Jeff Brock and Bomshell Betty
Jeff Brock sits on the hood of "The Evil Twin," a successor to Bombshell Betty and a car he hopes will surpass Betty's land speed record.
Story and photos by Bob Eckert
Bombshell Betty, a 1952 Buick Super Riviera, with her bare steel body, reminded one viewer of a bare metal Luscombe or Beech aircraft, but to me she’s more like a ride that some group of superheroes would use. Aerodynamic covered wheel wells. What look like bomb noses serving as headlight covers. A lowered roof making her rather blocky looking ‘50s body seem a bit sleeker, as if she had recently gone to the gym or a good plastic surgeon. She sits demurely in the Rocketheads Racing shop at the rear of the old theater on Paseo de Oñate. That’s where Jeff Brock and his main business partner, Sergio Juarez, work their automotive magic.
Brock was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, coincidentally where Buicks were built.
“It’s a big hole in the ground now,” Brock said. “My father, Doug Brock, was a motorcycle racer and builder of custom motorcycles. He was one of the founding people in our country in custom bobbers and chopper motorcycles. He was doing that when it wasn’t popular and it wasn’t well received. I grew up in that. I grew up in a motorcycle shop, running with a motorcycle gang, being exposed to all kinds of creative expression. My dad is a lifelong hero and as we speak I promise you he’s in his shop building a new bike. It’s something you’re born with. When you just can’t help but be — it’s a cliché word, but — creative. When you need to modify things. When you need to build things that say who you are. I was born with that and he was, as well. It was an awesome childhood. When I was in diapers I was out there with tools and rags.”
Brock is an artist and speed freak — a motorhead, if you will — and Bombshell Betty speaks to both of those needs. She is the holder of seven world speed records at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and is also a work of rolling art.
Brock said he’s always wanted to be an artist.
“I always had a studio and I always would work in mixed mediums and all my adult life I was into vintage motorcycles. Into customizing and racing vintage motorcycles. I ice raced (bikes w studded tires — it was like an answer to cabin fever in Northern Michigan — it’s similar to racing on the salt, I dirt dragged, I drag raced on the asphalt the quarter mile and I circle track raced. Blue collar. Followed the Antique Motorcycle Club of America (AMCA) circuit into Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa.”
But he said he never thought it possible for a ‘normal’ person — normal being a person who loves speed but doesn’t have corporate sponsorship or a few million bucks to toss around on a rocket car — to participate in land speed racing.
“I was really unaware of the fact that they had classes.” Brock admitted. “It was an inadvertent realization at a car show in Los Angeles and I saw one of my heroes, Bill Burke, but I saw his car that was built in 1952 and I had a ’52 Buick sitting in my yard waiting to be something special. I was inspired by my dear friend Miguel Martinez in Taos, a potter, he’s one of my favorite people in the world and he has one of my favorite cars in the world, a ’53 Buick Super Riviera convertible. The body of Bombshell Betty is the same body, it’s just not a convertible. So that car inspired me to build a custom car out of the Buick I had sitting around. And at that car show I saw that land speed racecar and I asked a few questions and realized there was a place for me there (on the salt flats). That there were classes that were relatively affordable. (affordable in Betty’s case being $20K — the price of a used car. But that’s being very, very frugal (and being able to do all the work yourself, as Brock is able to do). There were classes for inline engine coupes was the light bulb moment for me.”
So with inspiration and the realization that normal people race on the salt flats, Betty’s inception occurred.
“Me and Sergio and Lupe Niño, who had to go back to Mexico, built this car in three months. It was a wild haired idea. I bought the car as a shell with no rear axle, no seats, no engine — it was a rusty relic in a retired sawmill south of Phoenix. I found it on Craigslist and I had to go to Phoenix on other business and I took my trailer. I bought it for $700 and literally drug it out of piles of logs and onto the trailer and then back to the shop. So when I saw the ’52 at the car show in Los Angeles I realized, ‘This is where I’m going.’”
Brock said he and Sergio were not prepared for what they saw when they arrived at the Salt Flats.
“We showed up on the salt after three months consisting of 16-hour days. I had never done anything like it before so I didn’t realize how ridiculous that was. Some people tried to tell me to seek help (laughs). We were completely overwhelmed when we got there.” Brock enthused. “What you experience when you have two and a half miles of pits three rows deep 500 plus racers — and about 9000 spectators — is there’s everything under the sun. People like us there — well, not anyone quite like us — there’s a lot of variety. There’s motorcycles. There’s trucks. There’s cars. I think that there are about 70 different classes.”
Bombshell Betty is in what is called the XO/GCC class (gas competition coupe vintage engine).
Brock said the criteria for competing and entering a certain class is quite complicated.
“There was a funny moment in a really challenging time. What anybody has to do if building a land speed racer is you have to buy a rulebook. So you buy a bible thick rulebook from the SCTA, the Southern California Timing Assoc., and you apply the rules, that are primarily safety oriented, but some of them are conformational or structural if you will,” Brock explained. “We’re in a competition coupe class and all you can do is chop the top. You can modify the body from the cowl forward because that’s advantageous to speed, length is good for it, but in the competition couple class the body mods you can really only chop the top. Then you have roll cage, fire suppression, fuel safety… it’s tremendous. It’s like building a car (as opposed to modifying an existing car). It’s like starting from the ground up. I’m competitive in some areas, that’s how my mind works. If I’m going to go out there with a big, fat ’52 Buick Rivera I better find some speed. Find ways to modify it (to attain that speed he’s looking for). I inherently try to think of things people haven’t thought of. It was a very complicated tech inspection. You take your car and there may be as many as six tech officials will go through a list of all things that have to be met. They send people back to the pits and back home all the time. You have to follow their rules. They’ve buried our fellow races along the way too many times. People die. They really try hard (to make sure it’s as safe as possible) and they are a great bunch of people. They work hard at finding the safest way — every year the rulebook changes. It’s all about keeping everybody alive.”
There are also rules within classes and how you build the car to keep it competitive — to keep everybody on the same page. So that’s where it gets a little complicated. You have a lot of possible interpretations of class rules.
“So when we took the car there we had a barrage of people around the car because nothing quite like her has been built. Not many artists build racecars. It was a big hit with the fans, but some people were not so fond of it because we pushed the envelope in some areas. It’s like finding areas that aren’t written more than bending rules. It’s the only coupe in the history of Bonneville to ever run, still to this day, with no rear window. I decked the package tray thinking it would act like an airfoil. I’ve had aerodynamic engineers look at that and laugh and say, ‘That was brilliant.’ But it was just an idea to keep that car down. Part of your problem out there is traction and ‘underair’ causes spins. They have spins all the time. Luckily most times you spin out and don’t roll but when you roll it’s ugly. In my research I realized that with this long of a car and this wide of a car it was going to be a challenge to keep it down so I decked that package tray and removed the rear window and there was nothing in the rules that said you couldn’t do that. But there were people who disagreed. People are kind of like ducks. When one person does it one way and others follow, then it’s like the traditional way to do it — and Brock is anything but traditional. The traditional way would have been to chop it like you customize a car and put the rear window back in but in my study and in my ideas of how to make the car go fast — well, it was controversial. I decked off the tops of the door openings, as well, because that wind that breaks around the windshield doesn’t fill up that car and create a big drag. I’m using that air that’s typically gong to fight its way around the car to hold that car down. So when we went through tech there was a funny moment that I’ll never forget. I was listening to two different tech officials who were sort of giving me a hard time. They were reading the rule book out loud and I read the rule book out loud in the way that I interpreted it, and I said, ‘You know,’ in front of probably 40 people who were around the car, ‘this helps me know how we got Catholics and Baptists out of the same book.’ And it made everybody laugh and lightened things up.”
When they finally got through with the tech inspection it was time to race. It was Brock’s first time and he admitted he was very naive about the whole process.
Now it was time to “Rookie Up.”
“Part of keeping us all alive is they have different classes,” Brock explained. “When you first go to Bonneville and are a new racer you have to keep the car under 125 mph. (Rookie Up). You’ve got to show them you’re in control. That you are aware of your speed. You have to go through your rookie orientation where they take you out on the course and learn about safety and course exiting and all those things. Once you get your rookie license then you can take it a step further.”
Brock admits that he is very competitive, but on that first run he made at Bonneville, he had one simple prayer.
“I realized that the dream of just racing at Bonneville was attainable. It wasn’t about success or winning, the success was being there. My prayer, the first time I launched that car off the line, was that I would make it all the way down the course. I didn’t care how fast I went, I just prayed that it wouldn’t blow up or break down or melt down and I would not even get one run in. The whole dream was to run something I built — this creative expression — on Bonneville salt.”
He recounted his first record-breaking run.
“The first time we broke the record we were still testing and tuning,” Brock said. “The previous record was 127 mph. It was three days into the first race when we broke that record. I was not really where I knew I could get with the tune of the car. It’s tricky to tune a ‘50s straight eight at 5000 feet running it at twice the horsepower. The first time we had broken the record, there is a timing stand — you tow the car five miles out to the course, you race car down through the course, it takes about six miles to shut it down, you get off the course and the crew comes and tows you back to the safety lane. On that safety lane return you’re still five miles from the pits so you can go back and race again or you can get your timing slip. The first time we had broken the record we had gone 129 mph but I was getting my tune in — dialing it in. I knew that I could go faster. I had broken a world record but I was so naïve, so not versed in what that meant, that I took the timing slip. The timing guy was way more excited than I was. He was high fiveing me and a hug and I’m, ‘I’m not done, I can go faster.’ I was going to get back in line. And he said, ‘Get your ass and your car down to impound.’ He said, ‘Everything can and will go bad.’ He told me to go get my record and then try to go faster. He had to tell me how to do it since I was still thinking I could go faster.”
Brock explained that when you break a world record your car gets impounded until the next morning at sunrise. It gets scrutinized by the officials and by your fellow racers to see if there had been any modifications done after the initial tech inspection. Those who have broken records that day have their cars in impound. You can tune on your car but you can’t change anything.
“This was three months after I had the idea to build the car. (pretty heady) That, in perspective, is ‘oh my gawd, don’t try this at home,’” Brock said, laughing. “The next day we went over 130 mph. (they average the two runs, high and low, to give you an average speed for your record). Our first record for that first year was 130 and some change. We went out the next day and after you have achieved your record, it’s kind of ceremonial. You got out and race some more. You go back out on the course and see if you can make it go faster. At six o’clock you are required to be back on the course and the handful of racers who have broken records get escorted: flashing lights, very formal. You pass all the audience and you get to be the first runs of the day, which is one of the most beautiful experiences in the world. The sun is just coming up and it’s gorgeous. Everything about that experience in the morning is magical.”