glenn leasher infinity land speed record


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Samuel Hawley is a writer of narrative nonfiction and fiction. His books are highly eclectic. He has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting and land speed racing and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.


Vic Elischer was one of the four co-owners of the "Infinity" land speed jet car, along with Romeo Palamides, Glenn Leasher and Harry Burdg. Of the four, he is the only one still alive. I initially got in touch with Vic by e-mail with a list of questions and he responded with the letter below. I subsequently interviewed him over the phone.

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Date: Thursday, May 21, 2009

From: Victor P. Elischer

To: Sam Hawley

I will call you and we can talk and if you are interested I have 10-15 8mm movies of our two jet cars—car #1 the “Untouchable” drag racer, and car #2 the “Infinity” Bonneville racer—and I can get you in touch with a couple of other people as well who worked with me on the car. We accomplished a lot with very little money and minor tire sponsorship. Our earliest and most sincere sponsor was Security Parachute who designed and built our drag chutes. The drag chutes were essential to stop a 4800 [pound] missile moving at 300 mph at the end of a 1 mile run. And Firestone provided the tires. I don’t recall receiving any money from any sponsor.


The story on how we financed and built the cars is a quintessential story of a small self-funded American enterprise. No big dollar sponsors and no attempt to get them. Harry Burdge, who owned the Vacaville Drag Strip had the Jet Drag Car Spectacle promotional vision and provided the initial money to build the “Untouchable” ~$1500 to buy the first jet engine which unknown to him at the time there was missing crucial parts. He was the primary startup funder. He initially partnered with Romeo Palamides who was a drag car builder and knew all the drivers in that early drag era. But Romeo had no money, he lived month to month building race engines and cars for others. And Glenn Leasher, Romeo’s second jet drag car driver, had no money either. He was paid from race earnings and by Harry Burdge. Harry knew they needed technical help so Harry located me through Benny Hubbard of Hubbard Racing Cams where I worked as a race car builder.  I contributed the jet engine knowledge, technical design, custom machine work, engine electronic control system design, and engine mechanical assembly expertise. Romeo was a great chassis designer and a superb welder and built the chassis for the “Untouchable” and later the “Infinity”. He did not understand suspension design, although he would not admit it and he knew absolutely nothing about jet engines or engine control electronics although he was quite familiar with Chrysler-Hemi internal combustion engines.


I spent countless design, research and labor hours locating the missing jet engine parts I needed for the first “Untouchable” jet engine from Montham AFB in Tucson . Getting the parts was quite a saga and technically not legal because these military jet engines with afterburners were sold only for scrap and were rendered inoperable by withholding crucial parts—like the turbine ring, and the four-gallon-per-second air pressure driven afterburner fuel pump. The US did not want unauthorized people to get running military jet engines with afterburners. So the Untouchable’s engine assembly and initial in-chassis test was a huge milestone event for our little team. It was conducted at the old Oakland Airport at the end of the taxi strip. I was in the cockpit at the controls and everybody else stood at a safe distance. But our first trial was very successful and very confidence building.


I also have a great story to tell about locating the F-86D in Medford, Oregon with only 40 flying hours of flight time after a complete airframe and engine maintenance overhaul.  The Medford City Council received the plane for free if they would mount it in a public place as a monument to the Air National Guard. We convinced them it would be easier and less expensive to build a mounting pedestal for the F-86D monument with the 2-ton. engine removed. They agreed and with that discovery we broke the code on how to get a million-dollar, freshly overhauled engine for under a thousand dollars legally. We bought that General Electric J47-GE-33 engine from the Medford City Council for $750 and we removed the engine from the plane with a cherry picker boom hoist we rented for $75 for the day. We then re-assembled the plane and the Medford City Council built the monument and we had a newly overhauled engine for the “Infinity.”


I was the head designer for the “Infinity” land speed record car #2, with crucial help from Tom Fukuya and a superb airframe body builder in Seattle. Many airframe builders in Seattle were out of work at the time because of a prolonged business downturn at Boeing. Unemployment was at 17% in the area so we got premier expertise at a bargain price. We built the Infinity airframe with the best airframe builders in the country for $10,000. Romeo again built the Infinity chassis, and I designed the suspension. I also designed the body with help from Tom Fukuya the Boeing airframe builder. The Infinity’s design and construction was funded through “Untouchable” appearance fees from drag strips all over the country in 1960-61. We were running the “Untouchable” jet drag car to fund the construction of the Infinity land speed jet car. We had the only jet-powered drag racer with full afterburner in the country, so we were a big attraction.. We were a one-of-a-kind pre-promoted novelty/spectacle everywhere we appeared for a drag run and the car attracted huge crowds. We go an appearance fee of around $2500 and a portion of each gate. So we made good money—good enough to occasionally rent a private plane to fly several of us to drag venues and back to Seattle to build “Infinity.” We attained mile terminal speeds of near 278 mph in around 6 seconds in Untouchable, a 4800 lb. car with a huge flame behind it as it shot off the starting line. This was a big deal in 1960-61. The dragsters were doing their best at around 160-170 mph in 7 to 8 seconds. Cook and Garlitz were the two big mile champs in that era.


I worked for Hubbard Racing Cams as well as the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory during this period. I built race cars, race engines for Hubbard and designed instrumentation and measurement systems for high-energy physics experiment at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. I was an electronics engineer/machinist/mechanic and loved conceiving and developing ideas into a practical working real physics experimental device, car or product.


I have about 20 8mm movies showing drag car runs of the “Untouchable” at various California and Washington State drag race venues. I also have movies from a camera mounted in the cockpit of the Untouchable showing gauges reading out turbine engine temperature, turbine engine RPM, car speed and also car accelerometer readout. I still have the camera and the mount I made for it and a spare accelerometer of the type I used to measure the acceleration G-forces as the car moved down the track. I need to carefully convert them to DVD movies but have had no time or funding to do so.


I have two or three movies, 8mm and 16mm movies, of several runs of the “Infinity,” and somewhere I have the design drawings for the car. And I can tell you about our design approach and the lack of a tail fin. Not unlike others at the time.


We went up to Bonneville with “Infinity” twice by design. We decided to first get some Bonneville run experience without media fanfare and without official timers to see what we really had. We did not want to pay for the official timers without knowing that we could seriously challenge the land speed record of 394 mph. We ran for the first time under a full moon in the still of the night on this first trip to Bonneville. And given that experience I would recommend running at night. It is beautiful at night under a full moon at Bonneville. It is hard to describe the surreal feeling we all had. I personally felt like we were all alone on another planet. It was very bright even at night and very comfortable. After several runs on this first trip we absolutely knew we could shatter the world speed record. We easily ran over 360 mph on our speed indictor with a 5/8 mile startup and no afterburner. We left Bonneville after this first trip euphoric from our experience. We knew we had the record in the bag and were ready to call the official land speed record timers and pay for an official timed run on a second scheduled trip to Bonneville. There was never anything wrong with the car after our first trip and I don’t know where you got that information. We had a deliberate plan to take two trips.


After our initial confidence-building experience we developed some dissention on the team during the period between our first successful but unofficial trip to Bonneville and our second official land speed record attempt several weeks later.. Harry, Tom and myself were on one side of the discussion and Romeo and Glenn were on the other. I told Harry that Tom and I felt that Glenn had the fast non-cerebral physical response time capabilities beneficial for driving mile drag race cars. But he lacked the ability to think ahead, think fast and respond deliberately in a preprogrammed manner for driving land speed cars. We felt he needed to follow a pre-programmed response sequence for each run and several different potential run eventualities. Most specifically we had main and emergency drag chutes to bring the car to orderly stops in case of emergencies. Romeo and Glenn were of the opinion that Glenn would handle all the driving and we should stay out of that arena. I was unaware at the time how serious this problem could become.


We went up a second time for our official run several weeks later. I have logs on each run on the second time with before and after tire pressures and the speeds attained. We inspected the car after each run, carefully removing and examining the tires, wheels, wheel bearings and suspension. I recall we ran one full mile timed official run of around 352 mph eastbound at partial thrust without the afterburner and reached a terminal speed of 395 mph. 


I will call you and discus the final runs leading to the accident which killed Glenn. I was the first one on the scene and I still carry the memory of that day vividly. We should have had the record. I can discuss it with you on the phone.


I met Craig and knew of Art. Art was more like us: a small entrepreneur. Craig was a superb promoter. He had Shell Oil sponsors and a fleet of semi trucks with parts and a machine shop wherever he went.


I can easily contrast the different operations and I have respect for both.



1930 1hawley speed duel land speed record

copyright 2011 Samuel Hawley