IN A SPLIT second as his car veered from one edge of the 100-foot wide course to the other side and back again, professional speaker Tony Christiansen realised his goal of achieving 200mph on the Bonneville salt flats, Utah USA, would have to wait another year. Having achieved a top speed of 181.863mph on the famous salt, the Tauranga double amputee professional speaker decided against pushing his luck any further.
Now he's planning a return to Bonneville USA as soon as next year for another attempt, this time with a purpose-built car rather than a converted quarter- mile drag racer and with the aim of not only joining the 200MPH club but also claiming a class record.
"Everyone said I should be really happy with what we did but I'm not. It's that old thing `if I knew then what I know now','' says Christiansen. "I did seven runs all up and realised I wasn't going to go any faster. The car was really nervous. It had that old bum twitching feeling and self preservation started to creep in.''
Christiansen's efforts were filmed by TVNZ for a documentary programme which he says will capture the emotional highs and lows of the professional speaker's Speedweek venture. The defining high-speed moment is captured by three onboard cameras - one looking at the horizon, one at the dash and gauges and another at his helmet.
"The car starts to float,'' says Christiansen. "I'm down the middle of the track and it veers off to the left. I'm on the steering just bringing it back and you could see the fluoro marker for the quarter-mile go past on the left. The car shoots across to the right hand side of the track and you see the right hand side markers before it shoots all the way back to the left hand side. And that's all in a quarter of a mile at 177mph."
"The car was actually floating off the ground. The revs went from 5500 to 6500rpm and dropped back again in the blink of any eye.The car wasn't getting any traction. We didn't have enough weight. The car was 900kg all up and the other cars we were competing against were nearly 2000kg."
Christiansen says he now has a better understanding of why salt flat racers aren't built lightweight but are loaded with lead and ballast water tanks. "In land speed racing it's all about momentum and stability at speed,'' he says.
With a best of almost 182 printed on a time slip Christiansen then moved from the three-mile short course, on which he'd completed his mandatory rookie runs, onto the five-mile long course. "We were waiting in line and the wind sprung up from nowhere and they shut down racing for the day. There'd been two big crashes that day and we talked about it that night and took the advice of people who'd been there for 20 years and realised the car wasn't going to any faster."
"But I'm definitely going back. Next time I go the car will be specifically built. It will be a roadster so you sit slightly to the side so the driveline goes down beside you. We can drop the whole car by about 350mm so you get a lower centre of gravity which is less likely to spin out."
"My initial thoughts are a modified roadster with a four-litre six-cylinder engine for the E-Class. I'd build it lower, more streamlined and far heavier with a four speed transmission instead of a two-speed. What I really want to do is find someone who wants to get involved with an engine programme and be part of the whole thing. I can build the car.''
Christiansen says the trip was an emotional roller coaster. The New Zealand cars were late arriving and also delayed clearing customs in Los Angeles USA. A check on his car by race officials in Los Angeles demanded some additional chassis strengthening and more delay as a fabricator was located. He didn't complete the 19-hour drive across to Wendover, Utah USA on the edge of the salt with the car in tow behind a camper van till 10pm on Saturday night. His car was the last one through technical inspection on Sunday evening.
After final preparations on Monday Christiansen was ready to make a run just before the track closed. "It was 10-to-seven and I was in the car and suited up and they said that's it for the day. From a drama point of view it was perfect for the documentary. There was the anticipation of the first run and the disappointment. But we were first in line for the next morning.''
Christiansen says he's caught what land speed veterans refer to as 'Salt Fever'. "The first morning we headed out for the salt at 5am and there were already about 200 cars waiting for daylight. It's pitch black when you get there and then this orange glow comes up over the mountains. All of a sudden you see this vast whiteness. You can't comprehend the vastness. When cars leave the start line in front you and they go out of sight over the horizon. It's a very special place.''
Christiansen says as a double amputee the race officials watched his progress carefully. "Lee Kennedy, one of the technical chiefs followed me for my first two runs to make sure my car control was okay. After my second run I went from a D licence to a B licence. That felt pretty good.''
Story by Colin Smith, Bay of Plenty Times