Figure on Four - Land Speed Productions

Gene, Betty, Tom
Fuel For Thought
with “Landspeed Louise” Ann Noeth
Figure on Four
Were cosmic forces at work when
the steroidally-buff orange beast from
Montana first took shape in the mind
of Tom Burkland back in December of
1985? On assignment at Kadena AFB
on Okinawa, Japan, engineer Burkland
mailed his mom and dad design drawings for a streamliner that could
challenge Bob & Bill Summers’ world
land speed record of 409.3 mph.
It took five more years to collect a
pile of parts. This, like most land
speed racing dreams, is a self-sponsored operation and a pair of
aluminum Donovan engines don’t
come cheap. Construction began
when Tom, an aerospace engineer
took an unpaid leave of absence from
his job in January of 1990.
Working in mom and dad’s
garage in Great Falls, Montana; he
went back to work when the streamliner was completed - October 1991!
Contrary to some reports, “411” was
never a speed target number. The family’s first car, a Studebaker, built in ‘71
used the numerals because, according
to Tom “It was all straight lines and it
was easy to spray paint.”
The faster you want to go in land
speed racing is akin to an inverted
pyramid when talking about wheels
and tires because options are few to
none. The 411 streamliner was originally designed to roll on F16 fighter
jet tires, but the tires exploded too
often and too soon on the Burkland’s
purpose-built spin-testing machine.
“Dad is the core of all this,”
revealed mom Betty, “He’s the welder
and fabricator.” I was working fulltime, keeping the family fed as a legal
secretary.” Understand that this is a
lady who would rather buy race parts
than new furniture and can easily
drive in excess of 250MPH.
At the ’92 SEMA Show, Tom, Betty and Gene approached every tire
manufacturer for help. They carried
with them an exploded F16 tire asking
to speak with each company’s engineer to discover why the tire failed as
well as find a supplier of high-speed
tires. “When we told them the tires
need to be good at 400mph,” recalled
Betty, “Every one turned us down.
Mickey Thompson Tire Co. was our
last stop and hope.” That visit turned
into an R&D joint venture with the
Burkland’s performing a variety of
spin tests over the next couple of
years. Patience is a virtue in this sport
and by May of ’95 they had 12 highspeed tires, each 4-ply with 2-ply
sidewalls that weighed 14 pounds
apiece. “My advice is to find the tire
first and then build the car,” said Tom
Burkland, “it’s a lot easier that way.
The tire fiasco put us about five years
behind schedule.”
The first of many shakedown runs
occurred in August of 1996. The car
made a good showing for itself, but
the next four years were spent sorting
out development challenges and waiting out poor weather conditions.
“People need to realize that without
the help of many of our family members and friends serving as crew we
wouldn’t be able to run this car,”
pointed out mom Burkland. That
crew, who have varied duties depending on what’s going on with the car,
include: Cookie the Chihuahua, Herb
and Nicky Ferguson, Keith, Bill and
Steve Hunter, Al Maynard, Gary and
Leah Stauffer, Mel Sudweeks, Rex Svoboda and Bill York.
“My biggest job driving the car is
managing the amount of power to get
optimum acceleration,” observed
Tom, “It only required 52% throttle to
go 438MPH, but I was still spinning
the tires. It’s like trying to climb an
ice-covered hill while shifting four
times and matching things up each
time. I’m getting pretty good at it, of
the 12 shifts last October, ten were
good, but two were pretty grim.”
Sensitive to crosswinds under
power, Burkland has to be careful,
especially around the 4 mile mark
where the surrounding salt flats
mountains dip down to nothing; he’s
gotten into the habit of deliberately
moving to the far left of the track
knowing that the wind out of that
mountain pass will push him to the
“The biggest challenge of this project is to get stopped,” Tom stated,
“The most critical performance piece
of the car is the parachute system.
With the speeds that we run, and the
relatively short stopping distance, we
need two parachutes to get stopped
safely, one will not do it.”
An elusive “full-pass” milestone
came at Speedweek 2000 when the car
accelerated through all five miles and
Tom used all five gears to scamper
past the last timing light at 360MPH.
Elation continued the following
month when the car squeaked past
400MPH in the fourth mile, tacked on
38MPH in the fifth mile and charged
out the back door ticking off 450 MPH
earning the 411 team the USFRA’s
World of Speed “Top Speed Of The
“I’ve driven a good handful of
pretty fast single engine cars,”
remarked Tom, “I am pretty relaxed
driving down the salt. However, even
after 16 runs in 411, there is no relaxing. The cockpit workload is very
busy, 12 instruments along with 15
switches and control slide handles all
have to be actuated on a run. I’m
always counting down a checklist.
From letting the clutch out to pull
away from the push truck to stopping
eight miles away only takes 90 seconds.”
Betty and Gene were just about as
happy as they could get about the full
pass run until both risers on the highspeed parachutes broke and the
low-speed parachute failed. The car
stopped nearly three miles past the
end of the racecourse entrenched in
mud so deep that the rear fenders
were damaged
ending racing for
the season.
The family
paid extra attention to stopping
over the winter.
The 2001 season
started with a
parachute test run
before rolling past
400MPH to again
USFRA’s World of Speed Top Speed of
the Meet in September clocking
The speedy success soured again
too soon when 411’s right tail air
brake clipped the top rim of a mostlysubmerged 55-gallon drum just past
the seven-mile marker as Tom was
turning off the course. Slowed down
to 135MPH and vectored towards the
left side of floating mountain, the
impact launched the car up into the
air and kicked the rear end sideways
to the left forcing the car into a nonrecoverable skid. The 24-foot long,
5,000 pound streamliner completed
12 barrel rolls whacking the ground
only five times over a distance of 790
feet coming to rest with the nose facing back towards the starting line. The
orange twister performed this eyewidening, seat-puckering performance
in a mere 3 seconds.
For those who have not had the
pleasure of chatting up Tom Burkland,
let me clue you into a bit of his psyche - this guy is a perpetual
calculating analyzer and dissecting
dervish of the first order, a.k.a. an
engineer who determined that as he
was spinning in space a dozen times it
was only at a gentle 166 revolutions
per minute. Biological analyzing component Burkland broke both bones in
his right arm precisely at where the
arm restraints were sewn into his firesuit, and bursting so many blood
vessels in his eyes that daughter Carly,
7 at the time, wanted him to stay that
way until Halloween so he could
answer the door and scare everyone
who came for a treat. Interestingly,
Tom suffered no bruising at his safety
belt points confirming his theory that
being strapped in extra tight is a safer
way to drive fast.
“His analytical brain blows my
mind,” chuckled mom who is also a
lifetime 200mph Club member, “That
car is his second skin. On one run,
when something had broke, Tom had
presence of mind to shut down the
engines but continue to roll through
the lights in order to generate nonpowered time slips to double check
his coefficient of drag figures. Who
thinks of things like that strapped
into a racecar? I don’t.”
Crashing is one of those tests you
never want to do, but they can be
rather informative. That pesky barrel
was a blessing in the terms of the
enhanced product it caused to be
built. The Burklands made lots of
changes that would never have been
done had they not been subjected to
that little incident.
“Structurally, the car came
through the accident with flying colors,” explained Gene Burkland that
had the crash been the car’s fault they
would never have rebuilt the streamJune 2005
Tom Burkland’s “desert” office at Bonneville. There are 12 instruments, 15
switches and control slide handles to
make systems work. Because every one
has to be actuated on every run down
the racecourse Tom has no time to sightsee while driving.
liner, “There was no evidence of structural failure. The body was nearly
completely trashed and we found fractures in four of the six tubular frame
rails, breaking just as they had been
designed to do. The rebuilt car is
stronger and the air brake can now
peel off 150mph of speed regardless of
when it is deployed.”
At the crash site, where many
folks would shift into emotional overdrive, Tom was also ahead of the
Take a good look, it’s the only one of its
kind out on the salt. Designed, built and
deployed each run by Tom Burkland; he
can activate the special braking system
at any speed to peel off 135MPH before
either of the parachutes open.
curve and wiped out anguish before it
had a chance to grip hearts too strong.
The moment the rescue folks arrived
he asked them to radio his mother
and report that he was “OK.” “When
I arrived Tom gave me instructions,”
marveled Betty at her son’s insight,
“‘I’m in good hands, but here is what
you need to do now. Take a real good
look at everything, find out why the
car did what it did, something was
wrong because the car wouldn’t do
what it did by itself.’ He gave Gene
the same mission so we would have
something to do and not have time to
The rebuild ate up two more
years, but it was so very worth the
wait. On October 16, 2004, Burkland
laid down a pair of runs that earned
not only SCTA/BNI World Finals Top
Speed of the Meet, but bumped up the
AA class record in blown fuel streamliner to 417.020 miles per hour.
Tom now slips on plastic, “Wonder Woman” cuffs to distribute the
stress loads on his arms around the
arm restraints. Furthermore, the
parachute knowledge gained was
invaluable and they are willing to
share all their experience and data
with anyone who asks. That’s the
“espirts de corps” that makes this
sport so fabulous.
Racing has been known to pull
families apart, but in this case it has
bonded them closer together. The
Burklands began land speed racing
when Tom was 11 and his younger
brother Bill was only seven. Today
Bill, a former Peace Corps worker, is
also an engineer, but prefers bicycles.
“We have one son who wants to go
500MPH and one son who wants to
get 100 miles per gallon, mused Betty
the mom, “Because of the car we see
more of Tom. When we sat down with
those drawings, we knew that
between the three of us we had all the
skills to pull it off.”
In 1978, Gene drove the family
Studebaker to a 255MPH record in
B/CC (blown competition coupe)
class. Next came the B210 Datsun
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competition coupe, a college engineering project for Tom; he set a class
record of 294mph in B/BFCC (blown
fuel competition coupe). During the
’86 - ’88 seasons, Betty drove most of
the time as they performed engine
development for the streamliner using
the Donovan engines perfecting the
dry sump oil systems, cooling jackets
and fuel curves in their rolling dyno
“Dad and I were talking on the
way home from the salt in ‘85,”
recalled Tom, “I mentioned that I’d
like to build a streamliner and without
much more thought, dad agreed, but I
don’t think he really understood just
how deep we would eventually get
into this streamliner program.”
What I believe is the most
brilliant modification – one that
EVERY streamliner and lakester ought
to adopt in some form, is the helmet
restraint system, a bumper that holds
the head in place. Forget the HANS
device, it’s unusable, even dangerous
in a LSR tight cockpit, but Burklands
“head bumper” spreads across the
front of the rollcage and is part of the
canopy release that will swing out of
the way allowing the driver an easy
This season we may see Al
Teague’s long-held 409MPH record
move a line down in the record books.
Gene made it clear about what the
“Dreamsicle” orange 411 streamliner
represents, “This is Tom’s dream, it’s
his kite and we are just strings tied to
the tail, along for the ride.”
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