LAKE STATION | The current land speed record for a flathead gas roadster at the Utah sand flats is 153 mph, and Jeannette Hamilton is a full-throttle optimist.
“People in California think they’ve got all the secrets and know-how because they’ve been doing it for years,” said the co-owner of Hamilton Machine Performance Engines in Lake Station. “It would be awesome for a shop from Indiana to go out there and break the record. We got a lot of flat land here, too.”
Jeannette’s husband, James, has been tinkering since January with the guts of the engine for Doug Pierce, 68, of Valparaiso, and his son, Andrew, 20, both of whom will race in the flathead gas roadster division in Utah’s Bonneville Speed Week in August.
James Hamilton is a second-generation racer and was grinding valves when he was 8 years old. His father, Jim Sr., and grandfather, Brownie Parks, began the family tradition of building engines and hot rodding back in the 1950s.
With more than three decades of experience, he opened his shop in 1987. Today, he builds roughly 30 engines per year. About 70 percent of the market is street rods and restorations. Race cars and passenger vehicles make up the balance.
James Hamilton had previously built a 1928 crew truck flathead V8 and a 1939 Ford convertible flathead for Doug Pierce.
“We realized he was a genius and operated like a surgeon,” Doug Pierce said. “Ever since I was 5 years old I can remember sitting on a stoop in the country where I lived and watching cars drive by. I could name every car of that era.”
Jeannette said the couple turned to direct mail as well as Internet marketing when the economy cruised into low gear. Word-of-mouth also has been effective.
“You can’t give up,” she said. “You just keep swinging and pray you find a new way. People go to car shows and there’s camaraderie and they tell each other where they get their stuff.”
The Hamiltons used to build more race cars than street rods, but now it’s the reverse because racing is so much more expensive.
“The average guy used to be able to do it and now not so much,” Jeannette said.
Doug Pierce is expecting to click off a run of 154 mph or more to become the fastest man on gas roadster wheels — all in an old-fashioned 1930 Ford flathead engine.
“We have the audacity to think we’re going to go out their and beat the old guys at their game,” he said. “Racing is like the fountain of youth. Guys 80 years old drive out there from Los Angeles in 1932 Ford Roadsters to break the speed record.”
For the Hamiltons, an engine is an engine, but for Doug Pierce this race car represents a dream — grabbing a piece of history with courage and mechanical genius.
“You can buy a suit off the rack and now you’ve got a suit,” Jeannette said. “Or you can go to a tailor and he’s going to measure you, hand cut the material and fit it just for you. If James’ name is going to be on an engine, he’s the one that’s going to build it just for you.”
Doug Pierce appreciates the Hamiltons’ personal touch of encouraging customers to stop by the shop to check on the progress of their engine. In fact, videos of Pierce’s roadster and others are on Facebook and YouTube.
“We do a photo montage of a car before and after it’s assembled,” Jeannette said. “To a customer, it’s like a photo of their baby. For some people, this is something they’ve been dreaming of and saving for so it’s important to them.”