Forty Years of Fast

The inside story of Sundowner, land-speed racing’s most accomplished Corvette

September 4, 2014
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Divine intervention. Some think that’s what the lift-prone C3 convertible needs to go 250 mph without turning into an unguided missile.

Duane McKinney, an 83-year-old Bonneville Salt Flats racer with a record-holding ’68 hardtop, roadster begs to differ. He says all it takes is 1,250 horsepower, half a ton of ballast, good course conditions and four decades of land-speed-racing experience.

For almost 40 years, McKinney’s Corvette has been setting Bonneville records. His team, whose members also include wife Suzanne and son David, races the blue roadster in the Southern California Timing Association’s (SCTA) Blown Grand Touring (BGT) category. The class requires stock bodywork—no rear wings, no big air dams and no altered panels, other than the hood. Remarkably for a car of its vintage, Sundowner holds records in the B-, C- and D/BGT categories.

People take cars to Bonneville for one reason: to go fast in a straight line. The first record was set there 100 years ago, but it wasn’t until the early 1930s that the Flats, located around 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, Utah, became a popular venue for speed-record attempts.

At the same time, about a thousand miles to the southwest, on the dry lake beds of the Mojave Desert outside Los Angeles, racers were starting to build what would become known as “hot rods.” After the Second World War, the racers returned, but as speeds increased and three of the four lakes were taken over by Edwards Air Force Base, these early hot-rodders looked to Bonneville.

Not only has Duane McKinney raced a Corvette at the Flats since 1975, he’s one of only a few active SCTA racers who were there at the beginning. The first Bonneville Speed Week was held in August, 1949. McKinney, then 17, and his brother, Bob, 22, drove Bob’s ’32 Ford from LA to hang out famed hot-rodder Ak Miller, who soon talked Bob into entering. The first McKinney to run at Bonneville went 104 mph—a bit short of a record, but not bad for a full-fendered roadster and a memorable experience for the two young men.

Duane did not return to the salt until 1969, but he’s been a regular there ever since. In 1975 he and racing pal Bob Kehoe paired up for a run at Bonneville and decided to use a Corvette for the effort. That February they bought a ’68 convertible off a lot in the LA suburb of Downey. An ensuing crash program had the team ready for Speed Week. The SCTA assigned them the number 42, and they nicknamed the car “Sundowner” after the best time of day to run at the Flats.

Also from Issue 93

  • Z51 C7 vs. C6 427 Convertible
  • 1965 "Spartan" Sting Ray
  • History: Saving the C5 Program
  • Buyer's Guide: $15K
  • Top Flight 1995 ZR-1
  • 1969L89 Convertible
  • Racing: C7.R, DP Compared
  • C5 Z06: Supercar on a Budget
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