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American Motors eXperimental
"Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water..."
By Tony Zamisch
It's the most feared creature in the sea. Some say it's the most powerful and frightening animal known to man. Capable of annihilating anything in its path, it is the Great White Shark. There is only one way to describe it, raw power, pure and simple.
As you may or may not know, my wife Rhonda and myself, with the help of a lot of generous people, made a successful run in last year's Silver State Challenge. We wanted to come up with a cool theme for this year's race and after much thought, I realized how much the lines of my wife's 70 Donohue Javelin looked like the lines of the Great White. We went to the library to find some books on the subject: Experts say that the female of the species is far more aggressive than the male, and knowing my wife's "NO FEAR" approach to road racing made this the perfect concept for this years most festive AMC road trip, the Silver State Challenge Open Road Race in Nevada.
We engaged services of Rob Sherman and Mark Banuchi, partners of R.S. Graphics in Santee, California, to help us create the look of our new "Asphalt Eating Machine". Rob applied the two-tone paint, platinum silver metallic on the top and down the sides, then fading into pure white at the belt-line all the way down to the simulated exhaust rocker panels. Mark then expertly hand painted all the graphics to simulate the details of the Great White Shark. Gills on each side, nostrils on the hood and full graphics on the rear spoiler, including the "Mark Donohue" signature. To simulate the cold, blank stare of the shark, we blacked out the headlights with safety tape and the final results are awesome!
We were also very fortunate to get car #70 in advance. Pre-registration is also a must, making this number particularly hard to obtain. By a sheer twist of fate, #70 was wide open and we grabbed it. It was a perfect fitting and 'Great White' was now a reality.
Being fortunate enough to get to the finish line last year allowed us to move up to the next level this year as stated in the rule book. The thrill and challenge of driving faster would bring us back to try it again. We knew we could do better, so, Kevin "Super Cob" Muckleroy and myself took to the drawing board to come up with a plan, assemble and test (to some degree) theories, fix any problems from last year, keep it together, and set a faster time.
Also on the crew this year was my good friend, Art Gladue, Jr. (aka: 'Uncle Beanis") Art has been a major help to us this year and was my right arm helping me put 'Great White" back together after she came out of the paint shop. Always ready to lend a hand, he is a very unselfish and giving person. We couldn't have done it without him. Thanks Art!
As I mentioned, Rhonda drives the car and I navigate. She said that this year she wanted to be able to "cruise" at 150 mph. Kevin and I both looked at each other semi-shocked and said, "It's one thing to be able to GET to 150, but she wants to do what?" She has more guts than I expected, but we all like high speed and horsepower, don't we? So who was I to say no? Keeping the car on the ground was now a VERY MAJOR concern! We are not talking about a Ferrari on a "controlled" race course, we've got a 25 year old 'flying brick" on an old two lane highway. A road that is very unpredictable and not well maintained. BIG difference! But we also realized that with Rhonda's previous Silver State driving experience, precise mechanical calculation and a whole lot of luck, we might be able to set a new AMC record. Make it or break it, we would give it a try. Ok, so where do we start?
Moving up into a much higher class also meant that we needed the highest quality mufti-layer NOMEX fire suits, SA 90 helmets, NOMEX shoes, socks, gloves, head socks, and horse collars (helmet supports).
Plus more safety equipment including additions to the roll bar and Competition ZR rated tires, not to mention the entry fees alone were $600.00! Is this getting serious, or what? All of these requirements are clearly stated in the rule book and are 100% MANDATORY! Don't be fooled into thinking that you can just "get by". If you don't have ALL of the required equipment when you get to "tech" inspection, you might as well turn around and go home. You will NOT be allowed to race and there are NO REFUNDS! We made sure we were fully prepared.
A full year of serious preparation and costly modifications would be necessary if we wanted to "cruise" at 150 mph. 365 solid days of careful planning and paying close attention to every mechanical detail. No stock AMC car will ever go that fast for that long without MAJOR modifications, power-wise as well as suspension-wise. Let's face it, Breedloves' records in the AMX were certainly very impressive, but the cars he used to set those records in were by no means stock, and, he never ran the Silver State Challenge. Remember, he was on a specially prepared banked oval track, we were not.
We had a cooling problem last year with the stock 3-row Blackstone radiator, and although it was new, it was not adequate. To completely cure this problem, I ordered a custom made 4-row cross-flow racing radiator from Superior Racing Radiators out of Michigan. Problem solved. We also felt that a bigger, more efficient exhaust system would be necessary. Mason's Alignment and Exhaust in Imperial beach, California installed a complete over-the-axle and out 3" Ultraflow system. Plenty of breathing there.
Last year we ran a modified Borg-Warner M-12 automatic behind the AMC 390. It worked ok, but automatics rob horsepower and add more heat. We know a sustained 150 MPH would not be possible unless we used some type of manual overdrive. I found a Borg-Warner (not Ford) World Class T-5 with 32% overdrive. This manual trans combined with the AMC 2.56 ring and pinion set we were currently using seemed like the likely move. We also had a Richmond ROD 6-speed on a stand-by, just in case the 5-speed didn't do the trick. The 'stock' Borg 5-speed shifter was total garbage, so I called Hurst to see what they offered for this transmission. Sue Nemec at Hursts' promotional offices, decided to help sponsor us by letting us test all of their top of the line products for this application. What a MAJOR difference in shifting! The Comp Plus Internal Rail 5-speed shifter is definite the way to go! Very positive shifting with no slop. Dig it! I would recommend it to anyone.
Anyway, back to the theory of overdrive, the successful use of tall gears and overdrive for serious high speed without excessive engine RPM, is directly proportional to horsepower and aerodynamics. So what is the right combination for a 25 year old flying brick? In my opinion, the Javelin is the obvious choice for stability and "Factory" aerodynamics, but certainly not equal to today's modern super-cars. To help keep the car from "floating" at 150 MPH, we decided to lower the front end of the car three full inches from stock to create a little more front end "downforce". Making horsepower with the AMC 390 was not a problem, because we built the motor to withstand high, speed/long-distance. A good oiling system is a must. The engine and complete drivetrain run on "Redline" brand synthetic lubricants, keeping heat and friction to a minimum.
We also had "Great White" dyno-tuned specifically for this race. When dyno-tuning, the technician must take into consideration the speed factor, altitude, size of tires, ratio of the rear tail gears, trans type and ratios, engine size, type of induction, etc. After all the adjustments and modifications had been made, our dyno tests were very positive. The car was put on a "rolling" dynamometer and at 5500 RPM, we had just over 500 horsepower at the flywheel and more than 300 of it was getting to the ground. Not bad, and there is always room for improvement. Keep in mind, this is no stock 390. All these facts and figures may look good, but they also are very tricky. What looks good on a calculator may not be what you end up with on race day. Trial and error is the real formula, and is a costly way of proving what the AMC powered car is capable of. Our new set-up would prove to be a gamble. There is no way to completely test theories and mechanical combos ahead of time for this race.
The other problem, and probably the most serious thing to consider is, can you, as the driver, handle the car at these speeds? Most of us, at one time or another have stretched our logs and sprinted up to 100+ MPH or ran our cars down the quarter mile for a quick "head rush". Trying to compare this to the Silver State Challenge is like comparing a riding lawn mower to the Indy 500. Your mind does not think the same way at 60 MPH as it does at 150+ MPH for a sustained period of time.
I think of it this way: If NASA handed me the keys to the space shuttle, would I know how to fly it? The answer is no. Even if you could control the car for the 90 unpredictable miles of highway 318, you can not prepare yourself for the unexpected dangers that could ultimately result in death. No joke. Watch NASCAR racing on ESPN some afternoon and see how the car disintegrates as it flips uncontrollably through the air after hitting the wall at high speed. It could happen at any second.
Even though Rhonda had driven this race last year, nothing I could say or do would prepare her for the much higher sustained speed factor she was faced with this year. She said, "make it go faster". "Ok, done deal. Here's the keys". Don't think I was just a little concerned! After all, I was going to be sitting in the passenger seat. Both of our lives were being held together by the combination of extreme attention to every mechanical detail as well as Rhonda's driving ability and sheer courage. Time would tell.
With time running out, and race day soon approaching, I gave her every opportunity to get a better feel of her new "Shark". Kevin and I had done all we could and from the dyno results we felt confident that we had a winning combination. Now all we had to do was prove it. Getting the car to cross the finish line from a mechanical standpoint was Kevin's and my job, breaking the National AMC record was now up to Rhonda. Even though I was reading off the turns to her, SHE was still the one driving and had full control of our ultimate destination, whether it be the finish line, the side of the road, or six feet under.
People have asked me, "What's it like to go that fast for that long?" Personally, I can not say I really know what it is like to sustain 150 MPH for 90 miles. I've never been behind the wheel for this race. From my perspective, one thing is certain. Riding in the passenger seat has been bone chilling as well as exhilarating.. It is very easy to lose track of where you are at these speeds, and I have to be totally focused on my job as navigator. If my directions are wrong, we could end up in a ditch! Not a very festive thought. My wife and I spent hours discussing this years run and the possibility of loosing it all. Proper paperwork was filled out, life insurance policies were in full force and all family members notified. A vivid image of reality that should always be considered if you choose to run this race. All things considered, we stood up and took the challenge. Do you have the guts? Let's go for the fastest AMC Silver State ride on record.
Once again, we passed inspection with flying colors and were cleared to run at a top technical speed limit of 165 MPH! Pretend you're in the driver seat, and I'll be your tour guide. A Co-pilot is highly recommended as you can't always see what's ahead at high speed. Which way does the road turn? Watch out for that bump! You will get airborne! Stay calm and focused. Get in the zone. A mind trip like no other. They motion you to the starting line. You wait and wonder - "will we make it?" Your heart is pounding as the green flag drops and you're off. In no time at all you're over the legal speed limit of 55 MPH and climbing. 90, 100, 110, 120, time to hit overdrive. Rhonda settles in at 125 MPH for the first fifteen miles or so, allowing me to check the engine's vital signs. Temperature is 170, oil pressure is at 70 psi, RPM is just over 2,800! Talk about "cruising"! "Great White" is rock solid and stable, and fear takes a back seat for a while.
I give her a "thumbs up", and now it's time to really test overdrive! At 20 miles out,. she hits a few short sweeping turns, a short straight away, and now the road heads uphill. We are decreasing speed slightly because of the grade. Overdrive is working, but not to its full potential. Downshift to 4th, RPM jumps to 4,500. Over the hill and for the next 13 miles you've got a wide open straight away! One of the two fastest spots on the course. Rhonda lays into the throttle in 4th gear, hits 5,000 RPM and it's back into overdrive. At this point, we traveling 2.5 miles per minute at a speed of 150 MPH, RPM is almost 3,400. The safe speed on this road is rated at 55 MPH, but the surefooted 16" BF Goodrich Competition ZRs stick to the road like glue. 255-50s in back, 245-50s up front. Feel the tension, man, what a ride! Overdrive seems to work the best on the flats and down-hill straight aways. So far, 45 miles have been covered in 19 minutes. That's right, 19 minutes. 50 miles out and the road surface changes drastically. Bumps, dips, rough pavement and fear jumps back in the front seat! Must decrease speed to about 125 or so through this area.
Over half way home and now all I can think of is, "will we make it through the washboard?" At about 60 miles out the road turns into a rollercoaster. Dips in the pavement that you would barely notice at 55 MPH are now mini "launching ramps"! Like a trooper Rhonda knows what's coming up and shows no fear. This three mile section of road has been our biggest worry all along. "Will the car stay on the ground?" Last year we hit the "washboard" at 120 MPH, this year it's 150! I dropped my course notes after the first dip caught my attention like a shotgun blast. Backing out of the throttle now in a panic to slow down would have been a big mistake. If we were going to meet our maker, it was going to happen right now. Rhonda keeps her foot -in it and yells, "hold on!", and for the next 60 seconds we went for the ride of our lives. Fear was now sitting right in my lap. Good thing there's a factory tissue dispenser in here! I think I need to check my pants! Rhonda's prior experience on this road and a little help from the man upstairs was probably the main reasons why I'm able to sit here today and write this story. I felt the car leave the ground three times!
Even though we had set up the Javelin to take the punishment, the car is only as good as the drivers' abilities. We now know our limitations. Experience to drive in the Silver State race can only be obtained by racing the Silver State Challenge. Nothing can simulate the unexpected.
After the "washboard", there are a series of uphills and downhills, and a sneaky "off camber" turn at the crest of a small hill. Oh....,that turn is lots of fun. If you don't know in advance which way the road turns, you WILL learn the hard way.
By this time we were back in 4th gear and had dropped our speed down to 125 or so, which was just as well because now we're at the "narrows". A 2.5 mile series of tight, twisty turns, a 200 foot rock-wall canyon on either side and no guardrails! The safe posted speed is 45 MPH. Last year we hit it at 90, this year at a staggering 120 MPH! Oh man, just when I thought it was safe to go back in the water Great White' is now on a feeding frenzy! With her razor sharp teeth she takes a huge bite out of every turn. The Gymkhana Suspension Bar-Pak that we installed last year is now being put to the ultimate test. Will it hold us in the turns? Left to right, find the straightest line possible and hold on to your hats! The last turn out of the narrows is DEADLY! A left hander with a BAD dip! Miss it, and you live. Hit it and you might as well kiss your butt "Buenas Noches' at this time. A driver lost control and flipped his new Accura NSX over on this very turn back in May during another Silver State race. We knew it was there and Rhonda set up for it in advance. The bar-pac allowed us to dive in and "short-cut" the turn with virtually no body roll. Guess what, folks? These sway bars DO work! Fate smiles on us once again and it's 16 miles to the finish line!
Rhonda hammers the throttle in 4th gear and pulls "Great White" back up to 130, 140, at 145 we pass Larry, Linda, and Pete who are working 'Svenski' Checkpoint #72. At 5,000 RPM we upshift into high gear and we're back up to 150. Around the next bend and two miles down, Kevin and Art are working "Cob and Beanis Checkpoint #78. They give us a "thumbs up" as we pass by ad a blistering 155 MPH!
With 12 miles to go, all vital signs are A-OK. Engine temp is up a little at 180, and oil pressure at 60 psi. The road surface has smoothed out somewhat and the long awaited downhill 5 mile straight is just three miles ahead. We are now approaching the only other spot on the course that will allow you to hit your top "tech" speed. The rules also clearly state that "you may NOT exceed your "tech" speed ANYWHERE on the course, or you WILL be DISQUALIFIED!" (Tech speed is determined by class and safety equipment.) Keeping this in mind, we knew we had to make up time because of having to slow down in the narrows and the other bad areas on the course. We would soon reveal the true test of all our efforts.
Rhonda got a good grip on the steering wheel and proceeded to peg the needle on the 160 MPH Autometer speedo and now everything around us is a total blur! She yells, "We just hit 160! What a rush!" "Great White" had more on the throttle and we knew it! A long, slight uphill grade brings us into the last turn, and speed decreases to 145. Out of the turn, back into 4th. Two miles to go, flat and level, no time for overdrive. Stand on it in 4th gear, at just over 5,000 RPM and feel the last -rush of power as we cross the finish line on radar at 152 MPH! Mark Donohue would have been proud. Average speed for 90 miles: 134 MPH. Elapsed Time: 39 minutes, 58 seconds. Official top speed on radar: 162.35 MPH! I guess the name, "J.A.V.E.L.I.N" really translates into: Jazzy American Vintage Excitement Live In Nevada! By the way, we also closed the gap on the specially prepared 88 Ford Mustake, oops I mean Mustang, that left the starting line 60 seconds ahead of us. He crossed the finish line 3 seconds before we did. If the "faster" cars go first in class, then the proof is in the teethmarks on his rear bumper. He should be more careful where he goes swimming! We will be back.
A Big THANK YOU once again to our Sponsors, Friends and ALL who helped carry us into a new chapter in AMC Racing History:
Special thanks to Larry Mitchell who started this tradition in AMC Racing History by attempting the first AMC run in an AMX back in 1988. Dan Bruerton set the first record at 112.09 in 1989 in an AMX. Larry came back and set a now record in the 1990 race at 128.02 and that has stood for the last four years. Thanks, Uncle Lar, for giving us this AMC challenge and the will to 'Accel'. An experience we will never forget!
To my Wife, Rhonda, thank you for getting us there in one piece, and congratulations on your new title: World's fastest street licensed AMC. You proved yourself and you deserve it!