Salt Addiction Perfect Timing

March 17, 2010
Rocky Robinson
Rocky Robinson
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Having raced everything from Flat Track to Trials, Rocky Robinson now pilots streamliners at the Bonneville Salt Flats and currently holds the ultimate land speed record at 376 mph aboard the Ack Attack streamliner.

Timing equipment  sensors  used for measuring speed through mile and kilo. On occasion they get destroyed by stray speeding vehicles and have to be replaced.
Timing equipment (sensors) used for measuring speed through 
the mile and kilometer. On occasion they get destroyed by stray
speeding vehicles and have to be replaced.
Each sensor has to be positioned and aligned before the event begins. Their job begins at 5:30 AM each morning.
Each sensor has to be positioned and aligned before the event
begins. The job begins at 5:30 a.m. each morning.

Land speed racing is technically a race against time. He who gets through the lights the fastest under the rules of the sanctioning body—wins.

Significant achievements in land speed history owe their very existence to the timekeepers who make it all possible to be recorded and archived for others to challenge. Otto Crocker, a San Diego watchmaker pioneered the three-clock timing system, the “Crocker Timer,” which the SCTA officially embraced in 1950. (One method of timing used previously was a handheld stopwatch.) Its been said that Crocker’s Timer was accurate to .001 of a second. It quickly became the standard of the era.

As speeds increased and events grew in size, more modern timing equipment was needed. Several different clocks were used and operated by different timers such as Gary Cagle and Glen Barrett. These timepieces were irreplaceable in capturing historical moments on the Salt, from Rollie Free’s 150 mph run in 1948 to Sam Wheeler’s 355 in 2006—the fastest run in one of the most memorable three-way motorcycle shootouts in history. The epic battle between Wheeler, Robinson and Carr was recorded by equipment claimed to be accurate to within .0000001 of a second!

Alan and James Rice are credited with modernizing timing equipment used in most land speed trials in the US today. James is a manufacturing engineer, specializing in technology and data acquisition. Alan is an electronics engineer, working for Western Digital. Together with Mark Vigeant they also campaign the #9999 belly-tank lakester.

SCTA-BNI chief timer  Glen Barrett.
SCTA-BNI chief timer, Glen Barrett.

Glen Barrett recalls their first meeting: “I met the Rice brothers I believe in 1991 at El Mirage. We were having a problem with the timing module connecting with the computer and were using a back-up that gave us ET only. We had a spreadsheet to convert to miles-per-hour. All of this was done by hand and very time consuming. A club member was in the timing stand and said he knew a couple of computer guys that were there that day. K.C. Liggett went to the pits and drug them back to see what they could do. It didn’t take them long to get it working. Naturally they commented about what we were using and said they could make a better system on a PC-based computer and give us more information. Gary Cagle and I talked to the SCTA board and were given the funds to have Alan and James build the system. The accuracy of this system is as good as any in the world and is FIA, FIM and BNI certified.”

In addition to the SCTA, they provide timing services for the BNI’s SpeedWeek, BUB’s International Motorcycle Speed Trials, Cook Motorsports’ Speed Shootout, BNI’s World Finals, and usually one or two independent private meets. The Utah Salt Flat Racers Association’s World of Speed in September is probably the only Bonneville event they don’t time.

Wired for speed  let the games begin…
Wired for speed, let the games begin… 

I asked if there were record attempts made or actual records awarded, where the timing of the run was in question. Alan: “Every year we get a few people who question a speed we give them. The usual cause seems to be their on-board data logger or GPS said they were going faster. In the case of the GPS, it records the fastest instantaneous speed, not the average speed over the entire defined trap. The same can be true for data-loggers, but those can also be fooled by wheel slip. If there is any question, our equipment keeps a log of all events, so we can go back and recreate a run instant-by-instant in detail if needed.”

The timing tower is approximately 800 feet off-course, the closest structure to the actual racing. On one occasion a speeding roadster traveling around 100 mph just missed the tower and hit an outhouse only ten feet away. Aside from maybe being a “sitting duck” during racing events, it’s also probably the best seat in the house.

Sam Wheeler took his tiny green streamliner through a mile marker collecting a timing sensor in his intake in the process. Sam went through this marker at over 200 mph  shattering the sensor behind it. Note the slit in the orange fabric from entry.This is the backside of the marker Sam went through. The black debris is from the shattered sensor.
Left: Sam Wheeler took his tiny green streamliner through a mile marker, collecting a timing sensor in his intake in the process.
Center: Sam went through this marker at over 200 mph, shattering the sensor behind it. Note the slit in the orange fabric from entry.
Right: This is the backside of the marker Sam went through. The black debris is from the shattered sensor.

One story I’ve heard from both Glen Barrett and the Rice brothers is Sam Wheeler’s EZ Hook streamliner hitting a track sensor directly behind a mile marker. The sensor was destroyed, but the marker, still standing, seamed fine. A closer look at the mile marker showed a clean rip top to bottom. Alan: “He went through the sign at well over 200 mph and left it standing. I thought it was a one in a million shot, and that I’d never see it again. Wrong. A couple of years later, a 300 mph electric streamliner did the exact same thing.” Most recently, Chris Carr and Bub 7 took a turn at splitting the PVC-framed marker.

Jesse James makes a pass at 199 mph stirring up controversy when a publicist announced they had shattered the land speed record for a hydrogen powered vehicle.
Jesse James makes a pass at 199 mph, then stirred up controversy when a publicist announced he had shattered the land speed record for a hydrogen-powered vehicle.

During one of Mike Cook’s “Shootouts” Steve Fossett, the wealthy adventurer, met with Alan interested in every aspect of what went on inside the timing tower. He would later make three passes in the Main/Poteet streamliner, reaching nearly 300 mph. He kept in contact with Alan while preparing for an attempt at 800 mph on land.

James Rice on Jesse James: “Jesse James is a Dead Man was a one day timing event done at El Mirage in June 2009, coordinated through Mike Cook. James’ group built or re-built a small streamliner and powered it with hydrogen. The track was about 1.5 miles long, with a 132-foot trap at the end. Their goal was 200 mph,” he said.

“The event wasn’t sanctioned by any racing organization, so there were no existing records to break. On his last run at sunset, in a very strong cross-wind, he managed 199 mph. The director said, (I assume), cut, wrap, let’s get out of here. His publicists sent out a press release stating, ‘Jesse James successfully shattered the land speed record for a hydrogen-powered vehicle.’ Setting a world speed record involves a lot more than just

The British steam car at speed at Muroc.
The British steam car at speed at Muroc.

briefly going faster than the other guy. The track has to be surveyed and documented; the traps have to be one kilometer and/or one mile long. There have to be two runs, etc., etc. None of that was done.”

This past August they timed an attempt on one of the longest-standing records on the books; the fastest steam car. The vehicle was 10 years in the making and the team spent two months at the track, but they finally did it. The event was held at Muroc with Air Force jets constantly buzzing the Timing Stand. And that is what you call a GOOD TIME…

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