Pulling a Cyclist to a Land-Speed Victory
For big dreamers, stagnancy isn’t an option. Yet crushing records and chalking up wins takes behind-the-scenes patience and preparation. Without a doubt, it’s a fine line between crazy and cool-headed; in any type of extreme racing, the balance is an everyday necessity.
It was triply so for the Project Speed crew, our group of mavericks destined to shatter a 23-year record for paced bicycle land speed. We risked life, injury, and sanity at the hands of the deceptively placid-looking Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah.
A First Attempt
We made the first attempt in 2016. Denise Mueller-Korenek, an elite athlete and former junior cyclist, wanted to beat the 166.9 mph record set in 1995 by Dutch-born Fred Rompelberg. The record had been held by men for more than a century. If she broke it, she’d show the world that a female cyclist could outpace a male. In true competitive style, she upped the bar by adding to the mix a female pacing driver: me.
Denise had been looking for a female driver experienced with sports car road racing and turbine-powered jet dragsters, and my name kept coming up. On our first phone call together, Denise and I ended up speaking for an hour. We hit it off, enjoying instant chemistry as we talked about the trust, strength, and expertise needed to pull off a massive undertaking. Listening to Denise describe her vision, I went all in. It wasn’t just about the two of us, though. Fifteen people played roles in the Project Speed crew.
In 2016, we took off for the first time. The attempt wasn’t a disaster, but it was a disappointment. We knew we left speed on the salt.
Denise posted the women’s record of 147.74 mph on her customized 35-pound, carbon-fiber KHS bicycle with me at the wheel of a modified Range Rover. Although not the original goal, it was all we had. We left defeated, as rain sucked away our chances of one more try. She had spent six years on the effort; I had been involved for just three months but was just as emotionally invested.
When we parted ways that day, I thought that might be the last of it. Denise and I both got married, and our careers took off. One day, though, Denise called.
“Mark your calendar,” she said. “We’re going back.”
To Finish, You Have to Begin
As we got closer to the big event, we still didn’t have a vehicle to use. I hate to admit it, but I honestly didn’t believe it would come together. And then I learned we would use the 1995 dragster that paced Fred. At first, I thought the idea was cool. But then I realized the dragster had been a sitting in mothballs for 23 years. It would need an overhaul that our timeline couldn’t afford, but it was equipped with the rear fairing we’d need.
The dragster was a diamond in the rough. It had been stored in Utah in the shop owned by the Strasburgs, a popular racing name around those parts. Jeff Strasburg had been the pacing driver for Fred’s record run.
To say we were under pressure was an understatement. I knew how to drive a car really fast, even at risky levels, but putting someone else’s future on the line was difficult. Motorsports is my niche, but problems that were out of my control arose constantly. I almost walked away — not because I thought we wouldn’t succeed but because we kept hitting roadblocks. Four days out, we scrambled to replace the rare tires on the dragster. En route to Utah, the trailer broke down.
I’ll admit, I had a couple of breakdowns prior to the final race, but I hid them from Denise so she didn’t sense negativity or the weight of my burdens. I leaned on my core guys to push me through, and I pressed on to maintain an upbeat vibe.
Here’s the raw truth: When you’re the pacer, you’re in control. You’re holding another person’s life in your hands. If Denise drafted slightly to the left or right, or if she fell behind or got too close, she could die. I asked Jeff Strasburg how he felt pacing Fred. He was the only person who actually knew the weight I felt pressing on me. His answer comforted me: “It was the slowest car I’ve ever driven but the most terrifying. A person on a bicycle drafting just feet behind you — I was scared for him.”
On the morning of the run, the timing apparatus broke. Then the headwinds shot up to 10 mph. Things could have gone very wrong; knowing this, most people would shy away. Fortunately, Denise and I had a connection of pure empowerment. I did this for Denise, and she knew I had her back. Besides, I wasn’t going to limit her; I had a job to do, and I did it using all my skills. By the time we were ready for our record run, I had fallen into full momma jaguar mode: Denise was my cub, and I was her protector.
Into the Wind
And then it was time: Systems check. Fire up the dragster. I watched through mirrors as I awaited Denise’s connection, bike to dragster. It’s loud, and the cockpit was violently shaking, yet I could see Denise breathing behind me and could practically read her mind. Everything went silent as my sight cleared in response to intense hope, bravery, and hope.
I could practically feel my pupils dilating.
We left the starting line fast and hard. I shifted three gears before the first mile churned under our tires. Finally, I was in complete control, which meant our safety was up to me. I dictated the rate of speed, determined when she’s released from the tow, multitasked different jobs, and made sure we reached record-breaking speed between the fourth and fifth mile.
Denise detached from the dragster at the 1.5-mile mark, pedaling in the slipstream for the remaining 3.5 miles. It takes us four miles to reach an access of 180 mph, faster than an Airbus A340’s takeoff speed. During the fourth to fifth mile, I was completely topped out, going as fast as the dragster would go.
Through all this turbulent air, Denise’s zone of safety was only 48 inches wide and about three or four feet of slipstream. One touch of the bump bar, and she would be thrown into 140 mph hurricane-force winds.
Was it adrenaline or survival mode that kept us motivated despite the danger? Perhaps a little of both. For five minutes, our futures were tethered. It was the ride of Denise’s life and the drive of mine.
All of it lasted just over 60 seconds.
Faster and Faster Still
On September 16, 2018, Denise clocked in at a blazing 183.9 mph, smashing the previous record by 17 mph. From my place in the driver’s seat, I knew we had broken the record, but there was no way for Denise to be sure until after the ride.
As everyone else celebrated behind us, knowing we’d broken the record, Denise and I entered the most dangerous stage of the drive: the slowdown. It took four miles to achieve speed of more than 180 mph, and it would take just as much work to bring us back down, but we had only a mile to do it in. I had to catch her, get her bike back up on the bump bar, and decelerate 70 mph before being able to safely release her back to her own bike’s power.
While Denise slowed, the dragster kept going. As I pulled away from her, emotion set in. The elephant wasn’t sitting on my chest anymore. I prayed, “Please let that be the run because I don’t want to do this again!” I was out of my straps and standing in my seat before the dragster even came up to full stop.
One of the record officials came over with a CB radio and held it to my helmet so I could catch the official average speed. That was an amazing moment for me because when I play it back in my head now, I think about how we were the only people in the world to accomplish what we had. After all this time, women have never attempted the record outside of our 2016 run. Now, two women not only broke it, but we smashed it.
By the time I saw Denise, several minutes had gone by. Although she looked confident and exhilarated, I found out later that she was in a state of shock. Even world-class athletes become speechless when they accomplish never-before-seen feats. I was shocked and relieved, too.
Since then, I’ve had plenty of time to privately and publicly examine the lessons I learned on the salts. Maybe the biggest is the power of perseverance mixed with the willingness to trust others and to be vulnerable. It sounds like a two-person job, but we’re the tip of the iceberg. Without the support of an army of believers such as partners, friends, family, the Utah Salt Flat Racing Association, Team Vesco, and others, we couldn’t have done this. Everything under the surface kept us from capsizing.
Recently, I called Denise and asked her one question: “On that day,” I said, “if we weren’t limited by the dragster, do you think we could have gone faster?” Her answer was no, and I found I was happy to hear it.
I look back with nostalgia and pride on the roller coaster we weathered. I don’t ruminate about the breakdowns or doubts. Instead, I think about Denise and me as two women with big dreams. The only difference between us and everyone else is that we took a risk — and discovered that salt can be sweet after all. Fear is a state of mind; will is an action taken.
Shea Holbrook is a professional race car driver, entrepreneur, spokeswoman, and owner of Shea Racing LLC. She currently competes in the IMSA Lamborghini Super Trofeo Series driving the Number 67 BUBBA Burger & Lucas Oil Lamborghini.