THE BONNEVILLE EXPERIENCE
By Greg Stokes
Bonneville Salt Flats – the home of land speed racing that has been home to hot rodders for over fifty years. Bonneville Salt Flats has filled the history books globally with the likes of Craig Breedlove, The Summers Brothers and Mickey Thompson’s land speed milestones.
Bonneville has also been a racing environment for speed shops and manufacturing companies to excel and expand in their pioneering years. One such speed shop is SO-CAL Speed Shop founded in 1946 by Alex Xydias and revived in 1997 by famed hot rod fabricator Pete Chapouris.
The yesteryear SO-CAL Speed Shop did it all from the dry lakes, salt lakes and the drags and more often than not they were in the winners circle. Perhaps the most recognised SO-CAL car in hot rod history is the belly tank lakester, that garnered much recognition for its fine finish and record breaking success.
Approximately fifty years later SO-CAL Speed Shop is back at the dry lakes and salt flats with the SO-CAL roadster, a low key, flat black A-V8 roadster campaigned by SO-CAL employees Tony Thacker, who handles marketing and fabricator Jimmy “Shine” Falschlehner.
“The SO-CAL Speed Shop has not raced seriously since the early fifties”, comments president Pete Chapouris, “But I am very excited that we are once again racing El Mirage dry lakes and also Bonneville. Last year Thacker and Shine drove this roadster 800 miles to Bonneville to eventually run 181 mph before driving home. For the running of the 55th Annual Speedweek in 2003 they then moved the goal post to 200mph and still be street driven!
Theis 1928 Model A roadster on 1932 Ford “Deuce” chassis rails was originally built by Kiwi Steve Davies (who now works at SO-CAL’s race shop) and Steve regular drove the car to El Mirage and Bonneville. In 1997 Steve drove the car to Muroc where he established the D classed Street Roadster record at 165mph and then in 1998 he drove to Bonneville, ran 160mph all week and drove home again – 13 hours each way. Then if that is not enough, in 2001 Steve took the car to Bonneville again where 12 people were licensed to run the car including his father in his early sixties!
In essence, the Thacker and Shine roadster has been built to drive to events, compete in them and drive home again. Anyone who has had both a street car and a race car knows that by combining the two, it is a pretty tall ask. Once you have achieved one goal it is very addictive to move on to the next goal. So once 181 was hammered down in 2002 when Thacker and Shine attended Speedweek with HOT ROD Magazine’s David Freiburger the seed was sowed for the magic two – oh – oh. These boys still wanted to drive the roadster on the street too!
The blown small block Chev of Pete Chapouris’ personal roadster was pulled out and sent to John Beck of Pro Machine in California. His knowledge on hard running lakes engines is incredible as he campaigns a fuel roadster running a 98% load! Needless to say there are a number of records to his name. John rebuilt this engine utilising New Zealand made Pro Action cast iron 23-degree cylinder heads. Normally for street applications only we were all a little surprised but very happy when this puppy produced 741 horses on the dyno – with 19lb of boost.
After limited testing at El Mirage due to poor track conditions at one meeting and transmission problems at the second meet, Thacker and Shine felt confident to drive the roadster the 800 miles to Bonneville. “We had the most perfect drive up there”, said Tony, “In fact I fell asleep for most of the trip riding shot gun!”
The SO-CAL entourage (including the SO-CAL built MG land speed project with MG-Rover) left Pomona at 3.30am on the Thursday morning and drove 12 hours straight to Wendover. Upon their arrival, the team consisting of Tony Thacker, Jimmy Shine, Ernie Ladner and Brits Danny Stephens and Adam Sayers then prepared the roadster for racing. This overnight change over included changing the street Pirellis to 18 inch Dunlop road racing tyres on the rear and 16 inch Goodyear Bonneville tyres on the front. The Model A windshield was removed and the fibreglass tonneau cover installed, coil over shocks were replaced with rigid struts and the street exhaust system was replaced with zoomies. If that wasn’t enough the hi-flow fuel lines and fuel pumps were installed, as well as the Mert Littlefield prepped 8-71 blower. SCTA rules also called for a full trans blanket too!
Friday: Thacker and Shine roadster is now a race car instead of street transportation, the car was tech inspected – which it breezed through being a land speed veteran. So far so good!
Saturday: During the first run on Saturday morning, the trans let go at 182mph. It was then that ex pat Kiwi and SO-CAL employee Robin “Silky” Silk came forward and rebuilt the trans using parts from the teams spare Turbo 350. “We spent Saturday night pulling the engine to get the trans out,” recalls Tony, “Silky is nothing short of a legend!”
Sunday: The Thacker and Shine roadster came out in the afternoon and ran 181.625mph.
Monday: Ran the roadster in the morning where Jimmy reached 192 mph at the 4th mile and then spun out going backwards through the finish! “The car felt great”, commented Jimmy. It’s unconfirmed but Thacker might well have been asleep in the passenger seat at the time!
The roadster then had to be re-inspected to make sure that nothing had broken or come loose, a standard procedure at Speedweek. “The Re-Inspected After Spin decal is a very cool addition to the car”, comments Tony.
After changing diff gears the next run was clocked at 181mph where the blower belt separated at the 4th mile. After much scurrying around the pits another belt was sourced.
Tuesday: The morning run showed that again the transmission was the weak link. “Motor wise, we are making a tonne of power”, states Tony. However it turns out that the trans has no race spec parts in it. It was decided then and there to pack up and head home. While 200mph was not achieved, it is not too far away and running 192 is wonderful bragging rights to this true street driven roadster.
As this is written, the engine is coming out and the trans will be massaged by Silky and Thacker and Shine will hopefully go back to Bonneville for the World Finals in October to carry on where they left off. Thacker and Shine may be serious for 200 mph but for the balance of this concept they are all about going out and having some fun. Get it?