DETROIT (August 31, 1999) — At this year’s Bonneville Nationals Land Speed Trials on the fabled salt flats race course in western Utah, the Kugel & LeFevers Pontiac Firebird entry driven by Joe Kugel became the first stock-bodied passenger vehicle to exceed the 300 mph land-speed barrier.
"This is probably one of the last great land speed record barriers at Bonneville to fall," Joe Kugel said. "There’s not much left after this. Since the mid-1980’s, the big thing has been to exceed 300 mph in a stock-bodied car. There have been some Roadsters in the 290 mph range, some Ford Thunderbirds that have attempted it as well, and also a number of Pontiac Firebirds, but no one had been successful until we were able to do it last week. This is just a tremendous accomplishment for everyone who had a role in making it happen."
Kugel Komponents is a family-owned business started by Jerry Kugel in the late 1960s. The company builds street rods, which fits in nicely with their passion for racing at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
"It’s a great sport for us to be involved in," said Jerry Kugel, "because it’s only once or twice a year and it’s a lot of fun to do. It’s also fun to be a part of a sport that showcases some of the products that we manufacture and market as well."
The Bonneville Salt Flats are a natural formation that provides a smooth unobstructed course for high acceleration automobiles. The Land speed Trials take place during the third full week of August under the auspices of Southern California Timing Association, the official sanctioning body of the Bonneville Nationals.
The trials are conducted on a five-mile track with the actual speed averages computed beginning with the second mile. Speed averages are calculated from the two-mile marker to the three-mile marker, three-mile marker to the four-mile marker, and from the four-mile marker to the five marker. The average speed, and not the top speed is the performance number used in determining new records.
Jerry Kugel first began racing at Bonneville back in the early 1960s after an initial visit that got him hooked. After watching the Mickey Thompson four-engine Challenger scream by at 400 mph, Kugel knew that this was something he wanted to try as well. The next year, he returned to the salt flats with a 33-coupe and he’s returned almost every year since, primarily running Roadsters that he began building in the late 1960s.
His sons Joe, 29 and Jeff, 27, started going to Bonneville with their dad in the mid-1980s. In 1987, in order to get a feel for driving on the course, they began racing a Model-A Roadster on a 32-frame rail with a small block General Motors engine. Between 1990 and 1995, the two brothers began running that same Roadster with a twin-turbo engine that is very similar to the one used in their record-breaking Pontiac Firebird, and were successful en eclipsing the 200 mph barrier.
During the Land Speed Trials on August 18, the Kugel & LeFevers 1992 Pontiac Firebird ran an average speed of 301.709 mph in the fifth mile of the race course with an exit speed topping out at 307.468 mph. In order to secure the new record, the Kugel & LeFevers team would have to return the following day and run an average speed great enough in the fifth mile of the course so that their two averages would give them a mean number above the 300 mph barrier.
"What makes it so tough to do at Bonneville is the fact that anything can happen from one day to the next," said Jerry Kugel. "We ran great on the first day, but who was to say that conditions wouldn’t change to where we would lose a decent shot at the record. The weather could be different, there could be a strong head wind, or the course could change, you just never know."
On Thursday, August 19, the weather and track surface conditions at Bonneville cooperated. The Kugel-LeFevers entry ran an average speed of 299.866 mph for a two-day combined average of 300.788 mph, making their 1992 Pontiac Firebird the first production-based stock automobile to break the 300 mph speed barrier. It was an emotional triumph for the La Habra Calif., Kugel family and their partner Mike LeFevers.
"The key to keeping the car on the ground at those kind of speeds is its weight," explained Jeff Kugel. "Downforce works up until a certain speed, but then the car starts going so fast through the air that the aerodynamics have it almost flying. What keeps it on the ground is its weight. You’re okay until about 280 or 290 mph, but when you hit 300 mph the wind tunnel tests on this car say it should be air borne. But the car is heavy enough that it stays glued to the surface. Even at 307 mph, the Firebird was showing absolutely no signs of getting light on the front."
"We also run the stock rear spoiler from a 1990 Pontiac Firebird on our 1992 car because we feel that is the best spoiler that Pontiac has. It’s not an aftermarket spoiler, it’s an actual stock rear spoiler and it’s the one that starts on the glass itself and goes all the way around the deck lid."
In addition to the C(368 cubic-inch engine)/Blown Gas Altered record they now hold, the Kugel & LeFevers team holds the C(368 cubic-inch engine)/Blown Gas Coupe category record which is also a production class. The speed record in that category is 295.859 mph.
"If you’re going to go 300 mph in a stock-bodied production car at Bonneville, the car of choice is a Pontiac Firebird," said Joe Kugel. "Out of all the production cars, it probably has the lowest drag as far as aerodynamics are concerned, and at 300 mph, this Firebird has to be the most stable vehicle that’s ever been built.
"When you move up in power, and get into that 8000 rpm range you are literally nailed to the back of your seat. That’s when you know that you’re going very, very fast and everything is happening very, very quickly. You’ll be watching the tachometer, feeling the engine at about 6000 rpm, and all of a sudden it shoots to 8000 and you think the engine is just going to explode. When the turbochargers kick in, it only takes a split second for everything to happen, so you really have to hang on."
The Kugel & LeFevers Pontiac used in breaking the 300 mph speed barrier is a 1992 Firebird purchased from fellow Bonneville competitor Dave MacDonald. It utilizes a Mike LeFevers, Mi-Tech small-block gasoline-powered 368 cubic-inch GM engine with Hillborn electronic fuel-injected manifold, and Turbo-Garrett turbochargers.
"When Dave owned the car he had an exit speed of 295 mph," Joe Kugel said. "He felt that the car picked up in the front, felt light and the situation got somewhat hairy. Knowing that information and finding out everything about the car enabled us to make the necessary changes to get the record. We made it heavier in the front and we stiffened the suspension in the back considerably. We put much stronger springs in the back with shocks that are more stiff. Sometimes with the heavier weight on the back, these cars have a tendency to ‘squat’ at high speed and that’s something we’ve been able to avoid."
"This Firebird made six runs during the week with three of them over 300 mph and we didn’t have to replace a spark plug. That just shows the great work that Mike (LeFevers) does on these Mi-Tech engines. Dave MacDonald and Lionel Pitts sold us the car and we want to give them a lot of thanks as well. We not only got the car, but we got years of research and development that they insisted we take along with it. That information told us how the car behaved and reacted under certain conditions and we couldn’t have done it without them."