Photos courtesy of Hizer Racing Spirit
Every year, motor Gods willing and weather permitting, the crust of a salty soil crunches beneath rubber soles as hot rodders and speed racers from all over the world face the blazing alabaster reflection of the western Utah sun; so begins the annual adventures at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
The whir and roar of engines gaining momentum and rocketing across the vast white plains of the Bonneville Speedway looks like something straight out of motorhead heaven, and at least twice a year, speed enthusiasts gather at the flats – once in mid-August for Speed Week and once in mid-September for World of Speed. Since 1987, Rome-based team Hizer Racing Spirit has been determined to make it to one or the other.
It began with a goal. Jim Captain of Captain Tire and Auto Repair on Shorter Avenue recalls his good friend, Courtney Hizer, being intrigued by the land speed racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats since childhood. “He was gonna go to Bonneville and set records; that was his goal,” says Captain.
Courtney’s wife, Villa, says that he started reading about Bonneville when he was just 13 years old and built his first car, a 1939 Mercury with a modified 1951 Oldsmobile engine, when he was 15.
Through mutual friends in 1975, here in Rome, Jim met Courtney and found that they shared several common interests, including cars; so began their friendship in life and partnership in the play and repair of anything fast. At its start in ’87, the team was known as Hinton Performance, and Courtney was the foundation, the fuel, and the sole driver.
“If he set a goal, he would get there,” Captain says. “It wasn’t a question of if; it was a question of when. He wanted to build a motorcycle to win the World of Wheels (custom car show). He built a motorcycle and it won the World of Wheels. He wanted to go to Bonneville and set records. He went to Bonneville and set records.”
“He reached his goal of becoming a member of the prestigious 200 MPH Club on his first attempt,” Villa adds. “What a thrill to be by my husband’s side when he realized his dream.”
Roughly five years back, the team lost that driving force when Courtney passed away. They all knew that the last thing Courtney would have wanted was for them to stop racing. So in the name of redemption and remembrance, they renamed themselves in his honor and have been breaking records and racing hard ever since.
Today, the team includes Villa, Jim, Clint Captain, Paul Powell and Parker Merrill.
Although some of its members are on opposite sides of the U.S. (Powell in North Carolina and Merrill in California), the team comes together at least once a year in the interest of friendship, speed and celebration of their shared passion.
“When Courtney died, he wanted us to continue,” Jim says, “and Villa’s making it happen.”
Hizer Racing Spirit has held eight land speed records out at the Salt Flats, seven of which were set with five different engine combinations and Courtney behind the wheel. The team pushes onward to break more records, and each member gets a turn in the seat.
Stretching over 30,000 acres near the Utah-Nevada border, the Bonneville Salt Flats are considered fragile ground, a remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville. Worn by the elemental powers of wind and water, the flat silvery surface, set ablaze by the sun, extends as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the brown and blue of the distant mountains. Of the 30,000 acres, the Speedway itself only inhabits a western chunk, and since the early 1900s, all makes, models, and modified engines have sped the salty surface of this natural phenomenon.
With velocity at the Speedway reaching anywhere from the 100s to the 500 and 600 mph range, the vast expanse is perfect for building speed and breaking records.
“You get a mile to get started,” Jim explains, “and then you go through five miles of clocked time. It’s an average speed per mile; it’s not how fast you go out the back end.”
That first run is the “qualifying run.” If you qualify (you went faster than the record in that class), you’re put in impound with limited time to work on your car before your next race, the “record run.” The two attempts are averaged for speed, and the driver’s only opponent is the clock. From the rumble of take-off to the release of the parachute, a run only lasts a short matter of minutes.
Clubs and classes determine what standards and limitations there are, as well as which records to break next; and don’t worry, there are plenty of records to be shattered. “There are over 500 entrants out there, and probably a couple hundred classes, at least,” Jim explains.
Bonneville honors its racers’ accomplishments with induction into the 200, 300 and 400 MPH Clubs, which include some of the most famous names in motorsports.
“The team has built a smaller, two-liter Honda, four-cylinder engine, and modified the pedals for my height,” Villa explains. “The car is not a smooth ride like your daily car and it has an open cockpit. You must wear a fire suit, helmet and Hans device. It’s a very exhilarating and exciting experience, and I now hold a land speed record. ” (The Hans device is an apparatus worn over the shoulders and around the neck like a collar. Its purpose is to prevent head and neck injuries for drivers who race at high speeds.)
The team’s current goals are to elevate Villa and Jim into the 200 MPH Club, and to get their current car over 300 mph.
“The car is a ’59 Berkley, which is a little, two-seater, British sports car,” Jim explains. “We picked this car because of its size; it’s only four feet wide.”
Being that their racing class is considered a modified sport, Jim says that they are required to maintain the original body of the car from the windshield back. “But from there forward, you can extend and change it,” he smiles. The car is now a sleek, deep-emerald green. Sixteen feet long and two feet high, the driver lays in the seat, “down river” so to speak, with feet extending out in front.
“We’re running against big cars, like Corvettes,” Jim says, “but we have a little, bitty car.”
Before the Berkley, the team sported a Buick LeSabre, with which they reached 275 mph. Jim laughs as he says that it was the fastest Buick in the world at one time.
Before you can “shoot the salt,” you must be ready, and preparing for Bonneville is a process that continues all year long. “Every year, the car and equipment must be cleaned of the corrosive salt, and the engine rebuilt,” explains Villa. “We have a checklist of all we need to take with us. If something breaks, you have to have the parts and machinery to fix it.”
The cars and all equipment must be approved. Upon arrival, they go through a very thorough inspection that includes everything from the safety and clothing, to the fire system, to the body of the car. If discrepancies are found, they must be amended and the car must go back through inspection.
Villa expresses her respect and gratitude for their engine builder and teammate, Powell. “He has made this all possible,” she says. “His admiration for Courtney and appreciation for what Courtney taught him on and off the track, plus his extraordinary engineering skills, have continued to make Hizer Racing Spirit team well respected by all at Bonneville.”
Although the drivers and teams are out at the flats to break records, it is never about breaking morale.
There are no secrets, no stink-eyed competitors and no money tied up in gambling hands. “The only thing this is good for, for money, is to spend it,” Jim grins.
“What Bonneville is,” he adds, “is a place where you go as fast as you can possibly go … in anything you can imagine. There are people that drive pickup trucks, cars, sports cars and semi-trucks. It’s not a competition. Everybody helps everybody, and everybody is nice.”
Villa echoes that sentiment. “The love of driving all different models of cars very fast is the fascination,” she says. “It’s a great group of car addicts enjoying the challenges of engineering and ‘salt gremlins’.”
And amongst all the hot rods, motorcycles, roadsters, and belly tankers, the guys and gal of Hizer Racing have been doing this just as long as anybody out there.
Since ’87, the team has only missed three years of Bonneville racing. Transmission problems kept them from hitting the Speedway last year, and when the opportunity to race in September rolled around, the rain ruined the chance.
When the stars align and everything is ready, Hizer Racing Spirit will return to Bonneville for reasons beyond records. They return to a place where a land speed raceway need not be paved by the hands of man; a place where a common goal is shared and met with camaraderie and support; a place where the memory of a friend and husband is preserved in the glistening grains of its salty soil, the rolling sounds of revving engines, and the crisp blue of a western sky.