Why the Underdog Always Wins: A Speedweek Story
“The stupidest thing I ever said,” exclaims Tom Hurley, “was, ‘I bet we could put a motor in this and get it going real cheap for Bonneville.’”
Land speed racing, or racing of any sort for that matter, isn’t known to be a penny-pinching pastime; but that doesn’t mean there aren’t grassroots and shoestring teams aplenty out at any given raceway, including the famed Bonneville Salt Flats.
While Tom had clearly made a large investment in his 1957 Chevy “Old Stewball,” his trip to Speedweek 2016 had all the makings of a grassroots racing endeavor… and I mean that in the best way possible.
At an event that had an epic over-400mph showdown of George Poteet versus Danny Thompson, Speedweek racers and fans respect the technological innovation that funding brings but overwhelmingly will root for the team with the most heart. In Poteet vs Thompson it was a highly funded professional crew versus the son of the late, great Mickey Thompson out to finally fulfill his father’s aims. Poteet went faster, but Thompson was who we were cheering for.
Tom, like all the other racers, had waited since 2013 for a Speedweek, with weather/salt conditions cancelling the past two August events. (Find out how you can help Save the Salt.)
“I haven’t even given it gas yet,” he quips. Having first brought the Chevy out in 2013, Tom had dreamed about the build since ’98 and started it eight years ago.
“Everything I did was wrong,” he notes, explaining that he finally coughed up the cash and sent the Chevy off to Ed Stuck to build it right. The car itself, however, has been with Tom since 1966 when he bought it with a friend to drag race; the dash still bears the plaque of the first car meet they attended.
The Chevy stopped racing in ’74, but, as a ‘57 Chevy should, it looks more drag race than land speed. With the salt flats though, none of that matters, because it isn't just about building the right car – it’s about building a car with heart. And I’d say a 50 year relationship with a car gives it a little more heart than the next. It’s name, “Old Stewball,” references an old country song telling a story of an underdog race horse that won, which is just what this 632 Big Block-powered Chevy did this Speedweek.
No, it didn’t break records, but what it did do is largely what Speedweek is all about. Tom showed up alone to the salt flats. His crew, back in Texas, dropped out for one emergency or the other, but Tom came anyway, the salt was calling. Requiring at least a 1-2 person crew to do everything that needs to be done once the driver is at the wheel, Tom posted a note calling for crew volunteers on the bulletin board near sign-in. He soon had dozens of calls and texts pouring in with offers to help.
Over the course of the long weekend he had numerous hands helping out “Ol’ Stewball” in the pits. There was the couple who’d traveled from France, his pit neighbors who brought body working skills when the car needed them, and then there were Randy and Pat who stuck with him like they had been teammates all along. While Randy Minton had attended Speedweek a handful of times and was “3 years into a 12-month project” to build his own land speed racer, Pat Plemel had just finished riding his motorcycle over 2,000 miles from the Yukon to catch his first Speedweek.
“I’ll have stories to tell for a lifetime,” says Pat, as the hodgepodge team of three laugh and banter like old friends.
While “Old Stewball” came far from breaking the record in its Comp Coupe class, I didn’t even have to ask Tom if his one-run at Speedweek was worth the trip… the answer was all in his smile.