Nearburg ‘72 pursues passion for speed racing
By John Michel
Published on Thursday, October 14, 2010
Charlie Nearburg ’72 Th’74 always knew he wanted to race cars.
The Thayer School of Engineering graduate said he first felt the rush of competition in go-kart races in junior high school. Now — his go-kart replaced by a 30-inch wide, 35-foot long land speed race car — he has set the world record for the fastest normally aspirated, single-engine car.
Reaching an average speed of 414.5 mph, Nearburg captured the record Sept. 21 at the Bonneville Speedway in Utah. He broke the previous record — 409.2 mph, recorded in 1965 — by more than the required 1-percent margin.
After spending four years working on his car, rehearsing with his team and making attempts at various records in Bonneville, Nearburg said the end result — gaining the single-engine land speed record — was overwhelming.
“When they told me, I stayed in the car, and I just closed my eyes,” he said. “Several people have died trying to break this record.”
Nearburg faced many roadblocks before he realized his decades-long dream, but his interest in racing never waned, he said.
“My dad said that he would not contribute to my college education if I tried to go racing while I was at Dartmouth,” Nearburg said. “So I built car parts for my first race car in the machine shop down in Thayer School, and I took a lot of courses that were related to being able to design and build race cars.”
Nearburg chose Dartmouth because of the possibility of “working on racing from another aspect,” he said.
“I could get an engineering degree as well as a liberal arts degree, and I spent most of my time at Thayer School taking courses that I thought would help me be able to make me a better race car driver or build better cars,“ he said. “I always wanted to be a race car driver.”
After graduating from Thayer, Nearburg realized that professional racing was not a viable career option and started his own oil business — Nearburg Producing Company — in 1979, he said.
“[Racing] actually made me a better businessman because it really forced me to hire the best people, delegate responsibility and set up a very good management organization, as opposed to just being a control freak and doing it myself,” he said.
After putting aside racing to grow his company for several years, Nearburg returned to the sport in 1987, he said. But racing again took a backseat when Nearburg’s young son, Rett, was diagnosed with cancer in 1993.
When Rett’s illness periodically improved, Nearburg said he found the time to race professionally, often against much younger opponents. Staying in the necessary physical condition took extra effort, according to Nearburg.
“By the time I got to race at that level, I was probably the oldest guy in the field,” he said. “I was twice as old as my teammate. I had to really keep myself in shape.”
Despite the physical toll, Nearburg said the battles to maintain physical fitness and master the mechanical component of racing were part of the attraction of the sport.
“I always liked the challenge of the athletic part of it as well as the engineering part of it,” he said. “I just like the physical competition. And then there’s the rush of being able to do something well and go fast.”
When his son ultimately died of cancer in 2005, at age 21, Nearburg began to pursue the land speed record for a single-engine car, naming his vehicle “Spirit of Rett,” he said. Land speed racing brought him to the salt flats in Bonneville, one of the world’s premium land speed racing sites.
Unlike the formula races in which Nearburg had previously participated, land speed racing requires ideal wind and salt conditions, creating a more dangerous environment, according to Nearburg.
“You have to constantly push your comfort level, because it’s scary,” he said. “It gets my attention. I don’t lose sleep over it, because I know how to deal with it. But I don’t take it lightly, because if anything goes wrong at those kinds of speeds, it’s problematic.”
Nearburg said the connection with his son made his victory particularly meaningful.
“I started crying,” he said. “I was thinking about Rett, and I was thinking about how many people had tried to break this record.”
Nearburg said the Sept. 21 record was far from the end of the line. Asked if he plans to break his own record, Nearburg grinned.
“Of course,” he said. “Records are made to be broken.”