Next time you’re in a passenger jet, soaring over the clouds at 500 miles per hour, imagine this: You’re barreling across the Utah desert at this speed in a craft equipped with wheels, not wings. Your vehicle is powered by car engines, not jets. And you’re about to set a Guinness World Record. Now you have some idea of the next big item on Doug Herbert’s bucket list: driving faster than anyone has ever traveled in a piston-powered car. Herbert, a much-decorated National Hot Rod Association driver, is determined to conquer a whole new realm of speed. Sometime in the next two years, he plans to take a sleek 4,000-horsepower car to the Bonneville Salt Flats. And if he has his way, he will roar across it at more than 500 mph – a feat that would generate worldwide headlines. Herbert and his team aren’t content with merely beating the official land speed record for a piston-powered car, now 462 MPH. “We want to crush it,” says Pancho Weaver, a racecar fabricator who has put together much of Herbert’s car. The car’s low-slung chassis now sits in the basement shop of Weaver’s lakeside home in Mooresville. Nestled in the chassis are two Dodge Viper V-10 engines, one to drive the front wheels, the other to drive the back. A computer will synchronize the two engines to ensure the wheels move at the same speed. But it’s not your typical four-wheel drive. Two feet high, three feet wide and 36 feet long, it looks like something out of a futuristic comic book. “It’s an on-ground guided missile,” Herbert says. It’s so low to the ground that Herbert will be practically lying down as he drives it. The car’s designers have even talked about equipping it with a video camera to improve Herbert’s visibility. But the biggest challenge, of course, will be to reach such mind-reeling speed. Each of the two engines will produce more than 2,000 horsepower. They’re expected to burn 45 gallons of alcohol in just minutes. If needed, Herbert will be able to tap into two tanks of nitrous oxide for a surge of additional power. On the slick salt flats, traction is key. So the car will be heavy – 6,000 to 8,000 pounds – the weight of two conventional passenger sedans. After Herbert reaches top speed, he’ll face another challenge: slowing down. The car will be equipped with three parachutes, along with a specially designed brake system. “We’re not just thinking about going fast,” Weaver says. “We’re thinking about safety.”
A fast family Herbert’s father, Chet Herbert, spent much of his teen years in the 1940s building and racing fast cars in southern California. At the age of 20, he was stricken with polio. Paralyzed from the chest down, he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. But he didn’t let that stop him from playing a major role in motorsports. He dreamed up ways to build game-changing auto parts and racecars and became one of Bonneville’s early pioneers. One of Chet Herbert’s cars, nicknamed “the Beast,” traveled 246 mph at the Salt Flats in 1953, setting the record for the fastest single-engine car in the U.S. Doug Herbert was born in 1967, with speed in his blood. Years later, his own children picked up the bug. But in 2008, tragedy struck Doug Herbert’s family, when his two sons were killed in a car wreck near their Lake Norman home. As the family mourned, Herbert began thinking about how to spend more time with his aging father, who lived 2,400 miles away in California. One night, Herbert watched “the World’s Fastest Indian,” a movie based on the story of New Zealand speed bike racer Burt Munro, who set land speed records for motorcycles at Bonneville. It wasn’t long before he was on the phone. “Dad,” he said, “we need to go to Bonneville.” Together, father and son drafted the plans for a car they hoped would make history. In April 2009, at the age of 81, Chet Herbert died. But his son, still committed to achieving their dream, has kept his sights on Bonneville.
The lure of the flats The remnant of an ancient lake, the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah boasts 30,000 acres of hard-packed sand – and not much else. But early auto racers discovered the appeal of the flat, empty terrain. By the late 1940s, it had become established as the best place in the world for breaking speed records. The track where Doug Herbert hopes to set his record is a five-mile straightaway. The first four miles allow cars to reach maximum speed. Semi-trucks give many cars a push start. Herbert will need that, because the lowest of the five gears in his car is designed for 60 to 80 mph. In the fifth mile, the cars are timed. “Instead of a quarter-mile drag race, it’ll be a 5-mile drag race,” says Herbert, who in August test drove a friend’s souped-up Dodge Daytona at the Salt Flats. With wins at more than 30 national and international events, Herbert is well acquainted with the rush of driving more than 300 mph. But one downside of drag racing, Herbert says, is that the experience is over in a flash. “Maybe in this car, I’ll be going fast enough for long enough that I’ll be able to enjoy it,” he says.
Veterans of speed Several other drivers also have their eyes on the world record, and unlike Herbert, some of them have previous experience at Bonneville. One of them is the son of the late Mickey Thompson, who in 1960 became the fastest American on wheels when he traveled 407 mph at Bonneville. Danny Thompson plans to make a run at the world record by updating one of his father’s cars. “Realistically, we’re the underdogs,” Weaver says. “These guys have some experience.” But Herbert has some advantages, not least of which is the vast experience of his team. One key partner is NASCAR team owner Ray Evernham, former crew chief for Hendrick Motorsports. Another is Humpy Wheeler, former president and general manager of Lowe’s Motor Speedway. A third is Weaver, who previously built more than 80 NASCAR chassis for Dale Earnhardt Inc. While the team’s dream car has not yet been to Bonneville, its architects feel they have a good idea how it would perform there. Engineers have been plugging the car’s shape into computer models to determine how it will perform at various speeds and conditions. “Before taking the car down to the Salt Lake Flats, it has been there 100 times – on the computer,” Herbert says. Obstacle course Still, the list of remaining challenges is lengthy. The team estimates it will need about $1 million to complete the car, and they’ve raised about half of that so far. The prize money for setting a land speed record? There is none. So why pursue it? “I’m pretty hard headed,” Herbert says. “I’ve got this goal. We wanted to prove to ourselves that we can do it.”
Herbert’s nonprofit keeps teens safe behind the wheel Doug Herbert drives fast for a living. But it wasn’t until 2008 that the National Hot Rod Association veteran learned just how dangerous a steering wheel in young hands can be. One morning in January of that year, a car wreck not far from Herbert’s Cornelius home took the lives of his two sons, ages 17 and 12. Herbert soon learned there were thousands of other parents grieving for the same reason; nationally, car crashes are the leading cause of death among children, killing more than 4,000 people under the age of 20 each year. “I said, that’s just not acceptable,” Herbert said. “I’m going to do something to make a change.” He did just that, creating a nonprofit program that has better equipped thousands of teenagers for the challenges of real-life driving. Called B.R.A.K.E.S., short for Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe, the free four-hour program teaches teens how to handle situations that commonly lead to crashes: how to avoid a car that suddenly pulls in front of you; what to do if your tires drop off the roadway; how to control a skid on wet pavement. The course, often taught in the parking lot of the zMAX Dragway in Concord, also gives teenagers a lesson on the dangers of distracted driving. Young drivers are asked to negotiate a course while typing a text message or checking out a photograph on an instructor’s phone. Almost invariably, the orange cones begin flying. The instructors know how to get the students’ attention. Many of them are professional racecar drivers. The program has already saved lives, its leaders say. Herbert spoke recently with a teenager who made use of the skills learned in the course. When a vehicle suddenly pulled in front of the young man’s car in Concord, he was able to avoid a major crash. “What I learned at B.R.A.K.E.S. probably just saved three lives if not more,” said the teenager, who recounted his experience in a video shortly after the incident. “I wouldn’t have known what anti-lock brakes felt like. I would have freaked out.” By year’s end, 8,000 teenagers will have graduated from the fast-growing program, says B.R.A.K.E.S. director Matt Reilly. Courses have been offered in five states, and Reilly would like to expand it nationwide. As more schools nationally eliminate drivers’ education programs, B.R.A.K.E.S. fills an acute need, Reilly said.