Hurtling down Nevada Highway 318 at 160 mph, wrapped in safety gear from head to toe--not to mention 3,570 pounds of fully caged '66 Chevelle--almost everything becomes a blur. It's like being encased in a huge, manned bullet, the full metal jacket express, slicing the bordering landscape into at smear of brown and green. The pavement ahead might as well be a gray haze with a yellow streak right down the middle. And reading mile markers, like a good navigator is supposed to? Good luck. Those little road side signs disappear almost as quickly as the hordes of bugs that spatter their innards across the windshield; unlike the bugs, the signs leave no trace.
This wild ride at breakneck speed took on something of a dual personality. On the one hand, I'm traveling 150-plus miles per hour down an open highway, and suit, belts, helmet and HANS device aside, something tells me I should be more than a little scared. On the other hand, I can't deny what I'm feeling from the chassis and suspension around me--a totally planted, rock-steady ride that handled high speeds, off-camber curves, hills and dips, and whatever the course threw at us with hardly a shrug. In a nutshell, that's what my ride was like during the recent Silver State Classic Challenge, acting as navigator in the Hotrods to Hell-built '66 Chevelle From Hell, a schizophrenic ride through butt-clenching triple-digit speeds paired with road-gripping, nerve-soothing manners that made the thing seem like a warp-speed cruise through the badlands.
Right off the bat, this ride would be much different from my other trips to the Silver State (www.silverstateclassic.com). For those who aren't familiar with this event, the Silver State is essentially a time-speed rally held on 90 miles of public highway conveniently closed for the festivities by the Nevada Highway Patrol. Speed classes run from 95 all the way to 180 mph--the goal is to average as close to the target speed as possible.
Then there's the Unlimited class, where the idea is to cover the 90 miles as quickly as possible, no speed limits whatsoever. The record for the class is a blistering 207.43 mph average. I was there the year the record was set, and I have to admit that I looked up when the car passed by, thinking it was a jet out of nearby Nellis Air Force Base.
How strong does this lust for speed on a public road run? Of the 133 entrants for this year's run, 31, or almost a quarter, were first-timers. According to event president Steve Waldman, this steady infusion of new blood keeps the Silver State Classic and its sister event, the Nevada Open Road Challenge, healthy and in business.
This wouldn't be my rookie run. My first time out, navigating in a '96 LT4 Corvette in the 145-mph class, I had a hell of a wild ride and even managed to bring back a Second Place trophy. My second time out, I drove a Hotchkis-suspended police package Caprice in the 115-mph class and again had an awesomely good time, though I managed to prove that as a driver, I make a good navigator. I also illustrated how competitive most of the speed classes are, as my 115.138-mph average sounded pretty good but in reality was only good for Seventh Place in the class. Make no doubt about it; this is a competitive and dedicated group that comes out for this open-road speed fest, and they take their racing seriously. My third outing, five years in the works, would definitely take the ride down Highway 318 to a whole other level.
With all due respect to the many enthusiasts who stick the same handle on their A-body creations, I've seen the Chevelle From Hell, and better yet, I was even gonna get a chance to drive this witch's brew of NASCAR technology and street-going acumen. According to creator Steve Mcclenon, "The car was done like an early '70s stock car, when teams still had to use the stock frame."
Of course, that stock frame is only a starting point--how reconfigured is it? Mcclenon wanted the front and rear suspensions to share a pickup point, making for an extremely stable platform, so he cut off the back of the frame, raised it, and moved in the rails to accommodate king-sized rubber in the back. Nothing hangs below the framerails, so the floor was moved up and the body channeled over the framerails.
One amazing feature, visible in the pictures, is the spine built to tie the front and back of the car together. "It's got the stiffness of a Cup car," Mcclenon says, but with room for two passengers.
If that's not enough, the firewall and engine were moved back a full 12 inches, giving the Chevelle from Hell a near-perfect 49/51 weight distribution--it might as well be a mid-engine car. Mcclenon's vision was to create a vintage road race stock car, using the late great Smokey Yunick as an inspiration. He's 100 percent pleased with every aspect of it--except that it didn't have enough oil cooler, which we'll read about later.
"Everything that I knew or could think of, I threw at it," Mcclenon said. The extra-stout rollcage was built to be death-proof, since Mcclenon's younger brother was the driver at one point. I may not be related, but I appreciate the sentiment, to be sure. The only qualm I had was during tech inspection, when I was instructed to put a piece of tape on the back of my helmet with my name and blood type written on it. Necessary, yes, but not the type of thing a guy likes to think about.
Luckily, I didn't have too much time to consider it, because car owner Jim Peruto was kind enough to let me drive the Chevelle From Hell in the Mile Shootout sponsored by Optima Batteries, a standing mile race. This is where I had another interesting experience. I had no trouble getting into my gear, but climbing over the side bars and into the driver's seat proved to be a bit of an adventure for my out-of shape 42-year-old frame. I only bonked my head a couple times--with my helmet on, luckily--and Peruto's man Friday Bob Jones got me strapped in and my HANS device hooked up. From there, it was a short wait in line to the starting area, and there I was at the line, with 700-plus Donovan big-block horsepower at my command. I didn't want to obliterate the tires at the start, so I left easy as the flag dropped, then tagged it once underway.
The sensation of speed can be a strange thing--the speedo on the GPS unit was showing me 160 mph, but it didn't feel like I was going that fast, and I did my damndest to shove the pedal right through the floorpan. The car was totally planted, unbothered by road irregularities or crosswinds, issues that seemed to affect other drivers. In fact, this had to be about the most uneventful 160 mph I'd ever driven. I backed up the 160 with an identical run, which was good for Sixth Place. It made for a strange call home that night: "Yeah, Mom, things went OK, but I only went 160 mph."
Later that afternoon, I met up with car owner and driver Jim Peruto, and we talked shop about the race. I was of course concerned for him, this person who'd have my life in his hands for 90 miles of triple-digit speed. Peruto admitted that he hasn't been racing for long, but now that he's in, he races everything he can get his hands on every chance he gets. That includes three-quarter and full-size winged midgets, Formula Fords, road course stock cars, and B-production sports cars. The guy does get around. Like me, he had two Silver State experiences before this one, including a 125-mph-class run in a Buick Skylark and most recently a DNF in the 150-mph class due to an oil problem in a '66 Corvette. The run in the Skylark lead Peruto to Steve Mcclenon and Hotrods to Hell (hotrodstohell.net). That, in turn, led Peruto to getting stuck with a magazine guy as his navigator. Not that he seemed to regret it--conversely, he did let me drive the car.
In most cases, a driver/navigator team puts some work into creating a system: course notes, communications, and a driving strategy. In this case, however, the plan was short and sweet. I was set up with a pair of stopwatches, along with a time chart that indicated, based on the recorded time, whether we were going too fast of too slow in relation to our target time. As for communicating that to my driver...well, it was immediately obvious from the first time I fired up the CFH before the Mile Shootout that there would be no verbal communication. This thing, friends, gives loud a whole new meaning. If the chassis was NASCAR-inspired, even more so the open exhaust system. Instead, we would use hand signals, with me holding up a number of fingers for how much faster or slower we needed to go. Perhaps crude compared to some of the other competitors' setups, but effective nonetheless.
As race day dawned, our speed class selection actually gave us a little perk. Since we would be leaving last, we actually got to sleep in a bit. Preparation, at least for myself, was pretty simple--a shower, and a very light breakfast that I hoped I wouldn't end up wearing when things got bumpy. I met up with Peruto and Jones at a nearby hotel, and we made our way out to the staging area. It was a bit strange compared to my other outings, as all the other competitors had already made their way down the course. The only runners waiting were the hard-core set: 160-, 170-, and 180-mph racers, along with the pair on Unlimited runners. As the draw went, we were the third from the last car to leave. Not wanting to come up empty in the middle of the course, Jones refueled the CFH with 110-octane race gas (conveniently sold by an entrepreneurial type at the line), while I took the time to mount my camera on the rollbar and make sure it was aimed right.
As starting time approached, Peruto and I got our helmets and HANS devices into place and climbed into the car, a maneuver that I had finally figured out how to accomplish with a bit of grace. Jones strapped me in. I was expecting things to be tight, but I think my spine must have compressed an inch. We figured out a few other things on the spot--for instance, I had Jones tie my stopwatches to my wrists so that I couldn't drop them. And finally, we were in line, ready to roll.
It's sort of a strange experience, not like drag racing. The time starts when the green flag drops, not when the car begins moving, so there's no point in making a tire-burning launch. Instead, we shot smoothly off the line and quickly hit triple digits: 120, 130, 150. Knowing that we needed to build up a little time so that we could take it slower from the turns, known as the Narrows, I didn't waste time in signaling Peruto to pick it up to 165 or so. He complied, but that's where the monkey in the wrench came in. Anytime he exceeded 165 mph, the oil temperature gauge jumped up to 260 degrees F. And that would prove to be the fly in the ointment in an otherwise smooth-as-silk run.
The most common strategy is the Silver State is to build up some extra time before entering the Narrows, allowing the driver to take the turns easy. Once out of the twisties, it's back on the gas to make up the time. Unfortunately, we needed to run at 165 mph to make our target speed of 160 mph, but the oil temp kept us from picking up the pace. We finished, though, and according to my stopwatch we were six seconds slow--it's small consolation, but that's what the final results said as well, so at least I knew I was on the ball with the stopwatches.
The other thing that was right on the ball was the car's handling. This was about the most uneventful 160 mph a guy could experience. Believe me, I'd like to tell you a hair-raising tale of hanging by the skin of my teeth, on the edge motor chaos. But it just wasn't so. The menacing black Velle sliced though the Nevada desert with nary a shimmy or shake. "The high part was how well the car handled," concluded Peruto. As for me, I never even winced or raised an eyebrow the whole run--it was that steady and planted. To which Mcclenon replied, "That's the greatest compliment you can have as a chassis builder." That's my new theory, contradictory as it may sound: The faster you're going, the less eventful you want the ride to be. Trust me. It'll still be plenty exciting.