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Subject: Bill Summers, Car Builder Who Set a Speed Record, Dies at 75

Written By: Claybricks on 05/20/11 at 11:50 pm

Bill Summers, Car Builder Who Set a Speed Record, Dies at 75


Published: May 20, 2011

Photographs Courtesy of Greg Sharp, Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum

The brothers' car, the Goldenrod, set a record with an average top speed of 409.277 m.p.h.

Bill, left, and Bob Summers.

Bill and Bob Summers were hot-rodding high school students when they began souping up clunkers in their Southern California town in the 1950s and heading out to race them across dry lake beds.

Bill would become a truck driver, Bob a welder — hardly high-tech engineers with aerodynamic design skills. And yet they built a spearlike vehicle that in 1965 set the world speed record for wheel-driven cars, a record that stood for 26 years. (Wheel-driven cars are in a class distinct from jet-powered cars that rely on engine thrust.)

Bill Summers died of natural causes at his home in Ontario, Calif., on May 12, his daughter Maggie Peace said. He was 75. Bob, his younger brother, who had driven the car they built — the Goldenrod — died in 1991.

It was on Nov. 12, 1965, on a stretch of the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah, that the Goldenrod — zooming past the clock on two separate runs within an hour — set the record with an average top speed of 409.277 miles per hour.

That broke the record of 403.135 set a year earlier, on July 17, 1964, by Donald Campbell, an Englishman. Before Mr. Campbell, the record had been held for 17 years by another Englishman, John Cobb, who had driven 394.196 m.p.h. on Sept. 16, 1947.

The Summers brothers built the Goldenrod in an abandoned, sheet-metal-covered vegetable stand near their home.

Despite their lack of technical training, said Bob Casey, curator of transportation for the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., “their car established the paradigm for future land-speed-record cars.”

“They saw that the key to making a car go fast, aside from power,” Mr. Casey continued, “was having as little frontal area as possible, to be as low and narrow as possible so that you punch a smaller hole in the air.”

The Goldenrod, which is in the Ford museum collection, is 32 feet long, 48 inches wide, 42 inches high, and weighs about 6,000 pounds. It holds four Chrysler engines of about 600 horsepower each.

On Aug. 21, 1991, the Goldenrod record was broken by Al Teague, when his car averaged 409.986 miles per hour. The record now stands at 458.440, set by Don Vesco on Oct. 18, 2001.

Before the Summers brothers, “the records typically were set by the British, who had huge budgets,” said Greg Sharp, curator of the National Hot Rod Association Museum in Pomona, Calif. “And here’s a couple of American hot-rodders who built their car in the backyard and took that record away.”

The Summers brothers went on to own a company that produced high-quality driveline components, particularly high-strength axles, for drag racing cars.

William Ray Summers was born in Omaha on Dec. 18, 1935, one of three children of Sherman and Mary Summers. The family later moved to Washington State, and then to California.

Besides his daughter Maggie, his survivors include his sister, Susan Cunningham; two other daughters, Cheryl Cooper and Christina Lefevre; a son, Rick; 12 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. His wife of 28 years, the former Joy Young, died in 2002.

Mr. Casey, the Ford museum curator, said the museum has a film clip of the moment when the brothers found out they had broken the record.

“Here they were scraping for money, living on a shoestring,” Mr. Casey said. “And when the official timer, Joe Petrali, handed Bob the timing slip and showed them that they had finally done it, brought this record back to the United States, the camera panned across this small group of people and you can see Bill grabbing his eyes, tearing up.”


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