Terminal Velocity:  Norwood 8.2-Liter Power on the Salt

            Post-mortem videos tell the story in eerie slow motion…

The Ferrari 288-GTO’s acceleration is so hard going through 240 mph that the nose is light and you can see the front-end rise fully to the limits of suspension-travel.  A few moments later the 288-GTO begins to rotate upward in slow motion like an airliner straining for liftoff just before it releases its grip on the earth and flies.  Owner/Driver Bill Gordon, who has previously driven the car over the dry prehistoric salt lake to an official one-way speed of nearly 268 mph, knows in advance that the trick will be to get quickly through a “Twilight Zone” of sorts between 200 and 240 where the Ferrari is nervous and twitchy and light on its feet as it barrels across the earth at 15 seconds per mile.  As speed approaches 250 and aerodynamic forces reach a new extremity, the car will settle down under the stabilizing downforce of a good half-ton of air pinning the car to the salt.  But it’s problematic here in the Twilight Zone.  As thrust from the car’s 1829-horsepower gasoline-fueled twin-turbo V8 pushes Gordon hard into the Kevlar racing seat, his finger hovers above a trigger that will explode an emergency military-type aircraft parachute into the air stream that may help regain control.  Now the windshield fills completely with blue sky and the car begins to roll sideways.  For an eternal moment the car continues its upward twisting pirouette that threatens to develop rapidly into a violent high-speed spin as the 288’s massive 511 cubic-inch rear engine tries to switch ends like a dart thrown feathers-first.  As Gordon views the universe from an angle he’s probably never seen before from a car, he finally hits the button.

For an instant nothing, then the chute deploys with tremendous force, heaving the car back to earth like a gaffed fish, sending it spinning in a wild motion that nearly tears off the front left wheel and suspension and perhaps reveals to Gordon something beyond the Mind of God.  In a frozen moment Gordon glimpses the chute through the windshield, in front of the car, and now the spinning 288 chassis chops off its own parachute and hurtles on through the white void.  The chute, however, has already done its job, and as the car thunders past a measured-mile marker at 200 mph backwards, a roof flap on the GTO automatically deploys to spoil lift over the car that badly wants to be an airplane.  The crippled Ferrari at last gives up its attempt to fly and as it spins and plows its way to a halt on the frozen crystalline salt, the car sheds blown-out Plexiglas and red composite materials onto the white landscape in a tremendous rooster-tail of flying salt.

The car, as it develops, has serious but repairable damage, and will live again to prove itself the fastest sports car on the planet, setting a new land speed record in the summer of 2000 in the AA/Blown Modified Sports class.  Gordon, however, has perhaps stared a little too long into the Abyss from the rarified atmosphere approaching mach .5 and finally seen the abyss stare back at him:  In spite of various attempts in future years, Gordon will not get the Ferrari GTO much past the 241 mph record without spinning, and it will finally be up to driver Tom Stephens to set a new record in the car.


            Bill Gordon had bought Norwood’s “388” top-speed Ferrari from John Sullivan following destruction of both the 302 and 371 engines in banzai top-speed runs.  Gordon decided it should definitely return to Bonneville with a little help from Bob Norwood, who was, by this time, clearly addicted to the Salt.

At this point, seeing the effect of 1400 Ferrari Flat-12 horsepower on the salt, Norwood figured it was time to stop fooling around and GO HUGE with the GTO.  The Norwood-Gordon collaboration was the beginning of a ten-year program to capture the record in the glamour class AA/Blown Modified Sports (which, naturally, meant the car would no longer be running on the streets of Dallas or anywhere).

Norwood’s Dallas shop built and installed what was essentially a full-race Twin-Turbo 511 cubic-inch Bow Tie cast iron big block V8 with Dart alloy heads.  The engine was constructed with the best of 1990-vintage engine technology, and originally fitted with twin Airesearch T04 P-trim turbochargers.  The T04 were more than effective:  They came on like a banshee in top-speed runs, and over-revved, over-cooked, and overloaded the exhaust impellers so horribly the turbine blades were literally vaporized out the exhaust pipes.  The engine eventually ran to greater effect with two gigantic Airesearch Super-60 18-wheeler diesel turbochargers each about the size of a spare tire. 

The car was equipped with programmable electronic fuel injection and designed to run super high-octane race gasoline.  The Bow Tie engine drove the wheels through an exotic power train consisting of a compressed-air actuated B&J drag race-type planetary-gear transmission backed up with a custom secondary two-speed quick-change transfer unit located downstream at the rear of the car next to the parachutes, through a Ford 9-inch ring and pinion and finally the axle half shafts attached to the ZF transaxle.  Essentially, the B&J is a super-duty automatic-type transmission that is manually shifted by highly compressed air stored on-board the car in a billet alloy tank.


            Over successive years Gordon’s 288 ran a series of magazine shoot-outs at places like Fort Stockton, Texas as well as Bonneville Salt Flats speed trials. To set an official class Land Speed Record, a vehicle must race in both directions over the official 5-15 mile Bonneville course that are separated by a short waiting period during which the car is impounded and the race team prevented from affecting major repairs prior to the second run.  A vehicle’s official top speed is determined by selecting the best time for the car over any of the measured miles of the course as a two-way average for that mile that includes the car’s time averaged over both directions for the complete mile.  The 8.3-liter Ferrari—clearly driven by one of the most powerful gasoline-fueled powerplants ever seen outside of unlimited class air-racing and super-modified pulling tractors running highly-modified vintage warbird powerplants—ate clutches and drive-shafts and transmission parts of various kinds for  breakfast, but Norwood replaced what broke with over-engineered titanium or alloy parts and continued to push the envelope.  The Haltech EFI computer was replaced with a Motec programmable engine management system, re-engineering the intercoolers, and power began pushing 1600 rear-wheel horses, which would eventually develop into 1829 horsepower measured at the crank.  The car was equipped with a Sprint Car-type direct-drive sprag-clutch powertrain that necessitated that the 288 be launched by a tow vehicle pushing the Ferrari to 50-60 mph—overrunning the ratchet-type sprags—at which point the engine could be started and brought up to speed to engage the sprags.  At this point the run would begin in earnest.

The “388” thus gradually evolved into a machine whose powertrain was fully capable of withstanding the torturous environment of big-power salt flats racing.  As Norwood engineered out the weak links, tires, salt conditions, weather, luck, and driver skill and guts became increasingly critical.


At the car’s high water mark, Gordon drove the 511-inch Ferrari 288 to an official one-way speed of 267 mph and then placed the car in impound for the requisite return run—just in time to see the entire Speed Week event cancelled due to a flooding rain storm.  The one-way 267 mph run was followed by several years of disappointing spin-mishaps and horrendous flooded-salt conditions.

The car’s bad-luck streak ended—sort of—in the summer of the new millennium when race driver Tom Stephens took over at the wheel and quickly set a new Land Speed Record run for the class at 245 mph and followed this up with an official return run at 250.  Unfortunately, road-racer/drag racer Stephens was required to earn his high speed license on the fly as he raced by incrementally increasing his maximum permitted speed in increments of 50 mph from 150.  And yet again, the event ended before Stephens got a chance to attempt 275 or 300 mph.  At 250 mph, data logging from the on-board computer showed the car was loafing along at just 66-percent throttle opening and barely half the maximum 24 psi turbo boost.

Norwood and Stephens firmly believe the highly-modified Ferrari 308 is capable of breaking 300 mph—a supposition that may well be true considering the car’s demonstrated reserve throttle at 250mph and the fact that he car’s dyno-tested rear-wheel horsepower compares favorably with calculated maximum power required to attain 300 based on calculated aerodynamic drag and rolling resistance.  At 250 mph, says Stephens, the Ferrari is rock solid, wants to be given her head.

Someday it could happen.