Typically, one enters a hall of fame after accomplishing their greatest feats, not before. Rick Vesco and his team, however, were more than happy to accept honors from the Dry Lakes Racing Hall of Fame earlier this month before getting back to their plans to push the world land-speed record for wheel-driven cars to north of 500 mph later this year.
“It’s been a real long learning curve, but it looks like we’re finally there,” Rick said.
If all had gone to plan, Rick and the Turbinator II team, both based out of Rockville, Utah, would have gotten there already. Last year proved to be the team’s best, with Dave Spangler driving the streamliner to a Class T3 record of 482.646 mph at the World of Speed event in September before pushing the car to 503.332 mph in a one-way run at the Southern California Timing Association’s World Finals in October.
However, with the car in impound waiting for a chance to make a backup pass that would then earn it another record, rain brought an end to the World Finals and to the 2018 land-speed racing season at Bonneville. Vesco and his team would have to be content with knowing theirs was the first wheel-driven vehicle to surpass 500 mph.
While Rick’s father started going to Bonneville in 1949, his brother Don debuted the original Turbinator streamliner in 2001 with the intent of capturing the wheel-driven land-speed record — not an official class but the “holy grail of land-speed racing” nevertheless, according to Rick. While most other competitors chase that record with a gang of reciprocating engines, Don decided to take a 4,400-hp Lycoming T55 turboshaft engine from a Chinook helicopter and use the same output shaft that once drove the helicopter’s blades to power the wheels — no jet thrust involved.
The first time out, Don set a record of 458.440 mph. More importantly, he saw the potential for the setup to eclipse 500 mph, Rick said. A year later, though, Don died of cancer, leaving it to Rick to see his brother’s dream become a reality. So, in 2013, he revived the Turbinator, pumped up the horsepower to 5,000, installed a custom 2:1 reduction gear unit to drive all four wheels, hired Spangler to shoe the streamliner, and renamed it Turbinator II.
To make not just one, but two back-to-back 500-plus-mph runs this year, Rick’s engine builder has tweaked the turboshaft engine to an estimated 5,200 horsepower by changing the location of the fuel injector nozzles and air intake. “As a helicopter engine, it wasn’t designed to take advantage of the ram air effect, so modifying the inlet alone gets us another 150, 175 horsepower,” he said. “Doing that also helps keep our exhaust gas temperature down to where the engine will live; we were really on the razor’s edge with EGT before.”
The Turbinator II will also need good traction, something Rick hopes new Mickey Thompson tires and an advanced satellite-based traction control system will help with. However, he’ll ultimately be at the mercy of the condition of the salt this year; last year’s salt, though thin, was hard enough to lay rubber on, Rick said. In fact, it provided enough traction that Spangler could set the record and reach 500 mph on a rather short 5-mile course. “What we’ll get for salt this year, we hardly know,” Rick said.
Amid the preparations, Rick Vesco and Spangler found the time to attend the Dry Lakes Racing Hall of Fame ceremony on May 4 at the Mendenhall Museum in Buellton, California. In addition to the Turbinator, this year’s hall of fame class included Danny Thompson’s Challenger 2 streamliner, another record-breaker with a similar story of familial redemption on the salt; the Gyronaut X-1 motorcycle streamliner; and honors for the Burkland family, the Kugel family, Pat Ganahl, and Danny Sakai, among others.
While this is the first hall of fame nod for the Turbinator, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America inducted Don Vesco in 2004.
As for Rick’s plans for the Turbinator II beyond setting the 500-mph record, he said he may consider going after an FIA record, but he also wants to keep the whole venture safe. “When you’re going that fast, it gets pretty dangerous,” he said. “The longer you go, the less the odds are in your favor.”