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A child’s pedal car and pursuing land speed records wouldn’t appear to have much in common. But it was a child’s toy that was the impetus for General Motors’ involvement in running at the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats.
Bonneville has been the playground for speed freaks for more than a half-century, but the folks at General Motors just discovered last year this horsepower mecca located on a stretch of God-forsaken terrain on the Utah-Nevada border. This past October GM engineer Jim Minneker strapped himself into a Saturn Ion Red Line coupe and blasted down the salt at 212.684 mph, setting a record in the G/Blown Fuel Altered class. That’s right, a Saturn.
Minneker’s run—and GM’s appearance at Bonneville—was to prove the capabilities of GM’s four-cylinder Ecotec engines and to help launch the Ion Red Line.
"We really wanted to build some credibility with our Ecotec engines," said Mark Reuss, GM Performance executive director. "We wanted to build some grassroots awareness and, along with our front-wheel-drive drag program, we thought Bonneville would be a good place to do that."The Chevrolet Cobalt SS Bonneville speedster gets a push off the starting line on its way to more than 240 mph.
Having never had a factory presence at Bonneville and rather than roll onto the salt flats with several NASCAR-like 18-wheelers, Reuss wanted a more low-key approach, and looked for an experienced partner. Reuss hooked up with So-Cal Speed Shop, a Southern California hot rod shop whose history dates back to nearly the beginning of the Bonneville time trials.
"It’s really kind of a weird deal," Reuss says. "It was maybe five years ago I was building a wooden pedal car for my son and it sorta looked like a ’32 hi boy. I had always been fascinated by So-Cal’s cars, the belly tankers, and the land speed record cars at Bonneville. So I called So-Cal looking for some paint schemes for this pedal car and struck up a relationship with [So-Cal’s] Tony Thacker and Pete Chapouris," he said. And a partnership was born.
While last year the GM-So-Cal relationship produced the record-setting Ion Red Line and a sleek Ecotec-powered belly tanker, this year the GM-So-Cal partnership headed to Bonneville with a bit more aggressive attack plan.Front-drive drag racer Nelson Hoyos piloted the Cobalt at the speed trials.
First priority was to break Minneker’s G/Blown Fuel Altered (the cars run on methanol) class record using a Chevy Cobalt SS. Shortly after arriving on the salt, the crew learned the Cobalt could run, but the Southern California Timing Association, the group sanctioning the salt runs, said the car wasn’t eligible for a record because it is not yet on sale.
Two other Ecotec-powered cars were eligible for records. Ron Main’s streamliner, which had been coming to Bonneville for years powered by a flat-head Ford V8, joined the four-cylinder Ecotec fold as did Todd Haas’ 1934 roadster, in traditional So-Cal red and white livery.
GM tapped Nelson Hoyos, championship-winning driver of the Chevy Cavalier in the NHRA’s Sport Compact series, to pilot the Cobalt. The Ecotec in Hoyos’ drag car produces more than 1200 hp, but for the salt flat, the engine was detuned to about 850 hp. There was also a bit of a weight difference between the cars. Hoyos’ drag Cavalier, built on a tube-frame chassis, weighs 1850 pounds, with driver. The Cobalt salt racer, which began as a real-life body-in-white Cobalt, weighs more than 4400 pounds to help keep it planted on the ground. Aerodynamic lift is a salt racer’s major nemesis, and because of the five-mile course, the weight penalty can be solved with horsepower.The nose of the Cobalt was heavily taped to help reduce drag on the speed runs.
Hoyos was pretty quick right out of the box, passing his "test" at more than 170 mph before making several runs at more than 220 mph. His best run, 243.127 mph, obliterated Minneker’s speed in the Saturn. Reuss has promised GM-So-Cal will return to the salt flats in October to officially put the Cobalt into the record books.
Speaking of records, Main’s streamliner hit 313.539 mph while Haas’ roadster set a record at 193 mph. In trying to eclipse the 200-mph barrier, Haas’ Ecotec threw a rod, the only engine failure GM has had in its two trips to Bonneville.
For Hoyos, this was his first time on the salt, and he has caught what Bonneville regulars call "salt fever." And he had to adjust his driving style, just a bit.
"I had to learn patience. Patience, absolutely. The deal here was not to stomp the throttle and go. The deal was to roll into the throttle as easy as I could and be very patient on the shift points (manually shifting a three-speed automatic with overdrive) and on how I maneuver the car. I had to really tone myself down, not get overanxious. Don’t stab and hang on, as I normally do," he said.
Despite being a drag racer for much of his life, the salt flats was the first place Hoyos eclipsed 200 mph.
"I usually get in the car and do my burnout and flash down the drag strip and I’m in there for maybe 15, 20 seconds," Hoyos said. "This car, I was in there for almost two minutes! Wow, what a rush.
"I will definitely be coming back out here. I hope GM will stay involved with the program, and allow me to drive. If they decide they don’t want to, I will definitely come out here with a private program and drive. I think this is wonderful, absolutely great."
Reuss has said that after returning to the salt in October, he wants to keep GM involved in a Bonneville program well into the future.
"I want to do it, and do it creatively. It’s a classic American performance venue, and we should be there," Reuss said.