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Gentry hits 200 mph, plans to go much faster

Jeff Birchfield • Sep 23, 2018 at 5:19 PM

Jeff Gentry got more of a thrill than he expected when he finally broke the 200 mph barrier back in July.

The Johnson City driver took his Rydin Decal land speed machine to the former Loring Air Force Base in Maine for one of the country's largest speed festivals.

Gentry drove his streamliner to a 205.210 mph pass to make it into the LTA (Loring Timing Association) 200 MPH Club. However, he soon found out there was a major problem.

When his chute didn't deploy when he pulled it at the 1 1/2-mile mark. Gentry was hard on the brakes. He barely averted disaster, finally getting the machine stopped with part of the car off the pavement at the end of the runway.

"I was at the end of the track past the turnoff. Thankfully, I got the car stopped before I ran off in the grass," Gentry said. "When you get over 200 mph, things start happening quickly and if you get off the runway, things can happen bad fast. That was a scary deal, but at the same time, we had enough brakes where it saved us.

"I tried to apply good pressure to the brakes, but not too much where it started hopping. It was everything I had to get stopped."

After finally regaining his composure, Gentry felt the elation of reaching his goal in the streamliner powered by a 515-cubic-inch Chevrolet engine.

It's a true passion for Gentry, whose interests in both Chevy motors and land-speed machines go back to his childhood in Mountain City.

KIDS PLAY

Gentry's father was a car guy, although he was more into older cars than hot rods. The interest in fast cars came from his mother, who drove a 1963 Chevrolet Impala with a 409 engine.

When Gentry attended his first drag race at Bristol with his oldest brother in 1977, he already had an interest in the sport, looking at old Hot Rod magazines. While he liked the drag racing and street cars, the land-speed cars were what really caught his attention.

While other race fans might have dreamed of driving at Daytona, Indianapolis or even close to home at Bristol, Gentry's dream was to drive fast in Utah.

"I would read about Bonneville and all these guys like Craig Breedlove and Mickey Thompson," he said. "I thought it was the coolest thing, but Bonneville might as well be on other continent because I will never make it from here."

With Bonneville looking like an impossible dream, Gentry got his racing fix by helping out on his former brother-in-law's bracket-racing car at Bristol Dragway. It led to another opportunity to work with Randy Moore's Pro Mod Lamborghini team based in Piney Flats.

Satisfying his racing bug, Gentry traveled to some races, although his full-time job dictated that he stayed home for others. When Moore decided to quit drag racing and start racing monster trucks, Gentry got out of the sport for the next few years.

WORLD WIDE WEB

Searching the internet in 2007, Gentry was surprised to find out there was land speed racing on the East Coast, including a North Carolina-based organization. He went to his first East Coast Timing Association race in 2008 and was immediately hooked.

"When I saw what they were doing, the creativity of those cars, it really intrigued me," he said. "Before I left there, I was like I have to do this before I die."

With a new purpose, he made different plans to form a team and build a car, but they all fell through. He then began searching for a car already built, but they were too expensive and too far away to tow back to the Tri-Cities. He finally found a car in Knoxville, which didn't work out, and then found the streamliner in Burlington, N.C., and in the price range of his budget.

After purchasing the car in 2014 and making updates to it, he finally went to the track — an old Air Force base in Ohio — two years later.

LIVING THE DREAM

Gentry hit 191 mph in his first official runs in the land-speed car. It led to the opportunity to live out his childhood dream.

More than just driving the land-speed car, he loved the camaraderie at the events. One such case was how Gentry became instant friends with Don Martin, a racer from West Tennessee. Later, Martin invited Gentry to come along with him to Bonneville and work on his car, a 1953 souped-up Studebaker.

While at Bonneville, Martin asked Gentry if he wanted to drive the car and make a pass. Gentry jumped at the chance and went 163 mph on the legendary salt flats.

After that experience, Gentry then got connected with the Rydin team out of Roanoke, Virginia, where his car is currently housed.

RECORDS AND GOALS

Just as an Indy Car and a sprint car are both open-wheel race cars, Gentry's car is much different from the world-record Thrust SCC machine that went 763.035 mph over Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

It's still an extreme thrill to go 200 mph, with the steering like that of a go-kart and one sitting just inches above the ground.

With any speed record, whether it be A.J. Foyt going 257 mph in a stock car at an Oldsmobile test track in 1987 or rocketing down the salt flats or desert courses, it has to be a clean surface with no rocks or other obstacles. There aren't small crashes at those speeds, and the driver has to be smooth behind the wheel. Anytime the car starts bouncing, it scrubs off speed.

Gentry believes with the right modifications to his car, he can make it to 300 mph club with his ultimate goal to reach 350 mph. A more immediate goal is to hit the 200 mph club at Bonneville, which is rare due to a stringent set of qualifications.

"It was my dream to get in the 200 mph club. Now, I want to get in the 200 mph club at Bonneville because it's legendary in its own right," he said. "To get to the 200 mph club at Bonneville, it's as rare as climbing Mount Everest."

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