Shawn Driver is returning to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and this time he hopes to push his 1953 Studebaker Coupe up to 300 mph.
It will be Driver’s 13th trip to the Salt Flats Speed Week, and the third time he will participate as one of the hundreds of intrepid car enthusiasts from around the world in a quest to qualify for ever-faster speed records.
But a little background is in order.
The Bonneville Salt Flats are a singular location for car enthusiasts and particularly for those who like to go fast. Really fast.
Imagine a landscape so flat that some have claimed they can see the curvature of the planet. It’s so barren that not even the simplest life forms can survive.
People have been coming to this location in Utah since 1912 but these days it’s not just a matter of showing up and hitting the accelerator.
Driver explained the graduated qualifying steps in place during Speed Week.
“When you first get there, you start out as a rookie. You have a ‘Rookie’ sticker on your helmet, and on your first run you can’t go over 125 mph on the three-mile rookie course,” Driver said.
“You have to make the run at the proper speed, deploy your chute and turn off on the turnout road, to show the organizers that you have the skills to pilot a car at those speeds and have control … that you know what you’re doing.”
What follows are a series of qualifying licences that allow drivers to next go up to 150 mph, then gradually move to faster-speed classifications.
“Last year we got an A License and right now were qualified to go up to 249 mph,” Driver said.
“This year we’re looking for a AA License that will allow us to go up to 300 mph.”
The next step would be to try to go even faster in future years.
Driver’s partner Donna Gray is a great supporter of Driver’s passion, but admits to a bit of nervousness at the thought of Driver’s quest for ever-faster speed records.
“There’s a part of me that wonders why he wants to do it, but it’s his dream so let’s go for it. We just want to make sure he’s safe,” Gray said.
“The safety protocols they have in place are very strict. The whole car is gone over with a fine-toothed comb. They inspect everything, pull the parachute and check that everything passes tech.”
Add to the fact that once Driver is strapped into the car, he is so securely ensconcedthat he can only move his head. In the center of the passenger compartment two large fire suppression tanks are rigged to fill the car and engine compartment with foam, should an accident occur.
“It’s not without some risk,” Driver said. “Once you hit 200 mph the cars can have a tendency to sway a little and if that goes too far they turn sideways and start flipping. You want to avoid that.”
In 2009, a California man died when his car rolled multiple times. He was reported to have been travelling at 200 mph at the time. Bonneville has been the site of 10 fatal race crashes in its 100-year history.
But the raw courage to get into the car is only part of the story. Success depends largely on the car itself.
“Matt Blasco is the real miracle worker in this project,” Driver said. “He’s the genius behind tuning the car to the point where all of this is possible.”
Blasco, who joined Driver’s efforts in 2017, is no stranger to going fast. In 2017 he won the Drag Week championship in his now 3,500-plus horsepower Dodge Dart (affectionately known as the Dirty Dart).
He’s applied his skill as a mechanic and his knowledge of computer systems to boost the potential of Driver’s car to the next level.
“Matt is really amazing. In the off season, he can be sitting on his couch in Lethbridge and make tuning tweaks on my car remotely,” Driver said.
“He’s definitely someone who you want in your pit at Bonneville.”
Speed Week at Bonneville happens from Aug. 10 to 16.