What's 400mph like?

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People ask what 400mph is really like and its kinda hard to explain,” said rocket car pilot Bob Tatroe in the ’60s. “It’s like someone asks you what does chocolate pie taste like, and you say it tastes like chocolate, but what does chocolate taste like?”

Al Teague agrees, I can’t really tell you just what it feels like! You’re in the car, and you’re concentrating so much! I’ll give you a kind of blow by blow.

“First of all you wait for the last minute to get in.” It’s not difficult to see why. The Spirit’s bodyshell is a bare 21 in wide and the cockpit itself is only 17. It feels about as comfortable as a coffin, only harder to get into and out of. You have to turn the butterfly steering wheel to the vertical, and then ease yourself down with your legs either side of the tachometer, the oil warning light and the gearshift. The clutch pedal position keeps your left knee kinked; your right is uncomfortably adjacent to the dashboard. The floor pinches your bottom, the rollhoop gives your shoulders a friendly squeeze and extends so far forward to protect your head that, with the tiny windshield canopy in place, the whole thing echoes eerily. The space is so confined that Teague has to wear an open-face Bell helmet because a full-face one wouldn’t fit. “And I used to be scared I’d outgrow the car before I broke the record!” he jokes. You wonder what the chances would be of extracting the driver in the event of a rollover.

They strap you in. Get you good and tight,” he continues. “You take off the guards on the four fire extinguisher plungers. I get a littler hyper before the first run, and I like it when the starter says go and I like to feel the bump of the push truck.

You start taking off, and now your mind’s busy. You got things to do. You gotta reach over here and hit the switch, then pump the throttle twice to arm the computer. A lot of times I forget it, but it’s not a case of life and death. If you don’t, the minute you floor it the first time it’s armed. You’re feeling shocks through the wheel at low speed now, and it’s jerking round as you hit ruts. Soon as the oil pressure starts climbing, gets up to 40, you flip these two magneto switches and it starts, burb, burb, burb. Then you just settle back, situate yourself, and just start pushing down on it. You’re pushing it, pushing it. It might break loose, but you just start taking it up, keep watching it, maybe start feeling some bumps in different parts of the course. You have to watch the black line out of the side because the nose is so long and you sit so low, and you need to keep it about where you want it, just keeping down on the throttle, trying not to break the tyres loose. It’s wheelspin that kills tyres.

“In low gear in previous years I’d chase it. I’d spin the tyres trying to get it to move. Last year I’d get it going pretty good in low gear and then just throw it in second. I was easier on the car to try and save the tyres. Now I don’t try to wring it out. I drive it like it’s in the rain. With the other way you could go back and see black marks all over the course…

“I thought a lot about it during the winter of ’90. Maybe I had too many engine revs: we did a gear ratio change and a couple of things to the engine, and where it had been sluggish when Nolan beat me to the 400 we matched him the next day but the speed was so hard to come by this time it just came alive and RAN!”

The gearshift is simple enough, with a normal H gate for the four-speed Weismann transaxle that Al believes came from the Brabham F1 effort. First has a ratio of 2.60:1 and is good for around 100mph. Second (2.10:1) takes you over 200, and third (1.80:1 ) peaks around 380. Top is 1.55:1, and good for 430 plus. Operating it is the trick, in the confines of the cockpit.

“I’d more or less do the same thing into third, getting it there and just going with it. With the big tyres last year it really was good. Once you get it in third, get past your first and second, maybe even your third mile, you’re just going for the ride, you’re just watching your black line, listening to the car, the way it’s running. If you kinda jump on it sometimes, you break the tyres loose. It’s not a problem, but it’s not good. It kills the tyres.

“If it comes out of shape you’ve got wheelspin, so you get off the throttle. The car tells you if it likes something or not. It tells you when to get off.

“The funny thing is that you don’t really get much sensation of acceleration, but you get down coming into your last two miles, you know you’re moving. You’re watching the black line still, but like you were earlier focussed on it, now you’re catching the next mile markers real fast. The moment you exit the last one you just shut it off. The hard part is getting it stopped. That’s a big hassle! I just push the clutch in, let off the gas and then pull this chute release right away. I don’t touch anything else. You feel the jerk and then it’s coming down, coming down, and you keep going with it, going with it like that.” DJT

THE FIGURES: August 21 1991

RUN 1

3 mile 387.067
4 mile 408.121
Kilo 422.438
132 trap 432.692
5 mile 425.230

RUN 1

3 mile 351.627
4 mile 411.852
Kilo 398.577
132 trap 384.615
5 mile 394.602

AVERAGES*

3 mile 369.347
4 mile 409.986
5 mile 409.916
Kilo 410.507

* Note: Southern California Timing Association figures are given as averages of speeds, where FIA timing is done as average of the times for each run.

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