Banks At Bonneville

Super Rod January 2004

by John Thawley

photography Gale Banks Engineering

The dramatic story behind the creation of the Banks Sidewinder and its record-shattering run at Bonneville

Hey, you out there in Illinois, South Carolina or (heaven forbid) Texas; have you ever dreamed of going to the Bonneville Salt Flats — going really fast and setting a record? This is a good, clean, honest car guy’s dream. The dream was mine before I could legally drive. Gale Banks had the same dream, but he was in California and I was in Texas — so he got there long before I did. It wasn’t just geography, you see; from the very get-go, Banks had a plan — a very solid plan — and Buckaroo is going to use Banks as an example, so you can take a shot at your dream regardless of where you live.

Over a 40-year career on the salt, Banks has been directly responsible for setting scores of records in dozens of classes. Some of the cars he’s been involved with have had more engine changes than tire changes. Consider the following. The Geisler Studebaker set records for 10 years in a dozen or so classes. The Sundowner Corvette coupe was the world’s fastest passenger car in 1981 at 240 mph. In 1986, Banks came back with a Pontiac Trans-Am and ran 268 mph to get the same title; a year later — with the same car — they ran 283 mph! The Teague, Welch, Banks Streamliner has gone 432 mph to become the world’s fastest piston-engine vehicle. And the list goes on.

Banks Sidewinder Duramax
Banks Sidewinder towing it's own trailerThis is the entrance road to the salt. That means there’s 700-plus miles behind that truck and trailer, as it made the trek all the way from Los Angeles. Now it’s time to get down to work.
Banks Sidewinder Duramaxclick to enlarge
Banks Sidewinder Duramax
Don Alexander and Gale BanksDriver Don Alexander and Gale Banks yuck it up after a record run. This is one of the better moments in a car guy’s life.

Regardless of the vehicle he wants to take to the salt – “just because that would be fun” — Banks starts in the same place at the end of every meet. At the end of every meet? Yup. You see, win, lose, draw or break — he starts with the drive back home. Make it a long one. If you did what you set out to do — our congratulations.

Just don’t put the rig in the ditch while patting yourself on the back. Ask yourself some very cold, hard questions. Do you want to come back? And if so, why? What do you really want to accomplish, and realistically, can you do it?

What if you’ve never been to Bonneville before — even as a spectator, much less as a competitor? In that case, we could suggest you do two things. First, buy the most current rulebook available — even if it is out of date. Seriously. Also, subscribe to Bonneville Racing News. Read the friggin’ rulebook! Then read it again. Begin taking notes about items such as engine displacement and Fuel versus Gas classes. Start with any entry-level class and become comfortable with it. What do you know about the class? If you don’t understand something, read the rulebook again! Most of the time the answer will be in there, somewhere.

Let’s get back to Banks — ’cause that’s the way he does it. Almost three years before he took a diesel-powered pickup to Bonneville and set a record the first time out, Banks started by reading the rulebook. What is the existing record? How big was the engine? Start narrowing it down. Fuel? Gas? Supercharged?

Banks knows diesels and he knows turbochargers — that’s what he does for a living. Nevertheless, for the start of a new project, Banks began with the most current rulebook. He thought an existing record of 159.657 mph was soft. In racing, soft generally refers to a record which is thought of as easy to get. Yeah, right…piece of cake.

Well, we won’t hold you hostage before giving you the outcome. The Banks Dodge truck ran 222 mph, bettering the existing record. But, take a closer look. Because Banks sells turbocharger assemblies for trucks and motor homes, he had something to prove to potential customers who don’t plan to go to Bonneville — and for darn sure don’t plan to go anywhere near 200 mph. Banks wanted to prove the reliability of turbocharged engines, similar to those found in motor homes for which he sells power-enhancing equipment, for performance, durability and fuel mileage.

His idea was to drive the truck the 700-plus miles to Bonneville while towing a double-axle enclosed trailer loaded with racing tires, wheels, tools, coolers, lawn chairs, awning, grubby clothes — and, yes, we think there was beer. The effort just to get to the salt with a street legal truck towing a 5,000-lb trailer was monumental. The truck was heavily modified — engine, transmission and rear-axle swap. This was in addition to a complete chassis revamp, including a full rollcage exceeding the specs listed in the rulebook (ah, that word again).

A fire-extinguishing system had to be thought out, fabricated and plumbed. Then there was the matter of mounting a parachute. Instruments had to be mounted and wired. And while all of this was being done — months and months of work on the truck itself — the same effort was going into the engine. The cylinder head was ported and flowed on the SuperFlow flow bench. This is extremely time-consuming work. Grinding cast iron with a handheld grinder is slow going, which makes going to the flow bench a welcome relief for the guy doing the grinding, because it doesn’t take long for his entire upper torso to start screaming for Novocaine.

A lot of time was spent designing and fabricating the 4-inch stainless steel exhaust system for the turbo (before the package went to the dyno). This package consisted of a Cummins 359cid in-line six with a 4.02-inch bore and 4.72-inch stroke. Compression ratio was 15.1:1. Peak boost was 52 psi from the Holset variable-geometry turbocharger. The fuel was No. 2 diesel. The twin air-to-water Cummins turbochargers dropped the turbo-discharge air temperature from 500 degrees F. to 100 degrees F. And finally it all came together. The engine was snugged into the truck. The systems were checked and the truck was declared “race ready” by the boss at midnight. Seven hundred miles away, the World Finals had already started. Not only did the race truck have to tow the trailer and get there; it also had to go through technical inspection and be prepped for running on the salt.

The driver was Don Alexander, who had a lot of seat time in a lot of fast cars, but never on the salt — so he had to go through the licensing procedure. He had to work up to speed, so his first pass was only 172 mph; the second run came in at 192 mph, and in short order, Alexander set an FIA and BNI record at 182 mph. Not bad for the first day on the salt! The second day, the truck set a record at 217 mph and recorded an exit speed of 222.139 mph. The on-board data acquisition was showing a massive 1,300 lb-ft of torque from the 5.9-liter turbo-diesel!

The third day was not a good day on the salt for the Dodge truck. Partway into the first pass, the pinion gear sheared in two. Alexander coasted through the clocks at 209 mph. Time to load up, go home and continue reading the rulebook.

Banks At Bonneville
1. No doubt there are some aftermarket airdams out there for this truck, but Banks instinctively knew that to get over 200 mph, they probably wouldn’t get the job done.
Banks At Bonneville
2. Don Alexander has the best seat in the house. A lot can be learned from this shot. Everything exceeds the safety rules, and everything the driver needs is readily at hand. Without taking his eyes off the course, the driver can turn off the engine and fuel pump and actuate the fire extinguishers with one hand in one motion. The parachute-deployment lever is between the switch box and fire-extinguisher controls. This is a good layout.
Banks At Bonneville
3. The Sidewinder is a real race truck, but quite possibly not just for the salt. We can’t be specific at this point, but the truck will most likely see some road-course time by early next year.
Banks At Bonneville
4. The firewall is just one example of how severely modified the Banks truck is. When these panels are finished and painted, they looked as if they grew there.
Banks At Bonneville
5. Now you can really see how much work it was to get that big Cummins into place, but obviously the results were worth the effort.
Banks At Bonneville
6. The new firewall and tranny cover took plenty of skill.
Banks At Bonneville
7. Like much of the Banks Sidewinder, the fire-suppression system is overkill, but considering that a life is at stake, it certainly can’t be faulted.
Banks At Bonneville
8. It was no small effort to get this diesel powertrain package under the hood.
Banks At Bonneville
9. Cylinder-head development required considerable time on the flow bench.
Banks At Bonneville
10. The Banks dyno room was used to flog the six-cylinder Cummins diesel. As you can see from all the instrumentation probes, this kind of testing is labor intensive, but this is what it takes to find the horsepower and torque needed to get the job done.
Banks At Bonneville
11. This giant Holset turbo develops a maximum of 52 psi.
Banks At Bonneville
This is “home” for about a week every year to Gale Banks and crew-whatever the vehicle. Although this may seem austere, shade on the salt can make life as comfortable as an old shoe. After the tow from Southern California, the Sidewinder needed only a tire change, a parachute mount and a cab cleaning to be ready for a run.
Banks At Bonneville
Time has a way of erasing memories, but when we saw the Sundowner Corvette run 230 mph and some change, we were impressed. When it ran 240 mph, we went over and looked at it – a long time. The massage was flawless.
Banks At Bonneville
The Banks Trans-Am eventually topped the Corvette by more than 40 mph. It took two years to do it, with enough water and ice on board to start a full-size ice cream parlor.
Banks At Bonneville
When you take a normally aspirated GMC S-15 pickup to the salt and run 210 mph and pass tech, you get instant and well-earned respect. Banks did just that. The pickup was slick – really slick.
Banks At Bonneville
A grubby, young Gale Banks poses with the Geisler coupe. The car held numerous records over the years, but more important, it spawned a raft of Studebaker coupes. Despite their sleek appearance, this car had more than its share of aerodynamic problems – which were eventually solved in a unique way.

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