Streamliners - Land Speed Racing Fastest Class

Unlimited Potential - Hot Rod magazine January 01 2014
By Elana Scherr, Photography by Brandan Gillogly, Elana Scherr, Wes Allison

What’s the best way to go fast? If you ask around at the Bonneville land-speed races, you’ll get as many different answers as there are grains of salt beneath the wheels of a push truck. Land-speed racing is one of the most experimental forms of motorsports on Earth, and although many of the classes put limits on how far competitors can experiment with body mods or engine changes, there’s one group unburdened by production profiles or pesky stock wheel placement: the Streamliners. The only things constraining the builders and drivers of the Streamliner classes are their own imaginations. Watch these space pods fly across the five-mile course on the Bonneville Salt Flats in competition that considers 240 mph “a shakedown pass”, and you’ll wonder if they even follow the laws of physics. We spent seven days at Bonneville’s Speed Week squinting across the salt flats to see what’s beneath these bullet-bodies, and what’s inside the heads and hearts of the men and women who drive them.

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Logan Davis Vintage Performance Special
61 XF/GS (Ford/Merc Flathead Under 325ci/Gas Streamliner) 
Engine: 276ci Ford flathead 
Driver: Denny Jamison 
’13 Speed Week: Went 104 mph (the original car went 226 mph in 1955)
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City of Burbank Streamliner
5252 V4F/FS (Vintage Four-Cylinder Ford/Fuel Streamliner) 
Engine: ’32 Ford four-cylinder 
Driver: Max Herman III 
’13 Speed Week: 108 mph 
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Vintage Performance Streamliner
919 J/GS (31–45ci/Gas Streamliner) 
Engine: 600cc Honda CBR inline four-cylinder 
Driver: David Brant 
’13 Speed Week: Averaged 221 mph for the J/GS record 
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David Brant Streamliner
444 C/FS (373–439ci/Fuel Streamliner) 
Engine: 372ci Chevy V8 
Driver: Bob Blakely 
’13 Speed Week: Licensing pass, 285.708 mph
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Vesco Streamliner
8081B SCS-F (650cc/Side Car Streamliner) 
Engine: 650cc Suzuki 
Driver: Tim Cunha 
’13 Speed Week: Set SCS-F record of 197.036 mph
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Nebulous Streamliner
992 C/GS (306–372ci/Gas Streamliner) 
Engine: 358ci NASCAR Dodge V8 
Driver: Skip Hedrich 
’13 Speed Week: Unable to run due to rule changes in tech
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Hedrich Streamliner
1707 G/GS (93-122ci/Gas Streamliner) 
Engine: 122ci custom dual-swirl four-cylinder 
Driver: Burton Brown 
’13 Speed Week: New car just there for tech, no runs
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Burton Brown Streamliner
7151 C(D)/BFS (306–372ci, 261-305ci)/Blown Fuel Streamliner) 
Engine: Twin-turbo Duttweiler small-block Chevy 
Driver: George Poteet 
’13 Speed Week: Set C/BFS record at 437.183 mph
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Speed Demon Streamliner
912 T/T2 (Turbine/1,100–2,200 Pounds) 
Engine: Allison turbine 
Driver: Walter Medlin 
’13 Speed Week: Unable to run due to tech rule changes
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Salt Flats Cafe Streamliner
7800 A/BFS (440-500ci/Blown Fuel Streamliner) 
Engine: 482ci Keith Black Hemi 
Driver: Bob Dalton 
’13 Speed Week: 395 mph
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Flashpoint Streamliner
1167 K/BFS (30ci and Under/Blown Fuel Streamliner) 
Engine: 500cc custom inline four-cylinder 
Driver: Mark Lingua 
’13 Speed Week: Holds record at 223 mph
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Mark Lingua Streamliner
987 H/BFS (62–92ci/Blown Fuel Streamliner) 
Engine: 80ci turbocharged Suzuki Hayabusa 
Driver: Brad Bosworth 
’13 Speed Week: License run 264 mph
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Valley Fever Streamliner
111 T/T3 (Turbine/2,200lb and Over) 
Engine: Lycoming T55 turbine 
Driver: Dave Spangler 
’13 Speed Week: Shakedown of new car, 235.374 mph, shut off in mile 2
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Dave Spangler Streamliner

What Is a Streamliner?

The definition of a Streamliner has changed as various sanctioning bodies have formed and organized top -speed racing meets. Streamliners were first specifically classed by the SCTA (organizers of land-speed racing at Bonneville, El Mirage, and Muroc dry lakes) in 1939 and included cars that didn’t fit in the stock or modified roadster classes due to body modifications. Belly tanks showed up in 1946, moving the shape of the cars in the class one step closer to the spaceships that they are today. The first enclosed-wheel Streamliners appeared in 1949 and the race organizers moved the open-wheel belly tankers to the Lakester class. Today, a Streamliner must be a non-production body and have at least two wheels covered by the fairing. Other than that, it’s pretty much wide open on the rules, which is what the racers in this class like about it.

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Bob Dalton in the Hemi-powered Flashpoint says he chose to build a Streamliner because there are no rules as to the design of cars in this class. “You can let your imagination go wild. That is a major deal if you’re sick of cookie-cutter racing like NASCAR, NHRA, or IndyCar.” He actually had a much longer list of racing he was sick of, but we don’t have room.
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Besides being open to innovation, Streamliners are also some of the fastest cars at Speed Week, something that appeals to long-time land-speed racer Skip Hedrich who said he chose to build a Streamliner because nothing else would fulfill his “quest for speed.”
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Logan Davis, whose Vintage Performance Special was one of our favorite cars on the salt this year, says he chose the class because it seemed like the most extreme form of land-speed racing and one of the most challenging.
Not a Streamliner
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A Lakester is very similar to a Streamliner but has no enclosed
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Modified Sports and Competition Coupe cars are often mistaken for Streamliners because they have similar elongated frontends and can have covered wheels. The difference is that the back portion of the vehicle started out as a production car.

What powers a Streamliner?

There are 18 engine classes legal for Streamliners, and that’s not counting additional classes for turbine engines and electric motors. If you include the forced induction and fuel options, that makes a lot of possible combinations. Stroll through the pits, and you’re likely to see at least one powerplant that surprises you. From nitro-burning bike engines to multiple big-blocks, choosing an engine is easy. The hard part comes when it’s time to put that power to the salt.

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Bike Engine Streamliner
If light weight and reliability at high rpm are land-speed advantages, you would expect to see sportbike engines, and you wouldn’t be disappointed. From stock GSXRs like Jack Costalla’s Nebulous Theorom VIII to one-off fully custom engines like Mark Lingua’s Yamaha-based, nitrous- and nitro-burning four-cylinder, bike engines can handily power a Streamliner into the record books.
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It looks like a Top Fuel dragster engine, and for good reason: several of Bob Dalton’s crew have a background in drag racing. Pro Mod engine builder Darren Mayer built the giant 18-71 blower on top of the alcohol-burning Don Jackson Engineering Hemi.
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Another Hemi, but a different setup, the 520ci Hemi in the Nish Streamliner is burning nitro but has no external power-adders.
Racing at Bonneville can be challenging. Rick Pearson, the English driver of the Scottish Flower of Scotland Streamliner described Bonneville as “a hateful, hateful place.” Granted, his team had been having a hard week. Crew Chief Derek Palmer said they spent much of their time repairing corroded and damaged components from shipping their car overseas. “It looked like it had been on the deck of a submarine,” he said.
Land Speed Racing America
Land Speed Racing America
Racing at Bonneville can be challenging. Rick Pearson, the English driver of the Scottish Flower of Scotland Streamliner described Bonneville as “a hateful, hateful place.” Granted, his team had been having a hard week. Crew Chief Derek Palmer said they spent much of their time repairing corroded and damaged components from shipping their car overseas. “It looked like it had been on the deck of a submarine,” he said.

“I’ve been racing for 30 years, always in Blown Fuel. I raced once on gas, never again. You’re stuck with whatever it runs. With nitro, you can keep adding horsepower till it blows the pistons out.” — Mark Lingua, No. 1167

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If one is good, two is better. The Richmond and Stark Streamliner follows in the footsteps of famous multi-engine cars like the four-Hemi Goldenrod. Richard Richmond drew up the original plans for this car 50 years ago but only recently built it. He chose two dry-sump, Dart-block Chevy engines, each powering half the car. Each engine is 386 ci, and the combined displacement means running in the AA engine class for cars with more than 501 ci.
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Because there is so much freedom to choose any powerplant, and because the long periods of wide-open acceleration make an excellent real-life dyno test, custom and prototype engine designs are not unusual. The Burton Brown Streamliner was only at Bonneville to tech, but the team plans to use the car to test the durability and performance of the John Stowe–designed dual-swirl port engine, using a custom head design atop an aluminum Formula Ford Kent block.
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Engine size changes your class, but bigger isn’t always faster. The Poteet and Main Speed Demon, current C-class record-holder at 437.183 mph, has gone faster with its 300ci D-class motor than with the larger one. Engine builder Kenny Duttweiler says that little engines have the advantage in land-speed racing because they can spin the parts fast and have less traction problems than large mills. “Besides,” he adds, “small turbo engines aren’t really small engines.”
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Diesel Streamliners have their own classes, and the current SCTA AA/DS record is more than 300 mph.
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You may have seen records billed as “world’s fastest piston-engine, wheel-driven…” That’s because there are Streamliners running pistonless engines, like those in the Turbine class. Turbine cars are classified by weight, not displacement, so cars like Walter Medlin’s carbon-fiber ’liner with its consumer helicopter engine runs in a different group than the new Vesco Turbinator II, which uses a military Chinook turbine. Turbinator II is a brand-new version of the original, out at Speed Week for the first shake-down since Don Vesco ran the first Turbinator more than 458 mph in 2001.
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Safety is a priority in Streamliner design. Parachute size and placement can make the difference between a gentle stop and becoming airborne.
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Many of the Streamliners on the flats at Speed Week had been looked over by an aerodynamics expert, but surprisingly, of the teams we spoke with, only Mark Lingua had ever put the car in an actual wind tunnel. He says he made changes to the nose and added a channel in the belly pan as a result of that testing.
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The early Streamliners were low and wide, designed more by a builder’s gut sense as to the behavior of air rather than any aero testing. The races themselves were the test, and through successes and failures, Streamliners developed into the long, narrow designs we see today. The re-created City of Burbank shows the ’50s streamlining aesthetic.



In 1949, SCTA held the first Speed Week on the Bonneville Salt Flats. However, many famous top-speed and endurance runs occurred on the salt flats before this, including those by Ab Jenkins, John Cobb, and Sir Malcom Campbell.

Weights amongst the Streamliners ranges from Speed Demon’s 4,760 pounds to Jack Costella’s 900-pound Nebulous Theorem VIII.

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Some racers believe that turbine cars shouldn’t get to classify themselves as wheel-driven, claiming that they are really thrust-powered because of the turbine exhaust. Turbinator driver Dave Spangler disagrees. “These are helicopter engines, designed to spin blades; they aren’t thrust turbines. We’re actually worried about the drag from the exhaust slowing us down. It’s not an advantage.”
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Many of the smaller Streamliners have moved to solid aluminum wheels because there are few options for speed-rated tires, and even with land-speed rubber, a tire can only take so many high-speed runs, as this take-off from Speed Demon demonstrates. The SD team is sticking with the pneumatic tires for now, because they worry that solid wheels will transmit too much vibration to the driver.
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solid aluminum wheels
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Racing at Bonneville is a very personal experience. You are racing against time. Some drivers, like Poteet, are racing against their own records, while others, like Dave Brant, have a specific goal—in this case, claiming a 200 MPH Club red hat for the first time. You don’t get a hat just for running more than 200 mph; you have to set a record or beat the Club minimum. Dave might also have the record for most team members named Dave Brant, from left to right, there’s three Daves, and one guy named John.
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Deciding to run a Streamliner is a commitment to land-speed racing. It’s not like you can take your car out to the local dragstrip for a test and tune or use it to get groceries. There’s no other use for a knee-high, wheeled rocket the length of a city block, except going really, really fast in a straight line. Maybe something about that shared passion makes the land-speed racers very supportive of one another. Teams share parts and skills and occasionally even cars, allowing rookie drivers to make license runs in proven vehicles, like Bob Blakely did in the Vesco Little Giant.
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It’s a tight fit in the cockpit of a Streamliner, no place for claustrophobics. Things happen fast during the run, but drivers tell us there’s none of the vision blurring that occurs in a Top Fuel dragster because the land-speed cars don’t pull the same high g’s. It was also pointed out that “there’s nothing to see out there.”
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George Poteet shows off his 451-mph top speed to drag racing legend Don Prudhomme. Prudhomme had never been to Bonneville before. We asked him what he thought, and he just said, “These boys are too tough for me.” HOT ROD
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Speed Demon won the HOT ROD Top Time Trophy for the fifth year, but hit some stumbling blocks along the way, including a fire on the top end that required completely disassembling the back half of the car to clean and repair the damage. The best term for Speed Demon’s driver George Poteet would be “unflappable.” When we asked him about the fire, he said, “Oh, it didn’t really catch until I’d already slowed down.” He ran 410 mph on that pass.
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Building a Streamliner is all about packaging. How you fit the fuel tanks, cooling systems, gearboxes, intake tubing, and wiring is as important as how much horsepower the engine makes.
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Sometimes your week is over before it begins. Skip Hedrich was unable to pass tech this year because his 10-year-old car doesn’t meet the new safety specs but isn’t old enough to be grandfathered in. He was disappointed but says there’s always next year.
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Jack Costella surprises more than a few aerodynamicists when he claims his needle-like Streamliners go under the wind rather than through it. We can’t argue with his results, since this car holds more than 10 records and driver Tim Cunha says it’s so easy to drive that he can “check his watch” while cruising down the course at more than 200 mph.

What Makes “Good” Salt?

At any race, you’ll hear participants complaining about the track, and the salt flats have been damaged by mining operations (learn more at SaveThe but even under the best of conditions Bonneville’s course will change radically from year to year, and even from day to day. Good salt is damp enough to be firmly packed but dry enough to hold together as the cars pass over. The course gets rutted as the day goes on, which is why you’ll usually see the fast passes made in the morning.