How Belly Tank Racers Work
Hey, I’ve got an idea for something to do this weekend: How about you strap yourself inside a gas tank from a World War II fighter plane and go screaming across some salt flats at nearly 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour)? C’mon man, it’ll be fun!
That pretty much describes belly tank racing, a type of car racing that evolved in the 1940s and 1950s using surplus plane parts from WWII. Streaking across dry lake beds in the American West, belly tank racers were the platform that a generation of mechanics, designers and drivers used to set land speed records and spark the imagination of many of today’s gearheads.
A Lakester is a car with a streamlined body but with four exposed wheels. It is most often made out of a modified aircraft drop tank. The main attraction is the drop tank’s excellent aerodynamics, due to it being streamlined for aircraft use. Building lakesters became popular after World War II when surplus drop tanks were available cheaply.
During the late 1940s Bill Burke of the So-Cal Speed Shop built the first “Lakester” from a surplus aircraft drop tank. The idea of using a tank as an aerodynamic car body came to Burke when he saw some drop tanks on a barge being taken ashore at Guadalcanal. Burke recalls thinking, “My god, what a beautiful piece of streamlining that is!” With a tape measure, Burke went aboard and measured one of the tanks. He knew the dimensions of a Ford rear end and engine block, and he could see that the automotive components would fit.