Death Race 2000
On highway 318 deep in the Nevada desert, the landscape, which looks like a scene out of a spaghetti western shot in 50’s Technicolor, is becoming a hideous vibrating blur as we hit 190mph. With my bloodshot eyes popping from their sockets, sweat drenching my racing suit and barley able to breathe strapped into the airless and scorching hot cockpit of this car now screaming as we nudged 197mph – the savage thud which rocked the car causing it to shake violently was unmistakable. Now with my worst fears realised, a corner hoves into view in a millisecond and my bloodless hands grip my thighs leaving two blue/black bruises. With the car severely crippled there is no way we’ll make the turn at this speed.
Fourteen minutes and fifty miles earlier I had sat in the cockpit of a Viper swallowing incessantly and, with such force, that my Adam’s Apple felt sore. As we waited to go others had forced their hands into the windows to shake mine. “You’re a crazy limey but good luck buddy and have a safe one,” said one in a purple baseball cap and straggly ponytail. “You’re about to have a helluva ride.” “We’re praying for you,” said another. And, as the driver too offered up a prayer out of his full face crash helmet before we careened off the line hitting 60mph in 3 seconds, velocity increasing with force, I could see it in their faces and I knew that I too had been guilty of it. Although they’ll never admit it, nothing gets a motorsports fan’s pulse racing like a crash. Although these people wanted us, quite sincerely, to live after this you could also tell that a macabre buzz was emanating from them because they were shaking hands with somebody who may not be alive in twenty minutes. Well-wishers started to make me so nervous I had to close the window so that no-one else would offer me luck.
Now, it looked as though they would get their secret desire. The bang in the cockpit was deafening, even above the roar of the 650bhp tuned engine. Askance through my crash helmet I could see the driver hurriedly trying to shift down gears and apply the brakes. He had told me before: “If we get a blown tyre say you’re prayers – at 200mph that’s all you can do. Out there the nearest emergency room is in Las Vegas – an hour away – by helicopter. By which time you’ll probably be dead anyway at that speed.” At the time he had grinned. Although I couldn’t turn my head far enough to see his face I know he certainly wasn’t grinning now. The bump was unequivocally a disintegrating tyre throwing rubber at 200mph into the wheel arch. As I closed my eyes, the car lurched wildly and I waited for the ensuing, high-impact twist of metal…
The Stardust Ranch, Ely, Nevada 24 hours earlier. “C’m on hon,” purrs Denise, a willowy prostitute in black lace suspenders and a lustful grin fluttering her slender eyelashes rapidly. “You may not be here tomorrow.” At the Stardust Ranch brothel Denise and her cohorts, Gina and Bobbie, were doing their best to drum up trade. Apprehensive looking men slink in out of the brothel – some to drink at the bar, others to take “the tour”. As one driver shouted out from the noisy bar in the brothel, a flickering neon Budweiser sign bathing us in its glow, “Hey if this is your last day alive what do want to be doing?” The girls laughed appreciatively.
Ely, Nevada is a one-horse town with 6500 residents that hasn’t changed since the days of the wild west when prospectors came out here to mine copper and gold. Prostitution is legal here in White Pine County although the town’s other two brothels, the Green Lantern and the Big Four have since closed amid dark rumours of drugs. The centre of the town’s economy, the local copper mine, BHP, has also recently closed laying off its 400 local miners and leaving prostitution as Ely’s greatest attraction. Yet the punters in the Stardust Ranch are after another buzz while in town. Nick Loader, a raffish telecommunications company president from LA, says while slurping on a lager: “Yup I’m here for the broads, booze and,” he grins wolfishly, “speeeeed.”
Along Ely’s main street today instead of redneck, macho adrenaline freaks astride horses they come seated at the wheels of Ford Mustangs, Ferrari’s, Porsches, Corvette’s and Vipers. Black and white chequered bunting is festooned along the single main street and signs from locals saying “Racers Welcome to Ely” are slung in house windows.
The burghers of Ely have fought long and hard to get the Silver State Classic Challenge race staged here with the income it not only brings to the town’s prostitutes, but the rest of the community. This year 211 cars have all entered the “fastest road race in the world.” In September every year ninety miles of one of the loneliest highways on the planet is closed off between the remote towns of Lund and Hiko so that drivers and their machines can blast along at any speed they like. Adding to the freakish nature of the event: nearby is area 51 - the US’s top secret military base where UFO’s, famously spotted in the area, are studied.
The race itself is highly dangerous: no crash barriers or run-off’s, (off the road it’s straight into rocks, desert, canyons and ditches) and the constant risk of an animal darting in front of you. Ambulances are only situated at the start, finish and a particularly hazardous part with tight, twisting turns and mountains on either side called the Narrows. But there are certainly no medical helicopters which all have to be called out if there is a crash. Unlike track racing, where the course is scrutinised for imperfections, stones and the like before racing, here “you get what’s out there” – in the words of one organiser. At 200mph the smallest stone is enough to throw a car off course, puncture a tyre and send the hapless driver and navigator careening off the road. No spectators can watch the race and the only way to see it is to take part yourself or to be a marshal at one of the gates along the course. The good news is that anyone can enter. But be warned: the cartoonish speeds available here, like clips from Wacky Races, are not for the faint of heart. “This ain’t a video game,” says organiser Gary Patterson gravely. “People get killed doing this.”
In the event’s short history from when it began as a vintage and classic car run in 1988, to how it has evolved into the present day “thrash-fest”, two people have been killed. Dr Larry Bartschi and his wife Jean entered their Ferrari Testarossa ten years ago. They were on a straight after a right hand sweeper and a quick left when their car lost the entire tread of its rear left tyre at 170mph. The car veered to the left, hit a slope on the side of the road and went into a violent tumble. The car disintegrated and threw Dr Batschi and his wife out of the car despite their five point safety harnesses. The first the organisers knew of the accident was when hey spotted a plume of flame in the middle of the desert. Dr Bartschi was found close to the car with broken bones but his wife, who was thrown further and suffered massive trauma, died at the scene.
The second death shows the degree of danger that even the most experienced driver is not immune from. Terry Herman, a vastly experienced racing driver who had won a whole clutch of motoring trophies was killed after only fifteen miles of the course when his car left the road after failing to make a turn. Most attribute it to driver error. “After that everybody said the race was finished and it would never happen again,” says Phil Berg, a US freelance journalist who has covered the Silver State for several years. “My editor at the time just said it was a death race and just a lot of silly people out there doing foolish things when I suggested we enter a car in the unlimited class.”
All of this is no deterrent to the owners of souped up cars who blocked the car park at the Showboat Hotel, Las Vegas for the start of four days of racing and car shows. The race has confounded the critics and this is it’s 11th year. The parking lot at the hotel begins to look increasingly like an outtake from the Cannonball Run. Reminiscent of the famous film there is even a secretive team all the way from Japan with a Nissan Skyline equipped with every Japanese pyrotechnic they can fit to it. They spend their whole time up to the race in seclusion, earnestly tinkering with the car and then driving it into a little trailer and locking it up securely when they have finished.
Yet while all the other racers here would dearly like to think of themselves as Burt Reynolds, the sad reality is rather different. Most are overweight, middle-aged men in cheap Hawaiian shirts in very expensive cars who seem to spend their whole time wandering around saying things like, “bitchin’ roll bar dude” or “that corner’s gonna bite you on the ass”, before they peal into guffaws. All seem to have a standard uniform of Gap beige shorts and white trainers with matching white socks pulled as annoyingly high on their skinny, mottled calves as they will go. It’s telling that Burt Reynolds of their generation is now advertising Dolland and Atchinson glasses in cheap commercials on the TV.
Yet today they have found a new hero. The star of the show at the inaugural presentation is John Schneider, who found fame as Bo Duke in the Dukes of Hazzard. At the podium giving us all a clarion call for death or glory he’s all Californian photo-flash grin, fuzzy stubble and swaggering machismo. He’s racing in a replica of the General Lee (replete with Colonel Bogey horns), a 1969 Dodge Charger that spent most of the TV show airborne. “I haven’t had a chance to go all out for a long time!” he gurns, as the fawning racers clap and cheer with assorted ye-hahs.
Later I manage to button-hole him about his hopes for the race and his all-out bravery. “Well, um,” he says, “I wore out my crazy jeans a long time ago and my days of wanting to go 165 in an automobile are long gone.” Oh dear, I say. So how fast will you actually be going? “Well, about 110,” he says, trying to sound upbeat, but staring at the ground nonetheless.
For the Silver State Classic the slowest you are allowed to go is 85mph on a road which, for the most part, is dead straight for its 90 mile length. Racers can choose any class between 95, going up in increments of 5mph up to 150mph. To make the race competitive and not an all out speed-win, drivers have to get as close to their class speed as a course average. If above or below by ten mph of the target speed the car is disqualified. Cars are also assigned a tech speed which they cannot exceed. This is based on the amount of safety equipment on board, age of the car, tyre ratings etc.
None of this applies to the unlimited class who go all out to win. And here, most of the racers regard the unlimiteds as heroes: men like Rick Doria who is the fastest driver on a public highway with an average time on the course of 177.4363mph.
As speeds have become progressively faster each year so the organisers have found that commensurate safety measures have had to be tightened. Roll cages, driving suits and shoes, fire extinguisher systems are all required to varying stringency according to the speed of the class. Those in cars that tech over 165 have to undergo a full medical
So it was that I almost found my race hopes scuppered even before the start. I had had no medical in the UK before leaving for Las Vegas and as an official navigator couldn’t race without providing a medical certificate signed by a doctor. Emergency measures were called for and I found myself in a downtown casino called Sam’s Town desperately trying to find a doctor venal enough to give me a clean bill of health.
Amid the geriatric old ladies with blue rinses vacantly pumping one-armed bandits full of quarters and their puffing husbands with marble white bellies lolling over the waistbands of their chinos on blackjack tables, was a doctor someone had found in the phone book. In Vegas, the fact that he practised in a casino seemed almost mandatory. Between two fruit machines was a small door with a stencilled sign saying “Freemont Medical Centre”. Heart attacks among the geriatric punters due to gambling losses must be common. It was behind this that I was poked, glared at and hit with rubber hammers on my reflex points by a Dr Ron as the whirling noises of fruit machines seeped through the walls of the surgery. As he signed my certificate he was incredulous that I had forgotten to get medical insurance before leaving the UK. “Well I hope for your sake nothing happens,” he said. I felt a lump rise in my throat.
The next day all the cars left in convoy from Las Vegas to Ely. The ensuing two days found my nerves increasingly jangled. Whereas before the Esquire crew were eyed with suspicion and even mild disdain by other racers the fact I was racing in the unlimited class bought me new-found respect. While interviewing I would mention this fact and instead of people answering my questions disinterestedly they would clap me on the back and say things like, “Man, that’s a ballsy thing to do – you could get snuffed ya know,” and, “Buddy, I hope you’re life insurance is paid up.”
Even my driver, John Hennessey seemed surprised I was still around. In the months before flying out we had had conversations where he said, “So you’re still coming then,” almost incredulously. Hennessey runs a business in Houston, Texas souping up Vipers for wealthy customers. He counts Nicholas Cage as one of his buyers.
The night before racing he told me that we were going to go for “death or glory numbers – maybe event the record”. He also went some way to explaining why he risks his life and why his four young children might be “motherfucking me over my grave” in years to come. “I enjoy flat out speed and this is the safest environment in which to feed my addiction,” he said. “We make all efforts to minimise risk as best we can but it will always be present in motor sports. I would rather risk serious injury or death doing what I love rather than sitting at home watching TV wondering if I had the balls to go out and race.”
One of the last two events on the itinerary before the race was a church service for those who wanted to pray for their safety and, for those who wanted to go out with a bang either way - the hookers awards at the Stardust Ranch. Esquire ended up at the Stardust Ranch. At the brothel they judge the hookers’ award for the best looking car. The turnout is poor. Some racers looked at us and blamed the press that pictures of married men surrounded by a bevy of prostitutes in an international magazine may make home life difficult.
Gina, who has worked at the Stardust Ranch on and off for seven years, is unfazed. She is a blonde in black hot pants who emits a coquettish laugh at almost everything. “We love the racers,” she says. “We like the cars sure, but the prize is also for the cutest guy.” After much deliberation and expert gazes at the cars the three girls chose the winner. “It’s the green Corvette,” announces Bobbie grandly, later kissing a bearded man in his fifties on the cheek as we all stand outside on the Stardust’s cramped parking lot. “Um, it’s a Pontiac Firebird,” corrects the owner, Bob Morgan, who wins free drinks tokens at the brothel.
After a night of carousing I return to my hotel for a sleepless night, desperately trying to cleanse my mind of the death gags people had made at my expense that night. At 6am the following morning the cars make the short drive to Lund, a village in the middle of nowhere at the start line of the course. Due to the fact that generally only 40% of the unlimiteds finish the course and spill coolant and oil over the road causing hazards for other cars, we are some of the last to go. Other cars are released at one minute intervals and a spotter plane, replete with radios, swarms overhead to inform the organisers of any crashes down the road so that they can hold off the other racers.
I found myself striding up and down the row of cars, jumping up and down and trying to burn off the adrenaline and fear that is surging through my body. Roughly two hours since the first car left at 8pm we are sitting on the start line facing the straightest and most barren stretch of road I have ever seen. The roar of the engine is thunderous and the moist heat in the car’s cabin stifling as all the air vents and doors have been taped up. Unlimiteds are set off the line at 3 minute intervals. As Hennessey drops the clutch on 650 horsepower I’m pressed back into my seat feeling 90% exhilaration and roughly 10% outright fear which I am trying desperately hard to suppress. Uppermost is bucking the thought of a tyre blow-out at that speed – certain death says everyone.
The gentle corners at 190mph feel like hairpins yet the car on the road feels like chewing gum resolutely stuck to the bottom of a shoe. The sheer idiocy of the event hits me. We thrum over the brow of hills blindly not knowing or seeing what’s on the other side and the thought of someone breaking down before us in the middle of the road as we crest these hills is an all too real fear. About thirty miles on the carcass of a dead coyote is in the middle of the road. It has obviously been hit by another competitor, mercifully on a straight so we can avoid it in time – over the brow of the hill the lifeless body would be enough to buck the steering and send us of the road.
Then it happens – the violent bang which sends a cascading shudder not only through the chassis of the car but my inner organs too. Speech is impossible in the din of the car but I know that Hennessey is thinking what I am. He slows and then accelerates again to 187mph before the car vibrates wildly again. Slowly we manage to decelerate, all the time thinking that a further bang will send us off up the slight incline on either side of the road and catapulting into the desert. Safely stopped we climb out. The inner wall of the rear tyre has been ripped away.
“Another five seconds on that tyre and you and I would be dead,” says Hennessey matter-of-factly as we stare dumbly at each other, completely alone and in utter silence in the middle of the blazing desert. I don’t whether to punch the air or kneel down and offer a prayer in thanks. The incident is a mirror image of the one that killed Dr Bartshchi’s wife – their rear left tyre had fallen apart too.
Soon we are safely picked up by Hennessey’s crew and much back-slapping and reassurance is proffered. On the long drive back to Vegas we meet, bizarrely, Evil Knevil in a petrol station in Ash Springs. He’s on his way back from Idaho celebrating the anniversary of one of his jumps. My heart’s still pounding and although Evil was a childhood hero of mine I can’t even be bothered to go over, shake his hand and get an autograph. My nerves are shot, the adrenaline hit is wearing off and I am sure now, to some extent, that I felt a furtive sense of arrogance that maybe I had experienced something of the buzz he felt when making his great jumps. I don’t need to feel like a slavering groupie in his presence – I’ve escaped death too, I thought.
To be honest I missed most of the awards ceremony that night. I was sick of recounting my story to people. Those who had cold-shouldered us as just “journalists” before, are now eager to talk. As for the other racers: the record was been broken by Chuck Shaefer and Gary Bockman in a white Chrysler Le Baron. They averaged a tumultuous average of 197.9932 mph reaching 215mph on some parts. The Japanese and all their high-tech gadgetry were not allowed to race in the unlimited class because of their lack of safety equipment and were forced to race in the 150mph group. They decided to go flat out anyway and blew a fan belt as well as their welcome with the organisers. They were, however, allowed to run again but weren’t timed.
I’m weary and my nerves are frayed beyond recognition. This whole carnival of speed, lunacy and macho sloganeering is too much. Only in Nevada with its legalised brothels, casinos and the tawdry glitz of Vegas would a race like this become so famous. Like the gun-toting militias and right to bear arms ethos, the race, with its overpowered 6 litre American cars, is another figment of the American dream. It’s dangerous and could cost you your life but there will always be those who will be prepared to die to do it.
As I leave the awards banquet for a breath of fresh air John Schneider, aka Bo Duke, is hunched under the bonnet of the General Lee in the hotel car park. Both have been forgotten from their rapturous welcome. The General Lee gave out half way through the race, despite its low ranking in the 110 mph class. John Schnieder, the movie star, has oil on his hands under the Showboat Hotel’s massive neon sign. It shows a scene of raining dollar bills promising the millionaires the hotel’s casino will make of its potential gamblers. There he stands trying to fix an American dream.
Of course there is no way a stock Chrysler Viper will do 200 mph with 399 brake horse power. John Hennessey has tuned and modified the car so much that very little is original. The uprated Viper is known as a 650R ‘Venom.’ The horsepower, as the name implies, is upped to 650. The top speed is 215mph over a stock Viper’s 165mph. Yet despite all this tyres prove rather harder to upgrade personally. US spec tyres, like the ones we used, are give a Y rating and are guaranteed up to 200mph. Going over that anything can happen – and very nearly did.
John Hennessey can be contacted through the firm’s website www.hennesseymotorsports.com