Betty and Gene
Bill: Okay, Gene, would you tell us about your Studebaker.
Gene: Sure, Bill. By coincidence, my old car, that belongs to Ron & Gail Tesinsky now, appears on the front cover of the 2008 Bonneville Speed Week Program. The idea for it came to me way back in 1957 when I saw Sanchez's Stude at Bonneville. It had a blown Ardun and went very fast. In 1970 we decided to build a Bonneville car and looked around for a Studebaker coupe from which to build one like his.
We already had some years dragracing with blown fuel iron Chrysler Hemis which we liked very much and we had learned some things about them. 354 and 392 Hemis were very popular during the '60s for drags and Bonneville and available in the junkyards for reasonable prices. Their drawback was that the big iron heads were very heavy at about a hundred pounds each so they were a little awkward to handle. And another consequence of the iron heads was that if you ran them blown with a big load of nitro, say 70% or more, it would make too much heat and you could get a crack between the spark plug hole and the exhaust valve seat. But I only went 20-30% nitro on mine and they were okay that way, with maybe a max of 25 psi manifold pressure.
I got my Stude and rounded off the nose, and reworked the front of the fenders with VW Beetle rear fenders reversed to the front on opposite sides. Chopped the top down to the minimum allowed by the regulations, which left eight inches of windshield at a 35 degree angle, or five inches measured vertically.
I kept the Stude main frame (as required by the rules of those days), but reworked it for a Ford cross spring and custom straight tubular front axle with a 4" adjustment to adjust the ride height to get the best aero effects. This saved about 150 pounds over the Stude front suspension parts. Used Chevy Vega cross steering and Panhard bars front and rear. I built a 12 gallon fuel tank for the front and a 55 gallon water tank for the trunk with two 12V pumps to circulate it. These added quite a bit of weight where I wanted it. The driver sat back in the cockpit right ahead of the rear window and I made a very strong roll bar setup, with a 750 pound steel plate on the floor. Don't know the exact car weight but I would estimate it was 55% on the rear wheels with this setup. The engine was set back 25%, right under the original cowl.
Bill: What was the powertrain like?
Gene: The first engine was a blown iron 354 Hemi, same one I had been dragracing. Later on we used a sleeved 392 to run in 375 inch "B" class.
Those engines had two-bolt main caps and the practice was to use a Milodon girdle to reinforce the three center mains.
At first I didn't think I needed any transmission at all, so I set it up with a triple-disc Velvet Touch sintered brass clutch, Donovan scattershield and a two-foot driveshaft and we pushed the car up to a high speed to get it started and then it would pull away. The blown fuel Hemi had plenty of low and mid-range torque. I had built a rear axle with a 2.29 gear ratio and big axles and that worked fine. The tires were 32-inch 6.70x18 Firestone Bonneville tires and we had no trouble with them for the speed range we were in. These Firestone tires were rated for 300 mph at the time.
Bill: What happened the first year you took it out?
Gene: The first thing you know, the tech inspector didn't like my roll bars so we went searching for some welding equipment and a Chevy dealership was the place we found it. I had to add some more tubing up to the dash.
Now we passed tech and finally I was ready to run my car. Everything worked okay, pushed off very fast and fired up, the car accelerated all right up to 186 mph then all at once the VW fenders folded back onto the front tires and the car changed lanes instantly! Which was disconcerting.
I realized they needed more bracing, so we took the car back home and worked on that some more. Brought it back and gradually we learned more about how to run it. Any novice has a steep learning curve at Bonneville!
Bill: What was next?
Gene: One slightly amusing thing that happened was in '76, Les Leggit built an engine for us and he thought we absolutely ought to have a gearbox to make it easier to get going. So we bought a brand new old stock pickup three-speed gearbox and installed it, and now we had an eight-inch driveshaft. At the time it wasn't funny, but we can smile about it now. Les asked me to just run the car by him in the fire-up lane and floor it in second gear so he could listen to it. When I did that it stripped the gearbox! It was just grossly overloaded by that blown fuel Chrysler. So that was the end of that.
We ran the Stude up to '78, and the last two years Mike Beatty and our Tom built the engines for it. Tom was 18 in '78 and Mike showed him a lot about engine building and tuning. Tom was crazy about all this stuff.
Bill: What was it like for the driver to make a pass in the car, as far as the noise and vibration and so forth?
Gene: The handling of the car was excellent right up to 240 mph. Just like driving your Buick down the highway. Over 240, not so good. Something started going on, not sure what, but it began to feel like the rear wheels were steering the front. In 1978 I did get the car to make two runs, 253 and 258 in accordance with the record rules of that day, set a 255 record and got into the 200 MPH Club. We had a heck of a time getting that record, because you had to make three passes total: a qualifying over the existing record, then a Down run and a Return run the next morning. The second two were supposed to be within an hour, but quite often due to cars backing up in line, it would go to two hours.
The PROBLEM we ran into was that we burned #1 piston on EACH of our three runs, and we had to scramble to take the engine apart and replace it. ESPECIALLY between the Down and Return runs. AND it was really tough with the engine in the car and working on it up under the cowl!
But somehow we did it. That was one of the times when we had an hour and twenty minutes between the two record runs.
As to noise, sure, there was plenty. We had 30" by 2-1/2" zoomie headers on it and with the blown fuel, the noise was tremendous. In those times we used Air Force lap and shoulder belts, a Bell open-face helmet, and an aluminized face mask like the dragster guys wore. And the skimpier fire suit of the day.
Vibration with the rigid mounted engine? No, not much, since V-8s are pretty smooth. But I remember one time when we lost #1 and #2 cylinders on a pass and the engine shook the whole car so hard my vision went away. Got it stopped all right, but it took about thirty seconds for my eyes to get straightened out so I could see right again.
Bill: Was it scary to drive the car so fast?
Gene: That never bothered me, I sort of got used to it by working the speed up gradually as we got all of our equipment working. The thing that did scare me, and was always in my mind, was the possibility of a fire at high speed. You never can be certain that a fuel line won't break and spray fuel all over and then maybe you're in for it. I always had extra fire systems on board and a clear panel in the firewall to watch for the glow of fire in the engine room. But, we never had one.
By '78 we had a good class record with the Stude and as I said, it had reached its limit of safe speed, so there was no reason to run it anymore. We put it in a small museum in Wendover, where it stayed on display from '80 to '98. Then the museum closed up and we sold it to the Tesinskys. Gail Tesinsky has been running it most years at Bonneville since then.
Bill: Okay, for the next part let's go into the Datsun.
Copyright © 2009 Bill Hoddinott