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Bonneville Berserker


Story and Photos by Jim Luning

For a car nut of any sort, the Salt Flats of Wendover, Utah–and specifically Speed Week at Bonneville–are bucket-list destinations. The words “Bonneville” and “Salt Flats” instantly conjure images of cars with wild shapes, insane horsepower and equally dizzying speeds. The Bonneville Salt Flats have a certain mystery and allure for anyone who’s never been there, but once you do go, you get it.

And what you get is the last bastion of racing, where the only reward for being the fastest is your name on a trophy. There are no corporate sponsors, no drivers changing hats, and no one slugging down energy drinks during interviews. There is no winner’s circle.

You will see open pits you can stroll through. Mechanics and drivers–often that’s the same person–are willing to take a moment to answer a question or talk about that flathead Ford stuffed into a semi-familiar shape.

You’ll absorb the heat of the air, the cool of the salt, the smell of the race gas. The soundtrack is the chatter of announcers over the CB radios.

Off in the distance will be a quickly approaching dot skimming across the salt followed by the growl of its engine as it passes you by at Mile 3. As one fellow put it, “It’s like camping on the moon with your hotrod.”

The range of participants and technology is just as diverse as the cars themselves. On one end, there’s the retired GM engineer in a beard and bib overalls doing long division in the salt to get more turbo boost on his ’32 coupe with a straight-eight. On the other end, you have a car with a built-in server sending information to the tuner’s laptop via Wi-Fi at the starting line. Lee Sicilio’s 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona is the latter.

The Season for Speed

With a love of hotrods and racing that started when he was 13, Lee has learned a thing or two about going fast. That along with a sense of humor, some imagination and a penchant for “The Dukes of Hazzard” reruns resulted in a General Lee clone sitting in his garage. It was originally slated to become a Pro Street car.

Shortly after acquiring that car, Lee made his first trip to Bonneville–in August 1997–for Speed Week. That was it: Salt sickness, salt madness, whatever you want to call it, infected Lee. It sealed the fate of that first 1969 Charger R/T.

Two years later, Lee and his team showed up at Bonneville with a brand-new Daytona clone–it’s mostly a Charger aside from those all-important aero enhancements found at the nose and tail. With the car still in primer, Lee and his teammates did very well on their first runs, but the popularity of the car was what really stuck.

The next year, car No. 1001 returned in its full orange-and-black paint job. It was even featured of that year’s Speed Week T-shirts and program cover. Lee and company were a hit with the crowds, sure, but Lee was chasing membership in a very exclusive legion: Bonneville’s 200 MPH Club.

In 2001, Lee Sicilio trumped a 22-year-old record by reaching 242 mph in a naturally aspirated, full-body production car on regular race gas. He had bested the old record by 18 mph. Lee gained entry into a club that has fewer members than the number of people who’ve stood on top of Mount Everest.

In the following years, Lee’s Daytona broke 11 records. Nine of those records had been set by others, while two were his own.

Carpe Sodium

Fast-forward to 2012. There’s a new Daytona in town. And Lee had a new goal to chase: 300 mph.

Wanting to step up his game, Lee needed a new car–something purpose-built, from safety to horsepower, for a new mission. The choice of what car to build was the next crucial but easily answered question. Why not build another Daytona?

Under a tree in the boonies of West Texas lived just that car–two, to be exact.

As Lee tells the story, a woman whose husband was either in prison or dead, had a pair of 1969 Chargers in her backyard. One was in good shape, while the other had a smashed rear, hail damage, a lost interior and a missing engine and transmission.

She wanted a king’s ransom for the cars, but Lee had a plan. He contacted a friend who was looking for a Charger to restore and flip, and the shell was Lee’s finder’s fee. That beat-up shell came back to Lee’s shop and was set up on a jig so the work could begin.

Lee assembled his crew. Ryan Fain, builder and designer of this Daytona, spent around 3500 hours bending tubes, running wires, and laying perfect welds.

Crew chief and body man Randy Hughes was given the task of pounding out the dents, making the panels straight, and putting down that striking orange and black paint. He was also responsible for keeping everyone on course in the pits.

Scott Clark has been tuning top race cars for years and was brought on board to tame the beast. Lee’s Daytona is simply a rolling work of art and technology.

The first drafts had a Chevy fitted with a turbo system, which was a common setup that was also race-tested. Lee decided that, since this was a Chrysler, it should run a Chrysler engine.

The words “twilight zone” are printed on the nose of the car, and under the hood lies something otherworldly: Twin 91mm Precision Turbos pump air into a 498-cubic-inch Hemi that’s based on a Keith Black block.

The rest of the driveline is made up of Stage V heads, a clutchless Jerico NASCAR road racing five-speed transmission and a Winter quick-change rear end. Other hardware includes NASCAR front spindles, Spaghetti Menders wiring and DIYAutoTune’s MegaSquirt engine management. All told, the Daytona puts roughly 1800 horsepower to the flywheel.

The Ryan Fain-designed chassis is a labyrinth of perfectly welded-together bent steel and aluminum. Brilliant subtleties, like cupholders and a Busch beer keg, are nods to the owner’s sense of humor and just a couple reasons for this Daytona to be a crowd favorite.

Ryan’s meticulousness didn’t stop with whimsy, as there’s a NASCAR-style roof flap up top to keep the car on the ground in case of a spin. Lee’s mantra–“Safety, fun, speed”–resounds in every inch of this car. And beer fits in there someplace, too

Worth Its Salt

Every car nut is welcome at Bonneville, and every manner of driver/mechanic seems to show up with a vehicle at the line. In the case of Lee Sicilio’s team, you’ll see Scott Clark walking around the car, laptop in hand. Three computers–one being a Wi-Fi server–collect and manage data over allthe key components of this car. From the suspension articulation and turbo boost to intercooler temperatures and ignition timing, it can all be monitored. At 300 mph, covering a mile every 12 seconds, there’s not a lot of room for error.

Bonneville has no purse, so each team’s development money, time, risk and adventure are purely for the achievement of going as fast as they possibly can using what they’ve built. Salt flat racing doesn’t use a mail-order catalog of bolt-on parts; you build, you fabricate, you adapt, you rig, you hope, and you weld something together that’s going to hurl you down that 5-mile course faster than anything you’ve ever driven.

Lee’s Daytona made a good showing during its first Bonneville appearance, upping the A/BGALT class record for 440-to-500-cubic-inch-powered, force-inducted, gas-fed altered coupes to 273 mph. The trap exit speed on the second run was 283 mph. Next time, he’s going for 300 mph in that same class.

Bonneville Speed Week 2013 may be the one to check off your car nut bucket list this coming August. Lee’s going to go 300–it will happen.

Why else should you go? Someone else will break a record that’s stood for years. You’ll see cars you’ve never witnessed before, meet some of the nicest people around, and become part of something that’s just special.

Bonneville is not just a place, it’s a secret club that everyone is welcome to join. If you make the journey to be in the heat, the blinding light, standing on an ancient sea bed, your reward is being a part of the last great amateur racing event in the world.

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Comments

View comments on the GRM forums
z31maniac
z31maniac MegaDork
10/11/17 1:51 p.m.

EDIT

Ed Higginbotham
Ed Higginbotham Associate Editor
10/11/17 1:54 p.m.

In reply to z31maniac :

Which links are broken?

z31maniac
z31maniac MegaDork
10/11/17 2:46 p.m.

"Read the rest of the story" was originally returning a 404 error for me.

 

Now it seems to be working. Which is good, I wanted to read the rest of the story. :)

Ed Higginbotham
Ed Higginbotham Associate Editor
10/11/17 2:51 p.m.

Glad it fixed itself. Not sure what happened there. Enjoy!

drsmooth
drsmooth HalfDork
10/11/17 3:10 p.m.

HUSS! HUSS! HUSS! HUSS!

84FSP
84FSP Dork
10/11/17 3:31 p.m.

Very cool read, exactly why this is my favorite temple of gear.  1,800hp to the flywheel and it runs for more than a 1/4 mile at a time.  Built by a GRM dude who picked it up on the cheap and built it by hand.

This is on my gear head bucket list near Pikes Peak and I'm most conflicted as it seems like a great place to run one of my toys rather than be a spectator...  I did manage to check off running the Nurburgring last year and attending the Singapore F1 night race the year before. 

Progress is slow but enjoyable. 

alfadriver
alfadriver MegaDork
10/11/17 6:20 p.m.

In reply to 84FSP :

If you really want to run at Bonneville, check the rules and requirements.  Without a doubt, you will find a class to run your car in- that's not the issue.  It's more about what the safety requirements are for the class you want to run in.

Like the featured car probably has a NHRA cage wrapped around the driver.  Seems like most cars that can clear 200mph are like that.

Still, I've never been anywhere else where creativity and skill are celebrated with so many cool cars.  The Challenge is awesome, no doubt.  But this is quite different.  

When you have a chance to see a car streak by at 400mph, it's pretty special.

Toebra
Toebra HalfDork
10/11/17 10:49 p.m.

That is one of my favorite issues of the mag.  I always dug the wing cars, and that one is really something.  Guy I got my 914 from iss a big Mopar guy.  He had some cool cars, a couple of Superbirds and a couple Daytonas, a hemi Roadrunner convertible that paid for his house.  He still has a decent number of cars, but does not have to rent space to store them.

thatsnowinnebago
thatsnowinnebago SuperDork
10/12/17 12:33 p.m.

How is the torque figure so low? I'd think an engine making 1800hp at 7200 rpm would come with a lot more than 490 torques. What am I missing?

efahl
efahl New Reader
10/12/17 12:38 p.m.

In reply to thatsnowinnebago :

Correctomundo, 1800/7200*5252 = 1313 lb-ft torque at 7200 RPM.  That 490@4000 is waaaay below the torque peak.

Mark_42
Mark_42 New Reader
10/12/17 2:21 p.m.

We took our 2015 Subaru Outback with a huge (20 cu. ft. Sears) rooftop carrier on top of it out there on the salt.

With 4 of us in the car, it started feeling light at about 94 MPH - so I said "I'm going to back off". My wife and kids all said "Good idea". I had been to about 101 MPH on asphalt in another place along our cross country trip. The salt is a bit sketchy, like driving on wet sand - a feeling similar to when your car is starting to hydroplane on a wet racetrack.

The salt is damp in places - and it sticks all over the bottom & fender wells of the car. Luckily we drove about 4 hours in the rain a couple of days later. Pressure washing with fresh water made me feel better about it.

It's quite an experience. I hope to someday go back there with my 1st Ge. MR2 and get just over 100 MPH.
Maybe more if I can rebuild the car for the purpose.

Appleseed
Appleseed MegaDork
10/12/17 2:32 p.m.

"My love of speed is like a truck- BERSERKER!"

"My nitro V-8 is ticking tock-BERSERKER!"

"Breaking records is sucking berk-BERSERKER!"

 

Feedyurhed
Feedyurhed SuperDork
10/15/17 6:42 a.m.

I will get out there one day. It's on my list.

Spoolpigeon
Spoolpigeon PowerDork
10/15/17 3:23 p.m.

At first I thought the title said “Bonneville Berkleyer”. 

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