Words Keith Charvonia Images Larry Chen of Speed Hunters
The triple crown
Looking at the image above you might be tempted to feel a bit jealous. That’s a seriously clean S-chassis, obviously well equipped and capable of putting down some respectable power numbers from a relatively small engine. But best of all, it’s a different kind of build; a car that we’re all familiar with, built for a completely different style of racing.
Put that envy aside for a minute and consider what it took to get here though because there’s so much more to this story than the long hours and meticulous preparation for the salt. This is a tale of going from street racing in a Sentra to setting records at Bonneville in a fully-prepped, proper land speed car. Chuck Johnson is the main man behind it all and he’s inspired a lot of us Speedhunters individually and collectively over the years, so we had to tell you more.
You may already know of Chuck and his gearhead wife Annie Sam through the MotoIQ website where they documented this build in a series of nicely detailed articles. If you really want to know the nitty gritty you should stop over there and read for awhile. We’re here to tell the story a different way though, because I think most of you are wondering the same thing I was when I found this car on the salt amidst a sea of hot rods and streamliners. Namely, what would possess someone to build a little Nissan hatch for land speed racing?
Before I met Chuck at Bonneville a couple of years ago, I saw his 240SX sitting on skinny slicks and I already knew I liked him. Then, as I met his crew and observed their race program, I was even more impressed. It takes some nerve to tackle Bonneville with a unique chassis, but I will admit that if it’s passable anywhere it’s here, since the primary goal is to go fast and set records. Land speed racing is the one place where anything goes because the only things that count are the numbers. That’s not to say it’s somehow easier than other forms of racing though. It takes a large dose of those things called ‘effort’ and ‘willpower’ to do something like this.
Chuck figured this out early. It all goes back to his teenage years, street racing during the late-’90s import craze in a hand-me-down ’88 Sentra with the stock 68hp engine. He learned quickly that he wouldn’t win many races that way, and started working sixty hours a week to save up for an engine swap. Then he learned another thing: that this car hobby can get expensive if you’re going to hire the work out. As a young guy working for every penny, he had to find a smarter way to make his car fast. After tons of research, he swapped an SR20 into his old Sentra – but he’s quick to point out that this was anything but a bolt-in deal. It took a ton of work and problem solving to do it, but eventually he came out on top – and started winning some races too.
I know we need to get to the S13 you’re looking at, but I want to give a bit more background so you fully understand the character behind the car. Early on in his car modding days, Chuck realized he wanted to be more involved in the scene than just wrenching in his own garage, so he vowed to throw himself into as many events and races as he could. Since that epiphany, he’s raced on an SAE team in college, a 24 Hours of Lemons team, the Silver State Classic (with his wife navigating), worked as an Engineering Manager at JE Pistons and also as a freelance journalist for numerous automotive magazines and websites. How’s that for getting involved?
The point I’m getting at is that one day Chuck got inspired to do something. He loved cars and he wanted more, so he made a conscious decision to take action. It’s one thing to have aspirations, but without action you’re not going to get a lot done now, are you? Chuck and Annie are an admirable example of getting inspired and making big things happen – like campaigning a legit 240SX in land speed racing with the big boys… and setting records on the way.
If you have any sense of what you’re looking at here, you can probably tell this isn’t the first car Chuck’s built.
Remember his ’88 Sentra? It’s currently sitting at about 400hp and among many other things, was his introduction to land speed racing. This all came around after he read about Jeff Cheechov of Progress Suspension running a Civic at Bonneville and the idea was firmly planted in his head. He took the Sentra to ‘World of Speed,’ which is sort of a smaller version of Speed Week, and started chasing their 130mph and 150mph clubs. That’s where Bryn took this picture in 2007 when he featured the Sentra for a UK magazine. It’s funny to think how small the world is and how far we’ve all travelled to get back to the same place. After a few years competing here, he had both 130 and 150mph tickets in the bag and thought his land speed itch had been scratched – until an old-timer told him about the elusive ‘Triple Crown’. The third pillar was to gain entry into the SCTA’s 200mph club and get that respected red hat. Chuck had salt fever already, so the next step was an easy decision to take… but much harder to execute.
He had wheeled the brick-shaped Sentra to a sketchy 159mph but knew it wouldn’t get him to 200 in one piece, so he set out to find an appropriate chassis. Being a Nissan guy, he was drawn to the S13 with its slippery shape, long wheelbase and plethora of aftermarket speed parts.
Go small to go big
So Chuck had his chassis picked out, and for an engine he went with the obvious SR20DET swap. There’s a twist though and to me, it’s the most interesting thing about this build. The SR20DET was the perfect engine to pursue a record in the G/BGC category, where G means 1.51-2.0 liters of displacement and BGC stands for blown gas coupe. This class allows for a turbocharged engine swap and some mild aero, but after a rulebook challenge from the SCTA, it was determined that rather than swapping a Japanese engine into an American chassis, Chuck had actually recreated a Japanese production S-chassis, bumping him into the Production Supercharged (G/PS) class. The trouble now was that the class was dominated by all-wheel drive cars and the record stood at 227mph. It’s worth reiterating that to get into the 200mph Club you don’t just have to go 200, you have to actually beat a record over 200. With Chuck’s fastest run being 186mph, that was a very, very long way away.
Fortunately, Chuck’s a smart dude, and one day the letters SR15VET popped in his head. Inspired by the success of the Hondata and Hasport land speed teams, he figured de-stroking the two liter to 1.5 liters would put him in the H/PS (1.01-1.5 liter) class, where the records stood at a much more attainable 135mph on the short, dry lakebed of El Mirage and 167mph at Bonneville. Of course, de-stroking an SR20 isn’t something people normally do, so Chuck and Nick Hunter of 5523 Motorsports had to figure out how to do everything on their own.
Here’s how Chuck explains it: “To do this, we started with a SR16VE crankshaft with 68.7 mm stroke. We had it welded and then offset ground towards the centerline of the crank to 63.5mm by Joe Castillo. This allowed us to increase the bore by half a millimeter to 86.5 and still maintain an engine displacement of 1,492cc.” Chuck had the concept down, and 5523 Motorsports had the know-how to make it real.
Cutting 25% of the engine’s displacement meant they had to gain back any lost power through efficiency. Chuck knew about a high-flowing, but rare ‘8H6′ 20V head and after much searching, he finally got his hands on one which 5523 Motorsports promptly worked to the max.
Continuing their quest for hyper-efficiency from the small motor, they mounted a Borg Warner 8374 EFR turbo. Its twin scroll design, Gamma-ti turbine wheel and modern forged compressor wheel all help with boost response.
Of course, nearly everything bolted to the engine is custom as well, like the hand-built intake manifold from Specialty Cars Fabrication that houses 1000cc injectors.
A Spearco water to air intercooler is mounted right to the engine block and is fed ice water from a 20 gallon fuel cell mounted where the passenger seat normally resides.
There’s logic behind the placement of the
fuel ice cell. The weight offsets that of the driver, helping achieve not only a 50/50 front to back weight split, but also keeping it even side to side. A perfectly balanced car is of paramount importance when you’re going 200-plus on salt or dirt.
Keeping it on the ground
Of course a perfectly corner-balanced car won’t do Chuck much good if he doesn’t have suspension to handle it. Again, he reached deep into his bag of tricks and called on KW for a custom set of coilovers. He spec’ed out KW Variant 3 stainless bodies for corrosion resistance, but had them built with Competition guts for maximum tunability. And tune they will: both times I’ve met Chuck on the salt, he had KW’s Chris Marion there tweaking the suspension.
This year I had more time to look over the car during Speed Week. One thing I always wanted to know was where they got those skinny steel wheels that everyone seems to be running on. Apparently they use space saver spares and fully weld them for strength. This set came from a Ford Mustang and measures 15″ by a scant 4.5″ wide all around.
Can you imagine feathering over 500 horsepower to the ground through those skinny slicks? If you ever get to witness land speed racing, you’ll see that it’s important to gingerly launch the car so you have the aerodynamic and frictional advantages of thin tires once at speed.
There are other tricks you’ll only find on a car built for running at high speed, like these roof rails that stabilize the car and also prevent the windshield from popping out. These were fabricated by Specialty Cars Fabrication.
They also built the aluminum dash, one of Chuck’s favorite pieces on the car, by rolling out aluminum on an English wheel then integrating the shape into the stout roll cage.
While they had the welder out, they integrated a custom parachute chassis mount into the Pierce Motorsport roll cage.
Mounted directly to that overbuilt cage is a Kirkey containment seat with a custom flip-out head restraint.
The high level of execution in every detail makes it clear that Chuck and Annie have come out swinging in their quest to join the 200mph Club. Everything is so calculated and well-built, it just feels like someone knows what they’re doing – probably because they’ve been here before.
It could take a few more meets to attain their 200mph goal, but it seems like every time they bring the car out they manage to set a new record, even if it is under the ultimate task of hitting that magic 200mph.
Should Chuck ever forget the goal, there’s this custom door card to remind him.
In the end, something like this doesn’t happen without many forms of inspiration. First there was the initial inspiration for Chuck to get out of the garage and get involved in motorsports to fully experience everything he could, then the inspiration and great efforts that came with building his Sentra and now this S13. Even hurdles like the engine displacement predicament were met with intelligent, inspired solutions. As we left Bonneville earlier this year, Larry and I talked about how inspiring guys like Chuck are to us; being a young guy out on the salt with all the old racers, plus doing it in a car that our generation can relate to. Maybe there’s still hope for places like the Salt Flats with guys like this out there.
Even if it is just about the hardware you’re looking at, I hope you can see how inspiring that is too. After all, when’s the last time you heard of someone taking a 240SX, making the engine 25% smaller and breaking records with it?