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Bound by a Barrier : The Need for Speed Unites Members of an Elite Breed of Racing Enthusiasts

December 15, 1988|RALPH NICHOLS | Times Staff Writer

A 1928 Model A roadster roars across the flat, dry lake bed at 205 m.p.h., spewing up a rooster tail of dust in its wake. A parachute pops out to slow the car down at the end of its record run across the rock-hard desert floor.

Sandy Haslam, 44, of Pomona, joined an elite club last month with her 205 m.p.h.-sprint across the El Mirage dry lake bed--15 miles long and 5 miles wide--located about 12 miles east of Victorville.

To be initiated into the El Mirage 200 m.p.h. Club, a driver must break an existing speed record and that record must be faster than 200 m.p.h.

As Haslam can attest, membership does not come easily. It took Haslam--the first woman to break 200 m.p.h. at El Mirage--16 years and more than $100,000 in cars, engines, parts and fuel before she could make that magical record run.

But Haslam is not alone. Most club members spend years cruising at speeds of about 195 m.p.h. before finding the right formula to squeeze a little more oomph out of their cars.

Another club member, Mike Stewart, 42, of Ventura, first got involved in racing at El Mirage as a teen-ager in the summer of '65. He knew almost immediately there was something special about the sweltering desert lake bed.

"Once you've been there, you never forget it," said Stewart, a civil engineer for the city of Ventura. "I would get real pumped up just seeing people race there."

The 200 m.p.h.-barrier already had been broken when Stewart first raced at El Mirage. Jim Colbert of San Diego drove his modified roadster 205 m.p.h. at El Mirage in 1957.

Up until Colbert did it, however, driving 200 m.p.h. seemed impossible to most racers--just like the 4-minute mile seemed unbreakable until Roger Bannister of England ran 3:59.4 on May 6, 1954.

"It was like an unobtainable goal," Stewart said.

Even now, however, more than 30 years after Colbert first accomplished the feat, there's still something special about driving 200 m.p.h. Just ask Haslam.

"Everybody who drives out there has worked long and hard to get a record," Haslam said. "It's a big waste of money just to go out there and have fun. You have to set goals for yourself."

Stewart has realized most of his racing goals. He went 200 m.p.h. for the first time in 1980 and he currently holds 2 records at El Mirage. In addition, Stewart also belongs to the Dirty 200 Club, for drivers who have exceeded 200 m.p.h. at the Bonneville Salt Flats, a dry lake bed about 20 miles east of Wendover, Utah.

Stewart was first drawn to cars as a kid growing up in La Crescenta. He was fascinated by mechanical things: wood-burning locomotives, planes and cars.

In high school, Stewart started drag racing and tinkering with cars. He soon discovered that he was more adept at working on the engine than driving the car.

"To me the fascination or interest with cars is making them run," Stewart said. "It's the tinkering I like, making things run better.

"There's a tradition in hot rod racing that you don't go to the store and buy something if you can make it."

Stewart's ability to improvise with an engine came in handy after he started racing at El Mirage. There aren't any gas stations in the desert to do a quick tuneup when something goes wrong with the engine.

For Stewart, getting the car ready to break 200 m.p.h. is half the fun. "Driving takes a certain amount of skills, but it also takes skills just to design and build a car that can go that fast," he said.

As for the actual driving, Stewart has become almost nonchalant about exceeding speeds that would make a traffic cop wince.

"All you have to do is be able to drive and keep the car straight at 200 m.p.h.," Stewart said.

For Stewart's wife, Norma, however, the mystique of El Mirage and driving at such high speeds wasn't immediately apparent.

"I didn't like the place at first," she said. "The winds blow 90 m.p.h. and you can't talk to somebody without getting dirt in your face and mouth. Once our tent blew down four times in one night, so we just slept with the tent blown down on top of us."

After 8 years of marriage, however, Norma is beginning to appreciate her hubby's hobby.

"It's the speed that draws them there," Norma said. "The first time you go out there and see those cars and see those men in their fire suits, it's hot. As soon as the meter lights up and the engine goes, your body feels it and it's a good feeling.

"Even though I'm not racing, I feel good when Mike is out there driving."

Norma learned to accept Mike's racing once she realized how important it was to him. "If I was to say no more racing I would have a very unhappy marriage because this is his life," she said.

Stewart said drivers have been coming to El Mirage for more than 30 years because it's the safest area in California to race at such high speeds. Drivers raced near Muroc Field, now Edwards Air Force Base, until the Air Force required them to find an alternative site in the 1940s.

"The dry lake bed is just a place where you can go very fast and not worry about running into anything," Stewart said.

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