Running at 70 MPH, I was flying the boat just right. She went so high…
At 70, George Poteet still has records to break
George Poteet speaks slowly with a relaxed southern accent, drawing out the syllables as he talks cars and racing, his favorite subjects. “Chev-ruh-lay,” he says, and, “Bonn-uh-vull.” He’s about six feet tall, clean shaved, with close-cropped silver hair. He comes across as gentle but focused. It’s not hard to imagine him dishing out advice and support from the sidelines of a basketball court as a coach, a profession his sister chose. It’s more difficult to imagine George in a fireproof racing suit and scalloped, metal-flake helmet, stuffed into the cockpit of a streamlined land speed car barely wider than his shoulders, calmly preparing to run in what he calls “a five-mile drag race” at more than 400 mph. That’s exactly what he plans on doing—for the 46th time—this August at Bonneville Speed Week. And that’s where he was in 2012 when I first met him, the year he made 12 passes, each at more than 400, in one of the fastest wheel-driven cars in the world, his “Speed Demon.”
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Poteet is a self-made entrepreneur with a thriving business selling nutritional supplements. I knew him as the man to beat each year at Bonneville, but he’s probably better known for spreading his patronage around to the best hot-rod shops in the country to build cars that win awards and influence the art form. He’s never been to Pebble Beach; he’s not into the vintage Ferrari scene. He has the means, it’s just not his style. He’d rather broil on the salt every August and back-slap with fellow hot rodders at the Grand National Roadster Show each January. Like his counterparts at Pebble Beach, his passions are hideously expensive, but they somehow seem less highfalutin. He doesn’t seem to be trying to prove anything to anyone.
“Going that fast, it’s suicidal, to be honest with you,” George told me. “When you get into your 45th time, you think, ‘This is pushing your luck. Something is gonna happen one of these passes that I can’t control, like it did in 2014.’ ” He’s referring to the time at Bonneville when he rolled the previous version of the Speed Demon streamliner doing about 380 mph. Miraculously, he came away without a scratch. The car, not so much.
Just about anywhere but Bonneville, driving in excess of 300 mph for longer than a second would be inconceivable. The speeds are so high, and the accompanying stats so exponentially skewed, it’s hard to wrap your head around it all. At 450 mph, George would cover a quarter-mile in two seconds flat. Each run lasts about 80 seconds, and each engine, a twin-turbocharged and alcohol-fueled V-8 that costs about $80,000, would be considered to have lived a long life if it made six runs without blowing a head gasket or worse, giving a good engine a total life span of about eight minutes.
Then there’s the drama of the run. The Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) official at the starting line, often clad head to toe in white cotton like Lawrence of Arabia but with sunglasses and sound-blocking earmuffs, has the final say. Once the rest of the officials ensure the course is clear, he’ll point to George in the cockpit, mime putting a helmet visor down, then point down track to signal the course is his.
Ron Main, a former Bonneville racer, refers to his Ford Super Duty push truck as the Speed Demon’s first gear. To get George up to speed so he can pull away on his own, Ron positions his truck’s push bar up against the back of the streamliner. The Speed Demon’s turbos are its only mufflers, so the individual staccato pulses of the exhaust can be heard as the small-block Chevy fires up.
That’s Ron’s cue to push the streamliner up to speed as quickly as possible. It doesn’t take long. At about 20 mph, George starts to let his foot off the clutch. Once in gear, all shifts are clutchless. The Speed Demon has an air-shifted, seven-speed Liberty transmission. The V-8’s individual exhaust pops transform from an amplified snare-drum cadence to a single roar as George pulls away with ease. The engine note crescendos for a bit and then drones on as the narrow streamliner becomes a speck on the horizon.
“You know, my goal every time they push me off is to get that car at full throttle within three seconds,” says Poteet. “It doesn’t matter what the traction is, it doesn’t matter how it’s handling, you still gotta keep it on the floor.” He laughs, although he’s being totally honest. I’ve seen the data logs. Once George goes full throttle, he doesn’t let up until he’s ready to pull the chutes. That’s not to say he’s reckless. It just shows how much faith he has in his crew and his machine. They’ve programmed traction control into the fuel-injection ECU, so when wheel slip is detected, the car will momentarily reduce power. Spectators might hear a sputter that sounds like a misfire as the Speed Demon motors toward the horizon, but it’s all part of the plan.
I visited George’s shop near Holly Springs, Mississippi, last December. He showed me a photo of a flathead-powered Ford roadster. “This is the first car I drove at Bonneville,” he recalled. “I never got over 120.” The first thing you want to do, he said, is be a participant, to see the other end of the course. That soon turned into a desire to run 200 mph. “Then you think, ‘I’d like to get a record over 200 and get in the Two Club,’ ” he said. The 200-mph club is reserved for drivers who not only drive at more than 200 mph in a flying mile but also set a record doing it.
“Then we started this car with Troy,” George told me as he pointed to a photo of the Blowfish, a chopped 1969 Plymouth Barracuda finished in gold paint that famed Illinois hot-rod builder Troy Trepanier and his Rad Rides by Troy built in 2006. Its nose had been reshaped, and it looked a bit like a Plymouth Superbird, except well proportioned. Rather than a tacked-on aerodynamic cone with a yard of overhang, it has a tapered nose that looks like it belongs there. Troy and his team raised the bar on the entire class of Competition Coupes at Bonneville. “When we were building that car,” George said, “Ron talked me into providing an engine for that streamliner.” Talking people into giving him things is something Ron Main is good at.
George’s 400-mph career kicked off after he partnered with Ron, who drove a streamliner called the FlatFire, the first flathead-powered car to run in excess of 300 mph. The record still stands. Ron worked with GM to put a four-cylinder Ecotec in the car and renamed it the EcoFire. When GM folded its Bonneville program, Ron needed a new partner. George stepped up and set a 325.934-mph record, getting him into the 300-mph club. That car evolved into the first version of the Speed Demon, the one later rolled at 380 mph.
We’d met earlier in the day not far from George’s property in Holly Springs at his favorite sporting goods store. George arrived in a white 2010 F-150 that looked like it was fresh off the showroom floor. He was wearing jeans, leather work boots, and an olive-green canvas duck jacket. We shook hands. The plan was to get a tour of some of his car collection. “You’ll have to follow me. You can’t get there from here,” he said. We drove past one-story redbrick houses and along corral-fenced pastures, where I spotted the occasional quarter horse, before we arrived at a cabin and a trio of garages.
With the main garage door closed to the Mississippi winter, we entered the side door of the largest garage to hear a 406 Ford FE V-8 burbling quietly, its ample camshaft announcing that it’s no 292 Y-block. “Hutch” Hutchinson, who manages George’s fleet, was inspecting the car. When George was in high school, he knew a kid who had a ’62 Ford with a 406. The kid wrecked it, parted it out, and put the drivetrain in a ’56 Crown Vic. “I wanted one all my life, so I built it. This is what I’d have built in ’65 or ’66,” he said, patting the car’s metal-flake roof.
Hanging on the walls of the shop are 25 years of magazine articles from Hot Rod and Street Rodder featuring his cars: a black and blue scalloped ’32 Ford coupe, a yellow Shelby Cobra, a Ford woody. The edges of framed posters and articles have been stuffed with personal photos of cars, friends, and family, smiling faces in folding chairs under awnings, mostly taken at car shows and rod runs.
Take a look at some of those features on the walls, and you’ll find traditional hot rods, customs, and trend-setting muscle cars. When George finds a builder who gets his vision right, he’ll often be a repeat customer. He tends to favor understated customs with subtle modifications that keep their original style. Some prolific collectors find a favorite shop and stick with it, but George continues to make new relationships and spread his business. He has at least 13 cars and trucks that are currently under construction by craftsmen across the country, and he has been the first paying customer at more than one shop, financing builds that have kept shops open and brought them into the limelight to showcase their talent. “You talk to ’em and become friends with ’em,” said Poteet. “There’s no reason not to let ’em build a car.” You could say he’s the Medici of Mississippi.
In another of his shops, with his land speed trophies together against one wall, sits a ’56 John Deere that seems to make him as happy as any of the cars in his collection could. It’s the exact shade of green you’d expect, with bright yellow wheels and lettering, except every surface has been smoothed, painted, and polished. He hit the starter for me, and it soon settled into the ba-lat, ba-lat of its impossibly low idle. Then he engaged the power takeoff. While admiring the tractor’s paint work, I’d failed to notice twin ice-cream makers mounted on the back. As I gaped at the absurdity and ingenuity, somehow George’s smile grew even brighter. “This is a hot-rod version. I go to the John Deere expo where they have tractors that are totally restored. They won’t even let me show this because the paint is too nice.”
I asked George about growing up in Mississippi. “I was raised farming and helped a bit, but I never picked a whole lot of cotton.” His father was a sharecropper, one of 13 children, and never went to high school. Neither did his mother, who worked in a garment factory. George is proud to say he was the first in his family to go to college. After he graduated from Memphis State with a degree in history, he started working for National Safety Associates, a fire alarm company. That company began building in-home water filters, and after George moved up the ranks, he and his partner transitioned their sales team to sell nutritional supplements, becoming Juice Plus+. He likens his company to Amway and grumbles a bit about the increasing difficulties in keeping a business profitable. Mostly, he’s proud to be able to provide decent-paying jobs. “We start everybody at $15 an hour. They end up around $22.”
During my visit, George was readying his ’36 Ford Roadster for the January 2019 Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California. The car, built by Pinkee’s Rod Shop of Windsor, Colorado, is the creamy brown of chocolate milk. He referred to it as the 3-Penny Roadster because when he was going to school, it would be a treat for him and his sister to splurge and buy a half pint of chocolate milk for three cents in the cafeteria. George doesn’t like talking about money, but he did admit, “It costs a little bit more than three cents to build a car.” And it costs a lot more to bring a 20-person crew to the salt for more than a week each year. It’s what he saves up for. “I only build what I can afford to build. I’ve never been a proponent of going into debt for something I don’t need.” That grounded approach is reflected in his work ethic. “I wake up broke every morning and go to work.”
George led me to a ’63 Galaxie. “This is what I dreamed about all my life, a damn 15-second drag car,” George said, chuckling. Next to it is a ’61 Ford that George took to the Maxton Mile and raced in the East Coast Timing Association as well as Bonneville. “I built that just for the hell of it, ’cause I like ’61 Fords. I drove that car one time at 207 mph. It’s the fastest ’61 Ford in the world.” He laughed again and asked if I knew Bob Johnson, the first man to set an SCTA record in a tri-five Chevy in excess of 200 mph. “He claimed to have the fastest ’55 Chevrolet in the world. I said, ‘Bob, I’ve got the fastest ’61 Ford in the world. Guess what? Nobody gives a sh*t.’ ”
As far as George is concerned, if it’s not in the SCTA or Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile record book, it doesn’t matter.
Any sane person would have thanked his or her lucky stars and retired after a crash like the one George had in 2014. Yet when the latest Speed Demon was built and the salt was ready, Poteet got right back into the driver seat and did it all over again. His entire team, led by co–crew chiefs Steve Watt and Kenny Duttweiler, was energized by the potential exhibited by the new car in 2017 and 2018. “Steve doesn’t want to quit,” said Poteet. “Hell, Kenny is 76 years old. He thinks he can do it forever.”
As there’s no money to be made in land speed racing, it’s rare to see a professional team at Bonneville. Most racers have a small enclosed trailer and a skeleton crew of friends or family to help out. The Speed Demon team rolls up in two 40-foot-long enclosed trailers that park parallel about 20 feet apart. Between the trailers is a roof made of two rows of pop-up canopies so there’s shaded room for the sleek streamliner to park and for the roughly 20 crew members, all in matching black Speed Demon T-shirts, to move freely around it as they service it between passes. Over the years, they’ve refined their wrenching procedures and have engine swaps down to a science. The team has been known to bring four engines to compete in as many classes. George has been known to nap occasionally in the Speed Demon’s driver seat.
“Mentally, physically, it just drains you out there for 10 days doing that. The highs and lows are too much for somebody my age. I go out there and lose a lot of sleep. My diet’s screwed up. You don’t want to get into a car like that with a full stomach, so the most I’ll eat is one cheese sandwich.” He talks about other teams that cook shrimp gumbo and have some fantastic meals on the salt. “But they’re doing 220 mph!” He laughs again.
When I asked him about his future plans for the Speed Demon, he told me the biggest engine yet is slated for Speed Week 2019. “We’re putting a big-block in the car. We’ll be running on Burkland’s record.” In 2004, Tom Burkland went 417.020 mph. At 555 cubic inches, the new Bonneville-bound big-block is 25 percent larger than any of the Chevy small-blocks that have powered the Speed Demon in its previous 400-mph runs. Duttweiler, a renowned engine builder and Buick Grand National guru, manages the power output from the engines by adding boost, as much as 55 psi, to create the 2300 horsepower needed to reach 400 mph in such a short amount of time.
With more displacement, the big-block should require a lot less boost and therefore be more reliable. But nothing is certain. Sustained high-rpm operation is murder on parts. George showed me a photo of engine carnage from the Blowfish. “We made half a run out there on a new engine and burned a hole in the piston that big.” He held up his hand showing the “okay” sign. The engine was not okay. Next was a photo of a turbocharger housing that had completely exploded. “The impeller came off it and had to get out.”
It’s not just claustrophobic turbochargers that have ended runs for the Speed Demon. The mezzanine level of Steve Watt’s Maxwell Industries in Ventura, California, where the Speed Demon was built, is littered with failed aftermarket parts that have led to the current, much improved version of the car. They pick the best parts they can find, but they sometimes learn the best isn’t good enough for repeated runs at 400 mph. “No one had ever seen that happen,” George told me, referring again to the exploded turbo, “but it happened.”
With so many individual classes, racers at Speed Week are often competing against their own record or one set several years in the past. The Hot Rod trophy, on the other hand, is up for grabs each year at Speed Week for the single fastest flying mile during the event. It makes for some of the best rivalries on the salt, and it’s etched with many of hot rodding’s greatest names: Al Teague, Alex Xydias, Mickey Thompson. Once George took home the trophy in 2009 for the first time, it became a goal to hold onto it. Speed Week was rained out twice in the following eight years, and George successfully defended the trophy at each running. Some years George had no competition, but in 2017 and 2018, Danny Thompson and his twin-engine Challenger II managed impressive 400-mph passes. The only other team that threatened to surpass the Speed Demon’s nearly routine 420-plus-mph passes was Team Vesco, which rebuilt its turbine-powered Turbinator streamliner and worked the bugs out in 2017. Vesco eventually took the trophy from George in 2018, but he still has some racing left to do.
George remains cautiously optimistic, as always. “We think we can go 500.” If he did, he’d be the first to achieve that milestone with a wheel-driven vehicle. I asked him how many miles he’s run at more than 400 mph. “About 45,” he answered with a hint of pride. As far as I know, nobody else has racked up that many passes in excess of 400 mph, but that’s not the achievement he’s focused on. “We’ve got to get a bigger record than Danny Thompson’s, you know? We’ve got to get a 450 record. We need to get two back-to-back 475s before we think about 500.”
Back at the garage where we started the tour, George sat down on an old church pew and reflected on his long and successful land speed racing career. “I’m gonna do it one more year,” he said, “but the only way to do it is to go out there and risk your life. You can’t go out there half-hearted and say, ‘We’ll try.’ If you’re gonna run, you’re gonna run. There ain’t no half throttle.” I’ve heard George tell his team he was going to give it one more year before, at the team dinner after Speed Week 2017. The call back to the salt has always been strong. Perhaps this time he means it.
His 1936 Ford, the 3-Penny Roadster, won the 2019 America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award at the Grand National show. According to George, that’s his last build that will vie for a major award. “I don’t need a car in the winner’s circle. I’ve had enough. I want to drive ’em and enjoy ’em. The only thing I want is to win at Bonneville.”