It's been said salt corrodes that part of the brain where the common sense is stored. I'll buy that. After a few trips to Bonneville, I got it in my head that I'd like to blast across the salt in my 10-second '61 Morris Minor street car, nicknamed the Son of Godzilla-just to say I did it. So, I did it. It was pretty easy, too, thanks to the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association, its 130 MPH Club, and an army of friends who pitched in with elbow grease of various grades to help make it happen.
The Son of Godzilla, aka Li'l Zilla, looks more race than street, but any car that's licensed and insured, and built with basic safety equipment-seatbelts, helmet, and the like-can qualify for the 130 MPH Club. Each entrant gets five runs, consisting of a checkout pass plus four tries at running between 130 and 140 mph. Once you run 130 mph, or faster, you must back it up with another 130-plus run to get in the club.
My friend, Chris Clark, is a young guy, but we've been wrenching together for years, and he's had some solid seat time in Li'l Zilla. The plan was for Chris and me to drive the Morris to Bonneville, run 130 mph, try our luck at the 150 MPH Club, and drive home. We'd do it with a tiny toolkit and the clothes on our backs, supported by a peanut butter and jelly budget. We prepped for the trip by whipping up a fresh drivetrain for the car and swapping the street/strip 3.91 gears to some leggy 2.76s. We threw in an auxiliary fuel tank for greater cruising range and an antiroll bar for the 'strip.
The reality is, we ran out of time and money, and the rest of our plans-aero body tricks, adjustable ballast, overdrive trans, and so on-are just words on a list. We built a little towbar, so we'd only have to pay for gas for one car. Then, we kissed the women goodbye and departed Medford, Oregon, an hour behind schedule and grinning.
Around Klamath Falls, we stopped to check things out and were alarmed to find most of the tread missing from the left front tire on the Morris. We pressed on, regardless. Deer, trees, and mountains gave way to burros, sagebrush, and flatlands. We spent a day in Winnemucca, Nevada, looking for tires. Tomcat Peterson, a stranger in Salt Lake City whose phone number we happened to have, found a pair of front tires and rendezvoused with my brother, Wayne, and his son, Jeremy, on the way from Nebraska with Freckles, the Porsche 944T coming to battle Li'l Zilla for Baddest Street Car status. The new tires were speed rated to 138 mph (H rated), so the 150 MPH Club was out. We arrived in Wendover that afternoon, found the only tire-mounting machine in the county at Crawford's Tire & Lube shop, and celebrated with pizza.
The next morning was tech inspection on the salt, and Tomcat came out to crew for us. We set up our pit next to Freckles and wallowed in the historical significance of Bonneville. We were a part of it now. The next morning, we'd be flying across this hallowed ground. We all slept pretty light that night.
Out on the salt at first light, we attended the drivers' meeting where we learned, among other things, that, "at best, the salt has 60 percent of the traction found on asphalt." The instructions ended with, "Oh yeah, we set up the 130 course over there. Hope it works OK. Let's go racing."
The "130 people" found our way to the course, where we were joined by a USFRA official. After an hour-long question-and-answer session exploring every inch of the course and procedures, it was time to line up in the staging lane.
The officials waved Li'l Zilla to the line, and the salt stretched out before me. After what seemed like an hour of staring down-course, I heard these magic words: "The course is yours." I took off easy, feeling for traction; I didn't find any. It was like driving on snow. Once up to speed, the car wanted to drift, and I gave it plenty of lead with the reins, letting it wander more than I cared for before trying to gently correct. I passed the half-mile marker and realized there wasn't much time to build speed for the finish. I didn't want the embarrassment of a sub-100-mph run (the point of that first run was to establish that we knew where 100 mph was, for reference), so I pushed it a little harder than I was comfortable with. It felt agonizingly slow until I crossed the finish, when suddenly the turnoff was coming way too fast. Braking and downshifting only gave me the nervous giggles as the car took its own erratic course, depositing me somewhere out in salt space.
I got back to the course with a red face, redder when I read the timing slip: 105.355 mph. The naysayers were right-this was going to be a lot of work on these wide, 10-inch tires; they were just skittering across the high spots on the salt.
The next time out was more of the same-ice skating at 107.474 mph. The other entrants didn't seem to be having this kind of trouble hooking up; maybe we weren't meant to be salt heroes. I was happy to have made two passes across the salt and was ready to go see how Freckles was doing on the 150-mph course, but Chris and Tomcat had other plans. They'd heard the salt was "tightening up" and traction was getting better as the day warmed up, and reminded me they didn't come all the way here to watch me give up.
Sure enough, the salt was better. We broke convention and lowered our tire pressure, and I almost felt some semblance of control on my next run. I carded a 123.018 and got right back in line. With only two passes left, I got more aggressive. I found, as the car wandered at speed, a slight squeeze on one side of the steering wheel would somewhat return it to its original direction. This seemed to work until approaching the finish line, when that last little throttle tickle sent Li'l Zilla on a pinball path, threatening to take out cones on both sides of the course. I gently lifted and again found myself on a wild ride at the turn-off, but the payoff was a 133.745 timing slip-the fastest I'd ever been timed in this car. I'd found the groove, but we were out of time. We went back to town and had dinner with Wayne and Jeremy, who'd "hit a wall" in the 150 MPH Club. Freckles would run 148 mph and no more. The speed gods were taunting them-pretty common on the salt.
The course looked smooth and dry the next morning. I rolled to the line confident that I'd gone 130-plus once and could do it again. I left the start line aggressively, almost spun out, made an awkward recovery, and continued on, shifting smoothly and building steady speed as I approached the half-mile marker. This would be my last pass on the salt, maybe forever, so I let myself get as aggressive as I dared, plus a little more. I was coming up on the finish at just less than 5,000 rpm, when Li'l Zilla decided to drift way over to the right. My "slight squeeze" approach wasn't having any effect, so I had to get a little heavy-handed. I remember thinking, "This is where I should lift, but ..." and that's when the car settled into a 90-degree slide that seemed to pick up speed the longer it slid. Time and space had become elastic and very aural: I heard the exhaust, but also the salt spraying the aluminum floor and the Lexan windshield. I knew if the tires found something to grab, the car could begin to roll. I was strapped in as tight as possible but braced myself against the seat and 'cage, and I made sure my thumbs were free of the steering wheel, since I'd heard bad stories about that. I steered in the direction of the skid, but the car stayed sideways-for a very long time. Slowly, Li'l Zilla came around and straightened out. The turn-off was coming way too soon and I was unceremoniously ejected from the course, again. I got my bearings and headed for the timing trailer for my slip: 134.19817. I was in the club!
My next thought was of Freckles, sneaking up on 150. It had taken all I had to get into the 130 MPH Club; those guys were really looking like heroes now. Freckles beat Li'l Zilla fair and square in our Baddest Street Car contest, but I doubt those guys had as much fun getting there. Witnesses said they could see my rooster tail from the starting line, more than a mile away.
Now, it was Chris' turn to try the 130 MPH Club. He hadn't driven the car in five years, and he pretended to listen as I gave him the "don't be a hero" lecture. He carded a 115.590 on his check-out pass, and my eyebrows went up a notch. Run number 2 was a 126.882. When he fired up for his third run, we saw the throttle cable had frayed away to nothing. It looked like we were done for the day.
Chris disagreed. He demanded whatever cash Tomcat and I had-about $7-dove into the tow car, and headed for Wendover, where he finally found a Ford Taurus trans kickdown cable at a wrecking yard. We cobbled it up to get Chris back to the 130 course. He wanted to get back to where he'd left off, and, sure enough, he tore off identical numbers, right through the incrementals.
He had two chances to go 130 mph and back it up. The starting line officials knew what was at stake and held up their radios so we could hear the numbers. The run looked flawless, but we didn't hear anything. Then, finally, "Clock malfunction on that run." We all groaned. Chris came rolling back and was swamped with questions and opinions from other racers. Then, it was just the two of us. "Scotty, that was a 140.5 something. They wouldn't let me have the timing slip, but I saw it!"
We went over to the timing trailer. We pleaded. We begged. We offered a $3.47 bribe, but they wouldn't hand over the slip. Instead, they let Chris have two more tries. He delivered with a 133.990 and a 135.877. I was so proud of him and Li'l Zilla! And Tomcat. And Wayne, Jeremy, and Freckles, who ended up running 156.995 after some aero duct tape work.
It was an epic odyssey from beginning to end. And, in the end, it was Jeremy who summed it all up: "My gums got sunburned from smiling and laughing so much!" The same thing happened to Chris and me when we realized we'd gone 140 mph at half throttle! That means the Son of Godzilla will go 280 mph at full throttle, right?
Rod & Custom Feature Car
1961 Morris Minor
The homemade 2x4-inch frame was built from 0.180 mild steel, with a 10-point rollbar. A '70 Opel GT clip is used, with Competition Engineering 90/10 tube shocks. The Opel design is great, but finding parts is getting tough. I'm planning on a dropped tube axle with coilovers in the future. A Chrysler 83/4-inch rearend runs 3.91 gears on a Strange spool; 2.76 gears and a limited slip were used on the salt. Traction is via a Mopar pinion snubber and a homemade antiroll bar. NAPA 50/50 tube shocks somewhat dampen the pebbles and manhole covers. Future plans include a ladder bar/coilover system.
The small-block Chevy 377 is a de-stroked 400, using an Eagle chrome-moly crank and H-beam 6-inch rods. Pistons are Keith Black forged flat tops, spanking home ported Dart Pro 1 aluminum 215 heads with 70cc chambers. The cam is an Isky custom grind solid flat tappet: 258/263 duration at 0.050 and 0.583/0.592 lift, on 106-degree lobe centers, using Isky lifters.The valvetrain uses Manley Raceflow valves, Smith Bros. custom 3/8-inch 'moly pushrods, COMP Cams Pro Magnum roller rockers, and COMP Hi-Tech springs. The intake is an Edelbrock Street Tunnel Ram, modified a bit at home, with two slightly modified Holley 650 double pumpers, using a homemade fuel log; the fuel log brackets are '32 Ford steering wheel spokes. The ignition is a locked-out MSD distributor and 6A box. The homemade 17/8-inch headers use baffles in the collectors. Valve covers are Cal Custom with Keith Black Hemi water pump block-offs/flanges used as oil fills/vents. A GM Powerglide two-speed with a TCI Automotive transbrake, hardened input shaft, and homemade drum and billet servo is connected to a TCI Automotive 10-inch, 4,200-stall converter. The Hurst shifter, with a Jim Davis starter motor handle, sits on a homemade mount.
Wheels And Tires
Front wheels are swap meet Japanese slotted aluminum rims measuring 13x5 inches. Front tires are 175/50-13 H-speed-rated Sumitomo HTR 200s. Rear wheels are also swap meet Japanese slotted aluminum, from a Sprint Car, measuring 15x10, with Yokohama AVS 345/35-15 Z-rated rubber.
Body And Paint
Most of the lower 3 inches has been replaced with homemade patch panels; the rest has some minor hammer and dolly work and a little filler. I hope to get around to bodywork and paint someday. For now, it's John Deere Blitz Black primer/sealer/enamel. The decklid lettering is by me, using a paint pen, like wrecking yards use. Hood louvers are drilled holes, tweaked with a length of tubing. Holes are by me.
Old Speedway Motors fiberglass seats with vinyl covers are swap meet items, as is the 9-inch steering wheel. The aluminum floor is made from a friend's trailer house, after it washed down a river in a flood. Gauges are a mishmash of swap meet finds, soon to be replaced by vintage Stewart Warners. The headliner is old hot rod decals, autographed by my heroes. The column drop is an aluminum M/T connecting rod from the Hemi in Howdy Williams' old front-engine dragster, the last front-engine fueler to run competitively in the U.S.
Friends Of Li'l Zilla
Custom Metal, Applegate, OR
Ron's House of Sparks, Medford, OR
Bob Anderson Sheetmetal, Grants Pass, OR
Allin Specialties, Medford, OR
Kaldunski Design, Medford, OR
Your Powdercoating Connection, Friendswood, TX
Kim Smith Polishing & Blasting, White City, OR
Flat Black Industries, Las Vegas, NV
Paul Warner Racing Engines, Portland, OR
Peckham Precision Engines, Grants Pass, OR
Matt Rogers Racing Engines, Central Point, OR
High Tech Transmission, Central Point, OR
Isky Racing Cams, Gardena, CA
D&T Radiator, Central Point, OR
Crawford's Tire & Lube, Wendover, UT
The H.A.M.B./Jalopy Journal Web site
Special thanks to Tomcat Peterson, Salt Lake City, UT