By Chris Bright
Some weekends are better than others, but this one is an instant classic. I got the Golden Ticket to an intimate gathering of hot rod aficionados when my friend Ed Godshalk invited me to join him for the debut of his belly tank racer. We weren’t going to meet up at the local vintage drive-in: we were headed to the historic Alvord Desert, an isolated dry lake bed known for its land speed records (including this recent one that ended tragically).
It all came about pretty last minute. Ed has been crashing to get his belly tank racer ready for the meet-up. I volunteered to help as much as I could, which ended up being quite a bit. All of those long hours filled with scraped knuckles and hunger pangs were truly a privilege. I learned a crap ton from Ed and got to forge some new friendships with others on the project.
So last Tuesday, I decided I was “in.” I rented a cargo van on Turo which was to be my makeshift camper. (#Vanlife baby!) On Friday, I was making the 7-hour drive to the invite-only gathering. By pure accident, I met up with Ed and Harold Miller, a fellow member of the “friends helping friends” jobs program, in the county seat of Burns. They had the belly tank racer in a trailer and it was comforting to have some buddies as we headed into one of the most remote places in the United States. Harney County is the size of New Jersey and has just 7,422 people in it. It’s a whole lot of empty and not a lot of cell coverage.
Just before sunset on Friday, we rolled into camp on the “shoreline” of the dry lake. The playa, as the locals refer to it, is 20 miles long and 7 miles wide, completely dead flat, and chalky white. There are not many places like it on Earth, and it was showing off with a brilliant orange sunset and near-full moon rising.
Our campsite was a semicircle of RVs and tents with a row of badass hot rods in the middle. I have great respect for hot rodders but I haven’t hung out with this tribe before. What a welcoming and cool bunch! Everyone gathered round as we arrived and unloaded the belle of the ball. (The car, not Ed!) Seeing it for the first time fully assembled was breathtaking.
Belly tank racers are an amazing chapter of ingenuity and bravery where WWII vets took surplus drop tanks and turned them into streamlined lakesters. In a future article, we will do a deep-dive on this belly tank racer. What you need to know is that this is one of the few surviving belly tanks with its original paint. There are probably less than 10 belly tanks in existence that actually raced in the period of the late 1940’s to early 1950’s -- and this is one of them.
It was built in 1951-52 from a 315-gallon P-38 Lightning tank, affixed to a Ford Model T chassis, powered by a Ford flathead V8 with Stromberg 97 carbs, and driven by a 2-speed quick change transmission. They were built from leftover parts for very little money, yet employed state-of-the-art streamlining techniques. They were some of the first mid-engine race cars in the U.S.
Ed was fascinated with them, ran across this car, and after a few years was able to own it. With the guidance of Marty Strode, an Oregon legend and awesome guy, he revived the belly tanker over the last year. It had its last run in 1953, after the original builder clocked a top speed of 143 mph, and was so shaken he decided to put it away and never drove it again.
After nearly 70 years, the belly tank racer was ready to run again. The bolts and fluids were rechecked and the belts were properly tensioned. Not long after sunrise on Saturday, it was time.
For the first shakedown, Ed left the top of the tanker off so we could have ready access to the engine -- and he would have a quick escape -- should something go wrong. Thankfully, nothing did after a gentle two-minute cruise. The engine is a fresh build, so at no time during the weekend was he going to go anywhere near the limit.
After that exploratory run, we attached the top half of the body work and it was “go” time. We topped it off with fuel -- didn’t want to have much in there on test drive, just in case. Ed dropped through a tiny opening into the cockpit. He hit the starter button, it instantly fired, and off he went.
Ed made several passes of half-to-three-quarters of a mile in length. To see that red-and-white teardrop ripping along with a trail of dust behind it was transporting. It felt like 1953 all over again. The sound carries so well that you could hear everything that was going on surprisingly clearly. The limiting factor of the belly tank racer’s driving time is not fuel, it’s heat. The car does not have a radiator in order to keep the aero clean. Rather heat is dissipated by a 5-gallon water tank, and whenthe water reaches boiling point, it’s time to stop. Thus, runs are only 5 or 6 minutes long.
Ed pulled in and offered me a chance to drive it. Ready or not, it’s time to go. I slithered into the driver’s seat, lashed the vintage aviation lap belt on (date code: don’t ask). I got the pre-flight check about what to do in case of emergency, and off I went.
The car is intuitive and uncomplicated to drive because it is built to do one thing and one thing only: go extremely fast on a dead flat surface in a straight line. You are strapped to a raucous and willing engine and all you have to do is put your foot into it. As you’d expect, the steering was built for when the car is at speed, so the ratio is very high. (When pushing it around, it took two full rotations of the steering wheel to make a “normal” turn.) The acceleration is quick but doesn’t snap you back because it has two gears: tall and taller. The suspension is virtually nonexistent. Pure and raw.
Being on a dry lake was a bit surreal and took some getting used to. There are no visual cues whatsoever, so fast and slow is more felt and heard than seen. I found it a bit unnerving in that it is a wide open space with no rules or directions. On a run in another car, I had to completely back out of it because I entered a dust cloud stirred up by the car I was following. Visibility was only a hundred feet, if that, and I couldn’t be sure where that car was or if I had strayed into the path of another person coming at me.
After my run, I pulled back in and was so grateful that Ed let me try it out. Even a week ago, it wasn’t something I had ever considered. Now I had a face caked in dust and a jolt of adrenaline that only a mid-morning Red Eye would tame.
We had our runs cut short, but it was for the best: the car had had enough. The winds really started to kick up, making it hard to see through the blowing dust. A big storm was rolling in and rain was forecast for the area. Apparently it's impossible to get off the playa when this happens because the surface turns to putty. We loaded up the trailer, pulled up our camp, and headed to the only slice of civilization for miles, the Fields Station. (They say it’s “world famous since 1881,” so I’m sure you’re all familiar with it.) There we all enjoyed a celebratory milkshake.
At the end of the day, the car was a car again, and it was able to do what it was built to do. There is still a bit to sort out, but it passed this first test with flying colors (literally). Most importantly, a piece of genuine automotive history lives again to tell its story. The belly tank racer shows us just how much can be accomplished with a clever idea and a bunch of old, recycled bits and pieces.
Editor’s note: Watch this space for more stories from this extraordinary weekend.