Shawn Driver didn’t even plan to be in the U.S. when the World Finals took place at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah this fall.
Despite what the name suggests, the World Finals – which takes place over four days – is a smaller event than Bonneville Speed Week, About 600 drivers attend Speed Week in August, while 100 go to the World Finals in September.
But an unfortunate transmission failure during Speed Week meant Driver and his team missed out on the record they were trying to set in the Altered Coupe class. He left the car, a 1953 Studebaker, in storage, in Utah.
With Driver’s car failing, another team broke his record, and Driver wanted it back. Luckily because the World Finals are in September, conditions are cooler, and the salt is harder.
Driver and his partner Donna (Miss Daisy) Gray travelled back up to their welding and car parts shop in Sooke, with plans to return for the World Finals a month later, the first time they would ever attend the event.
But first, Driver had to get the car working again, which involved welding the main transmission shaft back together. There wasn’t much time for repairs. It’s also hard to test the car. Speed Week is the only place Driver can see how the car is performing.
“Unless they let me use the airport, there’s nowhere to drive this thing,” he said.
Gray says that’s one of the scary things about the whole experience.
“This is a dangerous sport. We’ve seen friends crash. We’ve seen friends lose their lives,” she said. “The officials do everything they can. The rest is up to us.”
“Every time, my heart goes into my throat as he drives down.”
Driver managed to get the car fixed. But anyone attempting a record needs to do two runs, and the average is where the record is set.
On the first day, Driver hit 291 mph (468 km/h). The current record, broken six weeks prior at Speed Week, was 256. But Driver needed a good second run. Waking up at the crack of dawn, Driver completed his second run and set a new world record – 286 miles per hour.
As the car was towed back to the pit area, the other drivers lined the road and cheered.
“That’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I get goosebumps just telling the story,” he said. “The flats isn’t like other racing. You’re not competing against each other. You’re competing against an existing record.”
“It’s like a family,” he added. “You can’t explain the camaraderie. You have to experience it in the flats for yourself. Once you’ve been, you’re a sodium junkie. The salt is in your blood.”
While Driver is driving at breakneck speeds, it takes a village to get the car there. Sponsors include local companies like Sooke Brewing Company, Lordco Auto Parts in Langford, Canamera Refrigerated Transport in Saanichton, and individuals like Rod Zaran and Curtis Halvorson to companies like TBM and DIYMS3Pro in California and Georgia.
“There’s no money in it for them,” he said. “Someone from California sees a Sooke Brewing Company sticker on the car; they’re not going to know what that is. They do it because they love it.”
As for the team, there are brothers Les and Lorne Holm out of Tacoma, Richard Gido and Matt Blasco, “the engine whisperer” out of Alberta, and Vancouver Islanders Richard Norton, Richard Eldridge, Scott Macdonald and Carl Scott, owner of Sooke Brewing Company.
Driver has his red hat — making him one of around 760 members of the 200 Miles Per Hour Club — and is 10 mph away from earning a blue hat, which drivers earn when they break a record at speeds over 300 mph.
“But I told Miss Daisy, I don’t look good in blue,” he laughed. “So I want that black hat. Five years from now, I’d like to be in the 400 Miles Per Hour Club.”