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World record speed

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By JOHN JACKSON

ARGUS-COURIER SPORTS EDITOR

On Aug. 19, 2011, Petaluman Steve Nelson became the fastest man in the world in his class when he sped his homemade lakester across the Bonneville Salt Flats at 196 miles per hour.

His time was not quite a quarter of the 414.316 mph record for the fastest single-engine car set by Charles Nearburg on Sept. 21, 2010. But Nearburg was driving a specially designed monster powered by a 523 cubic-inch race competition engine that generated 1,182 horsepower.

The engine in Nelson's car was a modified 1932 Ford block, four-cylinder REM, meaning it was designed by Robert E. McKinney of Petaluma. It generates 250 horsepower and qualifies the Petaluma driver for the vintage four-cylinder lakester class. It also runs on alcohol, although Nelson is considering changing it to run on gasoline and making a run at the world record in that category.

The transmission is a secondhand four-speed that was formerly used in NASCAR competition. Nelson rebuilt it from parts he bought on eBay.

The frame and canopy were designed by Nelson and friends using a CAD program and a lot of creativity and engineering skill.

It all added up to a world speed record.

Nelson's record-setting run was backed up by a run of 193 mph the next day, giving him an average 194.75 mph on the two consecutive runs he needed to officially break the 191.41 mph record that had stood for 14 years.

After his first run had bettered the existing record, Nelson admitted he was a bit apprehensive for one of the few times in his racing career.

"You have to be calm," he says. "I usually don't get nervous, but the day after I broke the record, I did have a few butterflies."

He needn't have worried. His second run was well ahead of the previous record. Both runs were verified by the Southern California Timing Association, and his four-year pursuit of the mark was complete.

By the time Nelson is outfitted into his fire-retardant suit and helmet, it is a squeeze to fit his lanky 6-foot-2-inch body into the specialty designed vehicle, called a lakester, signifying that the wheels are on the outside of the frame.

By the time he is fitted into his vehicle, he is almost laying on his back, with his upper back and head elevated enough for him to see out of the wrap-around canopy.

"It is surprising. I really have good vision," Nelson said.

A person might think that skimming along at almost 200 miles per hour a foot or so off the salt flats might get the adrenaline flowing. Nelson said it isn't as exciting as it seems.

"You really don't get that much of a speed sensation, because you don't have telephone poles or other reference points," he explained.

What he sees are black markers that show him the course parameters and fluorescent orange mile markers. The course is five miles long.

A parachute at the rear of his vehicle helps bring it to a halt.

Although drivers have been severely injured and even killed while chasing records, Nelson says he doesn't worry much about his safety.

"The safety measures are getting stricter," he said. "I don't have any problem with that. You very seldom see anyone hurt."

He downplays his own role in the record. "Ninety percent is the set up," he said. "I just get into fourth gear and keep by foot on the gas."

Nelson is firmly rooted in Petaluma. Both he, and wife, Jeanne, are fifth-generation Petalumans. His great-grandfather was a Petaluma High graduate.

He is a retired PG&E worker and he and Jeanne have a grown son, grown daughter and three grandchildren.

Nelson is proud of his Petaluma heritage. His five-acre home on Liberty Road has a multitude of out buildings stuffed with vintage vehicles and a wide array of memorabilia, much of it from the Petaluma of Nelson's youth.

One building is completely restored 1960s dinner, complete with a working soda fountain that came from the now-defunct Beasley's Restaurant in downtown Petaluma and a functioning juke box. It is Jeanne's domain.

One building contains a Model T Ford Speedster and other current vintage car restoration projects.

Crammed neatly into and onto the walls and ceilings of other buildings are a complete dual set of California license plates, a United States flag, with license plates for the various states in the place of the stars, and all kinds of carefully preserved reminders of a Petaluma that was — a Petaluma when speed was reserved for race tracks and the Bonneville Salt Flats and not the pace of every day living.

(Contact John Jackson at acsports@arguscourier.com)

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