Bill Heath has visited the annual Speed Week event at Bonneville for the last 30 years. This Summer, when he steps onto the Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway, he will arrive as a registered contestant and not a visitor, a distinction that makes all the difference in the world to him.
Given Bill’s dedication to the 6.2/6.5 GM diesels, you might have guessed – even if no one else has ever done it at Bonneville – that Bill will be racing something powered by a 6.5L diesel. As it turns out, that something is a full-sized Chevy pickup.
maxxTORQUE plans to join Bill and the Heath Diesel team at the Bonneville Race Week as he pursues his dream of setting a land speed record with the Heath racer. As Heath Diesel rushes to prepare for the August event, we slowed Bill down long enough for him to share his dream of racing at Bonneville, why it has taken three decades to get there and a little about the truck he plans to do it in.
6.5L Land Speed Racer: The Beginning
Bill Heath’s Bonneville initiation occurred 30 years ago in 1978. He still speaks of that revelation in other-worldly terms:
“Bonneville is the Valhalla of Hotrodding; it and the dry lake beds of Southern California are the places that spawned hotrodding as we know it today; so the first time I rolled out onto that great white expanse, I was awe struck by the shear vastness of it. The place is so flat that you can actually see the curvature of the earth. I was sufficiently overwhelmed that I may have heard the voices of angels singing.”
Perhaps the voices told him that he someday he would be more than a visitor:
“I knew then, on that first visit, that, one day, I was going to build a racer of some sort and run wide open across the salt.”
So why has it taken 30 years for the vision to take shape? Too many other things have gotten in the way. Back then, summers were consumed by drag racing – Bill had been racing since 1964 – and by airplanes that needed flying and motorcycles that needed riding. Later, Bill was blessed with a wonderful wife, many children and a very changed focus. The dream of racing on the Salt Flats must have seemed far off at times.
The Engine: A GM Diesel
The dream never died though. In 1982, when GM introduced its 6.2L diesel, Bill bought a GMC powered by one of these new engines. He realized then that he had found at least an engine for his someday dream – imagining back then that he would transplant one into a custom built lakester or roadster. Since then, a diesel has always seemed – to Bill at least – the most reasonable powerplant for this kind of racing.
“It was when the 6.2 came out in ‘82 that we started to do some things with it and it was from that point, 1982, that I thought, ‘You know, we need to find a way to do a racer with a diesel.’ We built a 6.2 for drag racing and had a lot of fun with that. We learned that these engines possess a pretty decent bore-to-stroke ratio, rod length and block rigidity. We learned that we could spin one of these things to around as about 5300 RPM and it wouldn’t fly apart – and that was cool.”
Back in those days, the diesel movement at Bonneville was nothing like it is now.
Bill notes, “The momentum for diesel-powered vehicles in that racing venue is substantially strong [now] and that’s because the turbocharged diesel is so well suited, so nicely adapted to that venue.”
Bill attributes the advantages of a diesel at Bonneville to a number of factors:
- Elevation: 4,400 feet;
- Typical race day ambient temperature of 90 to 105ºF; and,
- Density altitude (what the engine sees): 9,000 to 11,000 feet.
“Density altitude has a major effect on engine output – on a naturally aspirated engine most especially – so a typical, naturally aspirated gasoline-powered race engine is down 30 to 40 percent because of the density altitude. The supercharged gas burner fights destructive detonation trying to build more power while the turbocharged diesel is as happy as a clam under these same conditions. The diesel is perfectly suited for racing at Bonneville, which explains why so many are in use there. The idea of using the GM 6.2/6.5 is one that has been with me since 1982.”
He never imagined that it would be another quarter-century before he would get serious about his dream: every year, he visited Wendover, home of the Bonneville Raceway, only to become a little more convinced that someday, somehow he needed to make a diesel racer happen. Each year he would return home only to allow other priorities to take precedence.
“I guess it just hadn’t gotten important enough during that period in my life,” Bill reflects.
Over the years, however, imperceptible change and then a brief exchange with hotrodding legend Boyd Coddington that brought Bill to a decision point. The years of dreaming culminated in a decision at the 2007 Bonneville World Finals.
“At the end of the 2007 World Finals event and as we were headed for the Suburban and home, we had a chance meeting with Boyd Coddington, who along with his crew was preparing his wife’s, Jo, car for one final pass. I asked Boyd if I could introduce him to Tyler, a member of the Heath Diesel Team who had travelled to Bonneville with me last year, and to pose for a picture or two with his fan. During a very cordial chat, he made a statement that rang my bell. He said, ‘if you’re gonna do a thing, you better do it before your too danged old to do it.’ When we had parted company with Boyd and before we got to the Suburban, I decided, I mean really decided, that I was going to go for it and be here for Speed Week ’08. At that point, I told Tyler of my solid commitment to getting this done, I told him we would be back as racers next year – period. That was it – it was a done deal and there could be no backing out, no letting things get in the way. We had to build a racer. (Left: Tyler with Boyd Coddington at the October 2007 Bonneville World Finals).
On the 700-mile return trip to Ellensburg, Bill looked forward to sharing the excitement of his dream with the team at Heath Diesel. He explained
“I want this to be a company thing, a company-wide team effort. It needs to be fun for everyone of us and not just for old Dad.”
When he returned to Washington following the World Finals event, the announcement of his intentions to return to Bonneville in 2008 with a race vehicle was met with total commitment to the project.
“I had hoped that there would be great excitement and there was. I was not disappointed.”
Before any body work was completed, John Raney of Yakima fabricated the required steel roll cage in the land speed racer.
Countdown to Bonneville 2008
Over the years, the idea of putting a GM diesel into a custom race car had faded away and the vision of a full-sized pick up truck had taken root as the vehicle that Bill would bring to Wendover. Early on, there had been consideration of using an S-10 body. Its smaller size would allow for a 20 MPH-or-so advantage over a Silverado or Sierra; but it only took a look around him for Bill to realize that this would not be the right way to go.
“We’ve got all these wonderful friends ‘round the world with their ‘94 through ‘00 model Chevy trucks and that 6.5 engine; we figured we would best represent them and do the better job of championing this vehicle and engine by using a real truck and not an S-10 with a transplanted engine.”
Coming out of the first project meeting after the decision to race at Bonneville, the team decided on the following guidelines for the racer:
- It must, in every way, champion both the truck and the engine for 6.5L owners around the globe
- The truck should be a half-ton, two wheel drive, extended cab, short box model – if one could be found
- It must be based on a 6.5L-powered, full-size GM truck
- It should run in the Diesel Truck (DT) class and our 6.5L turbo will put it in engine class size B.
- The body must be absolutely factory original with no aerodynamic upgrades
- The 6.5L engine must be in stock original configuration (stock block, crank, rods, pistons, heads, cam, etc)
- The truck must be presented in a perfect, original condition, inside and outside. Nothing less than show quality would do.
Craigslist to the Rescue
Bill Heath was quite concerned about the time and effort that might be consumed by searching for a vehicle with the exact specifications that the team felt would be the optimal race truck. In November 2007, the search began. As it turns out, finding just the right vehicle was probably the easiest thing that would happen in the course of bringing the dream into existence. Within days of posting the vehicle’s specifications on the Internet, using the website, Craigslist, a response arrived for exactly the vehicle they wanted. Amazingly, only 70 miles away in Othello, Mr. Kent Pearson – the original owner of a Chevy with 288,000 miles on it – had just such a vehicle for sale. He was thrilled to know his truck would soon be out on the Salt Flats and he plans to make the trip to watch it go for a record in August.
For his part, Bill Heath is proud that the truck is a bonafide Chevy 6.5L diesel:
“The truck that we are using is a truck that was bought brand new with this [6.5L] engine. We bought it from the original owner... It is not a conversion from gas or anything like that.”
In addition, Heath Diesel is doing everything they can, as they pursue the land speed record, to stay true to the stock nature of the truck.
“We want it to look like real truck; we want it to not be modified in terms of body configuration and it will not be. It necessarily has to have safety devices in it and it has to be on special wheels and tires for speed and it is lowered, but it is a real truck. It’s going to have radio, heater, tilt steering – all that stuff. It even has a CB radio in it so that the driver will be able to monitor the frequencies used by the Bonneville Race officials.”
Recipe for a Land Speed Racer
Preparing any racer for competition at the Bonneville Salt Flats involves working through a long list of upgrades in order to meet performance and safety requirements. In building our race truck, the first step we took was to build the roll cage.
This protective cocoon had to be constructed of heavy, 0.134-inch wall tubing configured to meet Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) / Bonneville Nationals Inc (BNI) regulations. These folks are serious about their safety regulations and about enforcing them. Heath chose to build the racer on an extended cab, short-box GM platform. This allowed for a very roomy cabin in which to build the cage assembly and, perhaps, a slightly more aerodynamic body shape than a regular cab truck. John Raney of Yakima fabricated the very robust cage to specifications.
The racer will run in the DT (diesel truck) class which does not allow any aerodynamic improvements. The body must be stock. A bed cover is allowed, so the guys at Heath built a special, two-piece rigid cover that fits below the top rail of the bed, per regulations. In an effort to reduce aero-drag, they employed drop spindles and special, shorter-than-stock front coil springs. These changes combine with the 26-inch tall Good Year Land Speed Racing tires to put the factory air dam about two inches off the surface of the salt.
In the rear, Heath de-arched the rear springs and this, combined with the added weight of the dual batteries, water injection storage tank and 28-inch tall Good Year Land Speed Racing tires, brought the rear ride height down. With these combos, the truck is as low as they could get it and still maintain a nose down rake of one-and-a-half degrees.
While the extended cab is full of roll cage, Heath worked to maintain the factory dash panel, door panels, rear cab wrap around components, headliner and carpet. Of course the factory seats had to go in favor of the cage and race seats – one for the driver, Bill Heath and a second for a passenger when the truck is not racing.
The progression of body work for the Land Speed Racer: at top, the original paint is still visible as the dents from the vehicle’s 288,000-mile service life are worked out. In the niddle, the primer coat has been applied before the Sandstone exterior paint is applied (bottom) and then cut and buffed. Grill, bumpers and other body effects are then installed.
The project truck came with a full compliment of farm-dents, those many little badges it earned while serving Mr. Pearson. Brian Maybee, owner of McIntosh Auto Body in Ellensburg, spent many hours making the racer straight and smooth before lavishing it with a beautiful paint finish.
When the McIntosh crew finished, new bumpers, grill, headlights, signal lamps, tail lamps, side moulding and wheel trim were installed. The completed truck looks like new and then some. All these new trim pieces were supplied by University Auto Center the GM dealer here in Ellensburg.
Bill explains that the “racer is a licensed, street legal truck that will be driven to various car shows in the area. The original owner, has been by our shop on several occasions to check progress on his baby. He is an enthusiastic supporter of our efforts to set a land speed record with his old truck and we have promised him rides in it when we are done – hence the passenger seat. This is a real, honest-to-goodness, full-sized GM 6.5 truck and not a down-sized S-10.”
The 6.5L Land Speed Racer Engine
The powerplant for the Heath racer is based on its original engine. It has been rebuilt by Heath to exacting factory dimensions and clearances, using the original block, rods, cam, cam followers, heads, etc. In order to assure peak diesel-combustion efficiency with the 6.5’s Recardo-Comet type combustion chamber, the compression ratio is factory stock at 21.3:1.
Heath treats the block to a process designed to add strength to the cylinders and crankcase. The coolant jackets are filled with a type of hydraulic concrete to within 2.4 inches of the deck surface. The remaining space allows sufficient room toward the top of the cylinders for coolant flow and for its distribution into the cylinder head above them. Filling the coolant jacket space like this contributes substantially to the overall rigidity of the cylinder barrels and helps to tie them to the crankcase below, contributing to the overall strength of the block. Perhaps you are thinking that this will cause an overheat condition, Bill Heath’s experience has been that this concern is unfounded. All of Heath’s 6.5s have been built using this same process – for many years – in all of their hard working trucks and Suburbans.
- The cylinder heads are stock 6.5 units that have been outfitted with the larger valves originally used in the 1982 6.2 engine.
- The intake and exhaust ports are treated to a simple pocket-porting’ or clean-up in the bowls and valve guide bosses which is standard.
The main caps are factory issue but held in place with Heath’s main stud kit instead of the factory-issue bolts. No girdle is employed, only the special studs. The only other special fasteners employed in the engine are the cylinder head studs. Fel Pro gaskets are used throughout.
The pistons are replacement units made by Mahle. They have been treated to a special ceramic coating process that includes one type of coating on the piston crown, another on the exterior skirt surfaces and a third inside the piston. These special piston coatings, along with the coating of many other external engine components, were all applied by Brad Gua’s Performance Coatings of Seattle, WA. These coatings help prevent heat-damage to the piston bodies and keep the engine alive for full throttle speed passes across the salt.
Heath opted to use the new SCAT 9000 series crankshaft in this engine. Bob Jones of SCAT suggested his company’s new 9000-series crankshaft in the racer and, since the original had 288,000 miles on it, this seemed good advice to Bill. Heath Diesel has run SCAT’s crankshafts in a number of its daily drivers and, so far, have been pleased with them. They also employed the new Fluidamper harmonic damper, feeling that this upgrade is particularly meaningful given the elevated RPM the racer will see. All precision machine work and balancing has been performed by Rich Eims, owner of Joe’s Grinding in Yakima.
Because the 6.5 racer is going to be spun up to 5300 RPM and will spend the majority of its time, on these speed runs, pulling at between 4600 and 5300 RPM in top gear, the engine will produce an exhaust flow increased over stock levels by approximately 50 percent at peak RPM. The factory exhaust manifolding, plumbing and single turbocharger would impose a tremendous and costly restriction to exhaust flow at these higher RPM. In order to reduce restriction to exhaust flow and to improve turbocharging efficiency, a set of individual turbocharger headers were designed for the engine. John Raney to the rescue again! He built a beautifully crafted set of headers for our very unique application. Each of these headers mounts a turbocharger, one on each side of the engine. These two turbos feed a common plenum atop the factory L65 intake manifold casting. The drive-pressure required to spin the turbos to produce the desired boost pressure is relatively low which helps to establish a more efficient boosting of the engine.
Cooling the intake charge-air is handled by one of the new Heath/Snow Performance Stage-1 water injection intercooling systems. Water injection intercooling is the preferred intercooling method for the 6.5 and the Heath/Snow solid-state controller provides precise metering and maximum intercooling efficiency. Rules prevent the use of methanol, so pure water is the racer’s intercooling diet on these speed runs. In fact, in this particular racing class, no supplementary fuels, such as propane, are allowed. The truck will run on event-supplied diesel.
The fuel injection system is comprised of an off-the-shelf 5521 Stanadyne injection pump and Heath’s HO (High Output) fuel injectors. The injection pump is supplied by a special 6.5 version of FASS system, mounted in the bed of the racer and pulling from the factory 26-gallon fuel tank.
Unrestricted and highly filtered airflow into our engine is handled by the new Heath Cold-Air Intake system. Each turbo downpipe will exit behind the front wheel on each side.
Naturally, the truck is equipped with every Heath upgrade, including a special Land Speed version of the Max-E-Tork PROM. As has been pointed out, the engine is configured to allow engine RPM up to 5300. In addition to this modified limit, the special programming features totally revised fuel and start-of-injection timing schedules as well as transmission programming to cause full throttle upshifts at 5000 RPM (the 4L80E shifts into fourth gear at 122 MPH). Future plans call for switching over to a five-speed manual transmission to reduce that parasitic loss caused by the automatic transmission.
Because Heath team is not certain how fast its critter will run, they are prepared to make any axle ratio changes necessary to suit the need. Bills says, “We felt it best to change from the factory rear axle to one that would facilitate speedy ratio changes.”
It happens that the rear axle assembly use in the 1976 Lincoln, is perfectly suited. In addition to having the Ford nine-inch drop in gear setup, this Lincoln rear is the correct width and even has a five-on-five wheel bolt pattern to match the factory half-ton, two-wheel drive Chevy. Bill plans to bring a number of ratios with him to the Salt Flats so that they can dial-in our final drive.
Setting the Land Speed Record for a 6.5L Diesel
Currently, no one has set a speed record in the B/DT class, making it an open class. The rules say that Bill will need to reach a threshold speed of 130 MPH and then better that speed in order to qualify for a record. Bill wants people to know that his Land Speed project is certainly not an attempt to unseat the mighty Banks organization. The racer is based on a stock-bodied truck that is powered by a nearly stock engine. Understandably, it will not be the fastest vehicle on the salt; however, he estimates being able to reach a respectable speed of around 148 MPH during the first trip to Bonneville as a contestant. In the future, the Heath team plans to make additional modifications in order to attempt to go faster and faster. Someday – someday soon, and not another 30 years from now – the members of the team hope to crack the 190 MPH barrier with this same 6.5L vehicle.
As the work intensifies to a frenetic – but still good-natured – pace in the run up to this August’s Speed Week, Bill and the rest of the team are looking forward to being able to enjoy the racer after the event. The Heath racer is a street-legal vehicle. The team could drive it to Bonneville, race it and drive back home – if they were so inclined.
Bill, with the excitement of a man who is finally seeing a 30-year old dream take shape, comments, “This is a real, apple pie and baseball, you-coulda-bought-it-yourself diesel pickup. One that uses the engine it came new with.”
So much effort has gone into building a show-quality vehicle, no one actually likes the idea of taking chances with it on the highway to Wendover. If they did, this land speed racer would get better mileage than many diesels on the road. Bill estimates that on the shorter trips that they do take with it, “our racer will deliver in excess of 27 MPG.” He promises to keep us posted on this claim.
Finally, so that everyone who wants to can participate in the trip with us, a video will be produced of a record run, if it comes. A camera will be mounted in the center of the driver’s compartment, looking forward down the center line of the truck, across the hood and down course. In the foreground you will be able to read large, digital speedometer, tachometer, boost, pyro, intake air temp and EGT gauges. Viewers will be able to go for a ride in the world’s fastest, stock-bodied 6.5 Chevy pickup.
Heath Diesel Power would like to thank the following people and companies for their help and sponsorship of the 6.5L Land Speed Racer Project...
- Benny and Jamie Avant’s Diesel Depot – Sandersville, GA (800) 553-8192
- Matt Konig’s Peninsular Engine Company – Grand Rapids, MI (616) 530-1298
- B-D Diesel Performance – Canada (800) 887-5030
- Brad Gua’s Performance Coatings – Seattle, WA
- Brian Maybee’s McIntosh Auto Body – Ellensburg, WA (509) 925-3867
- Al and Brian Theirholf’s Pac Trans Corp – Yakima, WA (509) 457-5005
- Nate Jone’s Cowboy Tire Co – (562) 597-3369
- Rampage (supplied the really cool and nice fitting cowl hood)
- Carl Everett – Moxee, WA (technical support and design assistance)
- Ron Pomeroy and Pomeroy Signs & Graphic Lines
- University Auto Center – Ellesnburg, WA
- Bob Jones and SCAT Crankshaft
- Jim’s Glass – Ellensburg, WA
- Paul Woodside and Woody’s Window Tinting
- Cory Henry and Chromemine Truck Accessories Lonnie Palmer and Jims Glass
- CromeMine (truck accessories)
- Ryan Woods and Ace Hardware
- David Tolin and PML Incorporated
- Brad Moore and Signdog
- Brad Ekstam and FASS
- Mahle Piston