From the November 2020 issue of Car and Driver.
At any motorsports event, there’s always one team that is totally unprepared. From grassroots drag racing to the Indy 500, you’ll see one car that’s still in the pits during the first practice, one team wiring up the engine or trying to pass tech while everyone else is qualifying. If they do finally make it to the grid or the staging lanes, they don’t stay out there for long. This is a particularly common sight at Speed Week on the Bonneville Salt Flats, where you’ll often see a car under a tarp with a bare block hanging over the engine bay for the entire week before it all gets packed away for next year. It seems like an expensive and uncomfortable way to spend your vacation, but I guess the scenery is good.
I’ve always assumed that sort of racer doesn’t have the money or the guts to go flat out, and if you never get the car running right, you never have to find out. I can sympathize. I’ve sat in the lanes with sweat soaking the padding of my helmet and the track looming like a death wish in front of me and thought: If it breaks on this run, I can sit in the shade and drink beer for the rest of the weekend. I suspect nobody on the Speed Demon streamliner team has ever had that thought.
The Speed Demon, as its name suggests, is very fast. The fastest vehicle in the world. Well, the fastest piston-driven vehicle in the world. There are jet and rocket-powered cars that are faster, but none of them use an engine you could find in your neighbor’s El Camino. The Speed Demon is a 32-foot-long golden streak that looks like the top half of a surfaced submarine. Under one carbon-fiber panel sits a twin-turbocharged 556-cubic-inch Chevy big-block. Under another panel—this one with a window—sits George Poteet, the human equivalent of a big-block both in powerful energy and beloved status in the hot-rodding community. Poteet is 72 and has gone faster than 400 mph more than 50 times while setting more than 20 records in land speed racing events. His goal for 2020 was to set one over 450 mph, and the first day’s fastest pass was smoking—447.709 mph—and followed by the crackle of a radio saying that the car was on fire. Poteet was unharmed and unfazed, even asking crewman Spencer Taylor, who was on recovery duty, if it was a big enough fire that he needed to climb out of the car—it’s hard on his knees. “Yes, George,” said Taylor. “It’s on fire. You have to get out.” Poteet later told me he’s been on fire several times. “I don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s always behind me.”
Under the tarp in the Speed Demon pits, it smelled like somebody had thrown a Styrofoam plate on a campfire. I waited for someone to yell or cry, but the only sound was crew chief Steve Watt saying, “Let’s get to it,” and then the snick-snick of body panels being unclipped and the soft crack of bolts being loosened. The crew peered into the still smoldering framework like the doctors around the corpse in Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. There was a small, sad groan from Greg Pyles, the man in charge of wiring, when he saw what was left of the Speed Demon’s nervous system, but then the crew performed a magic trick. The engine guys rebuilt the mill in the trailer. Pyles rewired the harness overnight in his hotel room. “People come out here and blow up and go, ‘Oh well. Guess we’ll come back next year,’ ” said crewman Tommy Horne, gesturing out at the pits. “We’re like, ‘No! What? Fix it!’ ” Sure, it helps that Poteet has money to put into repairs, but the cost of running the car for a year wouldn’t quite buy a new Porsche 911 Turbo. “I’m not on an unlimited budget,” said Poteet. “I’m not in a country club. I don’t own a boat. We don’t do European vacations. I sent all my kids to college, and now this is what I do.”
What he did over the following days was run multiple passes above 400 mph, culminating in two runs fast enough to average a new AA Blown Fuel Streamliner–class record of 470.015 mph. And to think, they could have just drunk a beer in the shade.
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