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American organisers sure know how to name a race, from the Subway Jalapeño 250 powered by Coca-Cola and Buschy McBusch Race 400 to the TreatMyClot.com 300 NASCAR Xfinity Series.
In comparison, the Silver State Classic Challenge and its sister event the Nevada Open Road Challenge are fairly tame.
Yet in many ways they are the most evocative, and quickly send your mind into overdrive.
Instantly you’re in Thelma & Louise country, bounding along dusty roads, or raising fury, Mad Max-style.
You’re definitely not in a Lotus Carlton, unless you’re Briton Joe Ellis.
If it weren’t for his commemorative cap, and a decal on the bootlid recalling the route, there’s little else to give away that someone so reserved has done something so frankly ludicrous.
As the name suggests, the contest is held in the Silver State, Nevada, as hundreds of brave souls tear down the closed Highway 318 for 90 miles at two-minute intervals in relentless heat, at rarely less than full throttle, aiming to average a speed dictated by experience and equipment. Or, more commonly, simply aiming to finish.
It had not been Ellis’ long-held dream to compete, but he was blindsided by it in an idle moment on holiday.
“I went travelling to the US in the 1990s and, as you do, I started leafing through a magazine at a truck stop,” he begins.
“I found a little article on ‘John Hennessey of Houston’, later of Venom fame, doing the race in a Mitsubishi 3000GT, and the story captured my imagination.”
“A friend relocated to Texas and some time later asked me to visit, so I went and spoke to one of [Hennessey’s] managers,” continues Ellis.
“They told me all about it, and suggested I contact the Nevada tourist board: I got hold of them via fax and they invited me over.
“On my next holiday I rented a car, drove up and met some people involved, saw the race and helped out.”
As in all good race paddocks, the welcome turned into badgering to take part the following year.
“Some people use rental cars,” explains Ellis, “strapping a rollcage into a Viper.
“I found this place called Rent-a-Vette and had a horribly tired wreck of a C4.
“It wasn’t tremendous, but I entered the 105mph class or something, put the stickers on, did the race, took them off, said ‘thank you very much’ and gave it back. I’d at least got my experience to come back.”
The badgering ramped up and the organisers wanted to see their Brit in something British, and for Ellis there was only one real solution: “I’d raced Vauxhalls, and top of the tree was the Lotus Carlton.
“I knew that tuning a car to go faster is always fraught with reliability and development issues, and how can you test for an event doing a consistent 90 miles?
“A lot of the people who did it spent a lot of time breaking down before they had a car that could finish.”
“It’s the same speed, it’s very hot and dry, so we thought of the Lotus Carlton because it has the power and the aerodynamics,” explains Ellis.
“I wanted to do it with lots of steel around me, for safety, and the only other possibility was a Bentley Turbo R.”
Ellis has since become a leading Lotus Carlton specialist through his firm, Agamemnon, yet it all started precariously in a scrapyard.
With genuine Lotus Carltons then still hot property, Ellis built his own using the bones of a solid Vauxhall and the running gear from a destroyed Lotus: “We managed to find a new-old-stock shell.
“I wish I’d bought them all, actually, because there were three stacked up in a breaker’s yard.
“All Carltons from c1988 onwards had a sunroof – it was a rep car, a status symbol – so I had to find a solid roof from a scrapped car.”
“That was challenging because most had other cars stacked on top, had a sunroof cut-out or were more than a base model,” recalls Ellis.
“The only one I could find was at the very top, so I climbed up with a hacksaw and had to try and hand it down without kinking it.
“We modified the arches after Lotus lent us the jig and the first thing to go into the shell was the fuel tank. Everything was built around that.”
“We established the size and where to put it, which was within the wheelbase and as far forwards as possible,” Ellis explains.
“It’s an 80-litre cell with a proper F1-spec bladder, which I made.”
The connections to Lotus proved invaluable, and almost yielded what might now be an especially valuable chassis, because Hethel offered the durability testing car complete with half-cage.
“In hindsight, it would have been cool to have,” Ellis admits. But his own project car was too far along to throw away.
He was given a few secrets, though, such as the key to the perfect set-up that Lotus had stumbled across almost by chance: “The Nardò speed run homologated the car at 177mph, but they said they actually went faster with all the luggage and the people on the way back because, Nardò being a bowl, you’re always cornering.
“They raised the rev limiter, and the self-levelling suspension had jacked the back up with the nose down. So they suggested running with the front slightly down to keep the air from going underneath, and this is still its stance.”
“It was beautifully stable,” Ellis continues.
“The centre of pressure is behind the centre of gravity.
“The Carlton was very slippery, with flush-fitting glass – something like 0.3Cd. Even with the bodykit it was within 0.32Cd.
“We put on a plywood flat floor to keep the air flowing, and made boxes to cover the void where the fuel tank would’ve been so it doesn’t act like a parachute.”
Ellis also knew the Carlton’s weakness, of which Lotus was aware but not concerned enough to fix because it would never really present itself.
Unless you were sitting at full throttle for half an hour, on a sunbaked road in Nevada, say…
The differential was prone to overheating, and nearly scuppered Ellis and co-driver Dave Hirons’ debut run in September 2000.
They had created a cooling pump and attached it to the wheelarch inside the boot.
“I was concerned that, on a run that long, if anything happened to the plumbing we wouldn’t know because it’s all behind us and the electric pump would just be drawing the oil out of the diff,” says Ellis.
“I put the outlet at the fill level, so you’ve always got a minimum quantity of oil in there. But when we did the first run we didn’t have enough, so it was sucking air through and not cooling the differential properly.”
“Worried about temperature, we backed off to 150 or so and a Corvette came past,” recalls Ellis.
“Amusingly, the rear-view mirror was plastic and in the heat it distorted, so everything behind was upside-down.
“I didn’t see him coming, but he found a way past and you could see the oil coming out of the C5 where his diff had overheated.
“I backed off even more because I didn’t want our diff to seize, and I didn’t want to spin off on his oil.”
The drivers and their perhaps even braver co-drivers have a lot of time to consider what might happen in such an event, with little to focus on except pinning the throttle to the floor and keeping the car pointing forwards.
“Flipping over is a real possibility,” says Ellis.
“The biggest issue is going off the road due to tyre failure or sidewinds – the undulations can send you off. A couple of times we saw the revs flare when the rear wheels had come off the ground.”
“Lotus put on self-levelling suspension to keep the rear camber as upright as possible and spread the heat over the tyre, rather than the outer edge,” explains Ellis.
“The semi-trailing-arm rear end has a lot of camber gain, which you see when you push the back down and the toe squats in, so at high speed and with 120 litres of fuel at the start of the race, we didn’t want the tyres to overheat at the end when there’s less weight over the rear.
“One of the guys in our class had a tyre fail and it turned his Porsche into a ball of scrap.
“He was lucky it was around the halfway mark, which is where they park the medivac helicopter. They’d already started the engine before the dust had settled. He was fortunate to get away with it.”
Having safely navigated to the finish in 2000, averaging 150mph along the 90-mile course and finishing second in class behind a 1999 Corvette, Christmas was spent in Texas perfecting the diff cooler in his friend’s garage: “When we changed the oil very little came out…
“We put an extra fan on, getting air from the positive pressure in front of the rear wing and feeding it to the boot area.
“The natural way of the internal ventilation in the car is for it to come in through a vent in the side of the wing, so we cut some extra slots.”
“People wondered why we didn’t put the oil cooler in the air flow, but we were worried about stones – and flies, believe it or not,” says Ellis.
“I spoke to a guy with a Corvette who lost the race when a fly punctured his: he was running on his own, with nobody near, and a stone doesn’t just leap up.
“We had flies spattered down the side of the car.”
Having failed to hit their 160mph target in 2000, Ellis and Hirons tried again in ’01 but had their eyes on bigger figures – diff permitting: “They scrutineer the car depending on your safety kit, such as the type of fire extinguisher, cage and fuel tank, which limits your top speed.
“We were limited to 180mph, which is the limit of the car anyway, and if they radar you over that speed you’re disqualified.
“They tell you where the trap is, I made sure I was at 180 on the speedo and they registered 177. After that I just went for it.
“Towards the end, almost within sight of the finish, there was a massive crosswind that blew us off the centre line. That got my attention.”
So did what’s known as The Narrows, a stretch of road that pierces the rocky terrain in a series of sweepers: “It’s the only bit where you’re allowed to drop below your minimum speed and, because you’ve been fixated on 12-mile straights, when you approach the first corner it feels as if the car is rolling.
“The dampers get hot and it feels soggy, slow and unresponsive. Going through I saw a snake of tyre marks where somebody had spun.
“It’s 90 miles, but it’s only half an hour. Fluid loss is the main issue, and making sure you don’t lose focus. Plus, the turkey buzzards aren’t used to cars moving at that speed – and they’re big…”
Again, Ellis and Hirons reached the flag, this time third in class behind an astonishing 1937 Ford F1 pick-up and that same ’Vette: “We weren’t too worried about hitting the target, unlike some of the expert navigators in the field who could get within 0.001mph with GPS.
“We wanted to stay within the boundaries and see how fast we could go, and with the wind behind us it was great.
“We got 164mph and qualified for the Unlimited class… then I got married and 9/11 happened, and the rest is history.”
The Carlton remains a testament to those runs, venturing out for occasional testing and shows, largely the same as in its Silver State days.
It still happily punches towards its top speed, too, and arrowing down the Turweston runway it only gets into its stride with fourth gear and three figures.
It’ll wheelspin in third if you’re really pushing, Ellis says, and the power surge is relentless: “To get our maximum we ran in fifth at peak rpm, which is 6500, because sixth is massively overdriven.
“We used sixth to knock the revs back a bit, and downhill it would hold 170 or 180, but as soon as there was any kind of incline or corner it just didn’t have the torque.”
Today it barely escapes fourth, though.
“It’s only just getting started at 140mph,” Ellis says, his grin evident behind his race helmet.
Then it stops ferociously before the Tarmac runs out, the smell of brakes floating away on the wind.
Experience appears to be telling Ellis not to return to Nevada, though he’s promised his son Ed they’ll go and he is chomping at the bit. The fright of nearly losing the Carlton when it was shipped back last time no doubt doesn’t help: it means too much to be risked.
“Every time I get in, especially in the hot sun with the smell of fuel and heat, it brings it all back,” says Ellis.
“At the end, the euphoria kicks in and the dopamine rush is addictive, [but] to do it again is pushing the envelope.
“A lot of things go through your mind at silly speeds, and while this could do 200mph, given another 250bhp and a lot more development, I don’t know if I’d want to.
“My imagination had always been caught by The Cannonball Run, going as fast as you could in the desert. I’ve scratched that itch now.”
Images: Max Edleston