For a week beginning August 13, some 500 vehicles will descend on the Bonneville Salt Flats just outside Wendover, Utah, a 3,000-square-mile field of blinding white terrain so flat that you can see the curvature of the earth. One at a time the machines, ranging from tiny motorbikes to freight trucks, will blaze for five miles across the flats, testing the limits of automotive technology against the clock.
One notable contender in this peculiar contest is Amir Rosenbaum, an Israeli-born Californian who broke three land-speed records at last year’s Speed Week with a menacing black bullet of a car that he calls the Infidel. His goal for Speed Week 2011 is to bring his pace up to more than 430 miles per hour, breaking the record for the fastest wheel-driven vehicle on earth. He thinks he has a pretty good chance.
Amir Rosenbaum was in Mississippi for a charity bike ride in 2006 when he got an urgent call from a friend. “Here’s the name of a guy and a phone number and you’ve got about 20 seconds,” the friend said. “And you’re gonna call this guy and tell him, I want to buy your car. I don’t know how much it is. Just trust me on it.”
Rosenbaum made the call and agreed to deliver $20,000 cash in exchange for whatever it was the man was selling. Upon his return a few days later to his office in Ontario, Calif., Rosenbaum discovered that he had purchased a streamliner, a missile-shaped car designed to cut through the air with minimum resistance in the pursuit of land-speed records.
Rosenbaum had raced automobiles before, but he had never considered buying a streamliner, and now that he had one, he set to work making it faster. The streamliner had begun its life as the fuel tank of a Canadian military jet. Its basic construction was solid, but it needed a lot of work, so Rosenbaum assembled a team to transform it. His crew extended the body by 12 feet, to reach a length of 39 feet, and whittled the width down to 29 inches. They rounded the nose, tapered the back, and put in a 1970s Cadillac big-block engine. They covered it in matte-finished black paint and slapped American and Israeli flag decals on the side.
Rosenbaum is one of a small handful of Jews to make a name for himself in the world of car racing. “It’s a typical bubba sport, it’s not a Jewish sport,” he told me one day this spring when we met at the Ontario offices of Spectre Performance, the car-parts company that he founded and runs. A few years ago, Jon Denning, a rare Jewish NASCAR driver, complained about anti-Semitism in stock car racing and the unrelenting attempts to convert him to Christianity in order to improve his driving performance as well as save his soul. “My mother always said, Jews don’t drag race,” said Ken Rappaport, the Spectre team’s aerodynamicist, who is also Jewish.
Rosenbaum (who describes NASCAR as “entertainment for not the brightest people”) says that Bonneville attracts a wide range of people who accept each other on the basis of a shared obsession with making their cars go fast. “They have the Sunday morning services at Bonneville where there’s a few people who go and ask Jesus to make sure everybody’s safe,” he said. “But really everybody’s focus here is the god of speed.” Being a rare Jew in his field, Rosenbaum said, “It’s kind of neat, it’s cool as a talking point, but it’s not the end-all be-all.”
Rosenbaum was born in Ramat Gan, Israel, in 1960, and he has been obsessed with cars since he was a baby. “He started talking very early, like 9 months,” his mother, Rina, told me. “It was almost embarrassing. His first words that he uttered were not mama or daddy or aba-ima. It was Morris Mini-Minor.” Joe Rosenbaum, Amir’s father, taught his son to drive when the boy was 5, seating Amir on his lap and letting him steer the family’s Sabra Sussita. The family moved to the United States in December of 1968, when Amir was 8 years old, and settled in California. As a teenager in Cupertino, Rosebaum got into street-racing old Chryslers, winning few races but plenty of speeding tickets. After a stint prospecting for gold in the Sierras and a few semesters of college, he started a car-parts company in his parents’ garage in 1983. The business has grown to a $20-million-a-year operation, making air-intake systems and filters for muscle-car hobbyists.
When he was 29, Rosenbaum entered his first official race, driving his 1986 Ferrari Testarossa up a two-lane mountain road at the Virginia City Hill Climb in Nevada. He went on to set the all-time record for the event in 2002, this time in a Ferrari F-40, covering the 5.2 miles in three minutes and 10 seconds. The year that Rosenbaum set his record, two other drivers died at the event after driving off the road. The organizers called off the Hill Climb the following year. With the record that had consumed him for 13 years broken and the race now canceled, Rosenbaum sought another venue to test his speed. He decided to start prepping the Ferrari F-40 for the Bonneville Salt Flats, a place he’d never been before.
The harsh white terrain where gearheads now race was once a huge inland sea that covered much of Utah and part of Nevada. Fourteen thousand years ago, the climate changed and the sea dried up, leaving the Great Salt Lake as the only remnant of its ancient expanse. On the site of the evaporated waters, a thick salt crust remained, framed by mountains that had once been the sea’s beaches.
Although the salt flats had slowed progress for the wagon trains heading west in the 1830s, by the early 20th century the virtues of its endless emptiness were rewarded with bicycle races and automotive speed runs. In the 1930s, Utah native Ab Jenkins promoted Bonneville as a major international speedway by driving his Mormon Meteor (built by the automotive genius August Duesenberg) through a series of spectacular endurance feats.
In 1936, the Southern California Timing Association, a hot-rodding group that had formed around California’s Mirage Dry Lake, began holding its trials at Bonneville. Their Speed Week races gradually expanded to become the area’s main event, bringing in a carnival of amateur and elite record-chasers every August, competing in dozens of classes and creating a complex web of official records. (Other racing organizations, such as the Fédération Internationale de L’Automobile, hold smaller events throughout the summer and fall, timing the cars under different conditions that create separate sets of records.)
Ab Jenkins brought the British racing aristocracy onto the Bonneville speedway in the 1930s, and the quest for the land-speed record became an American obsession through the next three decades. Craig Breedlove was the first person to cross the 400 mph mark, driving his jet-powered Spirit of America to 407.45 mph at Bonneville in 1963. Other jet-powered vehicles quickly pushed up the land-speed record, and it now rests at 763 mph, courtesy of Andy Green’s run in 1997. However, for wheel-driven cars, powered by an engine delivering torque rather than sheer thrust, the numbers have changed surprisingly little since Donald Campbell hit 400 mph just a year after Breedlove, in 1964, with his Bluebird. The wheel-driven record currently rests with Don Vasco’s Turbinator, which is powered by a turbine, rather than a piston engine. It set the SCTA record in 1999 at 427 mph and later went up to 470 mph at an FIA event.
“The jet and rocket cars were putting up these huge numbers in the sixties, and the general public kind of got jaded,” said Greg Sharp, curator of the National Hot Rod Association Motorsports Museum. “What’s the big deal going 400 if that car goes 600? But a jet car is like an airplane with no wings, so it’s not nearly as big an accomplishment as driving through the wheels and all that it takes to make that happen and to make it go those tremendous speeds.” In 1960, during the rally to hit 400 mph, the British gentleman-racer Donald Campbell put it more succinctly: “This particular activity has nothing to do with racing. It is a completely different tree in another part of the forest. The challenge here is in the machine itself. This is a cold-blooded, calculated, lonely business.”
Amir Rosenbaum seems less inclined to reflect on the meaning of his endeavors. Why does he chase records? “Why not?” he told me. “It’s fun. I think it’s nice to go try something.”
Rosenbaum’s Ferrari made a respectable run at Speed Week 2006. Pushing the car to 221 miles per hour, Rosenbaum set the record for his class, but he couldn’t keep the car straight on the salt. The body was too short and wide and the wing kept catching air and steering him off course. He was terrified by the lack of control but entranced by the landscape.
After a run that week, waiting out in the sun for his chase vehicle to come and tow him back to civilization, he took off his protective suit to cool off from the desert heat. Standing barefoot and in his underwear, he walked out away from the car and stood for a while in the eerie white stillness. He thought he heard the sound of running water. “It seemed really faint, like a bubbling brook somewhere,” Rosenbaum said. “I’m looking all over the ground and trying to figure out where. So, that night at dinner, I’m telling everybody—you know, ‘I was out there at the five-mile, and I heard running water.’ And this guy goes, ‘There’s no streams, there’s no water out there.’ ‘Well, I heard it.’ ‘Oh, I know you heard it,’ he says. ‘That was the blood in your body.’ It’s quiet, there’s nothing to absorb sound, there’s nothing to introduce sound. If the wind isn’t blowing, it’s perfectly still. It’s like being in outer space. There’s no other place on earth that I know of where you can hear the blood in your body.”
“So, two things happened that year,” Rosenbaum said. “First, I realized OK, this is the wrong car. But I was hooked. This is the coolest place on earth. This is so, so cool.” A month later, he bought a car he had never seen for $20,000.
Kenny Hoover was the streamliner’s driver before Rosenbaum bought it. A Bonneville veteran with a snow-white pompadour and kindly blue eyes, Hoover first came out to the Salt Flats in 1965 and has set 40 land-speed records over his long career.
He was planning to retire in 2006 when Rosenbaum called and asked him to join the Spectre team as an alternate driver. He agreed and drove the Infidel in its debut at the World Finals in October 2009, setting a record at 330 miles per hour for the unlimited engine-size, blown-gas streamliner class. (Rosenbaum had planned to drive that year, but realized at the last minute that his 6-foot-1-inch frame couldn’t fit into the car’s tiny cockpit.)
Hoover also took on the role of driving guru to Rosenbaum, a streamliner novice, and was astonished by Rosenbaum’s aptitude for the task. Driving at such high speeds takes a superhuman level of concentration in order to simultaneously control the car, respond to the track, and listen for the sounds of mechanical failure that could fatally endanger the run. Hoover knows all too well what’s at stake behind the wheel, having lost six friends to crashes over the years. He feels confident in Rosenbaum’s abilities. “Amir’s concentration is unbelievable, second to none,” Hoover told me. “He’s fearless but smart.”
By August 2010, the Infidel was ready and had been refitted for Rosenbaum. The Spectre team headed out to Bonneville with a mission: to be the first in history to break the 400 mph barrier for a gasoline-powered wheel-driven vehicle. It was a stunningly bold goal for a Bonneville rookie with an unfamiliar vehicle. But by the end of the week Rosenbaum had set three records in two classes (breaking Kenny Hoover’s 2009 record), and won entry into Bonneville’s prestigious 300 mph club.
“It’s insane,” Hoover said of Rosenbaum’s quick ascension. “It just does not happen.”
The car had some mechanical problems and fell far short of the 400 mph holy grail, but its performance was impressive for such an untested machine. The team was invited to return to the salt flats a month later to join three other cars in the Fédération Internationale de L’Automobile Speed Shootout.
On Sept. 24, 2010, Rosenbaum piloted the Infidel along the FIA’s 12-mile salt course, exiting the speed traps at 415 miles per hour and averaging 408.997 over the run. It was just 11 months after the car’s debut and just over a month since Rosenbaum had first driven it. “I was spellbound, I just couldn’t move,” Kenny Hoover recalled. “I had tears in my eyes. It’s the neatest thing I have ever experienced in my life.” Rosenbaum had become the 12th person to break the 400 mph land-speed barrier. “You know, more men have been to the moon than have driven a car over 400 mph,” racer Al Teague observed to Popular Science in 1993. Rosenbaum evened up the numbers.
Rosenbaum and his team have continued tinkering with the Infidel and hold high hopes for this year’s Speed Week and the subsequent FIA Shootout. They’re now setting their sights on 430 mph, breaking the SCTA’s all-out record for the fastest wheel-driven vehicle on earth, and boosting the streamliner into a different class by running it on methanol, a far more powerful fuel than gasoline.
Driving 400 miles an hour, you pass through a mile in about eight seconds, or about two football fields every single second. The miles are marked by huge orange flags, and you close in on them one after the other in quick succession. The course marked out by black-and-orange traffic cones seems to narrow in your vision the faster you go.
How does it feel to drive that fast? “There’s no pressing back, no G forces other than initial acceleration,” Rosenbaum told me. “It’s just quite a sensation of speed. The rushing, the sound—there’s a lot of tire sound against the salt, and the wind rushing against the car makes a lot of noise. And you’ve got the engine behind you making a lot of noise.” He thought for a bit, and then added, “You know, it’s just really pretty intense. It’s fast.”
I asked him what his heart felt like. “It’s slow, it’s not pumping,” he said. “I’m not breathing hard—it’s actually pretty calm.” Just before his 415 mph run, while waiting in his car for some workers to clear the track, Rosenbaum fell asleep. “It’s nice,” he explained. “It’s warm and you’re in the sun. You just close your eyes and go to sleep. I was very relaxed.”