Some guys go to the Bonneville Salt Flats to check it off their list. The speed freak to-do items for "must see" motor-head attractions: Indy, Pikes Peak, Bonneville Speedweek...they all hold a hallowed place on the list. And many are satisfied to cross it off and move on. Been there. Done that. Others are changed forever.
They get a case of Salt Fever, pick up a rulebook and immediately begin planning a car. Steve DiMartino is one of them.
In 1998, Steve and his buddy Jesse Conner were traveling across the country in a '48 Crosley panel truck with Datsun 210 drivetrain. Part of the journey was a planned diversion to the Salt during the 50th anniversary of Speedweek. Nothing's been the same since. Steve and Jesse got The Fever and immediately began scheming to build a classic style, belly tank Lakester together.
Lakesters are unique to land speed racing. The rules describe them as "special cars constructed in such a way that there is no streamlining, fairing or covering of the wheels and tires." In other words, open wheeled bombs. Many are built from military surplus fuel tanks, or belly tanks, used on long-range bombers. Steve bought an old B-57 tank and dragged it home to Jesse's shop. Talk then turned to vintage race hardware. Sprint car style, direct drive, flathead with a quick-change rear end, drum brakes...the full 1950's kit one would expect from a couple of Crosley obsessed hot-rod buddies.
Unfortunately later that year, Jesse Conner died. Beyond the tragedy and the grief, his family had Jesse's shop to empty. In November of 2002, Steve picked up the tank and resolved to build the car in Jesse's honor.
Steve started with the empty tank body and a clean slate. He split the tank in half, built a steel table as a chassis jig and traced the tank's outline to see how all the parts would fit the silhouette. The wheelbase ended up being 163-inches. Steve established the ground clearance from the lowest point of the tank. Everything else was a matter of packaging. Within six months, the car was rolling. Goodyear front runner drag tires are common for land speed racers because of their extremely high-speed rating. Thin 17x3 Weld racing wheels are used up front with 15x4.5 Centerlines mounted to a sprint car type, Winters quick-change rear axle. Willwood calipers-and a parachute-would reverse momentum at terminal velocity.
The heart of the car and its entry into the G class, or 2000cc displacement category, is the venerable Honda F20C1 engine and gearbox. Jesse had been the flathead man of the two. Without him, Steve had virtually no knowledge of such vintage racing hardware. Steve moved toward more of a familiar power plant. And since he works on Hondas every day at his own shop in Lexington, Ky., the first-year S2000 mill was an obvious choice. Steve is nothing if not pragmatic. He chose to leave the engine completely stock for his first few trips to the Salt. Even the stock Honda header was retained. A new collector to re-route the exhaust was the only modification. The power package proved every bit as reliable as expected. It pushed Steve through all his rookie and license requirements and to a speed of 196 mph in his freshman year.
Most folks who've raced at the Salt will tell you it's harder than in looks. The 206mph G/Gas Lakester record seemed a simple goal when the project began, but Steve soon learned that there's more to it than gear charts and rpm. Despite a choice of 25-inch and 26-inch rear tires and the ultra close S2000 gearing in Fifth and Sixth gears, Steve could not get past the magic 200mph point. All the math said the car was geared to do 227 mph at 9,500 rpm. But run after run he'd take it to 9,500 rpm only to be handed another sub-200mph time slip. The problem? Wheel spin.
Hard as it is to believe, Steve had "hit the wall" just before 200 mph. It's that magical point of physics where all the graph lines of hp, traction and aerodynamic drag are converging to do battle with each other. He was sure he had enough power, certain the gearing was right and utterly baffled that an aluminum missile with wheels might not be slippery enough.
In the fall of '06 the mystery was solved. Steve caught a break on some wind tunnel time down in Charlotte, N.C. One of the NASCAR teams couldn't make it to their scheduled time in the full-scale facility. Steve was happy to take their place. On the first run, he learned that the rear of the car was lifting at speed. Lifting so much in fact that the tunnel guys said at 300 mph it would fly.
Most racers facing traction problems turn to larger tires or aerodynamic downforce for help. But land speed races are different. The typical fixes like fatter tires, wings, spoilers and canards all produce increased drag. The curse of top-speed. Weight and acceleration are generally non-issues at Bonneville though. With as many as four miles to get up to speed, Salt racers use weight. In Steve's case, the wind tunnel guys figured about 400 pounds of ballast over the rear end would do it. They also chided him for his drag producing intake scoop and showed him how to clean up the tail for lower turbulents, narrow the rear track 4-inches and encouraged him to run wind-cheating Moon discs on all four corners.
Steve didn't stop with the aero. Adding an AEM engine computer and a fresh Alaniz cylinder head with 1mm larger intake valves brought another 42 hp to the wheels. That was with the stock intake system. He recently added a new TWM individual throttle body setup that has yet to be dynoed.
Taking the slow approach to his record has been Steve's education. The engine and chassis have proved reliable and stable. He's gotten more and more comfortable behind the wheel. Engine and aero mods have been progressive and well thought out.
Whether he gets his record this year, next year or some time after that, Steve is having the time of his life. He's living the dream that he and Jesse had together. And everybody knows why Steve calls it Jesse's Girl.