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Father, son to race homemade cars at Bonneville

Father and son hot-rodders Steve and Andrew DiMartino are leaving Lexington on Thursday with two homemade race cars and high hopes of setting some speed records next week on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

The two have built various hot rods and motorbikes together, but this is the first time they've been able to race together at Bonneville's annual Speed Week.

“It's going to be great, no matter how we do out there, because we'll be together,” Steve DiMartino said.

The elder DiMartino, 54, will race his sleek, Honda-powered lakester, which uses a bullet-shaped B-57 bomber belly tank for a body. The car ran 201 mph at Bonneville a few years ago, but DiMartino hopes to reach at least 215 mph this year.

Andrew DiMartino, 21, is shooting for at least 175 mph in his 1990 Mazda RX-7, fitted with a turbo-charged Nissan engine. Andrew aims to drive the street-legal car all the way to Utah, race it, and then drive it back to Lexington. That's a rarity, because most vehicles raced at Bonneville, like Steve DiMartino's lakester, can't be operated on the street and must be trucked to the race course.

Steve DiMartino has been building and racing hot cars and motorcycles since he was a teenager. His Lexington shop, Perfect Auto Care, is cluttered with various creations that he has fashioned from unrelated mechanical odds and ends, including a Crosley coupe with a Buick straight-eight motor.

Andrew inherited his father's passion, but it didn't really take off until he started helping his dad build that Crosley-Buick a couple of years ago.

“Andrew's interest and his skills kind of just blossomed overnight,” Steve DiMartino said. “I can't tell you how proud of him I really am.”

The Mazda RX-7 is Andrew's first major project. He acquired the car as a junker — “its engine had seized, so we basically got the car for the price of the four tires that were on it,” he said — and turned it into a land-speed-record race car. That involved removing every ounce of excess weight, fabricating an aluminum “air dam” on the nose to improve aerodynamics, and replacing the original rotary engine with the six-cylinder Nissan engine.

When Andrew tested the car on the Maxton Mile, a converted airstrip in North Carolina, it ran 144 mph. At Bonneville, the car will run initially on a three-mile course, and Andrew hopes the extra two miles will allow him to reach 175 mph. That in turn would qualify the car to run on Bonneville's six-mile course, where Andrew thinks he could reach 185 mph or so.

“From what we've been told, only 11 other people have ever been able to drive a car to Bonneville and go fast enough to qualify for the long course,” Andrew said. “If I could become the 12th person to do that, it would really be fantastic. But we have no idea what will happen until we get out there.”

Both Andrew's Mazda and Steve DiMartino's lakester essentially were built with parts scrounged from storage bins and junkyards, a DiMartino family tradition.

“One man's junk is another man's race car,” Steve DiMartino says.

He first took his car to Bonneville in 2003 and has struggled to set a speed record in his class ever since. Various problems have kept him out of the record books, but he thinks this could be the year. Tests in a wind tunnel in North Carolina revealed several ways to improve the car's aerodynamics, and engine modifications have boosted its horsepower.

Steve DiMartino thinks that with a little luck, he could reach the 215 mph needed to set a speed record in his car's class and become an official member of Bonneville's 200 Mile Per Hour Club. But even if that doesn't happen, going racing with his son will be a dream come true, he said.

“Mainly, I'd like to see Andrew do really well,” he said, “But either way, he and I are just going to have fun together.”