Absolute Velocity

By Scott Lear
Jun 18, 2018 | Nissan | Posted in Features | From the Dec. 2015 issue | Never miss an article

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Photos by Perry Bennett

As the old joke goes, auto racing was born when the second car ever built lined up against the first. By the same logic, the first land speed record was set even earlier. You can be sure that the very first automobile that rolled under its own power was given the spurs once it proved there was an even marginal chance it could do so without exploding.

Before long, these pioneer speed demons decided to make a few rules and start writing things down. Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat set the first known record on December 18, 1898, driving an electric Jeantaud Duc to a 39.24 mph average speed on a 1-kilometer course. Less than a month later, his record was broken by Camille Jenatzy, who hit 41.42 mph in a CGA Dogcart. To say the sport evolved rapidly would be an understatement: These two drivers traded the record back and forth on a monthly basis, with Jenatzy really upping the ante in a custombuilt streamlined racer that ran 65.79 mph in April of 1899.

Once news spread on whatever people at the dawn of the 20th century used for an Internet, outright speed became an obsession for gearheads the world over. In 1902, American driver William K. Vanderbilt claimed the record for an internal-combustion car at 76.08 mph. Four years later, Fred Marriott brought his Stanley Rocket to the hard-packed sand of Ormond Beach, Florida–a seashell’s skip from GRM headquarters–and surpassed the 200 kph mark with a 127 mph run under steam power.

The Brits went crazy for speed in the 1920s, and Daytona Beach, Ormond Beach’s neighbor to the south, became the venue of choice for land speed attempts over 200 mph. Malcolm Campbell’s 36.7-liter supercharged Rolls-Royce V12-powered Blue Bird set the last record on the beach at Daytona in 1935 with a 276.816 mph blast.

The narrow confines of the beach were getting pretty hairy at these speeds, but a huge expanse out west called the Bonneville Salt Flats showed great promise. In 1935, the 300 mph barrier fell on this huge expanse of desert salt. In 1947, the land speed record was just shy of 400 mph, still with internal-combustion engines.

The jet age for land speed records dawned in 1963, and 600 mph fell in 1965. The last major landmark was 1997, when Andy Green went supersonic in the Thrust SSC at Black Rock Desert. The next target you’re likely to see on the general interest news is 1000 mph, and the 135,000-horsepower hybrid rocket Bloodhound SSC that’s being built to jump that hurdle should debut this coming November.

That’s all very cool, but unfortunately the days of setting an absolute land speed record in anything less than a hugely expensive fighter jet with the wings torn off are long gone. Luckily, the folks who write things down didn’t just stop with the drivers’ names and the speeds they achieved; they took note of car body type, engine type, displacement and more. Scores of classes were born from these records, and today thousands of drivers compete at land speed events across North America, trying to find a spot for their own names in the history books.

A Man With a Mission

You may not know Jerry Hoffmann by name, but you’ve probably at least heard of his company, DIYAutoTune. Back when the open-source ECU platform MegaSquirt was in its fledgeling stages, DIYAutoTune started selling pre-made kits that took a lot of the intimidating circuitboard work out of getting engine A to work in car B.

As the market has evolved, the company has grown to become a go-to source for parts and tech support in the now-commonplace world of aftermarket computer control. In fact, several of our GRM project cars have featured MegaSquirt computers sourced and sorted courtesy of DIYAutoTune.

A decade or so ago, one of Hoffmann’s early ECU customers was building a land speed car for Bonneville. The project so intrigued Hoffmann that he flew out to the Salt Flats in 2006 to provide hands-on support and crew for the effort. Two years later, the car secured a class record, and in 2012 they improved on the top speed.

“During that process, I caught the bug,” admits Hoffmann. “I looked at crewing for him as doing my homework, learning the ropes to see what catches people out and causes them to go home with a broken car.” The drivers call this addiction Salt Fever, and Hoffmann had a bad case.

Speed Is More Than Just a Number

The rarified air for land speed attempts these days is the 200 mph mark. That may seem like an easy target in a world where every high-dollar hypercar boasts a top speed in excess of this figure. However, a land speed record isn’t about ticking a top speed for a nanosecond and then backing out immediately to purge some adrenaline and upload the video to YouTube.

Land speed is taken as the average over a flying mile, and to count for the record books the car must repeat that feat in the opposite direction within a reasonable amount of time. A lot can go wrong when the throttle is buried over two long, high-speed runs. The salt surface at Bonneville doesn’t offer much grip, so cars have a 5-mile stretch to find their flying mile. There’s ample room to decelerate safely afterward, but at an average speed of 200 mph, each mile zips by in a scant 18 seconds.

If a car posts a flying mile speed that puts it in contention for a class record– by even one-thousandth of a mph–it must go into impound at the far end of the course. The next morning, qualified cars that have passed scrutiny make their return runs to try to lock down their place in the record book.

Consistency is important here. On the return, the only mile of the marked five that counts is the one that secured the qualifying spot the day before. If you were fastest between miles 4 and 5 on the way out, for example, then that’s your target zone for the return.

Hoffmann wanted to join the 200 mph club and get his name in the record books. The first step in any successful record attempt is research. Many drivers will peruse the record books looking for either unattempted records or long-standing records that may be ripe for the picking.

Hoffmann’s ultimate goal was to run with Bonneville’s Southern California Timing Association. However, the East Coast Timing Association, which runs events at Airborne Airpark in Wilmington, Ohio, is closer to his home base in Atlanta and uses the same class structure. Classes are determined by engine displacement, aspiration, fuel type and body style. For example, an F/BGC-class entry means an F engine size (between 123 and 183.99 cubic inches, basically 2 and 3 liters), B for “Blown” (turbo or supercharged), G for “Gas” (specific gasoline provided on-site by the sanctioning body) and C for “Coupe/ Sedan” (four seats from the factory).

As a guy who runs a company that specializes in making any engine work in any type of chassis, Hoffmann’s first goal was to select a platform that would be inexpensive but aerodynamic out of the box. From a land speed perspective, there are two critical factors: frontal area and coefficient of drag.

The first tells how big a hole a car has to punch through the atmosphere, and the second describes how clean the shape is aerodynamically. Hoffmann and his team brainstormed a few ideas and then researched them as best they could on the Internet to find the frontal area and cd.

“The Nissan 240SX, and S13 hatch specifically,” notes Hoffmann, “was very advantageous compared to just about anything. Of course, we can improve on the aero depending on the class. We can delete the mirrors and the wipers. The cd on this particular body is about .30 from the factory; I’d estimate that we’re around .26 or .27 now. I’m not an aero professional, but generally the hatchbacks let the air roll off easier without the lower-pressure area behind the rear window. You just have the one at the tail.” As the car continues to evolve, he thinks a drag coefficient of .22 may be possible.

But such mods do have an impact on classing. Simply taping the front grille moves Hoffmann’s car to F/BGALT (“Altered”). It’s worth noting that a car can be eligible for multiple classes without any physical changes. If a Gas car is fast enough to beat the less-restricted Fuel record (for more exotic mixes), there’s nothing to stop the driver from setting two records, assuming he has the time and reliability to make a second pair of runs.

Punching the Hole

With the Nissan 240SX body in the shop, it was time to give it enough reliable power to make multiple record attempt passes in a single day. There’s no shortage of hugely powerful V8s out in the desert, but Hoffmann decided to take a different approach that would allow him to target some of the lower-displacement records. He opted for a more modern horsepower icon, the Toyota 2JZ-GTE from the Mark IV Toyota Supra Turbo.

In stock trim, the Supra was rated at less than 300 horsepower, but tuners soon discovered that this block can take staggering amounts of boost without becoming a 3-liter grenade. “They’re just legendary for making gobs of power reliably with a fairly small displacement,” explains Hoffmann. “That 2JZ is good for 800 to 1000 horsepower for a limited time without even opening it up.”

As president of the company, Hoffmann was able to give himself a discount on a DIYAutoTune MS3- Pro ECU setup, which is connected through an integrated laptop to a 10.4-inch touchscreen dash running TunerStudio. Using the touchscreen, Hoffmann can tune the car on the fly, and the display provides real-time gauge information and data logging at all times.

Obviously a short burst of power is all that’s required for a 10-second drag racing pass. Even road racers spend plenty of time off the gas during braking zones and corners, giving the engine a chance to cool. But a land speed attempt is far more trying on the engine. “At Bonneville I’ll be wide-open throttle for about 45 seconds,” says Hoffmann. To allow for a safety margin, he plans to build an engine that can handle 1500 horsepower, and then de-tune it to around 1000 horses at 32 psi of boost.

If this kind of power seems excessive, consider the effects of aero drag on a car as speed increases. At 150 mph, the Nissan’s slippery shape is still eating up 119 horsepower to move the atmosphere out of the way. The slope isn’t linear, either; it’s a rising curve. The faster you go, the greater the air resistance. At 200 mph, the figure jumps to 282 horsepower. At 220 mph, the horsepower needed to nudge air molecules aside balloons to 375 horsepower. Slide the calculation up to 300 mph, and the Nissan would need nearly 1000 horsepower just to push air out of the way.

Making big power isn’t all that difficult– until you need it to be dead-nuts reliable, too. “There’s a dry-sump oiling system, a big oil cooler in front of the slightly larger-than-stock radiator, and no thermostat,” explains Hoffmann. “The major thing we do is cooling the air charger with a big ice box that cools our air-to-water intercooler. There’s a roughly 30-gallon-per-minute pump and about 60 pounds of ice. I’m about to step up the box size; I need more capacity. I forgot to turn the pump on one run and my intake air temps were up to nearly 300 degrees.” With the system switched on, a typical run will start at 36 degrees Fahrenheit and end around 75.

Since a parachute handles most of the deceleration duties, Hoffmann gave the front brakes a different job. He removed the calipers entirely and milled down the discs until the internal cooling vanes were showing. These provide a perfect, regular pattern for a Hall effect sensor. This sensor reports front-wheel speed to the DIYAutoTune MS3-Pro ECU, which uses the data to determine if the rear wheels are breaking loose relative to the fronts. When they do, it kicks in the MS3-Pro’s programmable traction control features. Voilà! Optimal acceleration on any surface, even salt.

Mass Hysteria

They say that weight is the enemy of speed, but they’re wrong. Weight is the enemy of acceleration, to be sure, but for outright speed, mass can be a really good thing. This is one area where land speed competition differs dramatically from other forms of racing.

Drag is the motivating factor. On a road racing or drag car, engineers use wings to generate downforce without much weight penalty. The time gained with traction at lower speeds, in the corners, and under braking makes up for the top-speed penalty.

At Bonneville in particular, the salt doesn’t provide much inherent friction, and drivers prefer to run skinny tires because they create less frontal area and have reduced rolling resistance. A wing might as well be an air brake. To regain some grip, land speed racers add gobs of weight. “In the standing mile, weight matters a little bit. At Bonneville, it’s not really a penalty. Some of the 300 mph cars are 6000 to 7000 pounds. I’m around 4100 with me in it,” says Hoffmann of the Nissan. “I’ve melted lead into the frame rails, and I have bags of lead shot that I can add in.”

Hoffmann notes that there’s a touch more bearing drag when adding mass to the car, but it’s rarely detrimental. “It seems counterintuitive, but I’ve seen cars run 240 mph, add 500 pounds to the trunk, and gain 7 or 8 mph on the next pass.” With 5 miles of arrow-straight track to work with, blistering acceleration isn’t critical.

He notes that there are several schools of thought on weight distribution. He subscribes to the one that likes to keep the front of the car a bit heavier than the back, so it’s weighted like a dart to improve stability. “You just keep adding weight as you go faster, and when you don’t go any faster, that’s enough weight.”

Caged Animal

When weight doesn’t really matter, you can get a little bit crazy with the safety gear, too. Hoffmann decided to go really bonkers with the cage in the Nissan.

There’s not a ton of room inside the tiny 240SX cockpit, but with the help of Fat Cat Fabrication he was able to build a funny car-style cage-within-a-cage structure. When asked how many points the cage has, Hoffmann’s grinning reply is, “All the points. I have three girls and a wife. I want to come home to them.”

Fat Cat Fabrication also crafted a four-link suspension in the rear to accommodate the Chevy 10-bolt rear end. Hoffmann thought he had the alignment squared away, but speed tends to magnify tiny errors. It didn’t take long for him to realize there was a problem.

“The first two times we took the car out, the suspension wasn’t set up quite right,” he recalls. “The car got pretty scary above 130 mph. We sorted it a bit, then it was sketchy above 150. On several of those first runs, I was crossing the finish at 160, 170 mph and the car was like 10 degrees off of straight. I’d pull the chute. It’s eerie to be drifting a bit at those speeds. The track’s not wide.”

Hoffmann knew a fellow racer named Lee Sicilio with a 300 mph Dodge Charger Daytona–we profiled that car in our August 2013 issue. He had enlisted the help of Ryan Fain of Brink Racecraft in Texas to keep his car on the straight and narrow. “I flew Ryan out here and fed him Budweiser for a few days,” laughs Hoffmann. “Now the car is straight as an arrow. You could drive it with two fingers at 200 mph.”

Bonneville is a desert, and deserts tend to get pretty hot, so Hoffmann counts his Cool Suit among his key safety items. “I’ll never race without it again,” he states plainly. “I don’t have a thermometer inside the car, but in the five-layer suit, even in moderate [Ohio] temperatures, it’s every bit of 110 degrees in that suit. I can’t even imagine trying to race at Bonneville when it’ll be 110 in August. What you get back in mental clarity and not practically dying inside, your suit is worth it.”

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Hoffmann’s 2JZ-powered Nissan is already a major player at the ECTA’s Ohio events, where he holds 12 class records. Seven of those are Blown Gas Coupe honors, but for a range of engine sizes–everything from F (the 2- to 3-liter class, where his car technically falls) up through AA for big-displacement engines. His fastest recorded speed there is 215.414 mph.

Bonneville is his next target. His primary goal is the F/BGC class record, currently set at 207.608 mph. As a newcomer to the SCTA sanctioning body, Hoffmann must first earn his licenses for 125, 150, 175 and 200 mph to even be eligible to compete for his intended target.

“After that, I’d be [licensed] to go as fast as 250,” he explains, “but [fellow racer] Keith Turk said, ‘Don’t just go for your hero pass.’ He said, ‘Do just enough to get the qualify. Your car’s in good shape to get the record the next morning.’ I’m not taking that lightly.”

In his time spent crewing for friends at Bonneville, he’s seen plenty of capable machines succeed in their record attempts. But just as many fail despite having the outright speed potential. “There’s a thousand things that can go wrong,” he warns.

Assuming Hoffmann nudges up the record a few mph this year, he’s got ambitious longterm goals for the Nissan and its big-power 2JZ engine. “We’re pushing this turbo a bit faster than it was designed,” he says. “Turbonetics is our turbo sponsor and they’ve been taking good care of us. We’re gonna stick with the 79mm [turbo] for this season, but next we may go 83 or even 90mm.”

If he moves from the spec Gas class to the Fuel class, he could pump a more exotic blend of go-juice through the turbo six as well. Tuning is a snap with his MS3- Pro ECU by DIYAutoTune, and he and his engineers can play the fuel maps like a concert pianist on a Steinway Grand.

“I’m considering putting a little nitrous shot on top of the gasoline, or maybe mixing in some methanol,” he muses. “I love the idea of chasing the track record of 244 mph at Ohio.”

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View comments on the GRM forums
Vigo PowerDork
9/22/16 5:59 p.m.

Damn. This was intensely interesting.

ckosacranoid Dork
9/26/16 10:07 a.m.

Very cool artical on this guy and his car. Now this is a really intrexting sport. Anyone can drag race. Takes brains to go land racing.

Sarah Young
Sarah Young Editorial/Art Assistant
10/5/16 5:18 p.m.

Scott is an awesome writer.

10/6/16 3:41 p.m.

Great article and well written. I have followed Bonneville since the days of the Arfons/Breedlove battles and actually met Art Arfons and his mechanic Ed Snyder at a car show in Seattle when I was a teenager. Keep up the nice work!

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