Preparing for Bonneville Salt Flats

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Jenni and Chris Barnes of Riverton, alongside the 1934 Plymouth Coupe at Bonneville Salt Flats in the United States of America. Photo: Supplied

IT takes a team to take on the salt flats at Bonneville, speedster Chris Barnes says.

The Riverton native, who has already taken on Speed Week in the past and recorded 220.018mph, is preparing for another crack at the Southern Californian Timing Association B/GCC Class land speed record in August.

Pushing through 220mph two years ago was a surreal experience, he said.

“I was particularly surprised how calm I felt after 220mph… it’s not like drag racing.

“I never understood till then… at 220 it feels like you are in a tunnel, it feels so much in slow motion to judge where you are… 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 minutes on a bike like this going flat out than some people do in their lifetime’.”

A lot of work had gone into the highly modified steel-bodied 1934 Plymouth, the Kiwi Coupe owned by Barnes and his wife Jenni, for its return to the salt.

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 a decade ago. Since, it had a new computer installed and improvements.

However, returning to the United States and taking on the 22-year record took a team effort including plenty of practise unloading and setting up the massive vehicle, Barnes said.

Teretonga Park, near Invercargill, was used for the first 2020 team practise last Saturday, as well as an opportunity to test run the coupe and new parachute.

“We are thankful to Noel Atley for his support and mentoring and the Southland Sports Car Club for letting us use Teretonga.”

There potentiality could be more practises, as the vehicle would not be leaving New Zealand until the end of May when it would be shipped to America.

The team of 11 Kiwis would head to Bonneville at the beginning of August to join another six Americans to make up the full team, he said.

Barnes said he planned on a two-day window to unload and set up the vehicle, and settle into Bonneville before racing began on August 8.

Gazebos had to be set up for shade from the unrelenting sun, which also had to be taken down each evening because of the potential wind gusts.

Detailed checklists had to be gone through, practise with fire extinguishers, and folding and installing the parachute… and people had to be constantly reminded to hydrate. “Repetition,” was the key, he said.

Even getting suited up and snuggly into the vehicle took practise. “It can be very intense.”

His plan was to increase his speed each time and work his way further through the licenses. Because he had previously achieved the Bonneville Competition License in Category E, he could “carry on from where he left off in 2018”.

“It’s a 22-year record… [set by Earl Wooden in 1998 at 263.28mph].

This year he said “it was a matter of having to start pushing things… we aim to go as fast as we can…

“I would like to push it to 250mph. Honestly, I don’t think we will get to 263 yet, but that’s an aim.”

Barnes said if he “cracks the 250”, then he would get the next license.

A week of pure speed, Bonneville was a magical place, the expanse of white which had drawn the Barnes numerous times in the past 12 years.

“We will be returning to what we consider our other home… the salt is an amazing place.

“It’s about living your dream and see it as an opportunity and a unique experience in life.”

Part of the magic was the people, some who annually sojourned to the petrolhead haven, he said.

“The people are like a family… if they can help you, they will.

“Americans love Kiwis… they see us as hard workers… ingenious. Unlike them, we can’t just go down to the hardware store… we have to go and make the parts.”

Sponsorship was an important part of the event. Everything costs. Just transporting the coupe to America could be at least $7500 one way.

“E Hayes & Sons have come on board, as have Southern Brakes and Driveline. And although Action Engineering, of Dunedin, and Aburns Glass, Stateside Streeters, Whitestone Rodders are also sponsors, we do need more.”

Although Barnes estimated $24,000 was needed, he said they were about $14,000 short at the moment. However, they had been amazed at the support they constantly got. “It keeps on growing as people get to know about the Kiwi Coupe, especially on our Facebook page. We can get 5000 hits in 24 hours.”

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