The more creative the hot
rodder, and the better his
ability to handle complex
the faster his car.
the hot rodders wanted.
What they wanted was speed. The more creative
the hot rodder, and the better his ability to handle
complex fabrication operations, the faster his car.
During World War II, Bill Burke, an American sailor
in the South Pacific, noticed a group of men unloading airplane drop tanks from a freighter. A drop tank
was a large, teardrop-shaped fuel tank that was
strapped to the belly of military aircraft to increase
their cruising range. After Burke watched for a while,
a light bulb switched on: this streamlined, aerodynamically shaped vessel would make a great
body for a land speed racer.
After the war, Burke found he could pick up a war-surplus tank for as little as $35. He experimented
with different tanks and soon focused on the 315-
gallon tank that was originally slung beneath the
twin-engine, twin-tailed P- 38 Lightning.
Burke’s first belly tank “lakester” reached a speed
of nearly 132mph. Such speed from something as
eye-catching as a fighter plane belly tank caught
the attention of other hot rodders. Roaring across
the Bonneville Salt Flats, belly tank lakesters soon
became land speed racing’s iconic image.
OLD SCHOOL (1946): (top) Road Runners member
Bill Burke’s Belly Tank Lakester. This is the first belly
tank lakester ever built. The world famous Pierson
Brothers (Bob and Dick) 2D ’ 34 coupe.
Unlike drag racers, whose object is to turn in the
fastest quarter mile, land speed racers focus on one
thing alone — maximum speed attained. Terminal
velocity trumps peak acceleration; quickness and
handling take a backseat to horsepower and traction.
Drivers race in dozens of categories during Speed
Week. Perhaps the most interesting is “special construction machines.”
Going for a New Record
Photography by Al Baker, courtesy of bakerracingpix.com
This category includes the lakesters and streamliners, and nearly anything goes. Vehicles can be
powered by anything from electric motors to steam
engines, although most are powered by piston engines
burning gasoline, methanol, or nitromethane. Built
from scratch specifically to run fast and straight on
the dry lake beds of the American West, they epitomize straightaway racing.
Gary Calvert (pictured at far left) of Enumclaw,
Wash., is the spry, 69-year-old driver for Anderson &
Calvert Racing. Calvert, partner Kirk Anderson, and
helpers built their 204mph-capable vehicle from
a football-shaped airplane fuel tank. Calvert’s goal
is to set a speed record for his type of belly tanker,
known as a “blown gas lakester.”
Every lakester and streamliner driver’s objective
is to reach the highest speed possible. Setting
records is what drives these people to drive fast.
The First Lakester
Beginning in the 1930s, many young men, especially
in Southern California, spent every extra dollar they
had working on their cars. Money was often tight,
necessitating a great deal of ingenuity to get what
Blown means it has a supercharger that blows
pressurized air into the engine intake manifold,
thereby increasing horsepower and speed. Gas
means its carefully rebuilt six-cylinder engine,
repurposed from a Ford Taurus sedan, uses high-octane gasoline rather than nitromethane or other
exotic fuels. And lakester signifies the classic
open-wheeled design; made for running on dry
lake beds, the car’s wheels aren’t covered by any
wind-deflecting fairing or cowling.