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Ray Grass: Nish clan is driven to break land speed record

It was sunny but cold standing out on the Bonneville Salt Flats early Monday morning. Ice crystals were sticking to the tops of parked vehicles and would have formed on the nose of anyone who could have stood still for any length of time.

I was there to watch Terry and Mike Nish try to break a standing 42-year-old land-speed record.

Bob Summers set it in 1965. He drove a four-engine car that was 28-feet long, weighed 8,400 pounds and between the four engines, all naturally aspirated or fed by carburetors, could produce 2,400 horsepower or roughly 600 horsepower each.

Nish's car is 27-feet long, is only 41 inches wide, has a single engine, but this hunk of aluminum with a single carburetor can, when fed 50 percent nitro-methane, turn out 3,000 horsepower.

Summers had a two-way average speed of 409.277 miles per hour.

Amazingly, no one has gone faster, not with a carburetor-fed engine.

Terry Nish, patriarch of the Nish racing clan, said the record has been on his mind since the very day Summers made it official. He got very serious back in 1992 when he started building the car his son Mike drove on Monday.

Nothing NASA builds these days could look more technically complicated than Nish's streamliner, the Royal Purple, named after a sponsoring synthetic oil company.

Over the 15 years, since Terry has taken the record attempt more seriously, his time on the salt has been a constant bevy of highs and lows. Luckily, there have been more highs than lows. Terry and all three of his sons — Mike Jeff and T.J. — hold land-speed records. The car itself is responsible for 14 national and world records.

It has not, as of yet, hit the big one.

The question is why is there so much interest in this land-speed record?

As Terry quipped Monday, after the $100,000 engine that was supposed to break the record broke, there is no pot of gold waiting for him after a record run, only a piece of paper verifying that his car is the fastest in the world.

So why?

I've asked more than 100 drivers over the years that same question and the answer is always the same: It gets in your blood. Otherwise, for those who are lucky enough to be able to run on the salt, going fast becomes addicting.

It would have to be. There is so much work that goes into a record run. The engine alone took a year to build, and in less than 30 seconds it broke.

Just to get the engine up to running temperature took four hours. Crew chief Cec McCray said he was up at 4 a.m. hooking up a heater that pumped 200-degree water through the engine block. It wasn't up to temperature until after 8 a.m.

This does not include the hours and hours of technical work in the shop McCray and Nish put in to make this highly complicated machine run.

As he stood looking at the pool of oil forming under the engine on Monday, Terry Nish took a second and questioned his sanity and whether he had another year's work in him.

It was only a fleeting thought, though, because in the very next sentence he said, "No, this won't be my last run." And it won't. He's hooked.