By Drew Hardin
Photo Courtesy Lynn Wineland, Petersen Publishing Co. Archive
In the Belly of the Beast
Bill Burke is credited with recognizing the competitive edge that could come from adapting a World War II fighter plane’s drop tank—the very essence of streamlining—into a land-speed racer. As he tells it, he first noticed the wing tanks in Guadalcanal while watching sailors unload them off a barge. A hot rodder before the war, Burke measured the tanks and figured that their dimensions could accommodate a Ford rearend and engine block.
Once home in the States, Burke turned a 165-gallon tank—used by P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts—into a race car, but he found it too small. Undeterred, he searched for and found a larger tank—the 315-gallon version used by P-38s—and built the first of what would be many successful belly-tank racers.
Arguably his most famous tank racer, Sweet Sixteen, appeared on the August 1949 cover of Hot Rod, which proclaimed it “The World’s Fastest Hot Rod.” Powered by a highly modified Mercury Flathead V8, the tank set several records at SCTA dry lakes meets, including the 151.085-mph mark that earned Burke his cover story.
Fast forward 11 years, to the 1960 Bonneville Nationals, where Petersen Publishing Company photographer Lynn Wineland captured the lanky Bill Summers tucked into the Quincy Automotive/Brissette Brothers tank. (As you might imagine, driving a belly-tank lakester isn’t for the claustrophobic.) In the decade that followed Burke’s pioneering work, many racers adapted his idea with a variety of surplus drop tanks. The Quincy/Brissette tank, profiled in the January 1961 issue of Rod & Custom, had been built in 1956 for dry lakes competition and was stretched a full foot “to handle the 120-in. wheelbase and still get as much as possible inside.” Behind Summers is a ’58 Chrysler Hemi, bored and stroked to 446ci and breathing through a Hilborn 6-71 supercharger.
To illustrate just how much belly tanks had advanced since Burke’s Sweet Sixteen, Summers drove the Quincy/Brissette tank to “a speed unequaled by any machine with exposed wheels”—264.70 mph—on the way to a record-setting 251.3095-mph two-way average.