Geo Metro salt racer packs a 285-hp, two-stroke punch

Brandan Gillogly

Spectating at Bonneville Speed Week can be dangerous, but not for the reasons you might expect. While the racers often reach almost incomprehensible speeds across the dry lake bed, the spectators are kept behind the starting line and far off the course. Unless an errant race car hooks off toward the impound or pit area—which has happened—the racing only gets dicey for the drivers. As a spectator, what you’ve got to look out for is Salt Fever, a serious urge to compete in land-speed racing that can last a lifetime. For Clay Pitkin, a Utah native, the fever is proving incurable.

In August 1990, Pitkin’s father, Terry, drove the two of them to the Bonneville Salt Flats in their 1984 Mustang. The two weren’t prepared for the hot summer weather—the car didn’t have air conditioning—but they did pack a lunch. The two sat in the Mustang near the starting line and watched cars head off down the course and over the horizon. “I have to give kudos to my dad,” Pitkin said, “because he’s the one that took me out and introduced me to Bonneville.” They returned the following year, bringing lawn chairs to enjoy the racing from a cooler vantage point.

Geo Metro land speed racer passenger side wide rear three quarter
Brandan Gillogly

Pitkin has been going back to the Salt Flats every year since. The turning point came in 2002, when he and his father-in-law, Ted Crandall, made the trip together. They spotted a sign that read “Pit Crew Needed” and asked the driver what that might entail. The driver, who was attending the event solo, said he needed help getting buckled into his car and picked up at the finish. For their trouble, he’d buy them a steak dinner that night in nearby Wendover. That sealed the deal.

After years of serving on the crew for the car, a Suzuki Swift, Pitkin eventually bought it and took over as driver. That Suzuki Swift succumbed to the harsh and salty Bonneville conditions, which allowed rust to take hold of the car’s sheetmetal. The race car is now a 1997 Geo Metro, a rebranded Suzuki Swift. Instead of the 1.0-liter three-cylinder that came with the car, the subcompact hatch is powered by a 900cc two-stroke twin from an Arctic Cat snowmobile. The car has been running the engine since 2012. Before that, it had used a 1000cc two-stroke triple that was not able to make as much power.

Mike Hair at Custom Pipes Incorporated had done a lot of research in exhaust and expansion chambers, so Pitkin contacted his company to design the expansion pipe that leads to a Mitsubishi turbocharger. At 13 pounds of boost, the 900cc engine produces an impressive 285 horsepower at the wheels! Pitkin made some important modifications to keep that power from breaking loose. He welded the crankshaft to add strength and selected new pistons and new rods that would hold up to the intense pounding the engine takes while going full-throttle for miles at a time. The engine is mounted to a stock Metro transmission by way of adapter plates machined by Lenard Myers at Custom Fab & Machine in Salt Lake City. First gear is useless; Pitkin launches the car in second.

Geo Metro land speed racer interior gauges
Brandan Gillogly

For the sake of aerodynamics, the car’s grille is closed and neither the engine nor the charge cooler relies on a radiator. Instead, both are cooled using a water tank located in the car’s cargo area. Competing in the I/Blown Gas Altered Coupe class, the car has run a best of 135 mph. The current class record, set in 2016, is 144.032 mph.

When we asked Pitkin how his 2023 Speed Week was, he laughed and replied with a single word: “Wet.” Indeed, the weather at Bonneville has caused the cancellation and delay of the last two Speed Week events, respectively. Thankfully the rain let up enough at 2023’s event to allow some passes.

“From a personal standpoint, we got a lot of questions answered,” Pitkin said. Unfortunately, the bearing that connects the engine and transmission failed during a run when he was approaching 90 mph. “It decided it had had enough, and did not consult with me,” Pitkin joked. That was on Thursday, and racing would wrap up on Friday morning, so Pitkin and his crew— his wife, Heidi, his sons Brad and Bryce, and the aforementioned Lenard Myers—packed up and made the two-hour drive back to their respective homes north of Salt Lake City.

Pitkin and his crew plan on returning to Speed Week in 2024, naturally, and hope to get the car sorted out in the meantime. That will mean more time spent on the dyno and on getting the snowmobile engine to play nice with the Geo/Suzuki transmission. If you’d like to risk the Salt Fever, Pitkin would surely welcome you into his pit and show you around the unique race car. If you’re looking for a steak dinner, there are probably plenty of teams that could use a hand. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Geo Metro land speed racer passenger side profile
Brandan Gillogly



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    There’s a whole subculture running microcars on the salt. One of my neighbors has campaigned(!) a hot-rodded 1948 Crosley 750cc. His competition is ‘Evil Tweety’- a yellow Honda 800. They try to beat each other but their real goal is to break 100 mph in those little bricks…

    Ahhh the Salt. Greatest Show On Earth.
    Everything is there. 30cc to cubic foot displacements. 2 tires to 10. Fueled by diesel to nitro. Funded by beer money to big corporations.
    The “show” in the pits, camp grounds, and driving to and from the track are as great. I applaud all the participants!
    Nothing like the sound of a V8 going by mile 3 at 250 mph.

    I have a 1994 geo metro and it starts up great but dies right after I give it gas 😭 can anyone please help me diagnose the problem I know the oil is looking milky now , but it’s not leaking from anywhere….. please HELP 🥵

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