Editor’s Note: A few months ago I heard about a man named Jeff Gerner and his amazing 242MPH run at Bonneville. I knew that I just had to get his story. Not just for the purpose of publishing, but as a true Audi enthusiast and Bonneville 130MPH club member (aka “rookie status”) I just had to know more. I have worked with Jeff and our video editing team for over 2 months to put this story together. We hope that you will enjoy the video and interview! – Josh Decker
QW: Jeff, thank you for sharing your story with us. First, tell us a little bit about yourself.
JG: I am 58, married to Linda, with one daughter, Ashley, who lives in Europe. I am a retired automotive fleet maintenance manager. I have been involved in racing of various types my entire life having built my first race car, a 68 Camaro drag car, when I was eighteen and then a B Fuel dragster at age 19. I have constructed racing engines, again of various types, off and on since that time.
My current endeavor is my race engine shop, Four Ring Performance Engineering.(fourringperformance.com). As you can tell by the name, I try to specialize in Audi/VW engines but I end up doing a lot of work on import marques, as well. Mostly Honda and Mitsubishi turbocharged drag race engines. My love though is VAG turbo motors, especially Audi in-line five cylinder engines.
QW: For those who do not know, please explain what the Speed Week is all about.
JG: After World War II, a lot of GI’s returning from the war became hot-rodders with the movement being strongest in southern California. Dry lake racing was one of the first “big things” for these guys and they soon set up the “Southern California Timing Association” to oversee the racing activities on the dry lakes of California and of course, the Bonneville Speedway in Wendover Utah. This was the beginning of what came to be known as “Land Speed Racing” and Speed Week has been held at Bonneville in late summer every year since, I believe, 1949.
Bonneville has been the site of the vast majority of the world’s Land Speed Records. One important thing that many people, who may be obliquely familiar with Bonneville, may not realize, is that records are not based on terminal speeds but rather your average speed over any of the “timed miles” that comprise the courses.
QW: I am one of the lucky people who have raced on the salt flats. It was on my bucket list and the opportunity came up to run my 2000 S4 in the 130 club. But comparing that to what you did is kind of like comparing someone on training wheels to a Tour de France racer. Did you ever run in the slower class? Or did you just go for it with your first attempt?
JG: No I went through SCTA”s required licensing runs in two days. They start you with a run that must exceed 125 but not exceed 150, then a run of 175 and then 200. If you complete these runs free of any mechanical, driving or vehicular dynamics drama, you are awarded an SCTA “A” Competition License which means you can run freely over 200 MPH.
A lot of my earlier racing endeavors made me relatively well prepared, car control wise, for running a high horse power vehicle at speed. The only problem we had was that on the first run, I messed up and hit 165 MPH. They were not amused and made me do it over and stay under 150 MPH. The following day we went out to see what the old girl could do and we averaged 222.960 over the standing mile, which was reached over the third mile of the course.
QW: What was your first experience at Speed Week like?
JG: It was in 2008 and everything went very well, which owed a lot to the S4’s all-wheel drive stability and reliability. A lot of cars that run these events require a lot of going over in the paddock between runs and we were able to just put the Audi back in the staging line, check fluid levels, re-ice the inter-cooler tank and make the next run.
Probably the biggest challenge for me, as the driver, was just getting used to trying to monitor the gages as deeply into the run as possible and make sure to keep the car straight on the relatively slippery salt surface. On one of my early runs I got into the throttle to heavily in forth gear and the car lit up all for tires and moved from center to right then back to left and back to center. You have to keep all your driving inputs very smooth, and, with the steering, as small as possible to avoid upsetting the car, especially over about 190MPH.
The biggest single issue is learning how much throttle to leave applied as you “drive into the parachute”, getting used to how hard the chute hits the car over 200 and then letting the car do all it’s sashaying back and forth while avoiding the urge to counter-steer as it settles down.
QW: At what point did you decide that you wanted to race at Speed Week? And how on earth did you convince your wife?
JG: I drove down the salt in the summer of 1970 with my family in my Dad’s 1966 Chevy Caprice when we were on a western vacation together. I said to myself “some day I will come back and race here”. Years passed with life’s everyday responsibilities taking priority. Then in 06, I think it was, Linda and I went to see “Worlds Fastest Indian” with Anthony Hopkins, my favorite living actor. Hopkins portrayal of the real life Burt Munroe and his epic struggle to get from New Zealand to the Salt Flats so inspired me that I began planning the project in my mind on the drive home from the theater. I told myself if Burt Monroe can get to Bonneville from New Freaking Zealand, I can by God get there from Kansas City Mo.!
As far as convincing Linda, who is by nature, risk averse, I just told her that I had no death wish and that I would select a vehicle that would be very safe, as safe as possible, in the extreme high speed environment. Linda being my biggest and most important supporter said “OK you better get to it’!
QW: Why did you choose an Audi? And why the 1992 Audi S4 specifically?
JG: Well that part could not have been easier. My daily driver was, is, a pristine black on black 1994 Audi S4 that has been upgraded with the usual engine and suspension upgrades and had a top speed of about 160 MPH. Just don’t ask when or where, but suffice to say that it felt very stable to me at speed and I knew with it’s exceptional factory coefficient of drag numbers, autobahn tuned body shape and a relatively long wheel base that it should be ideal for Bonneville.
Then, of course, there was that legendary 20V Turbo 5 cylinder motor under the S4’s hood. For a LOT of us Audi guys this is the single greatest racing engine in Audi’s history up until the R series Le Mans cars of course. For those new to the Audi fold, this engine was originally developed for Audi’s legendary Group B rally cars. It was then used in Audi’s all conquering SCCA Trans Am and IMSA GTO class entries which were so dominant, in the late eighties and early ninety’s, that they were eventually kicked out of both series by the sanctioning bodies. They could not be beaten and all the other manufacturers were going to quit, so they kicked Audi out! How cool is that? So I wanted that engine to have a world speed record as well.
Additionally, I knew the UR S4’s were built like a tank and that it would hold up in a high speed crash as well or better than any other car I could choose.
QW: How many man hours went into preparing the car?
JG: OMG, there is really no way to know but suffice to say its over one thousand to make the initial trip to Bonneville. And, at least that many more over the past two years! I worked on the car six to seven hours a day for nine months. I did all the work myself, from stripping the car and fabricating the roll cage to sanding and prepping the body for paint. Then came the engine, drive-line and suspension work.
I had to do all the work myself in order to afford the project. The preparation was made a lot easier because one of my earliest sponsors, 034 Motorsport had spent years developing some of the industries most effective engine, dive-line and suspension components for this car and engine. They provided these at reduced cost in support of the project.
Still preparing an engine to attain and survive this level of performance takes an immense amount of time. The cylinder head alone, for porting, valve work and conversion from hydraulic to solid cam followers took in excess of eighty hours. Then there were big mods to the fuel delivery system, installation of fire suppression, driver safety and parachute systems etc.
The only part of the work I did not perform was the installation was wiring, which I hate. That was done by my good friend Mike Showengerdt at Importmasters – Audi VW Service in Kansas City and the actual tuning of the car’s 034 Stage 2C ECU which was done in magnificent fashion by Brendan Rudack of Apikol Performance Automotive Components. All of the great hard parts in the world can not make reliable horse power in the absence of extremely accurate tuning of the engine control unit. Brendan is simply one of the best turbocharged engine tuners in the United States. When we went to Bonneville in 2008 the engine, still early in it’s development made over 720 horse power at 8,500 RPM.
QW: What safety upgrades were made to the car to make it as safe as possible?
JG: The roll structure, of course, Kevlar racing seat, five point driver’s safety harness, master electrical and fuel pump inertia disconnects, and fifteen pounds of fire suppression material with nozzles in the engine and drivers compartment and removal of all the factory door locks.
Aerodynamically, the car has three quarter inch tall roof rails which, rather presciently as it turned out, I had extended down the rear glass to the trunk lid prior to this year’s runs.
QW: What kind of suspension do you run? And how important is suspension in the preparation of a car that is going to go over 240MPH?
JG: Actually it is very important. The car is very carefully corner-balanced so the spring height must be adjustable. We run shortened front struts with Bilstien cartridges and Koni rear shocks. The car is run as low as the suspension and half shaft angles will allow. I have special valving in the front and adjustable damping in the back.
The front to rear attitude of the body as it rests on the suspension is very important to speed, stability and safety. We run the car three quarters of an inch higher in the rear for added stability and rear wheel traction. This difference in front to rear ride height, combined with the shape of the S4’s body and under trays, produces a slight wedge under the car opening to the rear. This creates down-force and aids with getting the engine’s huge exhaust volume passed beneath the car without the car being lifted by the exhaust pressure.
We run cables between the upper camber plates and the top of the front strut housings. We tie down the front end to keep air from “packing” under the front of the body and gradually raising the front of the body on the suspension. This phenomenon can happen without the driver knowing it and can cause great instability up to and including the car simply taking off – straight up like a fighter jet on a maximum take off. Definitely something to be avoided!
To aid all this, the front struts are valved soft in compression and hard in rebound and the rears firm in compression and light in rebound so the tail stays up in the air stream. This set up is a little slower but much more stable at, say, 240 MPH. In case you are wondering why we don’t just run a big front splitter – the answer is that the rules don’t allow it. The Audi runs in the SCTA’s Production Supercharged class which requires pure stock factory body contours and no non-stock aero aids.
QW: How nervous where you on your first run, and what level was your adrenaline at? What else have you experienced in life that would compare?
JG: The first year I was not nervous at all because of all the progressive runs required for licensing. Now this past year it was a little different. First of all, the engine now had around 1100 crankshaft horsepower as the car had dynoed out at 962 Wheel H.P. and 600 Pounds Feet Wheel Torque. That was at 32 pounds of boost pressure. I had Brendan back us off to 29 PSI for added durability during the extreme sustained 9000 RPM output needed at Bonneville.
But, having felt the cars acceleration during a little second gear blast in front of the dyno shop – I knew I was in for a different kind of ride at Bonneville. I can assure you that I had never felt that kind of acceleration in anything I had driven before, including my little 600 HP B fuel dragster back in 1973! To further complicate things I knew that the engine would not make it through more than two runs at this sustained power and rpm level, so we could not afford any warm up runs. I just had to hope that our suspension mods and the Audi S4’s aerodynamics were up to the challenge. So yeah, my attention was pretty well focused on the qualifying run!
QW: Can you give us some in-sight to how things felt during your successful qualifying run?
JG: Well. when the run starts, you are just paying a lot of attention to the gauges, temperatures, pressures etc. You are listening carefully to the sound of the engine. By the time you reach third gear you begin trying to feed in progressively more power, still just at half throttle or so. You concentrate on making clean gear changes – quick, but no misses – and by the top of fourth gear, you can begin trying to apply full throttle. Things are beginning to feel more rushed at this point, you are still trying to watch the gauges, the engine exhaust is hellishly loud and you just need to make a clean shift to fifth gear.
Into fifth gear, with the car having established full traction, you can just go flat out. It is at this point, with the turbo at full boost that the car does the hardest acceleration of the run. The car just feels like it hits warp drive and I remember being astonished at how hard the acceleration felt. The force of acceleration seamed to be increasing all the way through fifth gear!
The course felt much narrower now, as I took a last look at the gauges and just tried to make a clean, quick shift to sixth gear and keep the car in the center of the course with very small steering inputs.
Now into sixth gear, the sensation of speed became omnipresent and the sound of the wind outside the car had become nearly as loud as the engine. At this point you become acutely aware of the absolutely brutish war the engine is having with the wind drag on the car. The sensation of the engine straining to gain the last few hundred rpm, which had come so easily before, made me wonder if, despite all the hours of preparation, the engine might just blow itself into a thousand pieces!
By mile marker three I was sure we had the speed needed for a new record and backed the throttle back to about 70% and deployed the parachute. The bang from the chute at 240 mph is very loud and the initial deceleration is breath taking.
Almost the instant the chute hit, the back of the car went pretty hard to the right, heading me for the left course boundary markers. Definitely not good! I applied opposite lock and after a few seconds the car settled down and returned to the center of the course. I strongly believe that the Audi’s superior stock aerodynamics combined with those recently extended roof rails were key factors in my ability to maintain control of the car.
After that it was just a matter of clearing the course and waiting the guys in the chase vehicle. The engine sounded perfect and settled into its normal cadence at idle as I switched it off.
QW: Be honest, did you soil yourself a little bit when you had to go full opposite lock at 240MPH? (This seemed to happen when the chute deployed). Because I nearly did just watching it on film! I am betting that would win the world record for “Highest speed opposite lock drift” don’t you think?
JG: Honestly it did not scare me when it was happening. You just react based on the totality of your driving experience. It is really just automatic. I do remember being aggravated that the car was doing this because I was thinking “great, this damned thing is doing something I don’t understand and this NEEDS to get fixed before the next run”!
Later, I questioned the guys on the crew about the chute packing and they assured me all was normal. I did not figure out what had caused the lurid slide until the next morning sitting in the car, alone, waiting to go to the starting line with the officials for our record back up run.
I had been thinking, erroneously, that the parachute had somehow jerked the car sideways upon deployment, and then, in the soft glow of sunrise it hit me! The car has a torsen posi unit in the rear differential – I had simply driven into the chute too hard with too much throttle applied, engine still producing lots of power and the damned thing had just “lit up the rear tires” at 242 MPH! It was a friggin power slide!
I did get a little effected later that evening when we were looking at the in-car film and I was able to see how much opposite lock I had dialed in and how long it had lasted! But no, race drivers in general are, by nature, mostly too arrogant and self-assured to be scared during these things. We just keep assuming whatever comes up we can handle it. Which, as we all know, is not true. But that is how it has to be or there would be no race drivers!
QW: Your first run was amazing, better than you probably had imagined. However your 2nd run ended with a loud bang. Can you share with us what happened?
JG: Yes it was quite devastating, being that close to backing up a new record at Bonneville and having the engine let go. It was not a complete surprise however. When you push a production engine this far past its design specifications and duty cycle these things can happen.
In the case of our engine, we were dealing with huge amounts of torsional deflection in the crank shaft. This happens when power levels exceed about 160 H.P. per cylinder in the Audi 5 cylinder with a stock crankshaft. Our engine was producing in excess of 200 H.P. per cylinder. In any event, it is the nose of the crank shaft that drives the oil pump, so these terrible torsional vibrations get passed directly into the oil pump gears. This, combined with sustained RPM over 9000, proved to be more than the stock pump could endure. The gears inside the oil pump shattered and when our Accu Sump oil pressure accumulator had exhausted its capacity, we had zero oil pressure.
The in-car camera showed that the engine ran for several seconds in sixth gear before it welded up the number one connecting rod and ventilated the engine block. Actually, if the pump would have lasted about ten seconds longer, we would have backed up our record and the Audi would have been in the record book!
QW: What is the current World record? And if things would have gone the same as the first run, would you have the World Record?
JG: I was told a factory team from Skoda ran later in the week and raised the record to 227 MPH. We had run 229.8 on our qualifying run so, had we backed it up it would still be standing as the record.
QW: Can you tell us about any of your plans going forward – such as what you can do to prevent a recurrence of the problems with the engine?
JG: Yes I can. Any time a mechanism fails, you can analyze the failure and apply fresh engineering to hopefully address the issues involved. In the case of our Audi’s little 5 cylinder, it is fairly simple from an engineering standpoint. I needed to gain control of torsional dampening of the crankshaft and insure an uninterrupted supply of lubricating oil to the engine.
To this end I have completely re-designed everything on the front of the engine. The biggest challenge was designing a crank shaft damper (harmonic balancer), and more specifically a balancer mounting system that is capable of dealing effectively with the forces being generated by the engine. I think we have designed a system which will be nearly bullet proof.
Additionally, I am fabricating a proper “dry sump” oiling system with an externally mounted oil pump. It was a combination of cost and my own stubbornness (I wanted to set the record using a production oil pump) that had prevented me from having a dry sump system in place this past year. All the rest of the internal components, things like pistons, rods etc. are well developed and up to the strain, they just don’t function long without oil pressure.
*Note. If your readers are interested, I will be happy to provide a full description of everything that went into the engine, all the testing and development, our sources for the various components, etc., in a subsequent post for Quattro World. Let Josh know if you are interested.
QW: Can you tell us about your sponsors, and the people that made this possible?
JG: Yes, I am deeply indebted to the people and organizations that have supported this project.
034 Motorsport was on board since we started the project and their experience with providing well developed and proven performance parts for the Audi brand has been invaluable. Nate and Javad have been enthusiastic in their support which has been greatly appreciated.
Garrett Turbocharger makes the amazing turbocharger we use on this engine.
The participation and generosity of Brendan Rudack at Apikol has been critical to our success to date – we simply could not do this without him. Brian Pauter at Pauter Machine and Ivan Snyder at Fluid Damper provided critical parts. The help I have received from Noland cylinder Head here in KC has been critical in one of the most important parts associated with producing big power numbers. They cut the intricate valve seat angles we use in the cylinder head.
A special thanks goes to Carl Bentson at Polymer Dynamics. Carl has supplied us with the anti-friction and heat control coatings we use on the engine internals. These coatings are crucial to the survival of the engine under such extreme stress as well as contributing significantly to power production.
Last, but not least, I wish to thank Paul Burke of Imagineering. Paul has constructed winning race engines at the upper echelons of competitive professional racing series such as NHRA and Sprint Cup, as well as many others.
His willingness to share his knowledge was a big factor in our overall performance.
QW: What is your goal for Speed Week 2012?
JG: An average speed of 235 plus MPH, a new record, and no drama with engines or parachute deployments!
QW: I look forward to seeing this in person, and you can count on us being there to root you on and document the world record attempt for all the Audi fans out there!
Thanks again Jeff, we are honored to have the privilege of sharing your story with the world! (Josh Decker. QuattroWorld Editor)
If you have questions for Jeff – Visit our S4/S6 Forum and ask away : http://forums.quattroworld.com/s4s6/msgs/157222.phtml