[ originally published 03/22/10 | updated 03/06/18 ]
I’ll never forget the one day I spent at El Mirage.
Not because I got to tootle about the dry lake bed behind the wheel of the one and only Mike Bumbeck’s Toyota Starlet while he hung out the passenger window shooting the post-apocalyptic rat rod sideshow. (Although, if I’m honest, this is one of my favorite, if not lesser, claims to internet fame. #Clunkbucket4life!)
No, I’ll never forget that one day at El Mirage because I was a VIP guest of the Smith Auto, RaVer Motorsports Land Speed Racing Galant VR4—the fastest Galant VR4 in the world.
Arriving at El Mirage
I left Phoenix early that day so I could get to El Mirage before noon. Turning off tarmac into the park, I followed a pair of well-worn tire tracks as they meandered way, way out into the middle of the lake bed where the racing was taking place.
Suddenly there were hundreds of vehicles and campers parked on my left, as close to the action as they could get; right up against the yellow caution tape, less than 10 feet from the return lane every competitor drove (or was pushed) down back to the staging lanes at the start.
It was like Mad Max hosted a rockabilly Burning Man event. There were hot rods, custom bikes, and bellytankers everywhere. And since there were no formal roads, there were amazing machines going every which direction, albeit generally being careful to keep a safe distance from each other.
I quickly ran into Mike Bumbeck, on gearhead holiday in bespoke shorts and Hawaiian shirt. He quickly asked me to get behind the wheel so he could get some pictures and I gladly obliged. (After all, I’d been following his Starlet project updates on Clunkbucket.com for months at this point and knew he was a fellow Mitsubishi fan.)
We roamed around for an hour, stopping to talk to this gearhead and that while the Smith Auto car was waiting for its class to stage. And I’m pretty sure at one point I was doing upwards of 50mph with Bumbeck hanging out the passenger window as we chased a ratty pickup with literal bombshells mounted in the bed through a glorious, four-wheel drift on the far north edge of the lake.
I saw things that one afternoon on the dry lake bed that I’ll never forget.
I stood next to the bright yellow Galant VR4 as it idled for a solid 15 minutes to warm up. The thrum of the heaviest, highest-strung Galant VR4 I’ve ever seen rumbled away, interfering with my heartbeat. I could feel it through the ground.
I watched a nothing-special Chevy Suburban with a carpet-wrapped, wooden front bumper gentle push that idling beast up to the staging lanes, where I watched family and friends secure Ron Cochran in the driver’s seat.
Ron and Troy Cochran get into their 1992 Galant VR4 and put the hammer down, achieving top speeds of over 200mph in a car shaped like a shoebox. Nearly 50psi of boost, wide open, to 8000rpm and beyond in all five gears, with all four wheels spinning madly the whole time. In 2010, they set their sites on 230mph. We wrapped up Galant VR4 month with the Smith Auto Racing land speed record car.
Smith Auto Racing is Ron Cochran (owner/driver), Troy Cochan (driver), Vernon Bruges (engine tuner), and Don Sprayberry (service crew/designer). All hailing from central California—and all with important roles to play in getting a three-box, four-cylinder-powered 1992 Mitsubishi Galant north of 200mph.
Ron is Owner and CEO of Smith Auto, Inc., with six central valley auto parts store locations. Troy is Owner and President of Valley IGA plus+, a supermarket. Vern is a cariovascular ICU RN who knows a thing or two about pressurized systems. And Don keeps the show on the road at every turn.
I asked Ron, Troy, and Vern the interview questions and they delivered in turn.
How did you all come to do this together?
Ron: A lifelong quest for SPEED!!!
Troy: Ron is my father. We have been racing motorcycles and cars my whole life.
What type of racing do you do with the Galant? How long have you been doing it?
Vern: Land Speed Racing at El Mirage dry lake in the Mojave Desert and the Bonneville salt flats in Utah. About 5 years.
Actually, I just support the car. The car belongs to Ron. He owns several auto parts dealers in the central valley of California. He and one of his sons, Troy, drive the car and hold the four different records attributed to the car. Ronnie is the epitome of a land speed racer—friendly, older guy with volumes of stories to tell over a steak diner.
Another vital crew member is Don Sprayberry. He owns a couple wrecking yards and helps out at every opportunity. He is credited with designing the oil system mods that have eliminated bearing failures for us.
My wife, Patty, has acted as the crew chief at two events that I couldn’t attend; she uploaded the ECM changes needed between runs and generally bossed the guys around to keep order when problems came up. Without her help at Speedweek this year we would not have hit the 224mph mark. She licensed at 200mph during the event, too.
Ron: Motorcycle, rally, and land speed racing owner/driver for 40 years.
Troy: I’ve been involved in land speed racing since 2004.
Why did you choose this Galant to race?
Ron: All wheel drive and availability.
Troy: The VR4 is all wheel drive and that benefits us in the Production Class. Plus the Smith Auto/Mitsubishi engine is bulletproof.
Vern: I like the owner so I enjoy helping him. He already had the Galant so that dictated the platform we went with. The car had already been set up for LSR, but at this point nearly nothing remains of the car as it was in that incarnation.
Got a favorite story to share about building or racing the Galant?
Ron: We raced and worked on the car for three years before any success.
Troy: When the boost kicks in on that little engine, you’ve never felt anything like it! It has violent power! This isn’t funny, but on my last run of the day, I put a beer in the intercooler tank so when I get out of the car in the shut down area after the run I can have a cold beer while I’m waiting for my chase vehicle to push me back to the pits.
Vern: There are tons, but the last event of this year gave us a good one. Troy was driving at the two day event at El Mirage. We succeeded in raising his record to nearly 213mph on the first run. The track is dirt, and last year’s lack of rainfall had led to a dusty plowed up mess to run on this year. Imagine stepping onto powdered dirt that your feet sink into an inch or more—now you have an idea of what we we’re running on.
I instructed Troy to hug the left side of the track as close to the cones as he was comfortable and then to fade to the same position on the right at about three-quarter track. In theory, he could avoid the worst torn up areas by doing this. At best, our view from the chase truck is a big plume of dirt, but then there was a huge cloud of dust, and for a moment we could clearly see the profile of the Galant.
For a fraction of a second I allowed myself to consider the possibility that the car had flipped… so many things went through my mind. Would the cage I built protect him? Did we have a drivetrain failure from something not being tightened properly? Did we have a catastrophic engine failure?
As it turned out, the car was fine; rubber side down, shiny side up, firing on all four cylinders. Troy said the car had begun fading to the right on its own and was nearly sideways about 200 yards from the timing lights.
Since he was so close he decided to stay on the throttle to the end. When he popped the ‘chute at the timing lights it torqued the rear of the car back so hard that it flat spotted all four tires, ruining them and sending up the huge cloud of dust we saw.
Reviewing the datalog showed that all four tires were spinning through 196mph—he went through the timing lights at 208mph with a speedometer-indicated speed of 220mph! I don’t think anybody can question his balls-to-brains ratio.
What have you already accomplished with the Galant?
Ron: We’ve set 10 separate Land Speed Records and earned life membership into both El Mirage and Bonneville 200mph Clubs for me and my son Troy.
Troy: My dad has done six of those records and I have done four. Dad had broken three records at Bonneville and four at El Mirage and I have broken one record at Bonneville and three records at El Mirage.
Vern: We hold the PS record in both F and G engine classes at Bonneville and El Mirage. 224+mph on the salt at Bonneville and 214+mph on the dirt at El Mirage.
When giving the car the final once-over before a run, what sort of things are you looking at? What are your primary concerns at this point?
Ron: Engine temp, ice in intercooler, fire bottle pins pulled, and chute pin pulled. All other concerns are taken care of before get in line to run.
Troy: We always take the car to the dyno before we race so we know that the car is ready to go fast. Race day, we just warm it up, I strap in, and I try to hit my shifts smoothly at 9500rpm—and point the car straight!
Walk our readers through what happens between when you get into and out of the Galant for a run and your concerns each step of the way.
Ron: I enter the car and strap in, run the engine to around 200 degrees temp, run intercooler pump (liquid-to-air), wait for the starter to wave me off.
First, second, and third gear are a blur (very little traction), fourth gear to 9500rpm, quickly into fifth without losing boost. Focus on keeping the car straight. All four wheels are spinning from start to finish under full throttle. At 224mph, the download shows over 240mph wheel speed! At 200mph, the car feels and steers like it weighs 100lbs.
Troy: I like to get in the car early in line. I just sit and relax and think how fortunate I am to have such a great father that lets me drive this car! When the boost kicks in… there is nothing like that feeling… it plants you in the seat. Lots of power!
And when the car gets back to the pits? What then?
Troy: Vern does the computer download to see how everything went on the run. Vern is the whole reason this car goes fast. Smith Auto does the engine build, but Vern makes the engine go fast!
What does it take to go 200mph? Mechanically? Mentally?
Ron: A bullet-proof engine. We’ve broken every part that can be broken. We overcame a lack of lubrication and head gasket problems in the first three years and have very little problems since. It takes 909hp on an all wheel dyno to go 224mph at Bonneville (approximately 15% loss in the drivetrain). It has to make two three mile passes at 47 pounds of boost at 9500rpm without exploding like a hand grenade. Then you have a World Land Speed Record! I’m uptight and tense until I blast off.
Troy: Vernon Brunges, engine tuner, and Smith Auto, engine builder. All I do is hold the throttle to the floor and try to point the car straight.
Vern: In theory, it only requires about 500 sustainable wheel horse power to go 200mph. Given the Galant’s awful aerodynamics it may need more. At speeds of over 200mph the HP requirement increases at an exponential rate: the requirement arguably doubles for the next fifty miles and hour. I say arguably because our experience has shown us that that is a too conservative estimate.
Ron: If we’re going to hit 230mph this year, we’re easily going to need another 200hp.
How is that mechanical/mental prep different from, say, drag or road racing?
Vern: The biggest differences between drag racing and LSR lie in two areas: First, weight is not a factor in land speed racing. In fact, often we have to add weight to cars to battle aerodynamic lift at over 200mph (our class specifies OEM body profiles).
Second, we do not have to worry so much about drivetrain strength. Sure, we need a very healthy transmission (which TRE has generously supported), but the transfer case, driveline, rear differential, and rear axles are still stock. Those items would probably explode with the first hard launch if we attempted a drag launch with good tires.
Which reminds me, we also use narrow, tall tires with lots of air pressure for both gearing and minimizing rolling resistance. LSR is about smooth and easy power application since we have a greater distance to reach top speed.
Ron: Very little difference. Road racing is long and drawn out; LSR is very quick.
Troy: I’m no pro so I don’t know. I’m just having fun spending time with my father. This is something I grew up doing with him. We were always riding motorcycles or going to races when I was younger. Racing, to me, is a great hobby and it gives me valuable time with my dad.
How do you address the aerodynamic shortcomings of the Galant for this type of racing?
Ron: I compare it to a brick. We are building an Eclipse land speed car which will address the aerodynamic problems of our Galant. [ Per Troy’s update in March 2018, the Eclipse project was sold off. ]
Troy: It’s a flying brick. We have lowered the car as much as we can. It seems to drift or hover a little bit at speed. We might try to add some weight for next year to keep the power to the ground.
Given the amount of power needed to sustainably run at over 200mph, how much fuel does the Galant consume on a run? Can you convert that to MPGs?
Ron: It gets approximately 1 mile to the gallon. (Warm up and a 3-mile run at Bonneville equals 4 gallons of A8C race fuel consumed.)
Troy: It will make two 1.3 mile runs at El Mirage, including warm up, on 4 gallons. We run A8C (118 octane, leaded) race gas.
Does land speed racing such as this require any specific equipment not generally prescribed in other forms of racing?
Ron: Two 20lb fire bottles and an SCTA approved roll cage. 20spf driver protective equipment.
Troy: We use the same spec racing suit, helmet, shoes, gloves as NHRA. The car needs to be teched before every race by an SCTA tech official.
How would you rate ride quality and cabin noise at 200mph plus? Is the cruise control still functional?
Ron: Ride quality is equal to track quality.
Troy: The cruise control is my foot pushing that throttle through the floorboard! That little Mitsubishi engine’s pounding out over 900hp sounds so good! It is so much fun to drive. I am fortunate to be able to drive a great car, go speeds that no one has ever done in a 2-liter production sedan, and spend time with my dad at the same time.
What’s next for the Galant?
Vern: We are replacing the intercooler and stepping up to the AEM second generation ECM this spring.
Our current IC is costing us at least 65-90whp. It’s a pathetic little liquid-to-air setup I quick-fab’ed using two OEM air to air cores from Mazda Turbo IIs! Keep in mind that I did that back when 500whp was our goal. Now that we’ve nearly doubled that output we’re seeing intake air temps nearing 200F with a restrictive pressure drop across the core of 4psi or more.
The new AEM promises to be far superior as far as ease of use and programming is concerned. Were it not for the release of the second generation of AEM ECMs, we’d be stepping over to MoTec this winter.
Ron: I hope to go 230mph+ at Bonneville in August.
Troy: Crank up the boost and go faster in 2010.
Where will you be doing your next attempt at the record?
Ron: El Mirage in May and Bonneville (SpeedWeek) in August.
Troy: Our season starts in May and goes to November. We run once a month at El Mirage and August (SpeedWeek) and October (World Finals) at Bonneville on the salt. Anyone can come and watch.
Once you come watch you’ll want to get a car and run!
Vern: Our first event for the 2010 season is May 15 and 16. This event will be at El Mirage near Victorville, California. Spectators are welcome, and the pits are open to everyone without any special pass. It is also a popular off road vehicle destination so there are camping site available, too.
Attending an event and getting a rulebook is about all it takes to get involved. New competitors will find a friendly welcome.
Who has helped you the most along the way?
Ron: Vernon Brunges and Don Sprayberry.
Troy: #1, my dad. #2, Vernon Brunges.
Vern: Our introduction to land speed racing came from Greg Carlson. He approached us for help with his ’94 Nissan 300ZX twin turbo. We eventually got him the record in his class, and we learned a lot along the way. He is a LSR guy from waaay back.
Who do you look up to in the Mitsubishi community?
Vern: As a person, Jon Ripple is my favorite person in the Mitsubishi community. He is a small business owner who shares many of the same experiences and trials that my wife and I did running RaVer Motorsports. He seems to maintain a far better attitude than I did, however.
Andrew Brilliant is a fellow Mitsubishi competitor who I met through LSR racing and who I now consider among my friends. Great guy with tons of knowledge who is quick to share anything that will help a fellow racer.
Mike Reichen is another person I’d like to mention. He is a true hero among Mitsubishi owners with his standing mile endeavors and accomplishments. I’ve talked with him many times on the phone and through emails. He, too, is quick to share insights; the kind of friendly competitor who makes racing fun for me. He hasn’t made the transition to LSR yet, but our records will have some serious targets on them when he does. (To be fair, Jeff Gerner has an Audi that has the potential to gun for us this coming year, too.)
What do you see as the biggest issue facing the Mitsubishi community today?
Vern: I can’t group all Mitsubishi owners into one community. There are too many segregating factors with elitists and purists weakening the common bond. To me, community refers to those with similar interests and attitudes whether that is a small group of people who get together on the weekends or a few competitors who correspond over the phone and only gather for serious racing a couple times a year.
Is there a particular Mitsubishi shop you’d recommend?
Vern: TRE has never disappointed us, and the owner is a super guy, as well. Kiggly Racing is another small business with excellent products and great customer service. Can’t forget Shawn Church, either; I highly recommend Church Automotive Testing to everyone.
Do you spend time on any Mitsubishi sites? Which ones?
Vern: My schedule allows little time to play on forums now days. And as I’ve gotten older I can step back and admit that too much time is spent defending one’s accomplishments on the internet. I do not enjoy the drama of dealing with haters and doubters, and I will no longer give some nobody who I will never meet in person the power to raise my blood pressure.
Unfortunately, that does mean I also miss the opportunity to interact and share with tons of great enthusiasts, too. Sorry for the negativity; it comes from 12 years of owning a business in the import racing niche. I can truly say that my involvement in racing is now fueled by the satisfaction that comes from my own accomplishments regardless of what others think or feel about what we’re doing.
Engine: head porting and camshafts purchased from John Shepherd, Kiggly Racing valve springs and main cap girdle. Machine work done at Ron’s shop – Smith Auto. Magnus 8-injector (440cc primary, 1680cc secondary) intake manifold, pistons, and aluminum rods. AEM ECM, Twin Fire injector driver, EGT amplifier. Full Race exhaust manifold, box-stock Garrett GT45R, TiAl wastegate and blow off valve, late Mustang throttle body. TRE transmission and modded transfer case. Drive Shaft Shop front axles.
With few exceptions, the rest of the car was custom fabbed at our shop, RaVer Motorsports.