“I build my cars according to the five ‘Ls’—long, low, little, light and languid like Nicole Kidman, not Anna Nicole.”
–Jack Costella

The fast, flat alkali playas of the western Mojave have beckoned a certain type of individual obsessed with speed and the machines that take them there for nearly 100 years now. Sometime during the 1920s, weekend gearheads from greater Los Angeles in an effort to avoid the law meddling in their “hoodlum” street racing activities began heading out to Muroc Dry Lake some 100 miles north of Downtown L.A. to pit their chopped-up four-bangers (mostly modified four-cylinder Ford Model T’s) against one another in unbridled, multi-car lineups across the dry lakebed. These rough-and-tumble fellows (and perhaps women) were some of the earliest pioneers of drag racing.

For those early participants obsessed with their sport, just getting out to their desert playground proved difficult—one had to travel a series of winding two-lane mountain roads through the San Gabriels to reach the lakebeds located in the largely undeveloped western Mojave region. The trip into the remote northern reaches of the desert was hot and rough. Services, if they existed at all, were spotty. Racers drove out in their race rides and camped out on the lakebed—a far cry from the plush monster RVs and vehicle trailer transports one sees at the playa today.

By the late 1930s, these word-of-mouth racing events became more organized in an effort to establish safety guidelines and implement racing standards. Multi-participant competitions were eliminated in favor of racing against the clock. Several of the original race-clubs charters including the Sidewinders and the Roadrunners, formed the Southern California Timing Association in 1937. Known today through its SCTA acronym, their first hosted event took place in 1938. The association is now considered to be the oldest organization of its kind and remains a nonprofit, non-commercial volunteer endeavor with a multi-generational membership.

The “hot rodders” (the term was not popularly used until the 1940s) raced on a number of western Mojave dry lakes over the years, including Muroc (known today as Rodgers Dry Lake), Harper, Rosamond, El Mirage and, on occasion, Cuddleback. Muroc became restricted and unusable by 1938 when it was officially designated part of Edwards Air Force Base.[1] Harper proved too short with Rosamond too soft. Racing came to a standstill during WWII when gasoline was rationed and parts were limited. After the war, the only viable lakebed left to race on was El Mirage. Those who know its history consider it to be “hallowed ground.” Bonneville’s luminous salt flats, at the edge of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, are perhaps more well-known but El Mirage is where it all began.

For the last forty years, SCTA has held six monthly weekend events from May through November at the El Mirage lakebed located at the outskirts of Adelanto, California. A highly organized production is orchestrated days before with the help of volunteer members of 11 different affiliated clubs. The overall feel is casual, partly due to the fact that glaring corporate advertising is nonexistent. Seasoned SCTA members technically inspect all participating vehicles prior to racing. Rookie drivers and those who have not raced at El Mirage are required to undergo a pre-race prep before they are allowed to compete, regardless of previous racing experience. The SCTA times record attempts in hundreds of frame and engine classes and maintains current and past record holders in each completion class. Setting a record means getting your name in the book and provides no lucrative prize money, just a trophy given at the annual SCTA banquet.

The goal of the land speed trials is straightforward; from a standing or push start competitors must accelerate their vehicle to its highest speed across the 1.3-milelong track before reaching the 132-foot timing trap. El Mirage land speed records (LSR) are based on a single effort clocked 0.001 mph faster than the existing record—unlike Bonneville where a record-qualifying and backup run are averaged together. Racing enthusiasts consider entry into El Mirage’s 200 MPH Club a far more exclusive title as compared to Bonneville’s club. This is due to the shorter available acceleration distance (Bonneville is three to five miles), the dried packed mud surface (Bonneville’s salt is faster), and because it is just a challenging achievement all around.

ironwood triumph tom_evans salt-circus kubo keturah_corbin kaylin_hayden jacks_trailer jack_jim costella_NT black_bike Don Ferguson white_goose_bar
Ralph Hudson of Ironwood Racing. Hudson won the 2013 SCTA El Mirage Motorcycle Championship.
Virtually any vehicle that can be timed may participate, even a souped up 50cc two-stroke bike. The majority of vehicles involve superfast customized motorcycles and a variety of truck and car body types, including coupes, sedans, roadsters, lakesters and streamliners. Each compete against similar body and engine classes. Car classes include four general body/frame categories: Special Construction, Vintage, Modified and Production (a stock vehicle class). Specific rules govern each category. Engine classes include displacement/engine type, fuel/propulsion (gas, diesel, alcohol, nitrous, electric, etc.) and engine aspiration, meaning whether they are supercharged, blown or otherwise modified. Motorcycles follow a similar class category system.

Far more exotic vehicles seen at these events include those in the Special Construction category that cannot be based in any way on a production car or bike. These striking creations are designed and built from the ground up, featuring sleek bullet bodies which the driver must slither into just to fit in the driver’s seat. Special Construction vehicles are low-slung sexy rockets incorporating a variety of modified motorcycle, car and fuel engine types found in both lakester and streamliner classes—the former having all four wheels exposed, whereas streamliners must have at least two enclosed wheels.

Streamliners first appeared in 1949—most likely influenced both technically and physically by aerospace engineering innovations originating at nearby industrial/military hubs in Pasadena and Los Angeles. These are the fastest class and most mythologized of the land speed vehicles. Their designers and the drivers of these cars, such as Craig Breedlove, have achieved cult star status in both the racing community and beyond.

Fortunately during my first visit out to El Mirage in September 2014, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Jack Costella, the legendary designer of land speed racing vehicles who is also a former driver and holder of multiple land speed records. Costella is known for his innovative streamliner and lakester designs. He has set records with his inventive creations since the 1950s and first ran at Bonneville in 1969. He holds over fifty land speed records to date. Costella belongs to a select group of racers that have achieved membership in both the 200 and 300 MPH clubs. He is considered to have designed and built “the fastest four cylinder car utilizing a motorcycle engine” in the world.

What struck me first was that this guy was not an ordinary gearhead by any means, but his gift can’t be attributed to eccentricity as he’s far too brilliant. I immediately related to him as an artist, a term he often uses to describe the cars he designs. His genius lies in the unorthodox—with a sense of irony he insists that his designs “go under the wind” rather than through it. He expresses that he builds intuitively and imaginatively rather than basing his cars on some book on aerodynamics. He instead relies on acute observation of the physical world and values artistic vision over more traditional engineering methods. This unconventional approach has obviously paid off.

Costella recently ran their open-wheeled lakester Nebulous Theorem XI with Bay Area driver Jim Hoogerhyde at the September 2014 event I attended. The team hit 190.532 mph, breaking their previous record of 189.649 mph. Multiple iterations of this vehicle have appeared since 1989. Costella relates the philosophy of the Nebulous Theorem, which is “Do your own thing and not what the other guys are doing.”

Hoogerhyde has kept busy setting his own land speed records on a solar-powered electric production bike produced by Lightning Motorcycles. In 2012, Jim set world LSR at El Mirage at 189.093 mph on the Lightning SuperBike, whose newest model is considered to be the world’s fastest production bike in its class either gas-fueled or electric. In 2013, he clocked in at 220.701 mph on a 1000cc APS-F[2] at El Mirage, considered to be the “fastest naturally aspirated motorcycle ever.”

Women, albeit a minority, have been active in the sport for years now. Deaf Hollywood stuntwoman Kitty O’Neil continues to hold land speed records set well over thirty years ago, although she never raced at a SCTA sanctioned event. Driving Ky Michaelson’s hydrogen-peroxide-fueled rocket dragster in August 1977, O’Neil ran the quarter mile at El Mirage in 3.22 seconds at a speed of 412 mph—she is still considered the fastest man or woman ever to run at El Mirage.[3] At Alvord lakebed in Oregon, driving the SMI Motivator in the previous year, O’Neil set the woman’s LSR at 512.706 mph and most likely would have broken the men’s LSR too if her contract and fellow male driver would have allowed her to do so. The campy 1979 made-for-TV movie Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story starring Stockard Channing and James Farentino depicts her amazing story.

I ran into several female competitors that same weekend including Kubo, a graphic designer and president of Hell’s Belles—an all-girl vintage car club based in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Kubo came as a rookie that weekend, having not raced at El Mirage in the past, although she is a seasoned motorcycle racer. That day she ran a 1986 Harley Sportster Partially Streamlined 883. I have to say that she looked fantastic in white leathers on her matching white Harley.

Kaylin Stewart is a driven, straight “A” high-school junior interested in documentary filmmaking and land speed racing. I met her that same weekend at El Mirage hanging out with the White Goose Bar racing crew. Kaylin belongs to a family of racers, having literally grown up on the Bonneville Salt Flats and El Mirage. The day after receiving her driving license on her sixteenth birthday she was out on the salt, obtaining the various licenses needed to participate in the trials. Her goal is to be the youngest person ever to join Bonneville’s 200 MPH Club, which would require her to surpass an averaged speed of 219.509 mph. While researching other women racers in this exclusive club, she was surprised that only twenty-three women out of 750 had earned the title. This has led her to produce and direct her own documentary film titled Chasing 200 that documents her own journey to obtain an LSR as well as the “salt sisters” record holders that came before her.

El Mirage is now managed by the BLM as a public lands resource. The SCTA, along with its partner organization, Friends of El Mirage, works to help maintain the lakebed for their activities and to educate competitors and the public on proper use, safety and etiquette, including a firm policy of “pack in, pack out.” Race participants and spectators alike pay a $15 daily or $30 weekly fee to access, recreate and camp out on the lakebed. El Mirage is closed to the public when the lake surface is wet or muddy—it often floods during winter and dries out to its smooth surface for the start of the spring racing season. Seasonal races can be cancelled due to poor surface conditions so it is suggested that travelers visit the SCTA-BNI website at: before heading out for a scheduled event.

The author thanks White Goose Bar Racing Team for their insight, introductions and hospitality. Sound design by Tim Halbur. This article is co-published with KCET Artbound. Visit Artbound’s Mojave Project page here.

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[1] For a time between 1996 and 2000, some racing returned to Rodgers, but stopped after 9/11 due to security issues. Some speed trials are occasionally held there today.

[2] APS-F is a Special Construction Partial Streamline Modified Fuel motorcycle.

[3] The SCTA does not time thrust-powered vehicles like the one O’Neil raced at Alvord. They faded from use during the 1980s due to safety concerns, and because they are prohibitively expensive to race.

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