The Bonneville Salt Flats, a vast Pleistocene-epoch dry lake bed in northwestern Utah, has been the site of numerous land-speed record attempts since the 1930s. Early speed kings like Ab Jenkins, Malcolm Campbell, George Eyston and John Cobb, along with later challengers such as Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, Donald Healey, Paul Newman, Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove, have streamed across the flats at often unfathomable speeds, throwing a wake of salt behind them.
Entrepreneur Joe Moch (pronounced, appropriately enough, like the Mach numbers) wants to join these legends as a land-speed record holder in class. His car is this 575M Maranello, a unique amalgam of three wrecked Ferraris. The number to beat is 232 mph. The time is August 2013. This story is about why and how this Ferrari was made, and what has happened so far in this extraordinary quest for all-out speed.
Moch can thank Luigi Chinetti for starting him down this road more than 40 years ago. It all began at Chinetti’s Ferrari showroom in New York City back in the mid-1960s, when a teenage Moch couldn’t take his eyes off a spanking-new 275 GTB. He’d never seen anything like it.
“It was a dream world,” Moch recalls of the moment. “Mister Chinetti was on the other side of the car and said, ‘Go on, kid, get in, see how the door slams.’ From that minute, I was hooked for life on Ferraris. I even got to meet Pedro Rodriguez, who came in that day.”
Moch took home to Michigan the goal of someday owning a Ferrari. And about a decade later, during a career in real-estate development, he bought a 250 GT California (s/n 4013GT) that he still owns. But while his Cal Spyder is as stunningly elegant as a vintage Ferrari can be, his Bonneville 575M is all about brutal purpose; it needs two military-spec nylon twill parachutes made by DJ Safety to help it stop.
The Bonneville project was already in progress when Moch, who now lives in Laguna Beach, California, stopped by Jim Busby’s nearby JBR Motorsport shop one day in 2011. Moch and Busby talked about their common interests in cars and vintage racing, and Busby revealed his on-going effort to build up a Ferrari to break the C/GT class record on the Salt Flats. A spark was lit. Two days later, Moch returned to buy the car. He told Busby, “Let’s go to Bonneville.”
Moch’s initial idea for the Maranello was business-driven. He and his son own Advanced Clean Air Technologies (a.k.a. ACAT Global), and after they acquired from the Delphi division of General Motors a new metallic catalytic-converter substrate, they pondered how best to promote it. They soon decided there was no better way to demo the converter system, which promises no compromise in performance or reduction in airflow, than to run it in something that would instantly capture the public’s eye. The Maranello, and the chance to set a new land-speed record, was a no-brainer. And with Moch’s fresh infusion of funds, Busby was able to kickstart the project in earnest.
A DIEHARD MOTORSPORTS ACHIEVER, Busby, widely known as “Buzz,” has, among other things, won 24-hour races at Le Mans and Daytona as an entrant, driven to six Bonneville land-speed records and, with Ferrari’s F1 Clienti, torn up Europe’s finest racetracks in an ex-Michael Schumacher F310B Formula 1 car [“Being Like Mike,” FORZA #68]. As a result of his widely varied experiences, he believed the Pininfarina-bodied Maranello was the Gran Turismo of choice for breaking the C/GT speed record.
“The car was clean enough [aerodynamically],” says Busby. “I thought we could modify the car within the framework of the rules to be very reliable, then take a season and a half to go after the record.”
To create a bullet-fast Ferrari, Busby began with a trio of highway wrecks: two 550s and a 575M. “One came out of Denver, and two were from Arizona,” says the lifelong hot-rodder. “I managed to buy all three for $30,000.” (Original sticker was around $220,000— each.) Extracting parts and exacting fabrication work followed as the speed-record car took shape on the pick of the litter, chassis number F133E76577.
Bonneville class rules state that the exterior of the car must remain stock: “You can take the mirrors off—and that’s it!” reports Busby. “All the tail-lights have to be operational, the headlights, the high beams.” However, such limitations are not in effect under the skin, where just about everything mechanical aside from the engine can be changed. Nonetheless, Busby wanted to use as much Ferrari engineering as possible, except where it interfered with top speed.
“We wanted to put the oil tank in the back,” he explains, “and wanted a different radiator to go with the new electric water pump—anything belt-driven, like the stock water pump, takes away horsepower. So we changed the radiator, put it in the same Ferrari location, using the same Ferrari ducting and same air inlets for the engine through the Ferrari hood, which is quite efficient.”
The stock brake ducts were used to channel additional air into the stock air cleaners, which gave the engine a boost of positive air pressure without the need for a supercharger or turbocharger. Busby was further able to utilize all of the Ferrari’s front suspension pick-up points. His crew made their own front A-arms and steel uprights, which dropped the car two inches compared to stock, but still retained the original double A-arm, coil-over-shock design.
The steering rack was replaced with a racing unit that features electric power assist, allowing the removal of the original, belt-driven power-steering pump. The alternator was also pulled, replaced by four batteries that are charged before every run. “The engine is doing nothing but turning the rear wheels, which is what you want at Bonneville,” Busby states.
The stock, 8,200-mile V12 engine from the wrecked 575M was bolted in place—it was later dynoed at 538 horsepower and 455 pounds of torque at the rear wheels when redlined at 7,500 rpm—then Busby and crew went to work on the drivetrain. “From the flywheel back, we used all racing parts,” he explains. “We used the Tilton small clutch—almost the size of the Ferrari F1 clutch. We made our own bell housing out of steel, and we used a changeable-ratio, four-speed transmission that is used in all of the current NASCAR and serious front-engine road-racing cars. You have to, by the rules, leave all the original suspension pick-up points in the rear. We did that, and we utilized a Currie rear end with coil-over shocks, so the only thing we really changed was taking away the Ferrari transaxle and replacing it with a third-member type transaxle that’s made for racing.”
Rather than the factory rims, the Ferrari rolls on spun-aluminum Budnik wheels measuring 15×5 inches front, 15×6 inches rear. The four-ply, 300-mph-rated Goodyear Eagle Land Speed tires measure 24 inches tall fore and 28 inches aft, and all run at 55 psi. To diminish rolling resistance, the tire tread is just four inches wide.
Despite its high-speed mission, the Ferrari has no front brakes—thus eliminating a potential source of drag on the point end of the car. Wilwood Engineering’s three-puck disc brakes stop the rear wheels. “At the starting line, we make sure those rear pads are pushed back so they won’t drag,” says Busby. “The driver doesn’t touch the brake pedal until he gets through the speed trap.”
At that point, a couple of pumps on the pedal push the pads out to the rotors to help slow the car, along with the aforementioned parachutes. In case anything really bad happens, Busby fabricated a Funny Car-style full roll cage with head restraint that complies with Southern California Timing Association (SCTA, the Bonneville Speed Week organizers) and FIA specs.
The Ferrari’s interior contains little else beyond the steering wheel, shift lever, a few switches, what is essentially a NASCAR seat and a racing harness. “You’re allowed to replace the dashboard as long as it’s virtually the same configuration,” Busby explains. “We did that by taking out all of the instruments and fabricating an aluminum sort of cowling. We then used the Motech electronic dash that allows us to download data and monitor engine and ride height and all of the different parameters that we need to pursue for reference.”
RACING AT BONNEVILLE is not about climbing in, fastening the seatbelt and nailing the throttle. Instead, the driver has to ease on the power due to the combination of skinny tires and low-grip salt surface. In fact, the car will still be accelerating up to speed during the third and fourth miles of the SCTA’s sanctioned five-mile run. The official timed speed, the only figure that counts, is the average between a car’s speed at the beginning of the fifth mile (when, ideally, it should just have reached redline in top gear) and the end. The goal in those final 5,280 feet is to never lift—“You keep your foot in it and don’t overreact, or you’ll find yourself looking at where you’ve been,” says Moch—but there’s a lot more to nabbing a record.
The Bonneville equation is all about altitude, and in this case it isn’t just the distance above sea level. Depending on air density and other conditions, relative altitude of the 4,400-foot salt bed can come in at a desirable corrected equivalent of 6,000 feet; Moch and Busby use Kestrel weather meters to gather atmospheric data. But higher and thus thinner air-density readings equivalent to, say, 8,000 feet reduce the maximum horsepower essential for all-out speed. Notes Busby, “When the car is on line for a run and we see corrected altitude go beyond what we want, we just pull the car out to not waste time and money.”
Busby did trial runs up to 195 mph in the Maranello when they first took it to Bonneville Speed Week in August 2012. “I went through all the exercises,” he says, “and Joe said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘This is a cool hot rod. You need to hop in and go.’”
Moch was a salt rookie in the strictest sense; he’d never even been to Bonneville before. Remembers Moch, “My girlfriend was laughing and saying, ‘Let me get this straight: You’ve never sat in the car running, you’ve never driven it and now you’re going to go down this straight at over 200 miles an hour?! You’ve either got an awful lot of confidence in Busby or he must be one hell of a salesman!”
Moch made his requisite Bonneville rookie trial runs, determinedly working his way thorough clocked speed plateaus to qualify for his SCTA Bonneville license, which allowed him to drive over 200 mph. He finished the Speed Week meet with a respectable 200.206-mph run.
While this was marginally below the Ferrari’s original top speed, Moch’s experience was not without drama. Getting through the dread depression in the salt-bed surface at half-course was hairy enough at just under 200 mph. Then came the notoriously wicked wind that blows in through “The Gap” in the bordering mountains and pushed the 575M sideways, nearly off-course. This was followed by another pucker moment—or, better said, moments.
“I’m going 193,” Moch recalls, “and everything is great, so I pull the parachute lever and nothing happens!” Same with the back-up ’chute. And remember, there are no brakes on the front wheels.
Luckily, Bonneville can be forgiving, too. There’s lots of run-off after the end of the fifth-mile trap, something like another three miles to scrub off speed and make the big, happy turn back to the pits. But why didn’t Moch’s parachutes open?
The release cable worked perfectly in the shop, but that was before the generator that charges the batteries was mounted on the back of the car as it waited in line on the salt. When the generator was removed and the trunk opened to put away the electrical plug, the parachute cable slid out of place. A different method of securing the cable fixed the problem.
BONNEVILLE HAS ALWAYS run the gamut of eerie to wonderful to bizarre, and at times into treacherous. Back in the mid-1960s, I was there with Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America jet-car team, when he and Art Arfons’ Green Monster were vying for top-speed marks, afterburners blazing. While I watched, speed wind tore away half of Arfons’ cockpit—he used all of my film crew’s gaffer’s tape to patch it back together. On an earlier occasion, Breedlove’s arresting ’chutes ripped away at over 400 mph. Out of run-off, his car nose-dived into a deep brine pond where he could have drowned—but he swam out, choking, in shock. “For my next trick,” he blurted hysterically, “I’ll set myself afire!”
For some, Bonneville offers an endlessly enigmatic lure and fascination. “It’s like a whirling saw blade,” Breedlove said, and this was over 40 years ago when his speed runs to 600 mph were still fresh in mind. “You want to reach out and touch that blade.”
When I ask Busby about the salt’s primal attraction, he replies, “When you go to an F1 race and everybody is willing to run to the absolute maximum and die to win races, they are being paid handsomely to do so, or they are spending handsomely to do so. When you go to Bonneville, it’s the real deal. There is nobody there who wouldn’t give up their life to break the record—and not one single person will walk away from Bonneville with a pay check of any description. Prize money, appearance money, sponsorship? Nothing. The people who were years ago eating hot dogs and arriving in pickup trucks with open trailers, that’s all still happening at Bonneville.”
Historian “LandSpeed” Louise Ann Noeth, whose book Bonneville: A Century of Speed will soon be published by the University of Utah Press, describes record attempts there thusly: “You’re utterly terrified—and feeling utterly safe at the same time. It’s not a death wish. It’s an opportunity to see how far you can go or take your dreams somewhere.”
That’s a fitting motto for Moch. Beyond showing how well his ACAT Global catalytic converter works, he found himself sucked into the passion of Bonneville after savoring the thrill of driving the Ferrari across the salt at 200 mph. And, of course, there was more to come.
In early October, Moch, no longer the rookie, and the 575M returned to Utah for Bonneville’s World Finals. There, he put on his race suit, went to work and delivered a run of 216.133 mph. Afterward, the Ferrari spent a few days on exhibit at the SEMA show in Las Vegas in ACAT Global’s display, then was trucked back to Busby’s Laguna Beach shop to prep it for its coming record attempt. What will they do to it?
“We’re not sure,” says Busby. “We’ll rip it all apart and decide. We could increase the displacement slightly, because you’re actually allowed to go up to six liters. Probably some head work, and clearly camshafts; we could try to turn the thing at 8,500 to 9,000 rpm and make another 150 horsepower. The ideal situation would be to run a Ferrari-built 575 GTC motor, because that was a Le Mans-type race-car engine capable of producing enormous horsepower, close to 700. We think that by just bolting that in we’d break the record.”
Moch, Busby and the Ferrari will be back on the salt this August. They’ll get the record or not—we’ll tell the story either way.