WORLD EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH THE BURKLANDS!
FASTEST ONE-MILE FIA RECORD FOR PISTON POWER IN HISTORY AT BONNEVILLE SEPT 2008 415.896 MPH!
By Bill Hoddinott
Dear readers, it is with GENUINE PLEASURE that Bonneville Racing News brings you the complete inside story of the 38-year racing history of THE BURKLANDS!
The Burklands are unquestionably on the top tier of the great Bonneville racing teams of all time and theirs is an inspiring tale! Betty, Gene and Tom Burkland are people like you and me, except that they have reached for the STARS, and GRABBED THEM!
Bonneville Racing News expresses sincere thanks to the Burklands for devoting so many hours to telephone interviewing, to fact-checking, and to sharing their voluminous family photo archives so that now YOU can learn everything about their cars, their team and all the things that have led to their success!
Betty, Gene and Tom told your scribe this during the interview process: "Bill, we have no secrets. We will gladly tell you everything we have learned about our cars to help other teams go fast and above all, be safe!"
Most readers will be aware that on Sept. 26, 2008 Tom Burkland drove the team's streamliner, powered by dual blown-methanol 450-inch Donovan Hemi V-8s, to a Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) one-mile record at Bonneville of 415.896 mph average, at a private invitational meet. On November 25, 2008 the FIA officially certified the new international record for piston-powered wheel-driven cars. This achievement was the climax of a process covering nearly 25 years since Tom, a graduate mechanical engineer, first sat down at his computer to begin the streamliner's design.
But the Burklands story goes back for many years before that, beginning with their well-known Bonneville 255 mph record Studebaker and continuing through their 300 mph Datsun, both competition coupes.
Your scribe had heard of the Burklands for a very long time and admired their successes, without knowing much about them. I had a vague impression, from reading about their exploits, that they must be a team of multi-millionaires with limitless resources and a flock of professional automotive engineers, fabricators, mechanics and machinists on their payroll. NOT A BIT OF IT!!!! What I found out is that the Burklands streamliner is a traditional home-built Bonneville hot-rod racecar with mostly '60s and '70s technology and the heart of the team is just three members of a Great Falls, Montana family: Betty, 68, Gene, 73 and their son Tom, now 49. With very little sponsorship, pulling most of the money out of their back pockets, they have found ways and means to design, build and race their cars for all these years up to the very TOP of the Bonneville world!
There is SO MUCH to the story it is hard to imagine, not to mention get it down on paper for you! I think the best way is to just start at the beginning with the family and the Studebaker, go through the Datsun, and then on to the gorgeous and successful Burklands streamliner saga. Many hours were spent interviewing Betty and Gene, so they will go first with the outlines of the years of racing. More hours were spent with Tom who filled in the engineering details and tells his personal experiences as driver in the second half of the series. Along the way we will delve into EVERY technical consideration on the cars, and the streamliner MOST OF ALL.
Tom will tell you FIRST HAND what it's like to make a full pass in the streamliner, and when you go out the 'Back Door' at Bonneville at a timed 450 mph in your car and YOUR CHUTES TEAR OFF! And what it's like when your 'liner runs over something in the shutdown area and is nearly totalled ROLLING OVER TWELVE TIMES at 150 mph!
This will be a serial that will run through many issues of the News. SO HANG ONTO YOUR HATS, FRIENDS, THIS IS GOING TO BE ONE HECK OF A RIDE!!!!!
Betty and Gene
Bill Hoddinott: Betty and Gene, I've got you both on the phone and let me start by thanking you for agreeing to a comprehensive interview about the Burklands Bonneville team for Bonneville Racing News. And of course, congratulations for taking the FIA world speed record for piston- powered cars, average for one mile last fall at 415.896 mph. That was done at the private Top 1 Oil Shootout invitational meet September 26, 2008 and confirmed by FIA as a world record on November 25, 2008.
Betty and Gene: Sure, Bill, it will be a pleasure to get the story all down in one place on the permanent record, in Bonneville Racing News. We've enjoyed reading the News for many years. We are extremely proud that Tom finally set the official world FIA mile record for our team after so many years of trying. You realize that our friend Al Teague still has the same class record for the kilometer, which he set in 1991.
Bill, the first thing to know about the Burklands Bonneville Team is that it is a partnership between the three of us, Tom, Gene and Betty. Like a three-legged stool. We've had our good times and our bad times, our successes and our tremendous setbacks. Like the time our streamliner was almost entirely built and finished, thousands of hours of hard work in it; and we suddenly found out the tires we had planned to use were NOT going to be reliable, and no other proven tires were available! And the time in 2001 Tom ran over a partly-buried empty oil drum on the course at Bonneville during shutdown and rolled the car twelve times at 150 mph, damaging it very badly and breaking his arm. When one of us has been down, the others have lifted him or her up. And of course down through the years we've had a long list of family and friends who have crewed for us and we love every one of them! You know you can't run a car like this with three people; for just one example, it takes four and a director just to remove the engine cover - it weighs 175 pounds - without damaging it. We will name all of them later in this story, along with the people who have given us some much-appreciated sponsorship.
Bill: I see by the 2009 Rules and Records book of the Southern California Timing Association that your car also holds the AA/Blown Fuel Streamliner record from 2004 at 417.020 mph, which is the fastest piston-powered car in the book. And, your Datsun still holds the B class record in Blown Fuel Competition Coupe from clear back in 1985 at 294.868 mph. And, that Betty holds the E class record in BFCC in the Trackmaster-DRM car at 263..887 from 2003. All three of you appear in the Bonneville 200 MPH Club in the Speed Week Program. Quite a list!
B&G: Thanks, Bill, there was also our 255 mph record Studebaker before these that we had a lot of fun with. We go back nearly 40 years at Bonneville.
Bill: I want you to tell me ALL your stories but to set the scene, let's start with your family background.
Gene: Sure. But it started before we were ever a family. I was one of the lucky kids who came along at the dawn of the postwar American hot rod movement and I've been up to my neck in it ever since! When Hot Rod Magazine first appeared at the end of the 1940s, I grabbed it and devoured it and I have all but two issues of Hot Rod in my collection in the other room. I read all about Bonneville in the magazine from the first SCTA meet in 1949, and followed it year by year after that. In those days, Speed Week was a major feature in Hot Rod every year and we were all fascinated by the development of the hot rod racecars as they gradually started going faster and faster. It was no time before they were well into the 200 mph range.
I was so crazy about this that after I graduated from high school here in Great Falls in 1954 I went to Speed Week for the first time. The hook was deeply set right there and then, I had so much fun! There is nothing like the fellowship of the Bonneville racers and it has been a BIG part of my life ever since.
Betty: Gene and I married in 1959 and in 1960, Tom came along. His brother Bill arrived in 1964. We were all born and raised in Great Falls and Gene and I still live here, but the boys have moved for their jobs.
In the '60s we got involved in local drag racing with several cars, and found out our favorite engine was the early iron Chrysler Hemi and its derivatives. Especially blown on fuel. You realize that the 417 Donovan that we are still using was Donovan's aftermarket all-aluminum, water-cooled, beefed up racing version of the '57-8 392 Chrysler. The 417 was just an eighth-bore bigger version with the stock 392 stroke, but the Donovan is a very special engine in its own right and we'll tell you a lot about that later..
Anyway, we were drag-racing and having fun but in the back of his mind, Gene was thinking Bonneville. In '69 we took a family vacation to Speed Week, and Gene started building our Studebaker in January '71. It was inspired by the Sanchez blown Ardun Stude of the 1950s. And Gene did justice to Sanchez, ending up with a 255 mph record and getting himself into the Bonneville 200 MPH Club with it!
In 1971 we got our new Studebaker out to Bonneville the first time and I'll let Gene tell you some stories about that.
We took our boys Tom and Bill out to Bonneville every year, together with a flock of our family and friends, and we had SO much fun camping in Tarantula Gulch, enjoying the fellowship with the other racers, and trying to get our equipment to go fast. Which it did, eventually.
Now, Tom caught the Bonneville bug and has been deeply involved in it ever since. Bill, on the other hand, found by his late teens that his interests lay in other directions.
Bill went on to college and then into the Peace Corps for two years. He taught a while, then went back to school and became a graduate civil engineer. Today he works for a private company which contracts with the Federal Aviation Administration to make the annual FAA inspections of each of Montana's 114 licensed airports. Bill's a private pilot and uses a company plane to fly out for his inspection jobs. So he ended up with a job and lifestyle he really likes.
Bill's married to Barb and they have two sons, Nick, 13 and John, 10. They live in Clancy, Montana, just south of Helena.
Bill: What about Tom?
Betty: He enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering course at Montana State University and I have to tell you a story about him. The four years went by and Graduation Day is rolling around. Tom, if I may say so, has a personality somewhat like the character Gary Cooper played in the classic film "High Noon". Modest to a fault.
Anyway, Commencement's nearing and we get a call from Tom. "Uhhh, Mom, I dunno if I'm actually going to go to Graduation or not..." I said, "That's fine, but whether you do or don't, your dad and I and all of your extended family are going to be there, in the first row!" So Tom did show up, and we had a blast. Especially when we found out, by reading the Program, that Tom was graduating Magna Cum Laude!
Tom has put his engineering training to excellent use. For his college Senior Design Thesis, he designed our Datsun, using the coursework in aerodynamics he had. We'll tell you about that later. The car did 300 mph at Bonneville and it was definitely one of the safest cars ever run at the Flats. ALL of the design of our streamliner was done by him, as well. I think of Tom as the Sam Wheeler of the four wheel streamliners. Sam designed, built and rides his motorcycle streamliner which is at the very top of world record competition and has been officially timed at 355 mph. Tom designed, we all built, and he drives our streamliner.
Tom is married to Linda and they have a daughter Carly, who's going on 15. They all live in Farr West, Utah, which is right outside of Ogden. Tom is the Chief Engineer at Petersen, Inc. in Ogden. He's been there for the last ten years.
Bill: That's great, Betty! I looked up Petersen, Inc. on the Internet and I see that they are a large engineering company that does the really big jobs. They can fabricate industrial buildings of any size anywhere, and manufacture anything you want from any metal you want to make it of. The bodies for the rockets used in space shuttle launches for example, and they make equipment for nuclear power plants. That scope of work.
Gene, how have you made your living?
Gene: Welding as a federal civilian employee of the Montana Air National Guard for 32 years at their shops, to retirement. From about 1985 onwards I always had a shop at our home place and did job welding on the side for anybody who needed it. Custom work for crop-dusting planes, custom frame building for racecars, you name it. My shop is SFI certified and a licensed FAA Repair Station. And of course I did every bit of the welding on all the Burklands cars.
I can truthfully say I always loved welding, any kind, so much I would rather weld than EAT! Welding is a certain art that seems to be almost instinctive - you have to have a feel for it. But, there was a COST. I ended up with a degree of disability in my lungs due to damage from the metal fumes all those years. Like other occupational hazards, this was not well understood long ago when I started, but it is now. And it is bothering me more as time goes by, unfortunately.
Bill: I imagine you must live outside of Great Falls to have a sizeable welding shop operation at your place.
Betty: Yes, the last 34 years we have lived on ten acres five miles outside the city limits, but our address is Great Falls. Our shop is bigger than our house! It started out 24' x 28' and ended up 24' x 40' in the early '90s!
Before that we lived in another place that was badly affected by the terrible floods of 1975. Everybody had a lot of damage out of that and we had some special losses that we really hated. At the time we had accumulated six Chrysler and four Dodge core Hemis of various '50s types - you see we had a special arrangement with all the junkyards in our region that when any Hemis came in, we wanted them! Anyway, during the floods these engines, which were sitting around outside on the property, got water into the cylinders that had valves open, which froze during the winter and broke the cylinder walls! So that was a sad loss, but at the time we were dealing with lots of other nasty flood-recovery problems that were much
Bill: Okay, I think that brings us up to date on the family side, for the next part let's go into the Studebaker story. And at a point I want you to tell us all about your famous 600 mph 'tire spinner' - that's a great story by itself!
Copyright © 2009 Bill Hoddinott