There is an odd transformation that happens when you drive out through the Mojave (mo-HAH-vee) Desert in Southern California, through communities such as Palmdale, Adelanto, and Phelen, over rough two-lane roads that seem to stretch out to nowhere. For some, the trek they make each year will transport them back in to a place that hasn't changed much in the last 100 years.
The names of the dry lakes in this territory--Rosamond, Harpers, El Mirage, and Muroc--are not just the locations of where early hot rodders raced the clock (and each other), they are the original spots from which hot rodding was born. Suffice it to say that if you have a hot rod in your garage, or ever dreamt of having one, it's due to the efforts of the racers who organized speed trials and ran at the lakes more than eight decades ago.
El Mirage came into its own after the U.S. Government kicked the racers off the ultra-flat and popular Muroc dry lake (renaming in Rogers Lake and converting it to Edwards Air Force Base) as the country entered World War II. But since the early '20s, various lakes in the area had been used for racing by the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), which was formed in 1938 from the singular vision of various car clubs of the time to have a safe place to race their hopped up rods and jalopies. After the war ended in 1946 they picked El Mirage as their meeting place and have been holding several meets there a year ever since.
The dry lake today is, of course, much like it's been for a thousand years, though a fence installed around its perimeter a few years back keeps off-roaders from thrashing its surface and a recently paved blacktop road leading to its eastern edge funnels dirt bike enthuisasts onto the four-mile-long facility while the SCTA holds court on the west end.
The SCTA holds a two-day meet at the beginning and end of each season, with four one-day events between. Many of the members of the 12 individual clubs that make up the SCTA also attend events organized by the Bonneville Nationals Incorporated (BNI), who hold their meets (Speed Week and the World Finals) at the Bonneville salt flats outside Salt Lake City, Utah in August and November. Both sites have had a long and stored past.
Back in the early days of lakes racing, participants would drive five abreast across the desert floor racing not only each other but against the clock. Nowadays only one racecar is on the course at any given time. Safety, for both driver and spectator is of the highest importance, so each car is required to undergo inspection before they can be allowed to race. That done, they line up behind the start line in staging lanes that are determined by their potential top speed. A rookie line is the one that is nearest the announcer's stand, only three feet from the spectator's who are pressed up against a fence and leaning in to get a better view of the cars when they leave the line. The far outside lanes is for vehicles who intend to exceed 200 mph, and the other two lanes are for the under-200 crowd (one for even-numbered entries and the other for odd-numbered).
Some racecars are geared so they can leave the line under their own power, but many others utilize a push truck to propel them down the first few hundred feet until the racecar's gearing allows them to pull away and run the course. Two lines of small orange plastic cones stretch out easterly towards a small mountain and its reflection in the rising heat of the desert floor (hence the "mirage" part of the lake bed's name). It doesn't matter how fast racers leave the starting line though, just so they are running at top speed when they hit the timing traps over a mile away. The SCTA doesn't calculate elapsed time, just speed, so the last 132 feet of the 1.3-mile course is where the timing happens. The drivers then get a little more than a mile to come to a stop.
By keeping records from the dozens of various classes of competition, the SCTA will then hand the driver a timing slip telling them how they did after each run. The run, which is recorded down to the thousanth of a mile per hour, is compared to the record in that class to see if it has been beaten. If it has, the driver and car then go to an impound area for inspection to make sure everything about the car is correct for the class it is running in. If a record isn't broken, then the driver and car can return to the staging lanes for another run.
But not all record holders are the same. Looking around in the pits and staging lanes, you're struck by the sight of El Mirage 200 MPH Club shirts and hats, and let it be known these items can not be bought, but rather earned. The El Mirage 200 MPH Club (some call it the "Dirty 2 Club") was formed for those racers who not only exceeded 200 mph, but also set a record at the same time. You can't gain entry into the club if you only run 245 mph on a 246 mph record, so you just have to figure out how to get another couple of miles per hour out of your racer on your next run.
But you don't have to set a record or go 250 mph to have fun at the lakes. There currently is an open record (a minimum speed to beat) of only 90 mph in the unblown Gas Coupe division, but it has to be done with a "J" class engine (31 through 45 cubic inches!). We're not sure if you would want to brag at night's end in a bar that you have the J/GC world record, but it's nice to know your name would show up in next year's official SCTA rules and record book!
There are 12 individual engine classes (from the "K" class at under 30 cubic inches up to the "AA" class at over 501 cid) and roughly 20 or so body classes, with most being able to be run on either gas or fuel. The SCTA rule book also explains each class, what the current record is (and there are different records for those set at Bonneville rather than at El Mirage), and the equipment needed to compete at each level. Runs are made all day long (this particular meet saw every on of the 140 entries get four passes on the course), and you can race until you either break something on the car or you set a record.
It can be argued that dry lakes racing is the last bastion of racing for independent people. Though some sponsorships exist, they are not of the multi-million-dollar kind that has taken the common man out of other forms of racing such as NASCAR, Indy, or the NHRA-type drags. When you arrive at an SCTA meet, you first avoid crossing onto the course, then park your car in the pits and wander around and walk right up to a car that is being worked on or being prepped for a run. If you stand their long enough someone might ask for some help lifting a hood or body section onto a car (could you ever see that happening at the Winternationals?). You are free to view anything and everything, talk with the racers, stand next to the starting line, and generally take in the whole dusty experience.
Racing at the dry lakes is racing in its purist form. Participants fight only the clock, not each other. It's a simple, unaltered formula that has stood the test of time, and all of it for a small brass timing tag that gets screwed to the glovebox door or dash of your racecar that states who you are, what you drove, and how fast you were able to travel across a dry lake bed on that particular summer day.
With the rest of El Mirage...
With the rest of El Mirage Dry lake stretching out before him, a racer gets the signal from SCTA Chief Starter Jim Jenson to head down the course.
The Vintage Hot Rod entry...
The Vintage Hot Rod entry with Donny Cummings at the wheel takes off on what would be a record run at the lakes. The car, running in the Blown / Street Roadster division in the "D" engine class (between 261 and 305 cubic inches) hit the traps at 192.673 mph on a record of 186.861.
The Rice / Vigeant Racing...
The Rice / Vigeant Racing entry (and members of the Gear Grinders club) hits the dirt in the H/Gas Lakester glass with an engine size between 62 and 92 cubes, but still managed a 160.318 mph run. They were trying to beat their own record, which they set in 2003, of 178.297 mph.
There are even a few female...
There are even a few female drivers racing at the lakes, including Carolyn Sager, who drove the Martin/Morgan/Envart entry in the "G" engine class (for engines between 93 and 122 cubes) unblown Gas Lakester division against a 170.512 mph record set in 2003.
The BMR racing team (part...
The BMR racing team (part of the Milers club) put down a respectable 189.372 mph run on a 201.894 record in the Gs Roadster class with a "D" 261-305 cid engine.
SCTA starter Wes Hutchins...
SCTA starter Wes Hutchins checks the safety belts in Robie Faulkner's Vintage Oval Track class entry. Robie ran 113.903 mph on a 151.617 record with his Ardun-powered Flathead engine.
Speaking of a time warp! How...
Speaking of a time warp! How great is it to see a vintage-looking belly tank making a run on the dry lakes? Bobby Green's Blown Gas Lakester competed in the V4 engine class for vintage pre-1935 American four-bangers. He ran 106.028 mph--a bit more than the 104.775 he ran at last November's meet.
Innovation has always been...
Innovation has always been the hallmark of dry lakes racing, and you can truly find anything and everything at El Mirage. This beasty sits behind the cab of the Salt Toy entry in the Modified Diesel Truck division. The team almost got a record this weekend--they ran a 159.067 on a 160.023 mph record!