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From Land Speed Rookie to Record Setter

A first timer’s experience in Land Speed Racing
By: Aaron Hale

 

Like many other gearheads out there, I’ve been into cars since I was a little boy, a product of being my father’s son. My dad always likes to show people the picture of me at about 4 years old, holding a DA sander and standing in front of his old Karmann Ghia. I didn’t really get into motorsports until my 20’s though. From there, things just started to fall into place. I started autocrossing, then street car tuning, then finally landed a dream job at a pinnacle motorsports company. I was always willing to try something new, even if I knew I wasn’t the best at it (which was rather common). Once I started circuit racing, I thought I could do anything and began looking for more opportunities to build and race whatever I could. With each new experience I am reminded how much I really don’t know. This is the story of one such lesson.

Several months ago, I was having lunch with my buddy Doug. We were talking shop, cars, and all things fast when I mentioned to him that I had finally found one of my dream cars… a 1991 Honda CRX. This was no garage queen. It had over 275,000 miles on it, and rolled into my driveway running on 3 cylinders. Luckily the owner didn’t want to put much money into it, so I picked it up for a cool $450 (for those of you wondering; yes, I made sure it was under the 24 Hours of Lemons $500 price limit intentionally). I’m from Ohio, where it rains all year, and they salt the roads in the winter. Cars rust. Little foreign cars rust a lot. I had looked at over a dozen CRXs in Ohio, and every one of them would have required major rust repair. This was a California car. Not a single spot of rust on it. I couldn’t believe I finally found one.

Doug’s obvious question was, “Well, what are you going to do with it?” The thing is, I hadn’t really made up my mind. Circuit racing is a lot of fun, but there are so many other forms of racing that I would like to do. What if I wanted to run it up Pike’s Peak, or take it out to Bonneville? At this point, Doug interrupts me. “You know, I have a land speed CRX that doesn’t have a driver this year.” Of course I knew about his land speed car. After all, Doug is one of the owners of Hondata, undoubtedly the world’s most widely used system for reprogramming Honda ECUs.

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This CRX he mentioned was no ordinary CRX either. They had spent years developing this car. They use the lessons learned while racing it to develop their software and continue making advancements and improvements. Something very akin to how Mr. Honda established his company. This CRX had already set multiple land speed records.

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What I didn’t know was that no one was driving it this year. His wife had been the primary driver, but this year she decided she was going to try a new hobby (something a little less dangerous… flying airplanes), so all her time was devoted to that and none was left for the poor, lonely CRX. Of course, being the dedicated Honda fan I am, I couldn’t let this car just sit and collect dust. It needs to be collecting dust at El Mirage and Bonneville while screaming down the course at over 200 mph! So there it was…. I’m going to do land speed racing this year. How am I going tell my wife?

Summer came, I was luckily still married, we had worked on the car, shaken out all the cob webs, oiled up the bores, and we were at El Mirage dry lake bed for the June SCTA meet. I was in a completely different world. There were cars, and engines, and motorcycles, and streamliners of all shapes and sizes. Old guys with big smiles on their dust covered faces while they fired up a 571 cubic inch nitro-methane powered V8. There were families that had spent generations out on this lakebed working to squeeze every possible drop of speed out of their vehicles. I was a rookie. They called me New Shoe. Just some guy who decided he was going to show up and go racing. What did I just get myself into?

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Luckily, Doug really knows what he’s doing. After some coaching, and lot of practice shifting with my left hand (yes, this is a Japanese imported Right Hand Drive CRX), I found myself in the tech line wearing a ridiculously thick SFI-20 fire suit in the 95 degree heat, getting ready to do an emergency exit demonstration to prove to the judges that I’m not a total idiot (I still don’t think I have them completely convinced). With a bit of luck, and possibly a little skill, I was able to get out of the car rather quickly. I took a small bit of pleasure seeing the disappointment on their faces that they couldn’t make fun of me for being a bumbling rookie.

As a rookie, you have to go through a licensing procedure… again more proof that you can keep your head on your shoulders. Your normal state driver’s license means that you can go up to 125 mph on their course. In order to license up, you have to do a run and stay between 125 to 150 mph, DO NOT go any faster than that, pull your parachutes at the end, and do everything exactly right. No pressure here. Next run, you have to go between 150 to 175 mph, then 175 to 200 mph. This was the plan for my day. At the end of the day, I would be going around 190 mph… faster than I have ever been in my life.

Next thing I know, I’m on the starting line. How much power does this thing have? Oh yeah… somewhere over 850 hp. And I’m on dirt, right? Ok… Are you sure this is normal? Something just seems wrong about this equation. They point at me. It’s time to go? OK… I can do this.
By the third run it was the end of the day, and the course had been pretty torn up by all the cars speeding over it. The starter comes to my window and tells me to stay to the right. If I get anywhere near the center I will spin… at 190 mph. I’ve seen the video of the Hasport Honda Insight land speed wreck. At this point I can’t not think about it. The starter points to me and signals to go. I’m off. 1st gear blows by my shift point as the boost kicks in and the engine bounces off the 10,000 rpm rev limiter. Into 2nd gear and I’m feeling the acceleration now. Into 3rd gear…. Wait, no, that’s not third gear, hold on… there it is. I hate this left hand shifting! I’m up to 150 mph now and in 4th gear still accelerating. The car is floating and dancing across the loose dirt near the end of the course. Into 5th gear and looking for my target engine speed. 7800 rpm would equal 187 mph. I hit it and back off the throttle. I see the finish line coming and get ready to pull the ‘chutes. I made it.

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One month later we are back at the lake bed, and I’m trying to get over 200 mph and possibly set a record. My confidence is a bit high from the success of the previous month’s runs. A couple of cars have already spun on the course this morning, and the lake bed is getting a little loose again from all the high powered machines screaming over it. My wife gives me a kiss for good luck. I can see the tears starting to form in her eyes. She is scared, and now so am I.

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When I finally get lined up for the start, I feel my nerves softening as the reality of the speed I will be going sets in. We are push-starting the car today since we found out that 1st gear doesn’t hook up on the dirt. The steward checks all the safety gear, and warns me again that the course is getting very loose. Once they make sure everything is set, the doors close and I go through the run in my head. The starter points at me and I put the car in 2nd gear. The push truck bumps up against the rear of the car, and we start moving.

The car is a little squirrely as we get up to speed. Eventually the boost kicks in and I start pulling away. I accelerate through 3rd gear and into 4th gear. I can see the course ahead changing color as I approach some loose dirt. I shift into 5th and all of a sudden I hear the engine speed rev up a little too fast. The steering gets light as the wheels start spinning and slipping over the loose dirt. The car starts drifting all the way across the course. I try to steer it back, but it won’t respond. I don’t dare give it any more input into it for fear of sending the car off into a spin, or worse. The butterflies in my stomach have turned into something more like the Alfred Hitchcock movie Birds, all trying to pound their way out. I see the finish line approaching and I pray that the car stays on course for just a little bit longer. My hand is shaking as I reach for the parachute lever. If anything goes wrong, I have to pull it, whether I am through the finish or not. The car continues to dance over the loose dirt. I have never been so afraid in my life. I stopped paying attention to the engine speed. I know what my target is, but I also know that my wheels are spinning way faster than the car is going. The only thing I can do is keep my right foot planted, because lifting off the throttle would surely cause the car to spin from the sudden weight transfer.

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When I finally fly through the finish line I hit the parachutes as fast as I can, and feel the comforting tug from behind as they start slowing me down. As I pull off the course, I see the steward clapping his hands and giving me thumbs up. I pull up to him and he opens the door. “You did it!” he exclaims. 205.698 mph. A new class record. And there I was. From rookie to record holder in just 4 short, amazingly fast runs. I’m now a member of the El Mirage 200 mph club. A spot revered and dreamed about by millions of gearheads across the globe.

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My enthusiasm is somewhat subdued, as my body is still trying to deal with the massive amount of adrenaline that is coursing through my veins. I methodically inspect the car and pull in the parachutes. The tow vehicle shows up and I am faced with more handshakes and congratulations. As they pull me back to impound, people on the sidelines are waving and clapping their hands. I slowly realize that they are cheering more congratulations for me. People I don’t even know. I didn’t really know why at first, but then it started sinking in. What I just accomplished was something amazing. People spend their entire lives trying to set these records and break the 200 mph barrier.

After going through inspection and ceremonies, I walk through the dusty pits receiving more congratulations. I see the people working on these machines of speed, and I start to feel the short-lived jubilation of my record setting run being replaced by another feeling. It’s not quite guilt, or shame. It’s something else. Finally I am able to pinpoint it. I realize that I am undeserving. I didn’t do anything great. I jumped into this world of speed freaks like I was some hot shot who could do anything, and I nearly soiled myself in the process. I didn’t deserve the accolades. I didn’t put in the years of development to make this car into the technical marvel that it is. I didn’t spend endless summers working tirelessly to analyze data, risk my life finding problems, and then figure out how to fix them. I was just a New Shoe who was fortunate enough to drive an amazing car.

As I worked through these emotions, I realized that this isn’t about bucket lists, and it’s not about winning. This is about the pursuit of speed. This is a love to these people. This is a way of life to them. These are the true gearheads that we see emulated in movies and read about in magazines. These are real people in real hot rods. These are people who dedicate their lives to this crazy, fast family that they have out here in the dry heat of the summer. These are the drivers, the builders, the crews, the families, all working together to continuously try to get just a little bit faster. I wish I could have one hundredth of the collective knowledge that is out here. Every one of these people has a story that could inspire thousands of gearheads, both young and old. I am truly humbled to be in their presence, and now among their ranks, even though I still feel like I don’t deserve it.

I will continue racing, out here on the lake bed, on the track, and in whatever car I have the privilege to drive. I’m hooked. I love these people and this way of life. This is speed.

I would like to thank the people that helped make this happen:
Hondata, for building such a great car loaded with the technology that allows it to go so fast.
Kiwi Steve’s Hot Rod Shop, for doing the building and fabrication of the aerodynamics, and to fit me in the car.
After Hours Automotive, for the safety cage design and fabrication
Simpson Racing, for providing the safety gear.
Garrett, for providing a turbo big enough for a semi.
Hasport, for the motor mounts that hold up the powerplant.
Mission Critical Performance for providing the awesome engine.
Side note: Saul, the owner of Mission Critical, recently suffered a fatal head injury sustained when he fell at work. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family
Honda Performance Development, for providing the one-of-a-kind dry sump system that keeps the engine lubricated and helped us achieve the aerodynamics needed at these high speeds.
Deatschwerks, for the massive fuel injectors.
Rod Riders, for letting me join their car club, and not hazing me too bad.
My buddy Rob, for compiling the in-car and sideline videos into something awesome that makes me look like I know what I’m doing.

Aaron Gaghagen on Email
Aaron Gaghagen
Multimedia Editor at VTEC Academy
Aaron Gaghagen is a veteran video editor and longtime Honda enthusiast. All told, he’s owned seven of them, and has enjoyed every single minute of wrenching on every single one. Except for that automatic one. That was probably a mistake. In 2010 Aaron teamed up with Brian Gillespie who along with another partner launched Nacho Speed Garage, a venture that capitalized on Aaron’s video expertise to do its part in entertaining and educating the Honda masses. Nacho Speed Garage took everything to the next level. Instead of reading magazines and cruising forums for content, Aaron and Brian were generating it themselves. The demise of Honda Tuning magazine in 2014 was the impetus for Aaron to do something even more impactful, though, which led to the creation of VTEC Academy and aims to carry that Honda torch forward in the same spirt of not just Honda Tuning but Nacho Speed Garage.