Tim Estes puffs on a huge stogie, Barney Oldfield-style, before burrowing into the belly of the colossus he plans to drive to a land speed record at Irwindale Speedway.
"I can't see where I'm going in the turns," Estes says. "But once I hit the straight, I just stand on it. I've got to be doing 45 mph at least."
A genial, bearded bear of a man, Estes is president of Fiesta Parade Floats of Duarte, which builds floats for the Rose Parade. Parade speed is 2.5 mph. Last year, in the world's first (and, thus far, only) Rose Parade float land speed record run, Fiesta float driver Tom Gaffney motored the City of Duarte-City of Hope float around Irwindale's half-mile oval at an average speed of 16.937 mph.
To challenge that record, Estes chose the same float chassis. It's the smallest among the 14 models he's building for the 2001 parade, but it's still a leviathan at 35 feet long, 18 feet wide and 17 feet tall. It'll race without the flowers and seeds it will carry in the New Year's Day parade; even so, Estes says it weighs nearly 13,000 pounds and has no suspension, "except for the air in the tires." By happy coincidence, this year's design features a Soapbox Derby car.
At dusk, during a pause in Irwindale's Saturday night racing, Estes squirms into position on a plywood seat next to a Chevy V-8 he transplanted from his 1980 Suburban two years ago. He hits the gas, steering according to directions radioed by fearless on-board observer Frank Deckard. The float moves around the banked oval like a clumsy apparition.
"That's one fast-moving Rose Bowl float, buddy!" the PA announcer says. After an excruciating 45 seconds, the checkered flag flutters and Estes claims a new float land speed record, averaging 35.808 mph.
Back in the pits, a sweaty Estes emerges from the cockpit like a spent wrestler. "After practice, somebody told me, 'Don't break the record by too much,' " he says. "But I wanted to give it my best shot. And that was it, boy. That was as fast as that float could go."