Bill Hoddinott: Tom, thank you for agreeing to participate in this in-depth interview about the Burklands and congratulations on your tremendous success last Fall at Bonneville when you took the FIA world mile record for piston-engine cars at 415 mph with your streamliner!
Tom: Thank you, Bill, it will be a pleasure. I look forward to having the Burklands story down on the record all in one place in Bonneville Racing News. I've been reading the News for many, many years.
Gene, Betty and I are extremely pleased to have finally taken that world record. You know it is nearly 25 years since we first started designing the streamliner so this has been a long process, with plenty of setbacks along the way. But one thing I want to make perfectly clear at the outset, because people sometimes tend to give me more credit than I deserve, is that the heart of the Burklands team is THREE people: Betty, Gene and Tom. All of us have done a tremendous amount of work together to build and race our cars over many, many years. I do feel proud that as an engineering project, the streamliner has been successful.
Bill: HIGHLY successful!
Tom: I also have to recognize that we have had a huge amount of help, support and encouragement from our many team-mates that Betty listed before in this story, and we have had so much fun together going out to Bonneville and running our equipment.
Let me give you just one example of the caliber of the people on our crew...... We have our own crash car that follows the streamliner on every pass it makes at Bonneville. An old '63 Plymouth station wagon with a full race 440 Chrysler Wedge in it, and it can easily top 160 mph. Our truck pushes the streamliner off and the wagon follows the car from about the seven mile point out to a full stop. Besides the wagon, we also station three other vehicles with emergency equipment along the full length of the track.
The Plymouth contains four volunteers and complete fire rescue equipment and it follows the car down the course, close as it can, and pulls up with it at shutdown. The crew hops out in case there are any problems, and of course they would be right there if anything happened to the car during a pass. In the worst case scenario, a violent crash and the car in flames, they are prepared to jump into their suits and WALK RIGHT INTO THE FIRE TO RESCUE THE DRIVER! One of them also carries along a five-foot heavy steel pry bar he made, and he told me, "Tom, if the canopy is ever jammed in a crash, I'll get it off with this!"
Bill: Wow, Tom, those are some tough hombres!
Tom: Yeah, BIG, too! So you see I trust these friends with my life.
Another thing I have to mention before we go any further is the debt I owe to Al Teague and the late Nolan White for all the information we exchanged at Bonneville about the art, science and management of streamliners. Our team benefited immeasurably from all the knowledge these two friends passed on to us.
And you know, Bill, there is nothing like the fellowship of the Bonneville people. I was just a boy of 9 when I first went out there. I heard the call right away and it has been a big part of my life ever since!
Bill: I see that on the professional side you are the Chief Engineer of Petersen, Inc. I looked them up on the Internet and saw that this is a big scale engineering company, that does the large and complex projects.
Tom: That's right, I've been with Petersen for ten years now. The work is varied, interesting and challenging. I work with a lot of good people and enjoy my job.
Bill: Tom, I would like for you to focus on the streamliner part of the Burklands story, since you were the designer and have been the only driver.
One thing about the streamliner that particularly appeals to me, and I suspect many Bonneville people feel the same way, is that it is a home-built racecar with traditional piston engines. Part of a long line of hotrod streamliners that first started to appear in the earliest days of Southern California Timing Association Bonneville racing. At that same time, I and a million other young lads, including your dad, were thrilled to read about it in Hot Rod Magazine!
The sheer SOUND of your streamliner making a pass at Bonneville is out of this WORLD! My Ardun roadster pal Dave Thomssen told me just the other day, "Bill, when that car goes by it SHAKES THE GROUND!"
Tom: (laughing) Glad everybody likes it so much! Actually, the sound is leaving the car 15 feet behind the driver so I don't get to hear it in the cockpit. What I hear is mostly gear whine from the front drivetrain.
But Bill, you know what you need in this game more than anything else is PATIENCE. You need a near-perfect 12-mile course to get the performance out of a car like this, and definitely for FIA records where you have to run two ways over the same measured mile and kilometer. If the salt is either too wet OR too dry, traction is poor and you can't get the speed because of wheelspin. If there is crosswind over five mph, you can't run safely; although we have encountered a crosswind down course of 12-15 mph and the car handled it all right because it is designed to steer into a crosswind. These cars need to run shortly after sunup to get the best conditions, but at SCTA meets you usually can't because you have to take your turn in line like everybody else. You know our car has been officially timed at 450 mph by USFRA at the end of the fifth mile, and we would like to see our FIA record up closer to that number. But all the logistics make it very, very difficult. There's far more to it than just a car that can do the speed safely. Sometimes you load up your equipment and crew members and come all the way down to Bonneville, and because of course or weather conditions, you have to leave the car on the trailer and can't run it at all! My home is only 150 miles from the salt so we have the option of leaving the whole rig home when these conditions deteriorate below safe operating minimums.
Okay, well as you know, and Betty and Gene have already discussed, I was in college studying mechanical engineering at Montana State when I designed the Datsun. As they said, competition coupes have a history of sometimes blowing over at high speeds so the first thing I focused on was downforce and aero qualities. And later I drove that car 300 mph as it successfully demonstrated the designed-in stability and traction required.
Bill: Probably many people have the impression that the Burklands must be multi-millionaires with unlimited resources and a tremendous amount of professional help, to have achieved so much. But Betty and Gene have explained to me that is NOT the case at all. You're people of average means like myself and most of us, and that makes the Burklands achievements even more impressive; compared with, say, what huge car companies or multi-millionaires can do with vast resources. Where DID the finance come from for the streamliner? Of course it took some cash to build it.
Tom: Partly out of our back pockets as we went along, partly out of the sales of our Studebaker and our Datsun. There were also a few other vehicles from each of our collections that were sold to finance various large single item purchases as we gathered the pieces required to build the new streamliner. Dan Webster bought the Datsun in the Fall of '89 and he is still racing it with blown Flatheads. A little later Ron and Gail Tesinsky bought the Studebaker after it had been on loan in a small museum in Wendover for many years which closed up, and they're running that now. We also had a small amount of much-needed support from sponsorship by some friends in the hot rod and related industries. Betty laid that out earlier in this story. She also told you that when the opportunity came along to buy a joblot of four Donovans for $15,000, she and Gene had to go get a loan to do it.
Bill: That speaks volumes right there. Okay, Betty and Gene have already told how by the mid-'80s the three of you, still running your Datsun, decided you wanted to build a streamliner and run for the very top tier of the Bonneville world, and try to bag the international records for piston-engine cars. You took on the design for the car, and it took many, many hours. Tell us about that.
Tom: Out of college I started my engineering career with the federal government at Hill Air Force Base. There was a fighter aircraft engineering center at Hill and I initially worked with the F-4 there. My structural repair expertise led to an assignment in Okinawa for a couple of years in the late '80s working with all Dept of Defense aircraft throughout the Pacific.
I wasn't keen to be so far from Bonneville, but not yet married, and wanted to travel a bit, so I put in for Okinawa. And this proved to be a good thing because it coincided with the time when I wanted to design the streamliner. You realize that I had already done the computer modeling for the body shape, made the 1/8 scale model, and had it wind-tunnel tested with a favorable 38-page technical report that predicted it would be entirely safe and efficient for our projected speeds up to 450 mph and over.
Also, we had already planned to use F-16 wheels and tires which were of a suitable small size, and spin-tested a couple of them at 500 mph successfully.
Now at this point I'm out in Okinawa and after work, while the other guys are chasing women and hanging out in the bars, I spent maybe 1200-1500 (I was afraid to keep a tally!) hours at my drafting board drawing up every single component for the car!
Bill: Good for you, Tom, I would have done the same thing! Then what?
Tom: Finished my tour in Okinawa and headed back home to an assignment with the F-16 program, where Betty, Gene and I spent thousands of hours building the streamliner. Nearly had it done when we procured a bunch of F-16 wheels and tires for our project, proceeded to spin-test the sets we needed, and suddenly some of the tires were blowing up at speeds as low as 350, and we realized that we weren't going to be able to use them!
Bill: That must have been a TREMENDOUS setback at the time, since I understand it was a period where no proven super-high-speed tires were being manufactured by anybody.
Tom: That's right. We were stumped for the moment, but as Betty and Gene told you earlier it worked out all right when we made a deal with Gene McMannis at Mickey Thompson to help them develop the right quality of tires by running samples on our spinner. Gene had been the original high-speed tire engineer at Goodyear through the jet wars and with the Thompson Challenger projects. But it still involved a great deal of time and effort before it paid off with 12 free tires that we could use.
Finally, in 1996 we were ready to put our new streamliner out on the course at Bonneville.
Bill: Okay, Tom, before we get into your experiences as the driver, would you go over the fascinating technical aspects of the car. There is a lot to document!
Copyright © 2009 Bill Hoddinott