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1997 Silver State Challenge - "If there is a faster gun in town, step out in the street at high noon and draw!"
By Tony Zamisch
Tony and Rhonda Zamisch hold the Land Speed Record in an AMC car. This 1970 AMC Javelin was clocked on radar at 192mph during the 1997 Silver State Classic Challenge. The car hit 216mph during 1998 winter tests. This Javelin's top speed has yet to be determined.
1999 Update: Greetings AMC Fans, We did finish the May 1999 Silver State race with a very conservative 158 mph average, 191 top speed and no car problems. The official finish line radar was 186 mph with a serious head-wind. Due to condition of the road, Rhonda and I decided to not attempt another record. After much discussion, we had considered dropping down to the 155 mph class, but the grid was set and we thought that if we did drop down and the road turned out to be OK, that there would be no margin for a higher average. She drove in the 165 MPH class (cleared for unlimited speed) with an experienced head on her shoulders and we are once again alive to tell about it.
On a sad note, there was an unfortunate incident with a black Pantera that came across the finish line in a ball of flames! Owner, driver and good friend Dennis Antenucci managed to save his own life, but had to stand there and watch his beautiful black Pantera burn to the ground. A miserable loss. Thanks again to everyone for your encouragement and prayers. For the record, Rhonda is the fastest lady driver in AMC automotive history. (previously held by Lee Breedlove, Craig's Wife) and "Great White" is the oldest and fastest American made car (powered by its own marque) of ANY American auto manufacturer to EVER race the Silver State Challenge. This is a milestone that we are very proud of. We'll be back. Stay tuned!
Please take a few minutes to check out my 1970 Javelin known as the "Defender". It has a 671 Supercharged 401 with nitrous and a 5-speed manual trans. This car has been a "Drag" style car for most of its life, but now has been converted to road race. More news later.
The following articles covering past Silver State Classic Challenge races are from the AMC World Clubs' newsletter the "AM-Xtra".
The Nevada Open Road Challenge 1997 "On The Ragged Edge Of Insanity"
By Tony Zamisch and Larry Mitchell
"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again because there is no effort without error and short-comings, who knows the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the high achievement of triumph and who at worst, if he fails while daring greatly, knows his place shall never be with those timid and cold souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
Theodore Roosevelt 26th U.S. President.
This is a story from the arena. A tale of careful calculation, precise preparation and human daring far beyond what the average person even dreams of. It is a contest of a man and his machine--against all odds. A car, a driver and an open stretch of Nevada two-lane highway where fantasy becomes reality
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.
'Speed'. The dictionary definition is: "swiftness of motion; rate of acceleration; velocity; to move rapidly beyond the legal speed limit". A frightening thought for most people, exhilarating for others. But the bottom line is, few people will ever know the ultimate true meaning of the word itself. The Nevada Open Road Challenge is an amateur automotive event that defines the word "speed". It is the substance of the word. The only race of its kind in North America. Closely sanctioned by The American lndycar Series, it is a timed, wide-open throttle, super high speed, long distance, open road race. Freedom of the open road like nothing else. Ninety miles of unpredictable desert two-lane blacktop. An eerie road where time is both frozen and accelerated as one passes through.
Only eight racers in the entire world have ever attempted it driving American Motors cars since the first race was held in 1987. Made underdogs if by nothing else other than the brand of car they drive.
For the May, 1997 race there were three AMC cars out of 104 entries. Not a huge percentage, but every time AMC racers show up, they all stand tall and proud, waving the flag of a long dead car company as hard as they can. For themselves, their world wide hobby, and their "cause". The ghost of American Motors was once again represented by three of the living who were prepared for battle to win respect and honor for a name fast fading from the present.
This is the story of Tony Zamisch, one of those AMC gladiators:
As most of you know, my wife and I have been racing a 1970 Mark Donohue Javelin that we had painted up three years ago to look like a shark. We affectionately refer to the car as "Great White". Mean, nasty and always a bit mysterious, the title is perfectly fitting. The car has seen a lot of changes over the last five years of racing at this event, and we sure have learned a lot about what it takes to live through the good times and the bad. There have been some really scary moments out there on that thin ribbon of desert highway, and we try hard every race to minimize the casualty factor. Death is an annoying possibility at any speed on Nevada 318, the Grim Reaper is around every corner ready and waiting to take your life if you are lax. But high speeds with modified production vehicles 25 years old in the hands of amateur racers can be a recipe for flaming disaster. It has proven to be so in the past as three drivers have lost their lives.
After the unfortunate mechanical break-down of our racer Javelin in the September, 1996 Silver State Challenge, I knew I had to take a long hard look at our situation and make some key decisions. In my opinion, a challenge is simply being faced with a great opportunity brilliantly disguised as an irresolvable problem. Do I stay with the engine supercharger that failed, or try something different? The blower made a ton of power, but durability proved a weak point. At least we tried something no other AMC racer has tried. Maybe this time we needed a more direct, less complicated approach. The word NASCAR entered my mind. American V-8s with lots of horsepower and torque made the simple way - the right racing parts, scientific blueprinting and thorough dyno testing. A well built AMC 390 engine with a single four barrel performance carb might be the answer. It was a question if the engine could be made to produce the required 600 hp, but a gamble that had to be a calculated risk.
Unlike Ford, GM and Chrysler, no one has tried to build the ultimate American Motors V-8 for serious, all-out endurance racing since Roger Penske Racing fielded the AMC Matador in NASCAR racing over 20 years ago. Experience was going to be a premium not easily found in the 1990's.
In checking around, I found ESI, (Engine Systems, Inc.) in San Diego. They build nothing but NASCAR, Super Truck, Winston Cup, and Busch Grand National engines for some of the big names in racing. I contacted the owner with the question of building my 1970 AMC 390 and as soon as he said, "Oh, yeah, I owned and raced an American Motors AMX twenty years ago!", I knew I had hit the mother load of knowledge and skill I needed. But I also knew this was going to be a very expensive venture. With generous support from our national and local sponsors, as well as AMC World Club club members worldwide, we were able to go forward financially.
Through state-of-the-art computer technology, and the skilled hands of those involved, ESI built us what has to be one of the most Wicked, "Super-Flow", dyno-proven AMC engines ever assembled. I could spend a month covering the depth of what was done, but I won't. Let's just say that it gave us a whole new level of AMC power and the confidence it would stay together. Since the whole project was mostly new research and development, the best way to predict the future is to invent it today.
A lot of preparation went into this run to make it a successful one, and the only place you'll find "success" before "work" is in the dictionary. Extensive engine and chassis dyno testing and tuning was necessary to maximize the new engine's horsepower and torque, and get it to the ground where it was useful. As soon as we knew what the top speed potential of the car was from dynamometer and computer estimations, we entered the May Nevada race in the highest "targeted" speed bracket, the 165 mph Class. You have to be cooking at 180 to 185 mph for at least 75% of the ninety-mile course to average 165. Not an easy task. The race officials saw fit to place us in pole position, and for the second year in a row, we had the distinct privilege of being the first car off the line to start the 1997) Nevada Open Road Challenge. Last year we suffered the discomfort of being the first racecar out of the chute and the first car to suffer mechanical failure and be out of the race. This year, we had the confidence we would see the finish line before anyone else. Cars start at one minute intervals and if you can catch a car ahead of you, you can pass. We felt all who were behind us would never see anything but our taillights on the horizon.
Once again, I had my friend, Art Gladue, Jr. as my trusted navigator. We hoped the car would hit at least 180 mph, but did not know how the car would feel or react if we did get to that incredible speed on a two-lane public highway. After all, the Javelin is basically a 27 year-old, modified AMC production car. It is not a scratch-built, pure-bred racer. We were both very concerned, yet tingled with anticipation.
As we sat in the car on the starting line, waiting for the green flag to drop, I looked over at Art and said, "Do you realize that we are about to find out what it's like to go three times the legal speed limit?" He said, "Yeah, but all I want to know is whether or not there are fresh tissues in that factory tissue dispenser you have in here. I think I might need a few by the time we cross the finish line!" Kidding aside, we were as mentally and physically prepared as we were going to get. We both had a lot to lose. We knew the risk was great. We were either going to make history, or die trying, and we agreed to it. We felt like Thelma and Louise counterparts, though we had no desire to go over a cliff. We knew we could not afford to make even one small mistake.
As the green flag dropped, so did the accelerator and we were on our way. Wanting to get a good feel of the car at 170 mph before going to 180 was Level One in the plan. Within the first two miles, we were at 170 mph. The car felt solid, the engine's vital signs were A-OK, we were both still breathing - time for Level Two. A slight push more on the throttle and by the fourth mile marker, we were covering three miles per minute at a speed of 180 mph. A quarter of a mile every 5 seconds! The acceleration was tremendous. Art yelled, "Is it floored?" To my amazement- it wasn't! I yelled back over the roar, "Ahh, no?" as if to question why. "Great White's" top speed potential was higher than I ever thought it was going to be, and it became evident right away that the real challenge was going to be keeping her at a "safe" mph and not lose control.
As we rocketed down that highway, I thought about mechanical failure. Last year the strength of the five speed transmission was a question. I relaxed some knowing I had an ultra-trick Borg Warner T-10 four-speed built to withstand the 600 plus, dyno-proven horsepower the AMC 390 put out that was now propelling us to ground level warp speed. It was all time and money well spent on safety.
At the forty-five mile mark, I asked my navigator Art for average speed and elapsed time. Art said, "Man, we are way ahead of schedule! We needed to go the first forty-five miles in 16 minutes, 21.6 seconds to average our target speed of 165 mph. What we did was to cover forty-five miles in 15 minutes, 6 seconds, and are averaging a mind boggling 178.6 mph!" The Beach Boy's song of, "If she had a set of wings man, I know she could fly" flashed through my mind.
At fifty-one miles out, the real fun began! This is the part of the course that we refer to as "AREA 51". The dips in the road surface are so bad that they could turn you and the car into an unidentified flying object if you blink too many times! No more "smooth sailing". The next twenty miles will be a life or death struggle. Art and I agreed in advance that if we wanted to play it safe, we would reduce the speed in these bad areas. We did, but not by much.
As the turns got tighter, and the dips got deeper, we were realizing our mortality in a more spiritual way. Kind of like an "out-of-body" experience. Reality had became fantasy from the super-high level of concentration to control the car. My hands were becoming numb from holding the wheel so tightly to stay in the center of the road. I could hear Art's heart pounding from clear over here in the driver's seat. Sweat is pouring down the side of my face inside my helmet from apprehension and my eyes are burning from the intense focus of tunnel vision.
At sixty-two miles out, and at over 170 mph, we entered the "Washboard", a three mile stretch of serious up and down "whoop-dee-doos". Two years ago, we came through here at 160 mph. That was scary enough. This time at 175 mph, we experienced the ultimate roller coaster ride. By the time we hit the second dip, "Great White" was completely up off the pavement and we were now literally riding the wings of destiny. As the force of gravity started to take over, she slammed down so hard I thought the asphalt would come up through the floor in a meteoric shower of sparks. Backing out of the throttle to try and control the car is a big mistake under these conditions, and one definitely does not want to touch the brakes and unbalance the car. Fearing the worst, but staying focused, we held on and silently prayed for a miracle. Through the last dip and into a right-hand turn, we knew we were past the rough spots. The honest fear of having an uncontrollable crash and burn was soon replaced with a flush of warm blood coming back to brains in desperate need of oxygen. The worst is now behind us. Or is it? The dangerous canyons called the "Narrows" are just ahead.
Seventy miles from the now distant starting line, we enter the first narrow canyon at a speed faster than we ever have in years before. Using caution, and keeping the speed at 130 mph, we glide though each turn as solid as a locomotive on banked rails. The posted highway signs recommend a maximum of 30 mph in the tight, high-wall canyon turns. We are streaking through corners at 100 miles an hour faster than that, but the Javelin feels stable. Use of both lanes during this race is the norm and one can only trust that no White Freightliner has gotten on the course by accident and is coming at you from around the blind corners. There is no sense in taking any unnecessary chances though this three mile area, so we don't. We were averaging 172 mph when we entered the canyon, and by the time we get back out on the flats, our average was down to 164 mph. Every second is critical, and the remaining 17 miles to the finish line must be taken as fast, but as careful as possible to try and make up the time lost in the "Narrows".
The last turn out of the canyon brings us into the "Breezeway". A 2.5 mile downhill straightaway with the wind at your back and as smooth as glass. This is the only area that will allow you to accelerate faster than you would normally be able to anywhere else on the course. As expected, we are gaining speed at a phenomenal rate and were clocked on radar at 192 mph! And the pedal was never fully floored.
The next right-hand turn brings us back to a "comfortable" speed of 180 mph as we re-engage "auto-pilot" for another ten miles. My wife Rhonda, and our good friend and "Crew Chief" Kevin Muckleroy were working the checkpoint at Mile 76, and as we passed by them at 180 mph we know we're almost "home". The last three turns on the course are fairly tight and must be taken with caution. 170 mph is our speed of choice. and as we exit the last left-hand turn, we are in the four mile straight towards the finish line. As we bring the speed back up to 180 or so, a slight head wind is encountered. Still, we crossed the finish line on radar at 181.6 mph! Elapsed time: 32 minutes, 21 seconds. Average speed for the ninety miles: 167 MPH. Top speed on radar: 192 mph.
Art's calculated, in-car time was accurate to within six tenths of one second over the ninety mile road course! A record in itself. As the driver, I am extremely impressed!
Only seven drivers of all makes of cars have ever averaged over 165 mph in the ten years of this event, and we now make it eight, putting an AMC car into the All-time, Top 10! We even put a six minute gap between us and the Callaway Corvette that left the line sixty seconds after we did! So much for the "Heartbeat of America", Huh? We also caught and passed the low flying, official chase airplane 82 miles from the start line!
Just for the record, we have now driven an AMC powered, AMC car, faster than anyone in automotive history. The fastest recorded AMC top speed was set by Craig Breedlove in 1968 at Bonneville, at 189 mph in a 68 AMX with a supercharged 390 V-8. We did 192 mph without a blower. He did that speed in a full-race, production car on a professional offroad course. We went faster with a street legal, stock-bodied production car. On street tires, through the mufflers and wearing a license plate.
We take nothing away from the achievements of the past, but must resign them to the past. After living through this incredible mixture of fantasy and reality, it is obvious to me now that "Great White" was, and is in fact, capable of better than 200 mph on the "street" or a track. Maybe yet another goal to accomplish.
The reward of a feat well done is to have done it and not just dreamed about it. We take pride in this new modern-day AMC accomplishment. For our hobby, its people, and "the cause" of underdogs everywhere. It was important and needed to keep our AMC flag flying high in light of our company being departed from the American automotive scene. This was a day in the sun for American Motors. Three AMCs entered, and all three finished in fine AMC style. The combined AMC Racing effort consisted of our Javelin, Jim Weyand in his 1969 AMX that ran a 139 mph average and Dan Bruerton in his 1969 AMX that ran a 128 mph average. No Mopar, Chevy or Ford could touch us. Only one Unlimited Corvette was faster. Some folks would disagree, but for those who believe in American Motors, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in AMC, no amount of explanation is possible. It was the ragged edge of insanity. But that is what all automobile racing is about.