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The Inspiration Behind a Land Speed Record

May 25, 2016   |   by A.J. Baime   |   The Wall Street Journal

How Charlie Nearburg '72 Th'73, '74, guided by the memory of his son, set a land speed record and why he keeps competing.

Land speed racer Charles Nearburg set a record with his vehicle the Spirit of Rett in 2010. The land speed car is named after his son, who died in 2005 and dreamed of racing a car at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Photo: Charles Nearburg/Red Line Oil

Charlie Nearburg, 65, the Dallas-based president/owner of Nearburg Producing, an oil- and gas-exploration company, on the Spirit of Rett, as told to A.J. Baime:

My son Rett was a wonderful person, and like his dad, a real gear head. Together we built motorcycles and raced cars, and we talked a lot about going to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah someday, the best place in the world to set land speed records. Rett fought a rare cancer for 11 years, and on Jan. 14, 2005, it took his life at age 21.

I spent a lot of time thinking about what to do in his memory. I’d been interested in Bonneville since I was a kid, listening to the stories of the great salt-flat racers like Malcolm Campbell and the Summers brothers. In 2006, I bought a land-speed racing car from a gentleman in Los Angeles, and renamed it the Spirit of Rett. Then my crew and I set to work. In 2007, we made our first run at Bonneville. The car is a single-engine, normally aspirated [not turbo] car, and we were able to set two land-speed records in our classes that first time out.

Over the years we changed the engine, transmission, nose design, everything but the overall shape. On Sept. 21, 2010, the Spirit of Rett became the fastest single-engine, normally aspirated car in history—414.316 mph.

Land speed racing requires a tremendous amount of time and organization. The course on the salt flats is about three freeway lanes wide, and 11 miles long. Because of the curvature of the earth, you can’t see the end from the start. Before a run, I walk the salt, then I stand where I’m going to position the car at the start and pick a spot on a faraway mountain range, like I’m aiming a gun. When I’m traveling over 400 mph, I’m feeling everything the car is doing, working the throttle so I can put as much traction on the salt as I can, while maintaining my direction. To set a record, you have to run twice, and your speed is the average of the two. Slowing the car requires both brakes and a parachute.

It’s an amazing sensation, feeling what engineering can do, and how fast I can go. We’ve recently rebuilt the Spirit of Rett. Our record still stands, but we’re ready to roll again.

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