Big 5 Flirt: the quest for 500 miles per hour

BY "Landspeed" Louise Ann Noeth

The car ripped across the sparkling saline wasteland with a vengeance. Accelerating steadily, driver Don Vesco was having the best "boulevard cruise" of his life at the controls of Turbinator, the 31-foot long and 32-inch high wheel-driven streamliner. The salt was hard, better than it had been in many years; Vesco was seconds away from a new FIA World Land Speed Record for wheel-driven cars when he heard the BANG! At almost the same moment the car clicked off the measured mile clocks.

At 450 miles per hour plus, there are certain things one can do without, and a flat tire is most certainly one of them. Tough. Scrap metal laying on the course doesn't discriminate; it will happily cut up any rubber doughnut that rolls over it. Vesco's easy drive suddenly put a wrinkle in his brow, a pucker in the seat and white knuckles as the blood drained from his hands now gripping the steering wheel with renewed purpose.

But Vesco wasn't some salt virgin on a rookie ride, this was a guy who had already drove Turbinator over the 400 mark a dozen times, held the World Record for motorcycles three times and at 63 was still an annoying presence on road courses with a any manner two-wheeled machine. With a deft mixture of acquired skill and dumb luck, Vesco's intuitive response played out beautifully as the centrifugal force helped the tire stay on the rim in the tight wheel-well. Until the speed dropped under 150 mph, the violent shaking was only a specter.

Nevertheless, the one-eyed speed demon "whoa'd it down", as he likes to say and brought the car to rest without ever wandering off course. Such a ride gives new meaning to the term "run flat." The Vesco's credit Mickey Thompson Tires with making the return run a success, despite the 3-inch long piece of metal, the tire stayed together. It was late morning, October 18, 2001 when the tower announced the averaged speed printing out on the official FIA time slip: 458.440mph. Nearly two decades after they first started, TEAMVesco realized the goal of a lifetime.

Were they courageous, or just plain crazy to be so devoted for so long? In land speed racing, courage is easily found in the throttle pedal, somewhere between idle and the floorboards. How far down you stomp the pedal measures your courage-of-the-moment, and only you know if that's all you have, or want.

The speed question, as in, "How fast will it go?" has followed just about anything that moves through the centuries. This curiosity about speed rises like an itch one can't seem to fully scratch. Better known as Salt Fever, for decades salt rodders have exorcised great growling gobs of honking hard horsepower out of perky powertrains bolted into wild chassis and covered with air-slippin' skins. And all they want is "bragging rights," bestowed with a scrap of paper called a time slip.

For some, no matter how fast they go, it is never fast enough. Speed. This single word connects thousands of people from every walk of life, political, religious and cultural persuasions and economic levels to produce a family of racers unique within the motor sports world.

Rick and Don Vesco are two of the sport's top "velocity scientists." Born into a family with a father whose racing exploits can be traced back to the 1930s, the boys grew-up in a household that oozed speed and performance. Using every trick they learned from the top drawer of their father's toolbox, the brothers are now legend among the go-fast straight-line crowd.

Why? First, consider the place. The Bonneville Salt Flats is a pristine, ultra-flat, vast wilderness; a gigantic geological phenomenon that evokes a simultaneous sense of awe and dread in all who venture out onto its surface. Perhaps it is the whiteness of it all. To be surrounded by such purity shocks the senses. Perhaps it is the flatness. Our lives usually unfold amidst such clutter that being in the presence of such nothingness jostles the mind. The pervasive stillness, a huge quiet, registers deep within even the toughest and the gruffest. Toss in a sunrise, after a storm with an 180 degree rainbow spilling across the horizon, and even an atheist might thank God for the day.

Not a romantic? Fine. Bonneville is considered a natural dynamometer - the longest stretch of unobstructed, concrete-hard straightness in the United States of America. Here one may experiment as long as the parts and the finances hold out. Anybody can be a one-shot, racing wonder, but to be successful for years, even decades, takes an entirely different kind of racer. Contrary to public opinion there is no luck involved, it boils down to long hours of hard work.

For more than four decades Rick and Don have been designing, building, racing and collecting motorcycle and automobile speed records, winning races, championships and building a legacy that emulates those of Andretti's, Unsers and Fittapaldi. So long have they been involved in land speed racing, that the only goal left to achieve was the very pinnacle of the amateur sports challenges - World Records.

Running under the banner "TEAMVesco," the brothers and their tight-knit, multi-talented crew earned bragging rights of the FIA World Land Speed Record for Wheel-Driven Cars. Even though "Turbinator" relies on a gas turbine engine, none of Vesco's horsepower come from thrust, all the energy flows through the wheels. The new record eclipsed Britain's Donald Campbell turbine class record of 403 mph set in 1965 on Lake Eyre.

Wrestling away the honors after 37 years, TEAMVesco is the first American team to hold the class record. Al Teague and his Spirit of '76 still own the impressive 409 record set in 1991 for supercharged, single engine cars, just like the Summers Brothers retain their 1965 honors of 409 taking Goldenrod to a multi-engine, naturally aspirated record. Three separate, hard fought battles, all worthy of respect and to be long-savored by the people who labored to make it so.

Turbinator had already set a number speed marks under the watchful eye of the Southern California Timing Association. The two most recent were on August 17th during the 1999 Speedweek where they broke their existing record with a 417.529 mph and then another two months later on October 23rd at the World Finals jacking up the ante to 427.832 mph. That same year they also set Top Speed of the Meet at 435.780 mph to earn the HOT ROD Magazine Top Qualifier Trophy and PPG Awarded the car, "Best Paint at Meet." Honors. Don Vesco had picked up top time honors once before, at the 1978 Speedweek, for riding his motorcycle streamliner at an anxious 333 mph.

Turbinator is a tantalizing example of what amateur inventiveness is capable of when sparked by a speed passion. With the help of many volunteers, Don and Rick fabricated an ingenious, one-off running gear system that boggles the engineering mind. Harnessing 16,000 rpm coming off the main turbine shaft, the power is feed through, up, left, down, right, here and there and eventually out to all four restless wheels. A handcrafted gear reduction box, a variety of driveshafts and axles, 10 universal joints and a bushel full of bearings are all squeezed under a 36-inch wide by 31-foot long streamliner that looks like a banana on steroids.

Driver Don Vesco believes the Turbinator still has another easy 60mph to tap, especially if surface conditions on the salt flats continue to improve. The brothers are focused on not just setting a new world record, but pushing the mark substantially higher. Teammate and transplanted Brit Bob Hodgkinson, drawing on his engineering background, steadfastly believes that the streamliner in its present form is capable of more than 600 miles per hour, but before such dreams will come true there will be many miles of tedious tire and wheel testing.

"We have plan," explains Rick Vesco, "Working through a structured program, we intend to not only reach 500 mph for wheel-driven cars, but also be the germinator of other racing events on the salt. These might include, fuel economy runs, an alternative fuel world invitational, high-tech and ecological university programs and 400mph drag race with other top competitors.

For the 2002 season, Turbinator and the Vescos are joining forces with Alex Macfadzean. Just like the racers of old would do to stay in the hunt, Alex is loaning the brothers his turbine engine for a season of speed in the world record-setting Turbinator. "We felt so bad about taking the record away from the British last year that we thought we'd be charitable and share the next record with them," said the wiley Don Vesco with a wicked pixie smirk.


Crew Chief
Nick Pappas

Turbine Engine Specialist
Lance Morris, engineer

Crew Members
Lee Burkey, Sonny Caster, Kevin Draper, Rick Haskell, Skip Hedrich, Alex MacFadzean, Rob North, and Clark Kane

Supporting Crew Members

Lonny Christensen - Owner, Jiffy Machine and machinist supreme
Bob Hodgkinson - Owner, Bob Hodgkison Engineering
Bruce Linsmeyer - Owner, Aero Engineering
Chris Shearer & Ed Shearer - Safety, Fire & Recovery

TeamVesco Communication Group

Louise Ann Noeth / Publicity - Owner, LandSpeed Productions
Gordon Menzies / Photography
Paul Busta / Videography - Owner, P.A.B. Productions
Elliot Estrine / Website Administrator

Turbinator Specifications







In a salute to the fastest form of motorsports in the world and all of the best and brightest contributors to the advancement of the automotive community, brothers Don and Rick Vesco received the Car Guy of the Year(TM) award for 2001 from a diverse group of automotive industry representatives on April 17, 2002 at the opening reception of the eAuto World conference in Dearborn, Mich.

Lynn Yakel, noted Bonneville racer and land speed racing car designer accepted the award on behalf of the Vesco brothers for their world-famous involvement in the car culture and 458 mile per hour wheel-driven land speed record for the USA at the Bonneville Salt Flats in their "Turbinator" race car in 2001.

"Looking at the list of other nominees, we were just honored to be included, but never thought we had a chance," said car designer and builder Rick Vesco when told of the Award. "It's gratifying to know that others in the car world recognize the value of our World Land Speed Record for the United States."

Driver Don Vesco added, "Without our dedicated volunteer team, Rick and I would still be chasing our dream out on the Bonneville Salt Flats. On behalf of my brother and TEAMVesco, we want to thank those on the committee and in the entire automotive community for their support."

"The idea of driving in excess of 400 miles per hour is a mind-boggling proposition, to spend 15 years chipping away at such a goal is deserving of not only the automotive world's respect, but admiration for courageous example of what American know-how can achieve," said Andy Granatelli, a veteran of the motorsports world and auto industry, and member of the Car Guy of the Year Committee.

"We reviewed a number of outstanding individuals this year, and the vigorous discussions and careful selection process that this unique award reflects gives the Car Guy of the Year award special merit," Granatelli added. "It means more than a general 'success' in the car world or doing only what you're paid to do. This award salutes an achievement in making a notable contribution to the car culture that also reflects a requisite combination of a genuine passion for cars, proven technical insights, involvement in the enthusiasts' arena and respect among peers across the industry spectrum."


Previous award winners of the Car Guy of the Year award include:

"With an 18-member advisory committee for this award, we have leadership input from a strong variety of the auto world's multiple facets," said Steve Ford, co-administrator of the sixth annual Car Guy of the Year award program. "Between the thoughtful contributions of each and every committee member in this process, and the media support from PR Newswire and here with industry leadership at the eAuto World venue, we're very grateful for this year's 'finish line' and saluting the Vesco brothers."

Roy Miller, award co-administrator noted, "It's easy to identify great car people who are accomplished, passionate about their careers and have great respect from peers. But to have truly achieved notable leadership in all five criteria points narrows the field every year. The committee has continued to work carefully to spotlight true role models of well-rounded leadership." The "Car Guy of the Year" award committee's guidelines for determining the accomplishments, character and contributions of the annual award winner include a focus on each of the following mandatory factors for the voting process:

In October of 2002, Don Vesco will be honored at the 11th annual California Hot Rod Reunion with a "Lifetime Achievement" award presented by the NHRA Motorsports Museum. According to museum spokesman Greg Sharp, the recognition is given to "unsung heroes who make-up the many-faceted foundation of hot rodding; those individuals who have continued to be a vibrant contributor to the sport."