Greg Friedrich is a man who wears many hats.
A contractor by trade, the rural Long Prairie man manages 750 acres of privately-owned white tail deer hunting property, helps stock area lakes and ponds with fish as a licensed hatcher and is a beekeeper who makes his own honey. He can also be found flying around his property, “Boulder Ridge,” on a powered parachute, or even officiating a wedding as an ordained minister.
Perhaps his newest title, however, is land speed car driver. He was ready to test his wares in August at the 74th running of Bonneville Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, until Mother Nature postponed his first official runs until next year.
“It was a letdown, but it probably happened for a reason,” Friedrich said. “We’re ready to go for next year.”
His son, Greg Friedrich, Jr., owns Gizmos Custom Cars in Cedar. As what his father described as a “world-class car builder,” he was the first in the family to try his hand at land speed racing.
“We’ve always done any kind of racing you can imagine over the years, and he grew up with it,” Friedrich said. “He got into land speed racing with a ‘34 Ford that he was a crew member of; a crew chief. The guy that owned the car, that drove it, got too sick so my son turned into the driver.”
The younger Friedrich and his team gained notoriety in the land speed racing community. Since their car was street legal, they made the annual trek from Minnesota to the Salt Flats in their land speed vehicle. Once there, they raced — reaching a top speed of about 186 miles per hour — and then drove it back home.
It was about four or five years ago, Friedrich said, when he and his wife, Colleen, made their first trip to the Salt Flats as spectators.
“They call it ‘salt fever,’” he said. “Once you get down there and you do it once, even spectate, you’re just hooked; you want to go back. It’s really a unique experience.”
It became an annual trip for the Friedrichs to go with to help their son. Eventually, however, Friedrich decided to purchase his own vehicle. They couldn’t get his and his son’s vehicles ready in time for the 2021 event, so they set their sights on 2022 as the year Greg Sr. would make his rookie run.
His car is about 10 years old, but its previous owners had only ran it once. “We bought this in Indianapolis, brought it home and have done a ton of work on it, starting with — they call it the funny car roll cage,” Friedrich said. “I didn’t fit in there. We cut it out and, thank God my son knows what he’s doing. He built a brand new cage, which took a long time.”
With what Friedrich said was countless hours of help from his crew — Greg Jr., Colleen and his brother, Bruce — they had it ready just in time for Speed Week.
“If it wasn’t for my wife, my son — which is the brains — and then my brother — which, he just pours his heart out into this thing — there’s no way I could ever do it,” Friedrich said. “There’s no possible way. It’s just countless, countless hours.”
There was plenty to keep in mind for the crew as they got the car ready. Under the hood is a 530 horse, small-block Chevy engine — a 383 stroker motor. It has a 2-speed, power glide transmission, meaning Friedrich would shift from first to second gear at about 180 miles per hour.
That is really just the tip of the iceberg, though.
Friedrich said the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), which puts on Bonneville Speed Week, is “very, very safety oriented.” Not only did the engine, transmission and every other mechanical component need to pass a rigorous inspection when they arrived at the Salt Flats, so did several safety features. Those include fire extinguishers in both the cockpit and the engine bay, which are controlled by a pull lever in the cockpit.
Another aspect of the vehicle Friedrich said garnered interest from visitors at the Lone Eagle Auto Show and Swap Meet, Sept. 11, in Little Falls, was the tires. The vehicle sits on 26-ply tires, which are rated for 300 miles per hour. What sticks out about them most, however, is the fact that there is no tread.
“They claim that at some certain speed — and I can’t tell you what it is — but your tread will just fly off your tire, if you’ve got tread,” Friedrich said. “Number two is, if you think about how drag racers, they heat up their tires, or slicks, it makes them hot and sticky. That’s what these do. As they get hot, they get stickier, so you get better traction and more control over the car at high speeds.”
In all, he said three officials looked through the vehicle and tried “to pick anything apart they could.” After inspection, Friedrich and his team only had to make one minor adjustment, and they were ready to race.
That was Friday, and he was set to make his first run Saturday morning.
“We left and went to the hotel and it started raining,” Friedrich said. “It just kept on raining and kept on raining. Pretty soon, Saturday morning came along and they kind of postponed things. They wouldn’t say much other than, ‘You can’t come out here.’ When it gets wet, you tear up the salt when you drive on it.”
For two days they sat and waited, but the weather got worse and worse. Finally, event officials “pulled the plug,” according to Friedrich. They told drivers they could come back to the Salt Flats to pick up anything they had left on Friday, but they had to be escorted — going five miles per hour over three miles to the pit.
Friedrich said there were between three inches and one foot of water on top of the salt. Luckily, both Friedrich and his son had trailered their vehicles Friday, but not everyone had their good fortune, as the water was high enough it carried off one of their spare tires and cooler — the latter of which they never did find.
“There were half-million dollar cars sitting on the salt,” Friedrich said.
Despite not getting a chance to run this year, he is already well aware of the arduous process that goes into one run. Once he gets his fire suit on — which, he said, “is a real pain” — he puts a HANS device on his neck, to which the helmet gets strapped. Bruce then helps strap him into the car, because it is too constricted in the cockpit for him to do it on his own.
As a rookie, he had to go through a “bailout training,” which tests his skills on how he would react during a simulated fire. Once he passed that, he would have spent about six hours in line to be able to run the car.
“Your rookie run, you can’t go more than 150 miles an hour,” Friedrich said. “You have to throw the (parachute) if you’ve got one. What they do is, they just watch. They watch how your crew is, they watch how you are, how you handle the car, how you pull off the track, how they come out to get you on the return road, and make sure that you’re professional at it and you’re not a danger to anybody, including yourself.”
The track itself is eight miles long — five miles for running and another three miles for slowing down. The latter distance is necessary, with some cars going around 450 miles per hour.
Once a driver has become licensed for 150 miles per hour, they are no longer a rookie. But, they must receive another license at each 25 mile per hour increment going up from there.
The work doesn’t stop for Friedrich and his crew when his run is over, either. Following his turn, he heads back to the pit on a return road, which can be a trek of about 20 miles in itself. There, he plugs in his laptop and fires up the hotspot on his cellphone. Back in Minnesota, his tuner can set up on his kitchen table and get a look at what’s going on inside the car.
“He’ll totally tune the car,” Friedrich said. “He’s very knowledgeable. He might put a change of air fuel mixture, he might change timing, something like that. Then he’ll say, ‘OK, go ahead and make a run.’ It’s really gotten automated that way.”
In terms of why he decided to get involved in land speed racing himself, Friedrich said it is mostly the people.
“I’ve been involved with so many types of racing and car shows and stuff like that,” he said. “You get people who are into cars, they’re just good people; they really are. They’re the best.”
Another aspect of the sport he likes is that drivers aren’t necessarily racing against anyone but themselves. The objective is simply to “go as fast as you can.” In the class he runs, the world record is 294 miles per hour.
He said the scenery at the Salt Flats is also unique, comparing it to feeling like “you’re on the moon.”
“If you get out there first thing in the morning, you get there at 6 in the morning, it’s absolutely beautiful; sunrise on the salt,” Friedrich said.
As such, he’s excited to get back at it next year. Nothing really needs to be changed on the car between now and then, he said, and the biggest hurdles will be mental.
Friedrich said, once he’s strapped into the vehicle, it’s “really, really confined.” It’s also hot. There is no air conditioning inside the vehicles, and the August temperatures in Utah usually top off in the 90s or 100s.
“Once that canopy goes down, it’s a whole different mental thing,” he said.
On top of his joy of racing, Friedrich said having his wife, son and brother at his side is crucial. They are able to turn the trip into a bit of a vacation, with even the family dogs loaded up in the motor home.
It’s an experience unlike any other.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Friedrich said of 2023. “I wish it was next week, but we’ll have to wait for August. That’s the worst part about it, just waiting.”