Sports

Mean, green machine

George Johnson wiggled his 62-year-old frame into the driver's seat of his sleek, 24-foot race car with the 370 cubic-inch Chevy engine and the bright lime-green paint job.

"This is how it looks," Johnson said, hunkered behind the steering wheel of the race car he designed and built from scratch.

Three years ago, Johnson, who's raced go-karts, motorcycles, dragsters and stock cars for over 40 years, began building "Saltosaurus," his dream race car.

This summer, Johnson, who lives south of Tumwater, hopes to exceed 300 mph and break a land speed record in his class at the famous Bonneville Salt Flats in southern Utah.

Nearly 50 years ago, Johnson first heard about Bonneville as a young boy when friends of his father headed there to take a crack at setting a land-speed record. It captured his imagination.

"Right then, I knew that one day I'd race there," Johnson said.

Johnson is chasing his dream, not regretting it.

Land speed racers chase records in different classes. The current land speed record is 763.035 mph, set by Andy Green in the jet-powered Thrust SSC in 1997. Johnson would be happy to see his wheel-driven "Saltosaurus" surprass 300 mph.

"I didn't want to be one of these guys who said, "I wish I woulda,' " said Johnson, a 1963 Shelton High School graduate who has raced and built cars and now sells cars at his Capital City Cars business just south of Tumwater.

But before Johnson invested the $50,000 and hundreds of hours in labor and design, he raced his Chevy S10 truck at Bonneville in the summer of 2003 just to make sure it was something he'd enjoy. He reached 134 mph and thought, "I was doing 60."

"I loved it," Johnson said. "It was absolutely amazing. It's the last pure amateur sport. People aren't doing it for money."

Last August, Johnson hauled his green dream machine to Bonneville for the first time and raced.

As Johnson was preparing to test drive his car, a race official cinched his six-point harness so tight Johnson couldn't see over dashboard and air scoop, limiting his sight and creating dangerous driving conditions.

"I couldn't see where I was going," Johnson said.

Within seconds, he was speeding along at 220 mph while he struggled to see. To complicate matters, a setting sun prevented him locking onto a target on the horizon to steer toward.

"It was only the second time that I've had any panic or fear in racing," Johnson said. "This one scared me. I lost track of where I was. I had no point of reference."

There are no markers on the white sand, other than the orange mile-marker flags.

But Johnson bristles at being typecast as a "risk taker" or "daredevil."

"There is a little bit of risk," Johnson said as he stood over his race car. "But I'll tell ya, I was more scared of dying while driving to get there."

He was thrilled with the test drive. He barely opened the engine up.

"I don't think he's crazy," said Bob, George's younger brother and longtime racing partner. "I just think he's just having fun."

Johnson, who began racing go-karts in ninth grade in 1958, is no rookie with high speeds. Nor is his wife for 43 years, Maureen, a piano teacher.

"She's very supportive and goes to all my races," Johnson said.

Racing is in Johnson's blood.

"I have to read three hot rod magazines at night before I can go to sleep," Johnson said with a chuckle.

Johnson's newest race car looks like something out of a science fiction magazine. It's only 34 inches high, 24-feet long, has only a 2-inch clearance above the ground and weighs less than 2,000 pounds. He opted for front-wheel drive for better stability and designed a steering mechanism that involves a chain drive. His rear tires are 2 inches wide and look like bike tires.

Everything is streamlined and wind-resistant. Less drag equals faster speeds. For brakes, he relies on a hand brake and two parachutes.

He said about 70 percent of the engine he built consists of NASCAR parts he bought off eBay.

Johnson said he couldn't have built his green race car alone. His crew of experts include John Ausbach, John Allyn, Randy Rozar, Ty Bradley and Travis Moore. Johnson calls Ausbach his crew chief.

But it's not just about the race, the moments he'll immitate a bullet. It's about drawing the design, about researching body types to determine what's most aerodynamic and about testing theories. He's already got another race car on the drawing board,

"Building the car, thinking it through, checking the aspects, things like the aerodynamics, that's by far the biggest enjoyment for me," Johnson said. "That's why I'm doing this."

It's not just about the 24 seconds he'll need to cover two miles along the salt flats at Bonneville.

"But that's fun, too," Johnson said with a chuckle. 'Saltosaurus' on display today

George Johnson and his car will be a guest of honor today at the "Show Us Your Green" contest sponsored by 97.7-FM at the annual St. Patrick's Day events at Hawks Prairie Casino. The green race car Johnson hopes to drive at the Bonneville Salt Flats at speeds of more than 300 mph will be on display from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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