Good Day, Bad Day
What started out as a dream day in September 1954 at El Mirage for Burke turned into a nightmare. Burke simply planned to run his brother Joe's '29 roadster that day where he made two early morning runs in the 130-mph-and-change range, but his reputation as a driver led him to drive the iconic (built in 1949) Pierson Brothers' '34 Ford coupe.

The owner, George Bently, a truck driver, had an unexpected delivery to Fresno at the last minute and offered the ride to Burke who put the coupe in the 160-mph bracket twice that day. That would have been a memorable day, well done, had Burke packed up and gone home.

A heavy, basically stock-bodied and suspended '38 Buick coupe owned by two GG members who ran the Buick at Bonneville didn't like the way it handled. They were looking for a second opinion as to the problem. After rolling the Buick to the start line they couldn't find their substitute driver Don Hampton (maybe he had a sixth sense) and asked Burke to wheel it.

The big ill-handling '38 was so far removed from the swoopy "seasoned" coupe Burke had just climbed from, it should have given him pause. It had run 135 mph at Bonneville and the owners, while not addressing its handling issues, decided a GMC 6-71 blown Nailhead was the answer.

Course workers noted the Buick was creating a lot of dust on its run, indicating that it was probably sideways at the middle of the course. (A supercharger has little effect on engine performance at low rpm, but when it kicks in 3/4, look out!) When the rear wheels broke loose, the car turned violently sideways near the timing tower and began to roll. The war surplus cotton seatbelt broke, throwing Burke out onto the lakebed.

At nearby George Air Force Base, where he was rushed unconscious, Burke's clothes were so badly shredded they were ripped almost completely off his body. It was determined that his head injuries required extensive hospitalization and he was transported to Montebello. There he lay in a coma for 10 days. Burke still experiences health issues from those injuries.

Just a few weeks after his near-fatal crash, Burke went to Santa Ana Drag Strip to spectate, but his friend Tom Pollard, noticing the look in Burke's eye, offered his roadster saying: "The cowboy always gets on the bronco that threw him." "I made a 100-mph pass," Burke says. "I was back in the saddle again."

Here We Go Loop De Loop
Land speed racers don't have the luxury of finding a safe place to practice or test the handling limits of a race car at high speed, many of which take a mile (because of the tall gears) before they can be fired. It's pretty much unload at El Mirage or Bonneville during a race meet, run it through tech to certify it's safe, and push (or pull) it to the start line. When the starter waves you on, all the theory goes out the window.

Remember Johnny Thunder's lyrics? Well that was happening all too often with rear-engine roadsters as far as SCTA was concerned. Burke wheeled Gene Thurman's rear-engined '27 T at Bonneville in 1955 before losing it at 175 mph and kept spinning for a half-mile, which observers said "looked like a boomerang."

Bonneville Speedweek in 1957 saw Fred Larsen literally skidding on the salt with his skull when his rear-engine roadster went sunny-side down and backward. Larsen's helmet was knocked off during the crash, requiring 180 stitches on his head and face.

The salt-in-the-wound, you might say, for both Larsen and SCTA came during Bonneville Speedweek in 1959. Another veteran racer, Bob Summers (of the famed Summers Brothers), spun twice in his Class B Modified (rear engine) roadster at 205.95.