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Faster than ever: An all-Montana team, with Missoula's Rex Svoboda as the chief mechanic, recently set a new world land speed record in their classification
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Faster than ever: An all-Montana team, with Missoula's Rex Svoboda as the chief mechanic, recently set a new world land speed record in their classification

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Faster than ever: An all-Montana team, with Missoula's Rex Svoboda as the chief mechanic, recently set a new world land speed record in their classification
Missoula's Rex Svoboda is the chief (and often only) mechanic on the streamliner car that recently set the world land speed record for piston-powered wheel-driven vehicles. The team set the record at 417 miles per hour.
KURT WILSON/Missoulian

From five miles away you can hear the thunderous roar of the car's twin Donovan aluminum hemi racing engines that crank out 4,000 horsepower.

Within seconds, a cloud of dust appears on the shimmering white horizon of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

In a video taken by Missoula's Rex Svoboda, the missile-like shape of the bright orange and white car snaps into focus in the center of the screen, as the rugged peaks in the distant background whiz past in a shaky blur.

The car blasts across the desert floor and flashes through a measured mile course in 8.2 seconds.

The remarkably short scene recorded by Svoboda documented a new world land speed record for piston-powered, wheel-driven vehicles. The feat was accomplished on Oct. 16 by an all-Montana team.

The speed: an incredible 417.020 miles per hour for a two-way average in the "flying mile," in which the car - called a streamliner in the sport - was at top speed all the way.

The record, while technically unofficial, according to Svoboda, is recognized by Bonneville Nationals Inc. (BNI), a company that sanctions land speed racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Officially, according to Svoboda, a mechanic for the Montana crew that set the record, world land speed records are compiled by a French organization that times vehicles over a measured kilometer.

"That record is about 409 miles an hour," said Svoboda, a Missoula heavy equipment mechanic by trade. "So we eclipsed that."

The Montana crew's record runs were timed by the Southern California Timing Association, which has timed world land speed record attempts at Bonneville since 1950, Svoboda says. The previous BNI world land speed record was 413.156, set by the late Nolan White of San Diego in 2001. White was killed later that year trying to raise his record, according to Svoboda.

The absolute world land speed record was established by a British team in a jet-powered vehicle in the Nevada desert in 1997 at a supersonic 766.109 mph.

Racing for land speed records at Bonneville is divided into numerous classifications for different kinds of vehicles - motorcycles, trucks, vintage cars, sports cars, and many more.

"This is the ultimate - the unlimited piston-engine class," said Svoboda, "which we in the land speed record business call THE record."

Setting the world record on Oct. 16 was the culmination of two decades of work by the Burkland family of Great Falls. The car, or streamliner, is owned by Gene and Betty Burkland and their son, Tom Burkland of Ogden, Utah, who designed the car and drove it to the record.

The Burklands began construction of the car - designated No. 411 - in 1985 or 1986, according to Svoboda. It made its first run on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1996. The car made 13 runs in its developmental stage, he said, and achieved a top speed of 450 mph in 2000.

"But the parachutes (used to slow the vehicle) failed," Svoboda said, "and the car went shooting off into the mud flats and got stuck. That's a big deal when you get stuck out there. The car's always gone fast. It just didn't stop very well."

In 2001, he said, rear "air-brake doors" that flip open like an airplane's flaps were installed on the car to help remedy that situation.

But, in exiting the race course after a trial run, Svoboda said, the car hit a 55-gallon drum submerged in the salt, "kicked sideways and rolled, and destroyed itself at about 160 miles an hour. Tom broke his arm, but was not seriously hurt, due to the fact that the car is extremely well built."

Svoboda, who has built his own race cars for both the salt flats and road tracks, and has driven his own car over 200 mph at Bonneville, was introduced to Gene and Betty Burkland shortly after the wreck by the late Herb Ferguson of Frenchtown.

"Herb was on the pit crew," said Svoboda. "He was an old land speed racer from way back."

Ferguson died last September. But his son, Herb Ferguson Jr. of Columbia Falls, is still a member of the Burkland race team.

From 2001 to August of this year, Svoboda helped rebuild No. 411 from the ground up after it crashed, he said.

"I did a lot of work on the parachute system," he said. "We made a lot of improvements. You cover a mile in 8.2 seconds. So if you reach your hand off the steering wheel to activate the parachutes, you've gone almost a mile. So we put switches in it to activate the parachutes faster."

"It was a lot of work on the total rebuild of the car," Svoboda added. "At least 11,000 man hours were spent on building the car originally. On the rebuild, there must have been at least 6,000 man hours."

The Burkland Streamliner 411 is 23 feet long, 33 inches wide, 39 inches tall, and with all-steel construction, weighs 5,200 pounds fully loaded with driver and fuel, Svoboda said. Its two V-8 Donovan racing engines are supercharged and burn methanol alcohol to produce a combined 4,000 horsepower.

All the work on the car was donated by friends of the Burklands around the state, according to Svoboda. About seven core crew members worked to rebuild the car, he said, and another half-dozen volunteers helped out with the record runs at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

"To me, that's the neat part of this story," said Svoboda. "All the people came together and put in all this work for no other reason than to get this record. All you get is a trophy and your name in the record books. I think it's a testament to the Montana spirit."

Besides Svoboda and the younger Ferguson, Bill York of Missoula, a veteran drag racer, is also on the team.

Gene Burkland, he added, is a retired welder.

"They're not rich," Svoboda said of the Burklands. "Every penny they ever made was put into this car."

Tom Burkland, who works for an engineering company in Utah, "is a brilliant, brilliant guy," Svoboda said. "He's done a lot of work for the Air Force."

Her son Tom, who received an engineering degree from Montana State University in Bozeman, was in charge of the Air Force's F-16 fighter program at Hill Field in Ogden, Utah, for several years, said Betty Burkland.

After his record-breaking runs on Oct. 16, Tom Burkland told the Great Falls Tribune, "The hardest part was the (wheel) slippage on the salt, which would be about like trying to accelerate at 115 or so on the ice on a Montana road. As the car goes faster, the traction gets better because the aerodynamics download it."

World land speed racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats is an exciting spectator event, according to Svoboda. A $20 pit pass gets spectators into the front row of action with the cars, drivers and crews during the three annual, five-day BNI race meets at Bonneville, he said.

"You can go talk to anybody about their cars," Svoboda said. "They'll answer questions and tell you about anything they're doing, from the newest guys to the oldest, fastest people there. They're the friendliest, most open people. And it's a great experience."

The Burklands aren't settling for the current record, Svoboda said.

"The car is going as fast as traction on the salt will allow it to go," he said. "There's plenty of horsepower to make it go faster. So we have to wait for a drier track. The weather will dictate what we do. There will be another record assault."

After the Montana team celebrated its record, Svoboda said, the members observed a moment of silence in honor of Herb Ferguson Sr.

"Herb was involved from the beginning," Svoboda said. "After we set the record, we had a moment of silence for Herb, because he's quite a well-known guy in the land speed racing community."

"You ask yourself, 'Why do this?' " he added. "But then you go down there and set a record, and you go 'OK, it all makes sense now.' "

Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at dgadbow@missoulian.com.

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