Little lozenges with wheels and a view port zip along a dry lake bed. They show up in drawings and logos. They pop up at local car shows and land speed events. People call them belly tanks, tankers, or drop tanks, and they are associated with vintage dry lakes racing. But where did they come from, and why do they look the way they do? Belly tank racers are a mix of WWII aircraft leftovers and hot-rodding ingenuity. They’re part of the early days of hot-rodding but are still in use today. Let’s start with where they came from. Answer: the sky.
The drop tank was designed to extend flying time by acting as a portable fuel cell that could be dropped once empty. That way, the pilot could more nimbly engage the enemy. They’re also known as belly tanks or wing tanks depending on where they were attached to the plane. During WWII, they were available for the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, Lockheed P-38 Lightning, North American P51 Mustang, Northrop P-61 Black Widow, and other combat aircraft.
After the conflicts ended, thousands of the tanks languished in military surplus yards, and racers soon noticed. They snapped up the slickest shapes that would work the best as race machines. They were, and are, fast little suckers. Before WWII, streamliners ran just over 100 mph—today, more than 360 mph!
In early dry lakes racing, the Southern California Timing Association only recognized roadsters and coupes. They soon accepted streamliners because racers wanted to test new theories of aerodynamics. This morphed into many classes, and lakesters got their own game when they split from the streamliner class.
The attraction was that exposed-wheel lakesters were much easier to build than enclosed-wheel streamliners. The tank gave you the whole body, you could stuff bits of a Model T frame and a flathead motor inside and add Ford axles on both ends, and you were nearly done. That’s what the builder of the first recognized postwar tank, Bill Burke, did.
Over the next 60 years, tankers went from junkyard bombs to finely crafted speed weapons. Flathead Fords were a classic source of power, but like every form of dry lakes racing, there are now broad classifications of engines sizes. What makes them interesting is that although they all have a vaguely familiar look, none is the same. This is a wide-open class that builders can interpret with some wild combinations. Don’t think that just because it’s a vintage style that it’s a dying classification. At the 2016 SCTA Speed Week, 30 cars registered for the lakester class. It’s a class where nothing is normal, and tanks and lakesters offer a hot-rodding history lesson. Here’s a look at the racers from Speed Week 2016 and the cars that inspired them.
“The Blonde Bitch”
Car# 2255 Class: XF/GL
X is Vintage Flathead; F is engine class 123-184ci; GL is Gas Lakester.
Engine: 284ci Ford flathead V-8 with Hilborn mechanical fuel injection and a Vertex magneto.
Transmission: G-Force G-101A 4-speed
Rear axle: Rodsville quick-change gearset
Wheels: Custom aluminum 6.0×18-in rear; 4.25×18-in front
Tires: Dunlop Vintage Racing 5.50×18 front, 7.00×18 rear
Record in class: 196.557 mph
“I had the opportunity to buy a belly tank and some parts related to that in 1998,” Andrew Welker says. “I wasn’t ready to build the car, though, so I stored them in the rafters of my dad’s barn until 2007. Unable to work on the car, I just designed plans. So when I had the time and money, I figured it would all come together. Eventually, I committed to build a race-legal car. … I was lucky enough to have a MKVIII 300-gallon drop tank that the Navy used on various aircraft during WWII. We finished and raced the belly tank for the first time in 2012. I wanted to build as vintage a car as possible, both the exterior look and the mechanicals. Some things are undeniably modern, such as the rollcage and other safety items, but I tried to keep period correct where I could. For example, in the lakester class, running a flathead computer-controlled ignition and EFI are allowed, but I chose to stick with Vertex magneto and Hilborn mechanical injection. It might not be competitive in the class—the record stands at 196.5 mph—but I am satisfied running against my own best speeds. Racing a belly tank with a flathead is classic vintage Bonneville.”
Andrew is an engineer by profession and used his experience in 3-D CAD to create a custom chassis that fits right up against the tank skin. His tank is 6 inches narrower than the P-38 tank most racers use. To help with the tight packaging, he used a pair of electric water pumps reachable via doors in the bodywork. The first time out in 2013, the tank had two radiators, but he has since converted it to an ice tank with a pair of heat exchangers. Andrew says it works perfectly on the short course.
“I wanted to make sure that I could fit everything inside the original tank,” he says. “I didn’t want to stretch it. These tanks look like cigars if you do that. I really wanted to stay with vintage technology as much as I could, so I built the frame to conform to the line of the belly tank. Using section laser cut C-channel pieces and pro-bent sections of tube, it was a five-year process.”
For the canopy, Andrew had help from a young metal guy named Zac Shure. Zac hammered out a bubble in aluminum, which Walker used to form a windscreen support and the cold-formed Lexan windshield.
The red canopy evolved from Andrew’s original plan to paint the tank like Bobby Green’s Old Crown Speed Shop tank. Then his father-in-law offered to polish it. You can a pick your teeth in the resulting finish.
Andrew is lucky enough to have an all-family team with his wife, Kimberly, their 2-year-old daughter, his brother Steve along with his wife, Ashley, and their two sons. Kimberly helps run the car on the salt and is responsible for the Blonde Bitch nose art. “Folks go real quiet when I tell them it’s named after me,” she says.
We asked if he had a land speed hero, and without hesitation, he named Alex Xydias.
Together they set numerous records and supported some of the greatest names in land speed racing.
“Liberty Garage Lakester”
Car#221 Class: F/FL
F is 123-184ci; FL is Fuel Lakester (alcohol, nitro, or other non-gasoline fuel).
Engine: Arias I-4 aluminum Pontiac Iron Duke with an Arias Hemi head and Hilborn fuel injection.
Trans: Tex T-101 NASCAR 4-speed
Rear axle: Halibrand quick-change gearset
Wheels: Marsh steel wheels with Moon disc covers Tires: 25×4-15 front, 28×4-15 rear Goodyear land speed tires Record in class: 223.305 mph
Steve Nelson first drove Jim Yuberry’s E/GL gas lakester in 2001 and ran 227 mph. He was hooked and made plans to have a lakester of his own. By serendipity, he met a guy at a party who owned a pair of auxiliary tanks. Eventually, Steve persuaded him to part with them.
After putting tape to the tank and pen to paper, Steve drew up a slick F/FL lakester design around the pair of 300-gallon Grumman Albatross seaplane auxiliary fuel tanks.
With help from his friends, Steve built the full round-tube DOM mandrel-bent tube chassis with torsion bar front suspension and a solidly mounted ’40 Ford quick-change rear axle. Because the tanks were fusion-welded and asymmetrical with a cast-alloy wing mount on top, Steve decided to slice both the tanks in half and use just the bottom sections from both to form a new symmetrical clamshell body. This is a classic building trick for lakesters. It involves removing not only the top mount but also the internal baffles. They had to very carefully slice the hard steel tank apart with a die grinder. That left enough materials to form a flange lip that Steve could form into a flat-edge joint to bolt the two sections together. The result of joining the two lower sections of the fuel tanks was a body with a 30-inch diameter that had to be stretched 1 foot.
To avoid messing up the newly crafted body, Steve created a fiberglass mold of one half of the tank and used that to figure out the exact locations of holes and ports he needed to cut. On the straight tube axle, they added a pair of fairings to the rear to help settle the air around all that solid tubing.
“I wanted a lakester that was driven from inside, not sitting out in the air,” Steve says. “We made it a laying-down car and had Aircraft Windshield in L.A. do us a perfect set of Lexan panels. Making these was so much easier with the fiberglass template. We got it right the first time out. It also makes it very easy to clean the car, especially if we need to disassemble it after any salt flats adventure.”
When Steve first ran the lakester in 2008, it was running in V4/FL class (vintage four-cylinders manufactured prior to 1934). It went 194 mph powered by a ’32 Ford Model B block built by Phil Andrews with a five-bearing girdle, an REM DOHC cylinder head, and mechanical fuel injection running alcohol. At the 2014 World of Speed, he managed a new record at 201.804 mph, enabling membership in the Red Hat Club (200 MPH Club).
In 2015, they put in a new, more advanced four-banger—an Arias four-cylinder aluminum Pontiac Iron Duke with a Hemi head. They added Hilborn fuel injection and the right cam, supported by a lot of engine prep work. The little 183ci banger put out a massive 348 horsepower.
In 2016, on their first time out with the new engine, Steve managed 195 mph at the two-mile, but the wet salt conditions were simply too tenuous to pursue the 223-mph record. Despite the setback, they feel that one day, given good salt conditions and Ma Nature in a friendly mood, they will have a serious chance at tickling the record books.
Like most land speed racers, Steve gives a lot of credit to his team. His wife, Jeanne, keeps everyone in line and feeds them. “Them” in this case is crew chief John Spease, Russell Nelson, Rex Schimmer, Al Gray, and Terry King.
Steve’s vote for land speed hero is the famous Al Teague. “Al Teague’s my hero racer,” he says. “He’s been to the wall and back again so many times—champion stuff!”
Al Teague Teague’s 409-mph streamliner started life as a lakester.
X is Vintage Flathead; F is engine class 123-184ci; GL is Gas Lakester.
Engine: 1939 Ford V8-60 bored to 149ci.
Transmission: 1939 Ford running high gear only.
Rear Axle: Ford Model A with an early Franklin quick-change gearset.
Wheels: Custom Ford rims
Tires: Goodyear Front Runners: 25-in front, 27-in rear
Record in class: 198+ mph
Joe Streng’s little racer is a classic sit-up style machine with a full vertical skyscraper rollcage. Joe’s machine is built from an original steel P-38 drop tank. Although it follows the traditions of ’50s engineering, it uses the current safety features required by the SCTA.
“I love the nostalgia of the early days at El Mirage and Bonneville,” he says. “I was just wandering around this old farmyard-turned-junkyard in Colfax, California, waiting for my buddy to buy a part for his car. He’d known the guys there for years, and I was just along for the ride.
“The place covered several acres, and I was just having a look around. It was full of cars, parts, old tractors, and junk. I saw this interesting old orange thing sticking out of the blackberry bushes. It turned out to be an old rusty go-kart made from an original steel P-38 belly tank; I knew I had to have it. It had been converted to a go-kart back in the mid-’50s and was well used. It had a Cushman front and rear suspension gear.
“After a couple hundred dollars changed hands, I set about retrieving it from the blackberry bushes with a chain saw. The real adventure was just loading it in the back of the pickup, which took out his back window. He was not impressed! Back home my wife wanted to make a planter out of it, but I said, ‘No way, I’m going Bonneville racing!’ ”
Joe had been going to Bonneville for 30 years and loved the salt flats life. He crewed on a Studebaker team from 1990 to ’93 and previously worked for Sacramento Vintage Ford.
For his own car, he split the tank, discarded the old hardware, and started on a new chassis. He used Model A running gear throughout for a sit-up style, and the tank was stretched 11 inches. As this was his first try, he needed help from El Mirage, which included making the rollcage to meet the 200-mph standard.
At Sacramento Vintage Ford, he found a cute Ford V8-60. This is the 136ci flathead that was mostly used in early sprint cars. It’s outclassed by the big flatheads because it gives up about 100ci, but it’s cool because of its rarity.
“You simply get better or learn something new every time you make a pass,” says Joe, whose goal is to pass the 100-mph mark. “I’ve run 92.60 mph, so I think my aim is quite achievable. Because the record in my class is so high, I even had to do a parachute pass for cars that run over 175 mph. I found this pretty funny considering my sub-100 mph passes.”
Because there is no separate engine class for V8-60 flatheads, Joe runs against cars with much larger engines in the XF class. He’s about 100 mph away from the class record, so he runs for a personal best against the record of 130.155 mph set by Alex Xydias in 1948.
“Loose Nuts Special”
Engine: XF-class 8BA Mercury Flathead V-8
Trans: C4 automatic
Rear axle: Ford Banjo Winters 2.33:1 quick-change gearset
Wheels: 15-in Coker wheels
Tires: 28-in Goodyear Frontrunners
Record in class: 214.317 mph
The wonderfully named Loose Nuts Special is a tribute to builder and driver Scott Blackburn’s school days when he was a proud member of his high school’s Loose Nuts Car Club in Broken Bow, Nebraska. Scott has been a car freak/hot-rodder his whole life. So when Wayne Litchenwalter, an older hot-rodder with 18 salt records to his credit, asked if he’d like to help crew for him on his ’39 Ford coupe at Bonneville, there wasn’t a moment of hesitation.
That was back in 2009. Scott spent quite some time in the pit lanes waiting for Wayne’s coupe to move up to the start line. During these hours of downtime, he struck up long conversations with Bobby Green and his crew, manning the Old Crow Speed Shop belly tank. On the trip home, Wayne said to him, “You like those belly tanks! You know, I have one in the rafters of my shop. It’s yours if you want to build your own.”
The tank’s provenance remains a mystery. Initially, Scott thought he’d inherited a 165-gallon P-38 steel tank. “Wayne is not quite sure either where it came from or how he ended up with it, but the story goes that in Nebraska during World War II, there were a number of Army Air Force training bases there. In the years after the war, farmers would find these tanks lying in the fields. We think this tank could be one of those.”
The tank turned out to be a 175-gallon P-38 jug, which is a little small for a lakester. Scott added several feet and got it into more usable form. “It became a real seat-of-the-pants operation,” he says. “We split the tank so we could figure out the parameters of the chassis and put a chassis layout down onto the garage floor in chalk right off the tank. Then we started cutting and bending a mass of 1 5/8-inch DOM tubing. It was all classic eyeball engineering, as none of us had built a Bonneville car before.”
The chassis includes a solidly mounted Ford Banjo Winters quick-change rear axle with a dropped Ford axle and buggy springs up front. Coker 15-inch steel wheels and Goodyear Eagle racing tires stand 28 inches tall at each corner. It took Scott a year to build with the help of Louis Maring and the aid of some local hot-rodders.
The engine build was turned over to Louis, who is the team mechanic, crew chief, fabricator, and guru. Louis took a stock 8BA Mercury flathead, cleaned up the porting, and built it up with an Isky cam topped off with a modified 2000 Mustang supercharger, Holley 650cfm double-pumper carb, and electronic ignition.
At Speed Week 2016, Scott ran 147 mph against a 205-mph record, but he’s not concerned. “I’m here doing it, and that’s way more important to me—just to be part of it—than trying to beat a current record,” he says. “We hoped to top 150 mph this year. We came close, so we’re more than happy. Next year, given good salt, we can nudge the needle up a few more notches.”
For this 57-year-old hot-rodder whose professional world is in medical devices, building a real belly tank lakester was a fine life-changing challenge. Scott is assisted by his wife, Kim; his buddy Louis; and Louis’ wife, Louise. They make their Loose Nuts Special adventures to the flats in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert so much more fun.
“Every year we’ve gone, we have learned something new,” he says. “Next year, we will add ballast to the nose after one of the tech inspectors asked us where our ballast was and how much it weighed. Seems that might help stabilize us a tad more at speed.
“We really didn’t know what we were doing,” he concludes, “but we built it regardless!”
Car# 9030 Class:Gas Lakester
V4/GL: V4 is Vintage Four, pre-1935 American four-cylinder engines up to 220ci. GL is Gas Lakester.
Engine: 1933 Ford Model B I-4 with overhead-valve head.
Transmission: Sprint Car modified Falcon/Maverick two-speed.
Rear Axle: 9-inch Ford with 2.47:1 to 3.93:1 gearsets.
Wheels: Steel with Moon discs
Tires: 26-inch or 28-inch Goodyears
Record in class: 197.333 mph
John Neilson’s gas lakester looks like it suddenly appeared out of our archive photos, circa 1956. Packaging is the trick with successful belly tank lakesters. There is so little free space inside most of them, and when the cars are upgraded to meet modern safety requirements, they usually lose their traditional look and feel. But not this one. John came into the land speed game after burning out on serious SCCA racing. He looked at planes and boats and then ended up with friends at El Mirage. He fell in love with the four-banger Model A gang, and that was it—he was hooked.
After deciding a lakester was the way to go, John went in search of parts. Unlike the other guys’ stories of dusty rafters, John got his tanks in a most modern place. He found a pair of 300-gallon aluminum F8F Bearcat cells for sale on eBay. He bought them and had them shipped to his shop. When he unwrapped them, he found that the tanks were both brand-new and still filled with a cosmolinelike preservative.
With frequent checks in the SCTA rulebook, John built the frame using a full-width 9-inch Ford rearend solidly mounted to a front straight tube axle placed so the axle sits forward of the spring and rack-and-pinion steering. Within six months, he had the 122-inch wheelbase frame mostly done and cleared by tech inspection. Inner and outer Moon discs complete the package.
The body is now painted in a Navy-inspired flat blue. John had the help of Ken Jeffries in fabricating the fiberglass engine cover. The rear hood stretches back to the aluminum parachute tube with its four openings for the velocity stacks to poke out and grab air. He matched up the body color on the new rear body and added a polished aluminum star to the nose for style.
John wanted it to be safe and fast, so he paid close attention the rules. But he also wanted the vintage look. He selected a 1933 Model B inline-four with a trick overhead valve head conversion. He built it up with a five-main-bearing girdle running a dry sump, which he topped with a one-of-a-kind Moller head that had been cast in the ’70s but never machined. He worked this into the assembly by adding custom Sprint Car–style 2.4-inch fuel-injection stacks and his own custom electronics FI control pack. John built the rest of the powertrain using a modified two-speed Ford Maverick/Falcon transmission and using just first gear and final 1-to-1 gear ratio, a common trick.
John started on the building process in mid-2010 and was ready for his first event in May 2013 at El Mirage. It sailed through tech the first time out and managed to hit 90 mph. He’s now made 20-plus passes in the lakester. He has pumped up his maximum speed (so far) to a healthy 157 mph.
Class Wars The current SCTA rules and records book classes streamliners as body styles with fully enclosed wheels, but lakesters are “special cars constructed in which there is no streamlining, fairing, or covering of the wheels or tires.”
“Four to Go!”
V4F/FL and V4F/FS
Kowalski Racing Lakester
Engine: 1932 Ford flathead I-4 Transmission: Chevy S10 five-speed manual
Rear Axle: Ford ¾-ton rear quick-change conversion.
Wheels: Weld spindle mount front wheels/custom steel rear wheels
Tires: 17-inch Top Fuel front, 28-inch Goodyear Frontrunners rear
Records Set: V4F/FL: 143.053 mph, 2016; V4F/FS: 143.869 mph, 2016
Pass a quick eye over E.J. Kowalski’s raw aluminum lakester, and you know this is a weapon with a purpose. It’s a different shape than the more common rounded belly tanks with the body and cockpit fully enclosing the car. The rear bodywork is peppered with scoops, intake ducting, and aero aids.
E.J. comes from a long line of racers. He first came to Bonneville in 1988 with his dad to race a 1929 Ford highboy. “We ran that roadster in C/GR gas roadster and still continue to race it today,” he says. “I was hooked and decided to build a lakester about 10 years ago. I finally got to the salt with it for the first time in 2009.”
Building this car was like trying to fit a ship in bottle, E.J says. The Kowalski Customs team split the tank in half horizontally, stretched it about 12 inches, and lifted the cockpit and center section a little. They spent the rest of the time configuring the frame and packaging everything needed into the shoebox-size space. The frame is suspended off a solidly mounted rear axle with a quick-change gearset; up front it runs a Ford Anglia axle with steering from an old gasser.
“Our car is configured from a 1949 F-86 Saber jet auxiliary fuel tank,” he says. “It was built for fun out of parts laying around the shop. When we first built it with a Model A engine, I was excited to go 100 mph, but now I want to go 150. Bonneville racing is kind of an addiction that has a Desire Syndrome inducing you to keep going faster and never be satisfied.”
In 2016, the team picked up two records, first for V4F/FL fuel lakester at 143.053 mph and second in V4F/FS at 143.869 mph. That was a 20-mph bump on the standing record.
And yes, that’s a streamliner record accomplished by simply adding fiberglass rear wheel fairings to cover the front and top of the rear wheels. This is a traditional Bonneville class change method that’s a significant game changer.
E.J.’s lakester is powered by a Model A engine that runs a Donovan aluminum head and a single 500cfm Holley carburetor on gasoline. This is backed up to a traditional flywheel and clutch assembly running a Chevy S-10 five-speed transmission, allowing the lakester to be either a drive-off-the-line or push-off-the-line competitor.
Kowalski Customs usually runs several cars at the salt, but this year it was just one. “It’s a real kick to drive this thing,” E.J. says. “You sit up front like you’re driving a fire truck where you really can’t get a feel for what’s behind you. It needs immense concentration to make it stay on track.”
E.J. has some future plans. They are all related to achieving speed, of course. The first step is to build a nitro motor.
FACTOID: Before Bellies
Even before WWII, there was interest in streamlined shapes for racing. Bob Rufi built a race car similar to the postwar drop tank. He crashed. Charlie Beck rebuilt and further streamlined it. He managed a record at 112.50 mph at the last meet before the lakes were closed for the duration of WWII.
Owners: Chip Gerber, Gene Gerber, and Steve Tracy
Builder: Craig Naff, Syclone Motorsports, and Howard’s Custom Iron Engine: Esslinger Engineering I-4, 375 hp Transmission: Jerico Five-speed
Rear Axle: Modified Ford 9-in
Wheels: 5.0×15-in Mooneyes wheels
Tires: 28×4.5-15 Goodyear Eagle Racing Special tires
This is no ordinary lakester. The Gerber/Tracy team built their new machine with a combination of art, color, engineering, power, and grace. In the past, the team ran the highly successful SRR/C Gerber Special: a 1932 Ford Roadster that managed more than 40 runs at 200-plus mph. Based on the success of this stunning street roadster, Steve Tracy and Chip Gerber decided to step it up a notch and build a refined and exclusive Bonneville drop tank.
The tank was morphed out of a Sargent Fletcher F-4 Phantom jet fighter tank from the mid ’60s. Along the way, it ended up in the care of sheetmetal wizard Craig Naff in Woodstock, Virgina. Craig developed a new hand-fabricated body that retained original pieces only for the wings and sections of the nose. He revamped the tail section and converted the fixed horizontal magnesium tail fins, which allowed the crew to adjust the downforce on the salt flats or dry lake bed. Each weld was smoothed but not ground to avoid the risk of damaging the structural integrity of the parts. To get the look they wanted for the car and still comply with the rules, they filled in all the welds with lead solder so they could blend and smooth the joins. Craig did the interior aluminum work, and Larry Sneed upholstered the Kirkey seat in bombardier leather.
Inside, the engine-turned aluminum dash is filled with Classic Instruments gauges. Above is a fitted Top Fuel dragster canopy. The bodywork burned through over 650 hours of Craig’s time. It was done with four sheets of 0.063-inch-thick 3003 aluminum and one 4-by-8-foot sheet of 0.090-inch 3003 aluminum using a Yoder Power Hammer and a Pullmax Forming Machine.
The lakester uses a custom straight axle with spindles and steering arms from Pete and Jake’s. Both axles are located with arrow-style control arms. A tricked-out Ford 9-inch rear axle has been gusseted with air deflectors and runs Currie axles with a lightweight blue-printed 2.91:1 gearset. Braking is handled via a single rear axle set of 11.5-inch Wilwood disc brakes.
Powering the lakester is an Esslinger Engineering custom-built 182ci four-cylinder motor with 375 horsepower at 8,200 rpm. It’s a dry-sump, fuel-injected, all-aluminum mill. A Jerico five-speed air-shift transmission is coupled with Tilton 5.5-inch clutch to deliver the power to the rear wheels.
Both a sponsor and a partner, Advanced Plating in Nashville, Tennessee, added all the jewelry to the car with more than 1,000 plated parts from fasteners to suspension parts.
2016 was its first time out after its debut at the Detroit Autorama. Chip says the car managed six passes with Steve at the helm, running an impressive 193 mph on a 228-mph class record. Not bad for the first time.
“With our roadster, we managed to put a bunch of people in the 200 MPH Club. That included my 72-year-old dad! We intend to do the same with the lakester.”
Lakester Roll Call
Most hot-rod pioneers raced at the dry lakes, and many built lakesters after seeing Bill Burke’s car. Lakester racers of note include Alex Xydias with the So-Cal Speed Shop tank, Charles Scott’s Scotty’s Muffler Service lakester, the Reed Brothers, the Burke/Francisco tank that Wally Parks once raced, Seth Hammond’s No Nitro Hammond lakester, Ron Main’s Flat Fire, and the 366.586-mph lakester by DRM Racing/Tony Waters with Fred Dannenfelzer at the helm (fastest of all time). These are just a few of the high flyers, part of the rich history of fast cars that keep getting faster.