It is a serene location with a glorious saline surface, a place where ingenuity and imagination confront the laws of nature. Located just a few miles off I-80 near the Utah and Nevada border, the Bonneville Salt Flats are the world's foremost venue for land speed racing. Since the early 1970s, the Burkland family from Great Falls has been a part of Bonneville's history. After setting several national records, Tom Burkland, who received his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Montana State University in 1982, is now vying to set an FIA World Record (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) with a race car he campaigns with his parents, Gene and Betty.
"Virtually everything I learned in my undergraduate engineering program is included in that car in some way or another," Tom explained recently. "This is a very technical project from the standpoint of the aerodynamic design to some of the thermodynamics that are used in the engine. Including the structural analysis of the chassis, the dynamic modeling of the tires, all the way down to writing proposals to the various manufacturers and component suppliers...I really don't think we could have done it without what I learned in Bozeman."
The Burklands' 24-foot orange streamliner houses two giant V-8 Donovan Hemi engines with superchargers, producing more than 2,000 horsepower each. Placed nose-to-nose in an aircraft steel frame, the two engines in tandem equal a V-16. A custom four-wheel drive system harnesses the power to potentially produce speeds of more than 500 mph. Shrouded in a one-of-a-kind, hand-formed steel body, the entire success of the project is greatly determined by creating the smallest aero footprint as the car slices through the earth's atmosphere.
"Tom is the designer, engineer and driver," said Betty, explaining how their team works. "Gene built the car and is the crew chief. He's quiet but keeps things moving and knows where everything is in the semi. I guess I'm the voice of the team and do all the paperwork and chase parts. And if only Gene and I are around, we work together on the car. I don't weld, but I can hold things. All three of us talk over what to do and how best to do it."
Both father and son have aircraft backgrounds. Gene was a welder for the Air National Guard for 30 years, and Tom employed his MSU engineering degree working on the F-16 program for 18 years at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Now Gene is retired, and Tom is the chief engineer at Petersen Inc., in Ogden, a high-tech steel fabrication company for the aerospace, energy and mining industries. Even Tom's younger brother, Bill, has the Burkland "aviation gene." In addition to his other degrees, Bill received a civil engineering diploma from MSU in 1997 and now works at Peccia and Associates in Helena, overseeing many of its airport design and planning projects.
The team's nucleus is Tom Burkland, left, and his parents, Betty and Gene.
The initial concept for the Burklands' streamliner came to Tom as they drove off of the salt at the conclusion of Speed Week in 1985, after they had successfully reached their goal of setting a record at 294 mph in their Competition Coupe. The coupe was a radically altered Datsun, modified to be more aerodynamic with a larger engine. Categories at Bonneville are defined by body style, engine size and fuel mixture. After their success with the Datsun, the Burklands set their sights high on the elite streamliner category, completing their entry in the AA engine class in 1995.
"We knew when we got into this deal, it wasn't going to be easy," Gene said. "I don't think any of us realized that it was going to take as long as it has or maybe we wouldn't have done it. But I'm glad we did."
Land Speed Racing is much like the Olympics, where one person can hold the Olympic record while another competitor has the world record in a similar category. The current FIA record in the Burklands' category is 409.978 mph set in 1991 by Al Teague. The complexity of speed records is more than a little confusing, especially when you consider the Burklands' national record set on Oct. 14, 2004, under the SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) rules at 417.020 mph is considerably faster than Teague's FIA world record. Keep in mind, though, that each meet has its own sanctioning body, so participants can set national records at SCTA events, but world records must be under FIA officials. Add a few more organizations such as USFRA, BNI and USAC into the mix, and you can see why some fans and participants might be left scratching their heads.
In modest Montana tradition, the Burkland family lets their actions speak for themselves. Gene, Betty and Tom are all members of the coveted 200 MPH Club, and the Burkland family streamliner currently holds the AA/Blown Fuel Streamliner record at 417.020 mph, which bumped Tom into the 300 MPH Club (there is no 400 MPH Club). Perhaps their most prestigious honors to date were Hot Rod Magazine naming the streamliner to its list of TOP 10 of 2005, and when the Burklands laid down the fastest run of the meet during 2006 Speed Week, thus having their names forever engraved on the respected Top Speed of the Meet trophy.
However many their accomplishments, the Burklands say it is the camaraderie of the sport that truly propels their team. Rendezvousing on the salt every summer around the giant orange semi-trailer packed with tools and spare parts, the volunteer team sets to the task of attaining its goal. Each individual has an appointed job to complete before, during and after each run. Working in the heat or cold of whatever weather extreme prevails, most of the team's members devote their annual vacation time to the sport. Betty describes the extended family of support that surrounds the caravan-style camp during each event.
"My dad is the computer guy," she said of her 85-year-old father, Keith Hunter of Great Falls. "He bought it, tends it and maintains it. I have two brothers who work on the crew. And then Tom's brother-in-law is there, along with one of his best friends. There are some dear friends from Missoula, Herb Ferguson Sr. who was our rock and now his son, Herb Jr., and his wife, Nicky. There's Gary Stauffer, one of Tom's longtime friends. Then Herb had a friend named Rex Svoboda who wanted to get involved in Bonneville, so now he is with us. And there is Bill York, who just started, and he is our electronics and radio guy. Does that make 10?"
Before Tom steps into the streamliner for a run, all the salt is meticulously brushed from the bottom of his shoes so at high speed it does not ping around in the tight cockpit, creating a "popcorn maker" effect. Despite the extensive team, once both engines are fired it all comes down to the driver. As Gene closes the custom canopy, a safety brace fixed inside keeps Tom's helmet in place, restricting any forward movement. Strapped into the five-point harness, his right leg crosses under the left to reach the gas pedal, as the traditional pedal location is occupied by the front driveshaft, which is tucked precariously under his right leg. With each pass, Tom will go as fast as the car will let him, making decisions second by second, depending on the track condition and how the streamliner is handling.
Watching from afar, the streamliner accelerates down the 80-foot-wide course. It is an orange blur with white salt spray billowing up behind, reaching 340 mph in the first quarter-mile. From the driver's viewpoint inside the cockpit, the special liquid-filled Auto Meter gauges reduce the needle bounce, making them discernable as the entire car shakes violently. Peering out through the football-size windshield, Tom's eyes focus on the horizon. Above 350 mph, the massive vibration rattles his eyeballs enough to play tricks on his perception, making the 4-foot-high flags on the edge of the course appear to be 25 to 30 feet tall. Putting the extreme speed into perspective, at 450 mph driving from Bozeman to Butte on I-90, the normal 75-minute trip is abbreviated to an 11-minute jaunt, which translates into a flying mile covered in eight seconds.
Looking at the project purely as a physics problem, traveling at 400 or 500 mph in an aerodynamic vehicle with more than 4,000 horsepower does not appear to be that difficult. But don't forget the fickleness of Mother Nature, who is responsible for preparing the crystalline white racecourse and the strain every high-speed pass puts on the one-of-a-kind streamliner. Getting the car right is just a part of the equation. For Tom, Gene and Betty, land speed racing is more than a casual pursuit; it has been their lives for nearly four decades. They wait for the salt to dry for their next attempt at Bonneville in September. Chasing a world land speed record in a Hemi-powered streamliner can only be described as the ultimate ride.
Jeffrey Conger is a professor of graphic design at MSU and a regular contributor to numerous newsstand publications, including Hot Rod Magazine.