Drag racers earn their excitement in reaction times, 60-foots, and quarter-mile e.t.'s. The terminal velocity achieved over the 1,320 isn't nearly as important as the time it takes to get to the finish line. But land-speed racing is a motorsport in which speed is the ultimate goal, and competitors brag of reaching 200, 250, and even 300-plus miles per hour.
Al and Gail Phillips, a husband-and-wife racing team from Pismo Beach, California, belong to the land-speed-racer coterie, and their current weapon of choice is a heavily modified '99 Corvette.
The Phillips' love affair with the Corvette dates back to the '50s. When Al was a teenager, there was nothing cooler than Chevy's flagship sports car. But like most daydreaming young men, he had to wait until deep into his adulthood to purchase the object of his affection. In 1980, Al and Gail found a fuel-injected, four-speed '58 Vette that needed restoration. "It was one-third the cost of the Ferrari we were considering, and it had a trunk big enough to put things in. Plus, Al could do a lot of the work himself-so we bought it!" Gail tells VETTE.
The couple owned the classic Corvette for almost 20 years, during which time Gail was determined to learn as much about the marque as she could. Eventually, her own fixation with Corvettes took over, and she bought herself a Silver Blue '64 coupe. In 1994, Gail and the car were featured both in VETTE and in a popular mass-produced poster.
In 1993, NASCAR Winston Cup racer, car builder, and driver Doug Odom began constructing a land-speed race car. According to Gail, "Al told him it would be more interesting for a woman to be the driver, especially if he was going for a world record. Also, it might help get media attention and sponsors. So Doug asked him if I could be the driver."
Gail thought her husband was crazy when he explained what land-speed racing was and how it worked, but she was more than up for the challenge. Before long, she was invited to El Mirage Dry Lakes in the Mojave Desert of California to watch a land-speed competition. "It was hot, windy, dirty, noisy, exciting, exhilarating and scary. I was in," Gail says.
Put simply, land-speed events feature straight-line racing against standing records. Vehicles run one at a time and compete in certain engine and body classes. Before making a pass, every vehicle goes through an inspection to certify it for its class. The driver's suit and helmet are checked for proper ratings, and the driver is timed to be sure he or she can get out of the car in less than 60 seconds in the event of an emergency. Vehicles are then queued up on either side of the long (five or seven miles, depending on speed class) course in preparation to make a pass.
Like all land-speed racers, Gail started out by running at relatively low velocities to get her first license, then increased her speeds as her skills and confidence level improved. Land-speed licenses fall into the following categories:
(E) up to 125 mph
(D) 125 to 149 mph
(C) 150 to 174 mph
(B) 175 to 199 mph
(A) 200 to 249 mph
(AA) 250 to 299 mph
(Unlimited) 300+ mph
Gail currently holds an A license but plans to advance to the AA level. According to her, anyone can participate in land-speed racing so long as they have a car and a crew and belong to the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) or the Bonneville National, Inc. (BNI) sanctioning body.
To build her land-speed race Vette, Gail started with a '99 coupe and added the highly modified suspension parts required to support speeds over 200 mph. She commissioned its colors in a patriotic palette to reflect her appreciation and support for the American troops fighting in Iraq.
Sanctioning body rules dictate that a Corvette racing in the Grand Touring (GT) class must be stock-bodied, with no spoilers or wings added unless those items came factory installed. The motor can be of any size as long as it is a Chevrolet engine. The only other changes allowed to cars in this class are safety modifications such as a rollcage and polycarbonate replacement panels for the factory glass.
According to Gail, her Corvette weighs 3,375 pounds with her in the driver seat and has an excellent .029 coefficient of drag (cd). It's set up to run numerous classes, all with strict engine-size requirements. A special safety feature borrowed from NASCAR is the airbrake fabricated into the top of the car. This piece is designed to keep the car on the ground in the event of a spin. Gail had a chance to test its effectiveness when she hit a hole on the Bonneville Salt Flats and spun several times at approximately 180 mph.
Currently, the Vette runs in the E class, which dictates a maximum engine size of 260.999 cubic inches. Odom destroked a 0.030-over 283 to get 258 cubes. "The motor made 445 hp on the dyno at sea level," he says. "Bonneville is 4,200 ft, so we lose about 13 percent horsepower on a good day. A lot of days, the corrected altitude is 7,000 ft. It takes about 385 hp at the flywheel to make a C5 go 190 mph."
Unlike road-race enthusiasts, Phillips and company will never have to spend big money-or any money, for that matter-on front brakes. Says Odom, "Land-speed cars use parachutes to slow down because of the small area of tire on the ground. Brakes on a land-speed car are used mostly to not run over someone in the pits. [The cars] are only driven under their own power from the starting line to the end of the course. They are pushed, pulled, or trailered everywhere else."
At her first Bonneville Speed Week event with the Vette in 2006, Gail broke a 28-year-old record (of 184 mph) by going 190.194 mph in the E/GT class. In August 2007, she challenged the D/GT record again in the Corvette, this time with a 300ci SBC making 500 hp, and achieved a race speed of 202.434 mph.
Gail and Al find that land-speed racing, like drag racing, is one of the few motorsports in which almost anyone can participate. "Land-speed racers create their own success from family budgets and home garages without big sponsors like in NASCAR," Gail says. They believe it is this individual spirit that has created the world's fastest speed trials.
"I have often been asked what the difference between drag racers and land speed racers is, and while there is a commonality between both types of racing that can't be denied, the differences can be profound. Both need to manage their vehicle, horsepower, skill, and courage to the nth degree. Land speed racers go faster for longer periods of time with less horsepower, living on that razor's edge for 60 to 90 seconds, alone, which can feel like a lifetime to the driver. Distance allows time for reflection as you focus on the horizon, and no matter the speed, it's always just out of reach."