YEARS of drag racing helped Chris Barnes, of Riverton, to almost equal the New Zealand land speed record.
That record was set by Eddie Freeman on October 26, 2012, at Ohakea Air Force Base, driving a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera, at 355.485kmh (220.888mph).
A sliver behind him is Barnes, who recorded a speed of 220.018mph at this year’s Speed Week in Bonneville, Utah.
However, chasing the New Zealand record was not what drove Barnes to take on Bonneville.
Rather it was to work towards breaking a world record set by Earl Wooden in 1998, in the B/GCC Southern Californian Timing Association Class land speed record which currently stands at 263.28mph.
Bonneville is a magnet to speedsters, including another Southlander, motorcycling legend Burt Munro, who was constantly drawn to its harsh environment to compete and break records.
Barnes is a happy man.
“We have proved ourselves… we pushed the car from day one. We have exceeded what we had hoped for.”
It wasn’t about being the fastest, it was about learning and taking the lessons forward, he said.
“It’s a three-year plan.”
“I hope to increase the speed by 20mph each year, and [am] hopeful by the third year I will go over 263mph to break the record.”
He credits his years of drag racing in part to doing so well this year.
“I don’t like the straight-line stuff… if there’s a corner, I’ve got to slow down.”
Barnes said he quickly figured out how to race on the salt – taking it quietly was never going to work.
“With my background in drags, I realised I had to focus as if I was in a drag race… I had to multiply my original aggression by four.”
However, breaking the 200mph-plus barrier did not mean he could simply join the coveted 200-plus club. To do that a driver also had to break a record, Barnes said.
The highly modified steel-bodied 1934 Plymouth, the Kiwi Coupe owned by Barnes and Owen Jones, of Dunedin, took a lot of preparing to get it to Bonneville.
Although it had been bought by the duo in March last year, the massive beast which is powered by a 427 cubic inch, twin carb, big block V8 Chevrolet engine, had previously been rebuilt by Steve Williams, of Temuka, over eight years.
Jones also competed in the coupe, and was the first to take on the salt by a toss of a coin.
Competing at Bonneville is structured. It’s not as simple as turning up and just going as fast as possible.
Drivers have to gain their place at the long run.
Before attempting the revered long course, drivers had to prove their ability on the “rookie course” first.
“They have to prove their ability and show discipline, focus and self-control.”
Once a driver had proved their capabilities on the short course, and had their licence signed off, they were allowed to attempt the next course.
Figuring out how the vehicle might handle at such speeds was part of the challenge, Barnes said.
“… we done a lot of work to correct [the quirks], which included 160kg of lead in the front.
“I thought the car’s got to be nice at 180mph.
“Then when it was between 165-170, I felt trepidation… how is it going to handle?
“But at 193mph, it was like going for a Sunday drive… at 193!”
Pushing through 220mph was a surreal experience, he said.
“I never understood till now, you read about it… at 220 it feels like you are in a tunnel, it feels so much in slow motion – there is nothing to judge… all you have got is a line.
“After that experience, I am a different person… it’s a game changer.
“I now understand what Burt Munro meant when he said ‘you live more in five minutes on a bike like this going flat out than some people do in their lifetime’.”
So how does a vehicle slow down at more than 220mph?
A parachute – “mine came out with a bang at 220mph… which was a nice feeling”.
Because Barnes had achieved the Bonneville Competition License in Category E, he could “carry on from where he left off” next time he was on the salt, he said.
It’s a magical place, the expanse of white which had drawn Barnes and his wife Jenni numerous times in the past decade.
Part of the magic was the people, some who annually sojourned to the petrolhead haven.
While on the salt, they also ran into Lee Munro, the great nephew of Burt Munro.
Two men from Southland with a need for speed – one in a highly modified Plymouth coupe, and the other on an Indian Scout motorcycle in the true Munro spirit.
Although Speed Week ran from August 11 to 17, most competitors and their teams were on the salt days before, getting ready to make the most of the seven days of potential.
Ideally, a team of 12 to 14 people would be great, Barnes said.
“It can take three people just to get it [coupe] out of the trailer for a start… and then there are tasks which need to be done before and after each run, such as suiting up and helmeted, checking the coupe’s tyre pressure and mechanics, check sheets, and we even need people to move the gazebo for the car and people from the pits to the start line.”
As for all-but achieving the New Zealand land speed record, Barnes reckons he wouldn’t want to attempt it here.
“Bonneville has got the space… you can spin out sideways if you need to.
“At more than 200mph… you don’t want it to spin out at Ohakea.”