SI Vault
Sarah Pileggi
May 22, 1978
With its two-man crew pedaling and cranking like mad, White Lightning broke through the 50-mph barrier to win the Human-Powered Speed Championships
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May 22, 1978

All Power To The People-or, In This Case, From Them

With its two-man crew pedaling and cranking like mad, White Lightning broke through the 50-mph barrier to win the Human-Powered Speed Championships

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As the clear sky of a May morning began to lighten over Southern California and the San Bernardino Mountains emerged from their nighttime silhouettes, a stream of uncommon people and vehicles moved through the gates of the Ontario Motor Speedway. The light grew, shadows became shapes—an anteater, a chicken without legs, a gliding tea cozy, a cockroach on wheels. The Fourth International Human-Powered Speed Championships were about to begin, and each shape, however primitive, was someone's solution to a problem that has long plagued man—how best to slice through the wind and leave it relatively undisturbed.

Stick your head out the window of a car going 50 mph: the force of the wind in your face will give you an idea of what the engineers and athletes who designed and pedaled the vehicles at Ontario were up against. Now, pull your head back and consider that while the average American automobile can produce 200 horsepower for as long as its fuel holds out, the average American college athlete, fueled most likely by tacos and beer, is capable of about half a horse, and that for only a short period.

Jan Russell, a 28-year-old Los Angeles architect, and Butch Stinton, 26, the owner of a bike shop in California's Simi Valley, are cycling sprinters, weekend competitors who train some 300 miles every week. Together they form a champion Southern California racing team. Two weeks ago Russell, a tall blond who does for rimless eyeglasses what Prince Charles does for ears, and Stinton, a sturdy 200-pounder with flaming red hair and mustache, found themselves in a new kind of partnership. They were the "engine" that powered White Lightning, a vehicle designed by Tim Brummer, Don Guichard and Chris Dreike. The three young engineers from Northrop University in Inglewood, Calif. had devised a supine-recumbent tandem tricycle entirely enclosed in a 20-foot-long lightweight streamlined box, or fairing, made of honeycombed Nomex sandwiched between two layers of epoxy-impregnated fiber glass and coated with "a thin candy shell, like an M&M." The entire vehicle—frame, fairing, wheels and all—weighed only 75 pounds.

The Northrop engineers had worked nights and weekends for months, with three goals in mind. They intended to break the world record of 49.93 mph over 200 meters. They hoped to be the first to exceed 55 mph for 200 meters and thereby win the $2,500 Abbott Prize for surpassing the national speed limit in a human-powered vehicle. And they wanted to "show everybody," especially the student designers from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, who had similar intentions.

On the first weekend in May the huge Ontario Motor Speedway, normally host to such noisy, gaseous, piston-driven entertainments as the California 500, was overgrown with weeds and seemed deserted, with a crowd of only a thousand or so to kick up the dust. Pickups, vans, campers and U-Hauls streamed through the gates and disgorged their freight of cyclists, inventors and ecologists onto the speedway infield. Tinkerers tinkered and kibitzers kibitzed. Cyclists pedaled up a sweat on training rollers, and children on skateboards glided among the grownups. Dreike, 24, the electronics specialist on the Northrop team, was applying heat from his sister's hair dryer to the Plexiglas windshield of White Lightning, hoping to keep it from fogging up.

The vehicle to beat here in the single-rider class was Paul Van Valkenburgh's Aeroshell II, whose wind resistance had been reduced by streamlining to an almost unmeasurable .9 pound at 25 mph. "Human-powered vehicles can make a major contribution to solving problems of petroleum consumption," said Van Valkenburgh, until 10 years ago a designer of racing cars for General Motors.

"You have probably read that the bicycle is the most efficient means of transportation. We can double that efficiency with the most basic aerodynamic principles. At the same time we can enclose the rider, keep him warm and dry and even protect him in case of accident."

As it turned out, the protection factor in Van Valkenburgh's design was tested several times at Ontario. Aeroshell II, with Olympic cyclist Ralph (The Horse) Therrio at the pedals and hand cranks, crashed twice. But no blood was spilled and no ambulance summoned, though Therrio had been traveling briskly with only cardboard, contact paper and a clear molded material called butyrate between him and the tarmac.

In spite of its misfortunes, Aeroshell's first run, timed at 48.21 mph, held up for two days and won the $1,000 first prize in the single-rider class, but the disappointment in the Van Valkenburgh camp was palpable. He and his crew had devoted approximately 500 hours to the project and had had every reason to anticipate at least 52 mph.

Meanwhile, in the multiple-rider category, White Lightning was performing as if greased. Its first run, 49.65 mph. made it clear that not only was the 50-mph barrier going to be broken, but also that 55 mph and the Abbott Prize were not out of the question.

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