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American Motors eXperimental
1995 Silver State Challenge - "The Silent Assassin"
By Tony Zamisch
There is no creature in the world that is more feared, more talked about, and less known. Expressionless and impassive, it has no predators. Nature's ultimate killing machine, a silent thing of merciless serenity, it is the Great White Shark.
Another year has come and gone, and "Great White" is on the prowl once again. It is the relentless appetite of this AMC sentinel that brings her back to these feeding grounds, and highway 318 is on the dinner plate. With the continued generous support of AMC World Clubs, and several CACI / AMS club members nation wide, as well as local and national sponsors who believe in us and the need to wave the AMC flag, we were able to set a few new records this year.
The last twelve months would prove to be a time of patience and understanding, self reliance and personal growth. Despite the incredible amount of negative criticism we have received, we were able to stand and deliver. You will now be witness to what some said could not possibly be done.
We were not the only flyers of the AMC flag this year. A record FOUR AMCs showed up, standing tall to run with the wind. This, in itself, is a record that may never be broken. I could not have been more proud and surprised at the same time. Jim Weyand came out from Denver with his 1968 Javelin, Roger Scott, also from Denver, showed up with the "Racer Pacer', and Dan and Ed Bruerton motored down from Salt Lake City with the 68 black "Cannonball" AMX. The Force was definitely with us, and together we showed that the spirit of AMC was still alive and well and ready to tear it up! Two Javelins, one AMX two-seater, and a Pacer, side by side to challenge the vicious undertow of Hwy. 318.
In the world of performance automobiles, is there a difference between quick and fast? Absolutely there is. Quick is a little quarter midget wizzing around a dirt track at 50 mph. Fast is a NASCAR Thunderbird hitting 175 mph in the straights at Daytona International Raceway. Quick can be an illusion in the mind of a "benchracer". Fast is the reality of the Nevada Open Road Race challenge. No matter which side of the fence you are on, observation or participation, all distinctions are leveled on a desolate 90-mile stretch of Nevada Highway 318.
Also in attendance was our good friends, Larry and Linda Mitchell from Denver, along with Peter Carrel from Sweden, to cover the event exclusively for AMC World Clubs. The friendship and support that these three people show us year after year, means more to us than anyone will ever know. I don't know how to begin to thank these kind folks for all they have done for us, but, Larry, if you're listening, it means a lot to us just knowing you guys care, and we're proud to have you as our friends! Thank you all so much!
And so the stage is set. The ultimate asphalt ballet is about to begin. Put on your diving gear and let's go for a swim. The Silver State Challenge is not your typical Sunday drive, nor is it for the weak of heart. It is a 90 mile, foot-to-the-floor, open road race on an old two lane public highway. Some call it a "religious experience", and some have died trying to master it. For those who race it, Hwy 318 challenges us to raise our driving consciousness to a new level. To conquer fear, is the beginning of wisdom. This represents the supreme conquest of danger and endurance by man and machine, and because of its unpredictably, we must err on the side of caution. A confident focal point is far better than "head-strong hero" looking for something to brag about. Therefore, our attitude this year is a simple one; we will race, we finish, and we will be alive to talk about it. But at the same time, we will not be intimidated. We are here to set a new record for AMC, and enforce it.
I will not spend too much time talking about all the mechanical changes that were done to the "shark", only that the time and effort spent was well worth it. From nose to tail, everything was changed. Several local shops in San Diego worked with me to create a dyno-tuned engine and suspension that is as solid as a brick wall. Eight-leaf rear springs, front racing coils, new shocks, sub-frame connectors, more additions to the roll cage, and a completely rollerized AMC 390. Too much to list. A very carefully calculated and computer generated engine and suspension assembly that works together to give us maneuverability with lethal power and speed.
The Borg-Warner 5-speed trans stayed the same, only this year, it would become a 'dust collector' because we never got a chance to use it! The head-winds became a real problem at 160 mph, so 4th gear got all the abuse. We must remember that NO AMC car is anywhere near as aerodynamic as a Corvette or a Ferrari. The invisible brick wall of wind resistance is, and will always be, a problem. You can't bargain with it or reason with it, and it should never be under-estimated or second guessed. We did have one slight problem last year with the door glass sucking itself away from the roof-rail weather-stripping, making it hard to hear. To cure this problem, I made some clips that hold the glass in place at speeds in excess of 150 mph. They worked perfectly.
Passing tech inspection on Saturday was a snap, and we were cleared to drive a max of 168 mph. This figure is derived from the safety gear you have, and the speed rating of your tires. Last year we had to make the car capable of cruising between 145 and 150 mph. This time around, we had the power to run between 150 and 160, easy. Top speed would not be known until race day. At some point we knew we would be over 160 mph, but by how much? There is really only one area on the course that will allow you to hit your top speed. I call it the "Breezeway". It is a long, downhill stretch, and most of the time in this two mile straight-away, the wind is at your backside. Time would tell.
My Wife, Rhonda, did not drive this time. I did. We agreed that she would not navigate the course for me, she would work on the course instead. Even though she is a qualified driver and navigator, she knows that having both of us in the car at the same time is risky business. The faster the car gets, the greater the risk for potentially becoming a casualty. One of us had to go home if something happened. Death becomes an annoying reality when you choose to play games with the Reaper.
I needed to find a competent navigator. In the lower speed classes, a navigator is not that critical. However, the faster you go, the less time there is for your brain to make critical decisions. In the higher speed classes, it is my opinion that having a qualified navigator can allow you, as the driver, to stay focused. The navigator can keep track of things that the driver could not possibly do while traveling at a high rate of speed. Such as monitor the gauges, calculate time and distance traveled, watch for flag stations, and inform you of what's coming up. He or she can also tell you in advance where the dips and rough pavement changes are. It all adds up to a smarter, cleaner, and safer run.
My friend, Art Gladue, Jr, agreed to ride shotgun down Hwy. 318 with me this year. Art has been very helpful to us and worked with our friend and crew chief, Kevin Muckleroy, to obtain a successful run in last year's Silver State Challenge. Kevin did not attend this year due to a last minute change of plans. Kevin has always been a MAJOR help to us, and we knew the trip would not be the same without him. We also knew that we had to go on with the show just the same. We did.
The night before the race, a thunder storm passed through the little town of Ely, dampening the roads and the spirit of the racers, something none of us wanted. Fortunately, it didn't last long and Sunday morning brought a beautiful sunrise and near perfect race conditions. The headwinds were severe in some areas, other than that we were all happy to have a clear day.
As we all lined up on the pre-grid, we had time to reflect on the things we take for granted. You think of family and friends, your kids, your life. Lots of things come to mind. No one wants to die out here. We all said a prayer for a clean, safe run. A final check of the Donohue by Art and myself, and all systems are go.
At last we were given the signal to move towards the starting line. The lead car in class was a Porsche 911, then a 1971 Road Runner, then us, followed by a Corvette, a Mustang and a Camaro. The AMX was in 7th position, followed by a Corvette, and two Mustangs. Pole position is determined by what the grid officials feel the top speed potential of a particular car is, or at least that's the theory. In the years past, this theory has never proven itself to be true. While we were waiting, one of the race officials opened my door to check my 5-point harness and when he shut the door, he slammed it so hard the jolt knocked the power out on the in-board "Shark Cam" (at least that's what it looked like when we got a chance to view the tape). And guess what? We don't have a tape of the race! Quite a disappointment, for sure. The in-board tape has been vital to our continued improvement over the years, and now I'll have to rely on memory.
Oh well, two minutes to take-off and I turned to Art for his thoughts. He knows this is not a drag race. He also knows "Great White's" speed capability. I sense his concern. The conversation went like this:
Tony: "Art, are you ok?"
Tony: "Are you nervous?"
Art: "Yeah, somewhat."
Tony: "Are you scared."
Art: "A little. Anyone who says they're not, is lying. I've never had to decipher the true meaning of fear until now. It's this helpless feeling of being strapped in here, and knowing I have little control over what's about to happen. And it's scary. You know what I mean?"
Tony: "Yeah, I know what you mean. I've been in your shoes before and I know what it feels like."
Art: "I'm putting my life in your hands. You just concentrate on driving the car, and I'll guide us through. We'll be ok."
And you know, for some reason I felt a strange sense of calm that stayed with me for the rest of the day. Someone was watching over us. You could just feel it.
The moment of truth was now upon us. "Great White" moved slowly up to the starting line, her prominent snout piercing the cold morning air. Her lifeless eyes, penetrable and empty, stare off into the distance. The finish line is like a drop of blood 90 miles away, and nothing can stop her. With teeth like razors and an appetite for destruction, she is poised and ready for yet another asphalt attack.
As the green flag drops, the roar of the mighty AMC 390 fills the quiet air, and we're off! This road has felt the wrath of the Great White Shark before. Graceful as a swan, she is a silent assassin. As we wind out the gears, you can almost hear the pavement screaming in pain like helpless prey with nowhere to hide, and before we knew it, we were at 150 mph and climbing.
It didn't take long before "Great White's" keen electrosensory system sniffed out her first unsuspecting victim. The lime green, 1971 440 Road Runner, which left the starting line a full 60 seconds before we did, could not tread water over 140 mph, and within the first ten miles was engulfed in the huge jaws of the shark. Such a tasty snack! We blew by him easily at 155 mph! At this point, the score is: AMC one, Chrysler: ZERO. Art and I couldn't help but laugh. The guy in the Road Runner was bragging all weekend about how great his car was, and how he could run at 6500 rpm all day long! Guess what? He didn't finish. Talk is cheap, isn't it?
At 20 miles out we encountered the ultimate sight! We passed the red Viper RT, who was in the 140 class, like he was standing still! And standing still he was as he watched his car burn to the ground in an enormous ball of flames and smoke. Luckily, the driver got out unharmed, but his sorry snake was a total loss! The driver said later that he felt the driveshaft let go at 130, and after hitting the fuel pump, ignited the car. Ain't that a shame! Let check the score, AMC: two, Chrysler: still zero. It was a proud day for AMC!
On we go. With the engine temp at 170 and the oil pressure at 65 psi, it's smooth sailing through the next 14 miles of straight-away. Art's navigational skills are becoming more polished with every mile. His job is definitely a lot of brainwork. As he checks the gauges, watches for flag stations, calculates time and distance traveled, he is still able to keep track of where we are at all times. It is this type of logistical magic and quick thinking that was directly responsible for helping to bring us to a safe and successful conclusion.
As we neared the end of the 14 mile straight-away, Art informed me that we had crossed the 45 mile mark in only 17 minutes, 35 seconds, averaging a speed of 156 mph! Not bad for a half-time score! Cruising the course at 130 mph is one thing, shredding the course at nearly 160 mph is a totally different accomplishment altogether!
At the 54 mile mark we hit an uphill off-camber, blind right hand curve and now the road becomes a major problem. Huge dips, rough pavement changes, and much tighter turns. Art and I both knew that from this point on, we could not afford even one mistake. This part of the road is does not feel pity or remorse, so any and all fear must be controlled. Keep focused. The "Washboard" is coming up at the 6 mile mark. Sure enough, around the next corner, we see it. A three mile roller-coaster ride of huge dips, one right after the other! The first one could launch you into the next time zone if you are not paying attention. Taking the "Washboard" at 150 + mph is, without a doubt, a religious experience! This year we would rely on the new suspension to help get us through. It worked flawlessly! No bottoming out, and solid as a rock, "Great White" glides through the turbulent waters of the washboard and brings us safely into the next turn.
What we saw around the next corner, was not to be believed. The 911, twin turbo Porsche, which was the lead car in our class and left the starting line a full TWO MINUTES before we did, was about to be ripped to shreds by the AMC boys in the "White Pointer". It only took a few seconds to figure out that he was only running at 130 mph. A dangerous situation was developing quickly, and I had to make some split second decisions. We had been traveling between 150 and 160 mph all this time and at this point had an average of 154 mph, and now I had no choice but to slow down to the Porsche's 130 mph sprint. I don't believe this! You've got to be kidding me! There isn't much time left before we hit the entrance to the narrow canyon. "I have to pass him!, But where?" Left turn, short straight. Right turn, left turn. "Come on, dude, move over!" This was getting serious. He had more than enough time and space to let us pass. It was like he was playing games with us or something. Art said that there was a very short half mile straight coming up, but that would be our last chance. If you were in my shoes at that second, you would understand the total frustration we felt. Being stuck behind this guy for four full miles was completely ruining our average. Risky, but daring, I took the opportunity. As soon as I had the chance, I hammered the throttle and blew his doors off! "See Ya!" We took the lead position in class and it felt GOOD! Let me tell ya!
Around the next bend brings us into the deadly "Narrows". A 2.5 mile serpentine adventure with 200 foot tall rock walls and NO guard rails! The safe posted speed limit is 45, we go in at a mind boggling 125 MPH! "Great White" begins to rip through the turns, literally "sawing" them in half. Equipped with the Gymkhana Suspension sway bar package, and our new suspension modifications, there was never a doubt! Without these improvements, we would have surely "bought the farm".
The last turn leading out of the narrows is not only a tight left hander, it also has a WICKED dip on the right hand side. If you hit this spot, you could flip the car over and kill yourself! You must set up for this turn much quicker than you would really want to. "Great White" would now exhibit a truly intrepid display of agility. At 130 mph, we did a nose dive into the turn with pin-point accuracy, and missed the dip! Driving 80 mph or less through the canyon doesn't promote a huge problem. At 125 plus, everything becomes deadly, especially this turn! Once again, we live to tell about it, and we can now smell the finish line. Only 16 miles to go!
The loss of speed in the canyon was a calculated part of our overall average equation. Getting stuck behind the Porsche was not. Every second counts out here and that four mile loss of time was a disappointing reality that we could not make up with the distance remaining. We were going after a 150 mph average, but sadly, we would not get it. At least not this year.
Art did a quick calculation and informed me that our average had now dropped to 138 mph. He said that we would have to get the shark up over 160 if we wanted to average in the 140s. We were now approaching the "Breezeway" which is by far the fastest part of the course. Art looks over at the speedo and sees that I'm only going 155 mph. He yells, "What are you doing, taking a nap? C'mon, stand on it man!" With my foot now to the floor, and the wind at our back, holding on until my fingers were blue, I felt the downhill momentum picking up quickly. We were now at just over 5700 rpm with the speedo well past the 160 mark and were clocked on radar exiting the breezeway at 170.02 mph! How's that for a head rush? This thrill would not last but a few seconds before the road headed uphill and into a left hand turn.
On the long uphill, speed decreased to 155 as we go into the last two turns. We exit the last left hand turn at 150, and into the two mile straight-away towards the finish line. As expected, we were now fighting a strong head-wind to try and cross the finish line at 160 mph or better. Gain seven mph, lose four. Gain seven mph, lose three. The struggle ended with us officially crossing the finish line on radar at 164.98 mph!
Average speed for the 90 mile run: 142.1508 mph! Elapsed time: 37 minutes, 8 seconds. Art's reaction time was accurate to within 1.2 seconds overall! I'm very impressed with his performance. "Great White" performed beautifully, never missing a beat. We have a lot to be proud of. We have a new top speed average at the Silver State Challenge, and we have the fastest speed ever recorded in a street licensed AMC car. My wife, Rhonda, still holds the record for the fastest AMC speed average for a lady driver, and, for what it's worth, in 1969 Craig Breedlove set a record at the Bonneville Salt Flats when he took a highly modified Javelin to a top speed of 161.733 mph. This mph record has never been broken, until now.