to be.

RK: I have this obsession with seeing how race cars are put together and the way that streamliners are packaged is just mind-blowing to me. In putting something like this together, how much of this is established best practices and how much of it is you solving problems, engineering solutions, and just making things fit in the unique way it needs to go together?

Cranford: If you talk to all the guys who go to Bonneville, they’re kind of a unique breed where there’s not a lot of CAD-drawing guys. A lot of them are really old-school guys. I have to build a streamliner this next year for a different record and it’s kind of funny.

I’ve talked to a lot of guys and everyone is under the same kind of consensus on how to build one of these things: Put all the parts and pieces—like the tires, the rear end, the motor, the transmission, the seat—where they go and then you build a frame around the whole deal. Hopefully, you can package it all tightly enough and not forget anything. That’s pretty much how it gets done, in all honesty. And we make everything as big and small as we possibly can to fit in the space we have.

RK: That’s astounding to me. If you look at a Formula 1 car, there’s CAD drawings of CAD drawings so it’s phenomenal to hear that people are out there driving 400 miles per hour in something they build out of experience.

Cranford: The body was built by a company called Nemesis Air Racing. They build air-racing airplanes and they had a CAD drawing for the body. That was the only item that was CAD-drawn. Everything else was built by hand or we drew it up on a piece of paper and gave it to a machinist, who input it directly into the CNC machine. It’s definitely a lot of experience and being able to know where everything goes, like we need this size water tank or this size intercooler and oh yeah, we need to be able to take it out a time or two.

RK: What’s a pre-run checklist like for that car?

Cranford: We have a couple different ones. We have a pre-run situation that we check at the shop and then we check when we get there, just to double-check them. We do them within a day-and-a-half, but that’s just triple-checking every nut and bolt on the car. When we’re at the starting line, there’s actually very few things. We make sure it gets iced down through the intercooler for the air charge. We make sure there’s enough CO2 for the shifter to control the boost in the transmission, and we make sure the tires are up to pressure. And then we send it on its way.

We have a really good data-acquisition tuner on our side. His name is Shane Tecklenburg and between him and [engine builder Kenny] Duttweiler, they get the program really dialed. It can’t be done without them and another guy, Greg Pyles. These guys come to the salt to make sure we don’t have any problems and they do all the data acquisition.

Our car has a yaw-rate sensor where if it kicks over a certain yaw rate, it has an automatic parachute deployment. If it detects any lift—because we have load sensors on the front wheels—it will kick out the parachute. We have a GPS sensor that if it gets so far off track, it will pretty much shut everything down. So there’s a lot of technological things on our car that I have yet to see on another car at Bonneville.

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Ken Hardman

When Roadkill editor Elana Scherr interviewed Ken Hardman last year, she found the FCA engineer in his backyard using his pool as a water-brake dyno for his streamliner. We loved that despite having some resources and engineering know-how, Hardman also had the garage-engineering grit to borrow the family pool to get some power numbers. The engine? A Chrysler FIA Super Touring 2.0-liter engine from the Dodge Stratus that raced in the short-lived North American Touring Car Championship. And he’s twin-charged it for good measure.

Unfortunately, Ken’s front-wheel-drive streamliner suffered some teething problems in its first attempt at Bonneville last year. However, he’s headed back to Utah now with some redesigned bits and hopes to obliterate his own “soft” class record of 291 miles per hour.

RK: I think the natural place to start is to ask if the “dyno” is still in your backyard, Ken.

Hardman: [Laughs] It’s still there, but I did not use it this year. The testing that I did on the water-brake dyno verified that the engine runs. However, we found some problems with the car on the salt that hadn’t shown up on the dyno. We broke the pinion shaft in the rear end two times and we broke the transmission. So things dynamically that don’t show up on the dyno, I’m fairly confident we’ve been able to address now.

RK: I saw that you’ve put new shafts and splines. Are you still using a Viper transmission?

Hardman: The transmission that’s in the car is physically different, but it’s still a Viper transmission with different internals than what I ran last year. That, combined with some changes to the hydraulic-shifting system, I think has addressed the transmission problem from last year in that the shifting was sometimes unreliable last year. That may or may not have contributed to the transmission failure. With the transmission change, internals, and some changes to the hydraulics, the transmission shifts reliably now. I’ve run through all the gears repeatedly and haven’t had problems.Hardman Racing Testing

RK: That engine is one of the old touring-car blocks? What’s the whole story with the internals of that engine? There was something maybe apocryphal about finding a crank under a desk.

Hardman: The whole story? The whole story goes back to 2004 when we discovered a small collection of touring-car parts left over in the SRT warehouse. A friend of mine was working in SRT and he found those. We started talking and we thought, “Yeah, that’s a great idea!”

At that point, we were making lots of power with turbocharged motorcycle engines but breaking everything downstream of the crank. We thought we could go to an automotive-based platform to improve reliability and go to a bigger class. We wrote a proposal to the then-head of SRT, Dan Knott, and said, “We want to put this touring-car engine in a speed car” and he said, “Yeah, good!”

That was my old car. We found a number of intact engines and a bunch of blocks and heads. When we went to start running the blown class, I saw that the 3.0-liter class was more appealing than the 2.0-liter class. The 3.0-liter record at the time was 260 or 280 or something like that. Whereas the 2.0-liter records were 350 for blown streamliner.

I wanted to start a 3.0-liter class build and another friend of mine found a crankshaft in a box under someone’s desk that was labeled as a touring-car crank, but it wasn’t. It was an 83-millimeter stroke and nobody knows where that came from because it’s not common with anything. We used the dyno-development engine block that had already been through two rebuilds and two hones, so we got the biggest-bore block that we can and this 83-millimeter crank that was three millimeters more than a touring car. And then we had our “big-block” engine.

The crank, I don’t know why [Chrysler] had it or who ordered it, but it was sitting under somebody’s desk for years and year and years. And then we gave it a new life and a new purpose and hopefully some feats for glory.

RK: What do you reckon the streamliner will run with the setup that’s in it now?

Hardman: I’m hoping to set a record over 300 miles per hour this year. It’s great to have a [current] record, but that’s a particularly soft record so it’s exciting to say I have a record. And I hope to prove it to gain some respectability in the class.

RK: As someone on the outside, the whole notion of 290 miles per hour being “soft” or not fast enough, the notion of that is absurd on the face of it. Is that something that ever crosses your mind or is a big number always at the forefront of your thought process?

Hardman: [Laughs] For me, it’s always been about going a little faster than I went the time before. My first pass ever was 25 years ago at El Mirage. I ran 120 against a 110 mile-per-hour record. And that felt pretty fast. Like, “Wow, that was great!” We took the car to Bonneville that year and we set the 130 mph record against that 120 and that was pretty good. I did development and got it up to 150 and that was great, just going a little bit faster every time. People ask me, “What’s it like to go 200?” And I’m just like, “Well, it’s 20 miles per hour faster than I went last year.” Then I went 250.

Then I converted the old car from a lakester to a streamliner and I set the 291 record. That was a little bit faster than going 250. It’s been a natural progression of always wanting to go faster without the shock of “300 miles per hour? What?” It hasn’t ever seemed strange to me, but to some other people, it seems absurd, even.

FCA US engineer Ken Hardman, left, crew chief Tom Wierzchon, speed engineer Tom OâDell and FCA US wind tunnel supervisor Steve Kubiak position Hardmanâs Bonneville Streamliner on the tunnelâs weight pads.

RK: One thing that seems noteworthy is that your car is front-wheel drive. Is that fairly uncommon?

Hardman: I would describe it as “fairly uncommon but not unprecedented.” There have been some front-wheel-drive cars, some successful and some not. The first successful one I know of was Summer Brothers’ Pollywog, the streamliner they ran before building the Goldenrod. There have a number of front-wheel-drive cars, but none have been as narrow as my car. So I think I have an advantage there.

RK: How does that change the dynamics of the car, being front-wheel drive?

Hardman: The whole reason it is front-wheel drive is for vehicle dynamics, specifically vehicle aerodynamics. I have a lot of experience driving a car that is not aerodynamically stable. It was 2006, after qualifying in the fourth mile at 248 or something, that I got sideways in the fifth mile at about 250 that I decided I needed to do something different to solve this problem of going fast. The solution I had was no good.

We did a bunch of analysis on the car and found that the center of pressure was in front of the center of gravity [Relationship explained here]. As the driver of the car, I felt better [about its performance] because the car didn’t want to go straight. It was aerodynamically unstable. As an engineer, I felt like an idiot in that we did the analysis after the problem.

I started from a mindset of how do we solve the stability problem and the traction problem with one solution. And that’s what led me to front-wheel-drive concept: Putting all of the heavy stuff in the front of the car so the center of gravity was in front of the center of pressure. Because of where the mass is, front-wheel-drive gets as much traction as possible on the drive wheels.

RK: It’s interesting to hear you mention working on the analysis before the solution. In speaking with another builder about how to build streamliners in general, we discussed how there’s no blueprint. Most of the time is considering what needs to go into it, building it in a way that packages everything to fit, and then figuring out the problems from there. Is that why you took a fresh approach to it in order to engineer things in a way that was more coordinated?

Hardman: Absolutely. I spent four years doing design work in SolidWorks and we did about eight iterations in Computational Fluid Dynamics to confirm that the aerodynamics stability would be adequate before I started cutting any metal.

FCA US engineer Ken Hardman sits in the Bonneville Streamliner he plans to run at the Bonneville Salt Flats in August.

RK: You might have more resources at hand, although you still built the car in your garage. When you go to Bonneville and you see somebody with a streamliner that they build in their garage with a tape measure and dead reckoning, that must be a different experience. How does that conversation usually go in talking about how they built those things?

Hardman: I think that I’m not too different from that guy. Fundamentally, I’m just a hot rodder. I just have more tools in my toolbox. Some people like to badmouth engineers in favor of hot rodders and I disagree with that because you really have to combine your engineering knowledge and combine it with your experience to make a solution. Just because I’m an engineer with a degree doesn’t mean I don’t know how to go fast. If somebody else takes a different approach, that’s what appeals to me about Bonneville. Anybody can go with their ideas and run it and test it to see whose idea is going to work the best.

RK: What is that sensation of speed like going through the fourth and fifth mile?

Hardman: So far, I can only talk about the experiences I’ve had in my old car going that fast. In my old car, it was a white-knuckle ride the whole way. The car is trying to spin the tires and it doesn’t want to go straight. Having to pedal it the whole way and having to steer it the whole way means I’m not thinking about how fast I’m going. I’m just trying to keep it behind the orange mile-marker flags and aiming for the next fuzzy orange dots I see. And they’re fuzzy from all the vibration.

My hope, my goal, and the reason I started over with a whole new car is to avoid that feeling and that sensation and to have a boring ride. I only made one pass last year where I went 225 and it was boring. [Laughs] I didn’t have to drive the car; it just went straight.

The starters will tell you, “Oh, go down the left side of the course” or “Go down the right side of the course; everybody says it’s smooth over there.” In the past, I was like, “Are you kidding me? I’m just lucky to get down there.” And the one pass last year, I went down the side of the course and it was easy. It was uneventful to go 225 at the two-mile mark in the new car. And that’s totally different.

You’re going to have to ask toward the end of the next week, you’re going to have to ask “How’s it feel to go 300 miles per hour?” And my hope, my expectation, is that it’s going to be easy.

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World’s Fastest Indian, Redux

We didn’t get a chance to talk to Lee Munro, but the great-nephew of Burt Munro will tackle the salt aboard an Indian Motorcycle called the “Spirit of Munro.” If you don’t know this story, New Zealander Burt Munro brought his Indian across the Pacific to Bonneville unannounced in 1962.

Five years later, Burt set the record for the fastest-ever Indian Motorcycle at Bonneville with a two-way run of 183.59 miles per hour (later amended to 184.087). When Burt set that record in 1967, he was 68 years old. If you haven’t seen the film World’s Fastest Indian—which documents Munro’s journeys—stop what you’re doing and go watch it.

This year, Lee and Indian have teamed up to put the younger Munro aboard a streamlined modern Indian Scout. In the bike’s first outing at El Mirage, Lee set three records with a best run of more than 186 mph. They will very likely set the record for the fastest modern Indian, although a release from the company says they do not intend to break Burt’s record at Bonneville.

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How to Follow Speed Week

If you’re new to Speed Week, check the HOT ROD Magazine website and follow HOT ROD on Facebook and Instagram (#SpeedWeek2017) for updates and awesome photos from the salt this week. Be sure to check out Freiburger’s Bonneville 101 primer, too.

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