Gale Banks Trans Am Firebird
But perhaps the craziest car magazine stunt involved a Gale Banks street-driven, twin-turbocharged Pontiac Trans Am, Car and a string-straight 4.1-mile paved dead-end road known as Mrs. Orcutt's driveway. Actually, at the time it was Mrs. Orcutt's driveway.
Here's the deal. Sometime long ago Mr. And Mrs. Orcutt settled in the Southern California high desert about 25 miles east of Barstow, where they made and sold adobe bricks. Using their own product, they built a nice small home, very much by itself, but only about a mile off old Route 66. But when the U.S. government built I-40 in the '60s, it ran right between the old highway and the Orcutt's house. The closest overpass, to get over the freeway, was more than four miles away. So the government's solution was to build a new, 2-lane, asphalt road from the overpass to the Orcutt's house. That's the only place it went. Still does (to its remains, anyway). The best part is that, for most of its length, it was built on a dry lake. So not only is it straight and relatively wide (for a driveway), but it is also very flat. The perfect place to make high speed runs in a street vehicle—crazy high speeds.
The Trans Am got full suspension and driveline upgrades, went on a diet, and was fitted with a new interior and high-reading gauges. The engine, an all-iron 350 Chevy small-block, was actually pretty mild for such an ambitious project. The major modification was a pair of Banks turbos blowing into an 800-cfm 4-barrel carb. Dynoed at 611 hp, it was fully streetable, right down to a single (large) exhaust and muffler. The one piece of equipment conspicuous by its absence on this car was any kind of roll bar or cage. None of the super coupes had them.
The tester knew about Mrs. Orcutt's driveway and drove the Trans Am to this remote site, along with a support crew including Gale, a photographer, and someone to operate a radar gun to measure speeds. This time they decided to meet Mrs. Orcutt. They reported that she was in her '70s and "sweet enough to be your grandmother." They told her they were doing fuel economy testing.
Gale had obviously fully tested the power combination on the dyno. But the run on Mrs. Orcutt's driveway was the first time that full power was unleashed for a sustained period in the confines of the car. The low frontal area of the Trans Am just didn't let enough air through to cool the engine under full boost. (Remember that the more power you make, the more heat you create.) This was compounded by the fact that, to keep the car on the 26-foot wide ribbon of asphalt at high speed required all of Csaba's visual attention. He wasn't watching the temp gauge. Result: one wounded motor.
Now you've got to understand that if the car got off course for any reason (for instance, frying the engine to the point that it might break and dump oil under the rear tires--hey, it happens on real race tracks, but they have guard rails) it would have a hard time keeping the rubber side down. Even where there is level dry lake on either side of the road, it's about two feet down, it's covered with plenty of bumps and bushes, and where I walked on it recently, it was about the consistency of oatmeal. The tester is an excellent, seasoned driver, and he managed to keep the car on course. But numerous changes to the cooling system and air intake did not solve the overheating problem, and the tester fried another engine.
Finally, Gale completely reworked the water pump (building his own billet impeller) and the air ducting at the front of the car and the back of the hood. Power was no problem, and now the temperature was acceptable. This is when the Highway Patrol showed up, unexpectedly. Fortunately he was more interested in seeing the car run than he was in stopping the program. He and his radio kept any other officers from nosing around. After a 187 mph pass, the tester decided to go for it, and the radar gun read 196 mph. Everyone considered this a success, but Gale wouldn't settle for anything less than 200-plus. He took the car back to the shop, made a gear change, turned up the turbos a tick, and mounted up a couple different sizes of rear tires.
Back out on Mrs. Orcutt's driveway once more, the taller tires they hoped to use proved unstable at speed. After swapping to the smaller rear tires, starting near Mrs. Orcutt's gate and heading west toward the overpass, the tester nailed it on a banzai pass. For some reason there is no mention of a radar gun reading on this pass, but the tester watched the tach needle climb to 6100 rpm in high gear—204 mph!
This satisfied everybody, including Gale. But the tester wasn't celebrating at that moment. He was sitting in the car near the end of the road, with his windows sealed with racer's tape (he couldn't get out), when suddenly "a grizzled elderly lady, brandishing a sawed-off twenty-gauge shotgun, emerges from the desert to express her displeasure with their activities." Gale vividly remembers arriving at the scene to see this old bag pointing the shotgun directly at the tester window. Perfect ending!