When she was four years old, Kaylin Stewart watched her father, Tom, set a land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah, and resolved to race on the salt as well.
A few weeks from now, upon celebrating her sixteenth birthday, Kaylin will begin her quest to become the youngest driver ever to join the 200 MPH Club. Last year, just two weeks after turning sixteen, Madeline Carlson raced a roadster 147.365 mph on Bonneville’s three-mile short course, becoming the youngest to set a class record. Bill Lattin was seventeen years old in 1987 when he bettered a class record at 212.040 mph, and he remains the youngest to have joined the club.
When Bonneville Speed Week begins on August 9, she will attempt to better the existing mark of 219.509 mph in the B-Blown Modified Pickup class.
Kaylin’s project is more ambitious; just breaking the 200-mph barrier won’t be enough.
To gain membership in the “2 Club” and unseat Lattin, she must eclipse a class record above 200 mph. So when Bonneville Speed Week begins on August 9, she will attempt to better the existing mark of 219.509 mph in the B-Blown Modified Pickup class.
At the moment, Kaylin doesn’t even have a driver’s license.
Never mind that. Not only is she set to attempt the feat that has been achieved by 750 land
speed racers over the decades, with just twenty-four women among them, but she is also making a documentary film about it. She has already interviewed several of the “salt sisters”—those women in the 2 Club—on camera. With co-producer Harry Pallenberg now aboard, footage of her own record attempt will be mixed with those interviews for a documentary, Chasing 200, which is planned for release in the summer of 2015.
“After I found out I couldn’t be a cat when I grew up, that’s when I decided I wanted to be a producer-director,” says the high school sophomore from Arroyo Grande, California. She plans to study film production at Chapman University in the Los Angeles area.
Kaylin, who is five feet nine inches tall, has already been fitted for her racing seat in the Jesel Land Speed Team’s 2005 Dodge Ram 1500 crew cab pickup, which holds seven class records and has achieved 262.118 mph on the salt. Under the Ram’s hood, a fearsome twin-turbocharged 385-cubic-inch V-8 produces 2,100 horsepower. This engine is matched with a five-speed manual transmission. Gears are shifted by pressing a button on the steering wheel, releasing a blast of pressurized air that stimulates electromechanical actuation within the gearbox.
Team owner Wayne Jesel, whose family business manufactures valvetrain components for high-performance engines, is an acquaintance of the Stewarts. At the Dry Lakes Racing Hall of Fame banquet in January 2013, Kaylin told him about her dream of being the youngest member of the 2 Club. She mentioned that the truck’s picture hung in her room at home.
“Well, why don’t you just drive the truck at Speed Week next year, when you turn sixteen?” she remembers Jesel saying.
“I don’t think I stopped smiling for a week,” Kaylin says. She helped out on Jesel’s team last August.
Before she can drive during Speed Week, she must obtain a regular driver’s license and then a competition license. The process starts on her birthday, July 10, when she goes to the Department of Motor Vehicles for the state’s test. After passing, she will immediately head for Bonneville, where the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association holds a “test and tune” meet from July 11 to 13. Kaylin will strap herself in a converted Chevrolet stock car, offered by a friend of Jesel’s, for a series of progressively faster runs. (Motorcycle racer Valerie Thompson will also do license qualifying in the car.) These sessions will ultimately result in Kaylin’s receiving a “B” license for 200-mph-plus racing.
She told me it’s “incredible” to have people show this much confidence in her. “It’s terrifying, but it’s incredible.”
In August, she will return to Bonneville for Speed Week. Record attempts are staged over six miles of the salt-covered ancient lake bed. The first two miles are the acceleration zone. Three timed one-mile sections follow. Then the driver releases the parachute that helps her slow over the sixth mile before turning off the course. One of the biggest challenges during the run is to keep the driven wheels from spinning when powering across the salt. It isn’t enough to surpass the established record just once. A second run must be made on the following day, and the average of the two top speeds is used for scoring.
Last Saturday, I caught up with the Stewarts at El Mirage dry lake near Victorville, California. The Southern California Timing Association, which sanctions land speed racing here and at Bonneville, was holding its season-opening meet. With Kaylin’s eleven-year-old brother, Riley, they had driven their pickup about five hours after school on Friday in order to help out Robbie Cohn with his F-Classic Gas coupe. Cohn’s car is the near twin of the 1978 Chevrolet Monza that Tom raced to 214.160 mph in 2002.
After arriving at El Mirage, Riley and Kaylin slept in back of the truck while Tom, a machinist at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant on California’s coast, climbed into a tent on a platform. Cohn’s car had already made one run when I caught up with them.
Marveling at the scene, with various characters and some of the most bizarre and beautiful cars and motorcycles on the planet, I asked if Kaylin’s fellow students at Central Coast New Technical High School have any concept of what she is doing. She fixed her blue eyes on me and gestured often with her hands when saying the boys think her racing is “cool because of the cars” but girls are more skeptical, asking why she would “want to spend a week getting dirty and sweaty.”
El Mirage is an off-highway vehicle area administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management. For $15, you can enter the lakebed and do your thing. Kaylin, who has a driver’s permit, has already driven here. In January, while helping some friends test a land-speed car, Tom coned off a course, and Kaylin, behind the wheel of their Hyundai Sonata, made a dozen or so runs over the smooth dirt at speeds between 80 and 100 mph. “It was just to get the feeling of running down the course with cones and making safety turn-outs,” Tom says.
Meanwhile, as Kaylin continues explaining about her desire to race and how she decided to make the movie, her polished deadpan wit is often in evidence. For example, she says her mother has imposed a strict rule against her going over 275 mph until she’s eighteen.
“But I can always say, ‘I didn’t know how fast I was going. There’s no speedometer!’”
Much of her poise comes from extensive acting experience. She says she has “gone on a hundred auditions and been in a million plays, and I get nervous every time I’m about to go onstage or into the audition room.” But there is also the barrel racing. “When I race a horse, before I make a run, I visualize everything I’m going to do.” http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1801553/
Tom thinks the latter experience will pay dividends on the salt. “It helps a lot,” he says. “I can see the focus and the nerves. She has to control the horse and be timely. When it’s your turn to go, you have to be the show and turn it on.” The loud music in the arena, the yelling of her coach–she doesn’t remember any of that afterward, he says.
Kaylin’s polished deadpan wit is often in evidence. For example, she says her mother has imposed a strict rule against her going over 275 mph until she’s eighteen.
Later I call up Kaylin’s mother, Jessica, who has stayed behind on the family’s ten-acre ranch to manage the opening of the movie’s Indiegogo fundraising campaign. (It’s off to a slow start.) She is prepared for the obvious question. “We have people tell us we’re crazy all the time,” she says. “We’re driven by that mama bear instinct. Your gut reaction is, ‘How can you let her do something like that?’”
Like Tom, she expresses confidence in the Jesel team’s attention to detail and emphasis on safety. She considers the upside. Kaylin, she says, will be better prepared for life than 90 percent of her classmates.
And even without taking the philosophical view, Jessica allows there’s a certain inevitable quality to it all, especially when considering Kaylin’s precocity. “She was talking in full sentences when she was a year old. She’s never had a fear in her life. She rode in the push truck when she was an infant. She’s talked about it since she was six. She was going to drive like Daddy.”
In August, Kaylin might drive faster than Daddy.