Autorama in Detroit celebrates speed freaks

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Detroit — The automotive future promises a dystopian landscape of connected highways prowled by autonomous, anonymous pods shuttling their human cargo to their destinations risk-free and at a prescribed speed limit.

The 66th annual Meguiar’s Detroit Autorama hot rod show says the heck with all that.

Front and center in Cobo Center this weekend — in front of 800 chopped, channeled, dumped, and decked custom, hot rod hell-raisers — is a special exhibit of six, record-setting Bonneville Salt Flat speedsters. From sleek streamliners to lay-down motorcycles these land rockets push the limits of speed with daredevils like George Poteet and Roosevelt Lackey at the helm.

From left, Michael Neighbors and Austin Moore of Detroit Speed, Inc. work on the body of a Gerber-Tracy go cart speed car at Autorama this weekend at Cobo Center in Detroit on March 1, 2018. A few Bonneville (salt flats) speed cars are going to be on display at Autorama.

“There are no Penskes or Ganassis out there on the salt flats,” says longtime Bonneville participant and spokeswoman for, Louise Noeth, in reference to two of the richest teams in IndyCar and NASCAR racing. “Bonneville racers are just everyday folks who have been chasing their dreams on the flats since 1949.”

Like speed-obsessed, real-life versions of “Mad Max” movie road warriors, these dreamers show up in their outlandish contraptions every year between July and November in a series of events to chase the fastest speed records on the planet. The biggest gathering is Speed Week in August.

Their race track is a 46-square mile expanse of encrusted salt near the tiny town of Wendover in northwest Utah where competitors vie for best average mile speed over a straight, five-mile run.

“The Bonneville Salt Flats is basically a dried-up ocean that got landlocked 11,000 years ago by a series of earthquakes that pushed up mountains around it and dried it up,” says Noeth, whose bullet-shaped, Team Vesco Turbinator set the wheel-driven land speed record at 458 mph in 2001.

Challenging the Turbinator for world speed record in recent years has been Poteet’s Chevy-powered, gold, spear-shaped Speed Demon which holds three class records for wheel-driven vehicles. A message on the team’s website chronicling last year’s Speed Week read:

“We blew up and caught fire on Tuesday. Rebuilt the car, switched engine and transmission, and re-wired the car. Today we went 438 (mph) average mile.”

Says Noeth: “That’s the beauty of it, man. These guys come out here with all kinds of bullets in their chamber. One guy went through eight engines in eight days.”

The outright speed record is held by a “thrust power” class vehicle — essentially a jet engine on rollers — at 763 mph. No thrust power vehicles will be on display at Cobo but there will be examples of the other two Bonneville vehicle categories: wheel-driven and motorcycle.

Arrow Racing of Windsor has fielded a motorcycle where the driver must lay on his back in a tube behind the engine, then peer through a periscope to see where he’s going. Bob Williams, who constructed the streamliner from his wheelchair, died last year, but his motorcycle once hit 228 mph on the flats.

Bob Sirna of Rochester Hills converted his classic, 1955 Mercedes 300 SL gull-wing into a land speed car back in 2001 to chase his dream. Fifteen years later, with a highly modified, 430-horse Roush V-6 under the hood, he set a Bonneville GT record at 291 mph.

Three other Bonneville stars will be on display including a Belly Tank Lakester, 1934 three-window coupe, and Roosevelt Lackey’s 1971 Triumph motorcycle.

When showgoers aren’t ogling these decidedly non-autonomous speedsters, they’ll be treated to the winner of the annual Ridler trophy. The bauble is awarded to the most outstanding new custom car. The winner takes home $10,000.

“It’s extremely gratifying that Detroit Autorama is the home of America’s most important hot rod award,” said Peter Toundas, president of Championship Auto Shows, which produces Autorama. “This is the Motor City, and Detroit is where hot rod, custom car shows started so we make every effort to let everyone know about this important heritage.”

Autorama will also play host to ex-NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will sign autographs, and a display of eight of the famous “Fate of the Furious” movie cars.

Autorama runs through Sunday. For all the details, go to


Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.



Cobo Center, 1 Washington Blvd., Detroit

General admission: $20; children 6-12: $7; children 5 and younger: free