From Small Seeds…

SEMA News—March 2016


By Drew Hardin

From Small Seeds…

  Mickey Thompson and Bill Burke

Petersen Publishing Company photographer Pat Brollier captured two hot-rodding legends hard at work on this day in May 1961. On the left is Mickey Thompson, who a year earlier became the first American to go faster than 400 mph in his four-engine Challenger streamliner on the Bonneville Salt Flats. On the right is Bill Burke, who set a personal milestone of his own at Bonneville in 1960. Piloting his tiny “Pumpkin Seed” streamliner, powered by an equally small 156-in. Ford Falcon engine (tuned by Ford engine expert Bill Stroppe), Burke set a Class D Streamliner record of 205.949 mph and earned himself a place in the prestigious 200 MPH Club.

Burke set his sights higher for the 1961 Bonneville Speed Trials, and he teamed with Thompson to reach that goal. Thompson brought the muscle in the form of two Pontiac Tempest engines—one 120 cubic inches, the other 185, both blown and running on nitro. Brollier captured the two men trying to fit a Pontiac mill into the Pumpkin Seed’s engine bay.

Burke, who passed away on Thanksgiving Day at the age of 97, was no stranger to working in tight spaces. He was the first dry-lakes racer to use an airplane drop tank as a streamlined hot-rod body, after seeing a stack of them in the South Pacific during World War II. Right after the war, he mated a surplus P-51 auxiliary fuel tank to a Model T chassis, powered it with a Ford Flathead V8, and went 131 mph on the lakes.

His second try at what we now call a belly-tank lakester used a larger drop tank from a P-38, which allowed him to mount the flathead in the middle of the tank and position himself down low in the nose. This car would come to be called “Sweet 16” and would be the first to break the 160-mph barrier in 1948. That feat earned Burke a cover story in the then-new Hot Rod magazine, which called his lakester the “World’s Fastest Hot Rod.”

Burke brought his lakester to the very first Bonneville Speed Trials in 1949, and he continued to attend the meet for 60 consecutive years, racing a variety of vehicles, streamlined and otherwise. His exploits on the salt were well covered by Hot Rod, where he also worked for years selling advertising for it and other Petersen titles.

Despite the high-profile help from Thompson, 1961 wasn’t one of Burke’s more successful years at Bonneville. Engine trouble plagued him, as both Pontiacs broke before he could set any records. He did manage to clock a 232.22-mph pass with the bigger motor before it broke apart, sending hot water and oil throughout the canopy and burning him. But he’d be back, undeterred, with fresh motors and new streamlining ideas.

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