SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Keith Copeland was traveling at around 250 miles per hour when his car blew over backwards on the Bonneville Salt Flats in the late summer of 2008. Copeland, of Tucson, was seriously injured in the crash and needed some 18 months to fully recuperate.
But recuperate Copeland did, and when he did, he approached his long-time race car-building buddy Mark Hanson of StrangeFab Metalcrafts to build him a new racer.
Hanson agreed, but with one major provision, that Hanson could design the new car from end to end.
“I’ve helped Keith for six years,” Hanson said here at the Goodguys Rod & Custom Association’s annual season-ending Southwest Nationals car show, where their record-setting car was among the couple of thousand of hot rods and custom vehicles on display.
“We learn something each time we race,” Hanson added, “and we learned a lot in his crash.”
The car that crashed was not a Hanson creation. Copeland’s new car would be, and it would be, well, unique is an understatement.
To make an attempt at the world record in the BFMS category — that’s B as in blown, F as in fuel, M as in modified and S as in sports car category — Hanson wanted a small car with exceptional aerodynamic airflow off its rear end. Rules allow for some serious modification to the front of the car.
Hanson’s quest came down to two vehicles — a three-wheeled and boattailed Messerschmitt, one of Europe’s tiny and so-called bubble cars of the post-WW2 era, and a 1971 Triumph GT6, a 95-horsepower British sports coupe.
Hanson really liked the idea of modifying the Messerschmitt, but those who govern racing on the Utah salt flats would not accept the three-wheeler. Hanson was undaunted. Though not designed for anything approaching Bonneville-level speeds, Hanson knew the GT6 “has a really good posterior, especially once you chop the top off the car.”
While the back end of the car would remain basically in stock form, well, except for adding some sheetmetal stability fins and the parachutes needed to slow the car at the end of its runs, rules allow some extreme modifications ahead of the firewall, and thus the Black Salt Racing team’s GT6 looks unlike anything Triumph ever built.
For one thing, the wheelbase was stretched 83 to 130 inches. For another, a 360-cubic-inch Brodix-block V8 engine was installed, and topped with a pair of turbochargers. Power from that engine goes to the front wheels, not those at the rear.
Hanson sheathed the front end in StrangeFab sheetmetal.
Hanson said he opted for front-wheel drive because “I’ve never seen a carriage was a horse pushing it.” He also said that because of the FWD setup, the car tracks as straight as a dart, a very important characteristic in a vehicle capable of speeds in excess of 300 miles per hour.
By the way, Hanson’s operation demonstrates that you don’t have to be big to be good. He works out of a two-car garage, where he also builds bodywork for off-road racers, rock crawlers, road racers and drag racers, and does other metalworking projects.
It took Hanson nine months to build the car, then another two days to find a way to get the low-slung vehicle into the trailer that would carry it to Bonneville in 2010.
The car hit 275 mph on only its third run on the salt. Though unofficial, that speed exceeded the existing record of 237.87 mph set by nothing less than a Ferrari Enzo.
Two months ago, the Black Salt team was back at Bonneville, where Copeland did 313, only to have rain stop his return run and bid for the official record. But he was back the next day and got the C/BFMS record at an official average of 305.596 mph.
The team plans to return to Bonneville next year, and has set a goal of boosting its record to 340 mph, a speed that, Hanson notes, presents an interesting challenge.
“At 340 mph,” he explains, “the air under the car goes supersonic,” creating its own sonic boom, “and we’re not sure what’s going to happen when it goes ‘BANG!'”