You have to see inside the cab or under the hood. The interior looks like a maze. The roll cage makes a cocoon around the driver and is sparse. It has a steering wheel, a couple of switches and a gear shift lever. The tubular beams in the cage are built to protect the driver in the event of a crash.
That’s a good thing because the engine, while neither shiny nor showy, can take truck — and Russell — at speeds exceeding 140 mph.
Russell drives his truck, which is not street legal, at East Coast Timing Association events at the Laurinburg-Maxton Airport, where top speed time trials are held five times a year for enthusiasts who are committed to driving as fast as they can. Drivers start from a standstill, accelerate for a mile and are timed for the last 60 feet.
The ECTA has been doing time trials at the Laurinburg-Maxton Airport after resurfacing and renovating one of the runways, which had been abandoned. Russell has been spectating, working on other people’s cars or running his own car since 2000. He bought his truck for $1,900 at a swap meet with the idea of building a truck that would have a top speed of 150 mph. He blew his budget, but built a truck that would go 168 mph at the time trials at the airport.
“I blew the motor at 168 mph at about the three-quarter mile mark, but I was still going 140 through the trap,” he said.
After his engine blew, he rebuilt his current motor with a budget. He spent $100 on a two blown motors and salvaged the good parts, added a couple of new gaskets, and has a motor that puts out about 300 horsepower. That’s enough to push his small truck to 143 mph. Although he has broken some records, he says he is there to race, not to collect points or records. Last year he broke four records, two of which lasted less than an hour.
“You only rent records, you don’t own them,” Russell said.
The events attract TV crews and interest from Hot Rod Magazine as one of the only places to do land speed time trials east of the Mississippi. The center of the land-speed world is the Bonneville Salt Flats but for many, including Russell, transporting vehicles 2,000 miles to Utah presents a challenge.
Russell describes himself as a hot rodder from the ’70s who built cars to drag race in the ’80s, but cooled his jets for a family but never lost interest in the fast lane.
He says land-speed racing is different from drag racing because, although it is competitive, the members of the small land-speed community help each other out in the pits. A team from Michigan drove its 1964 Chevy Mailbu to Maxton but blew an engine and didn’t know how to repair to car or what to do with it. Russell is storing the car at his house until a team from Winston-Salem can rebuild the engine and get the car back to Michigan.
Russell began to watch the land-speed events in Maxton nine years ago. He also frequented dirt track events and helped out with their cars. In the end he decided to get his hands dirty — at top speed.
Two years later, he was volunteering to work on other people’s cars. Five years ago, he built his mini-truck — because it was something no one else had done — and was competing for points at the airport as an ECTA member. He is now one of the regulars who volunteers to get the track ready and inspect cars before a run. His car isn’t the fastest, or the most expensive. According to Russell, one Dodge Viper that was set up for land-speed racing sold for $150,000.
“Speed costs,” Russell said. “How fast do you want to go?”
The ECTA uses safety rules based on those used at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The rules are written in “blood” he said, meaning that many of the rules are in place because someone got hurt. Even with precautions, Russell has lost close friends to the sport.
“When we wreck, we wreck bad,” he said.