The Steering Column BY CSABA CSERE April 2004 I first met John Lingenfelter in 1987 at our "Gathering of Eagles" top-speed shootout (C/D, December 1987), where he was tending to a 700-hp Camaro owned by Mike Burroughs. John was at the wheel during the car's first lap around the Transportation Research Center's 7.5-mile high-banked oval in East Liberty, Ohio, when the car's 8.9-liter Keith Black V-8 lost oil pressure. John promptly shut it down, strapped the car onto his trailer, and hauled it to his shop in Decatur, Indiana, about two hours west of TRC. After an all-night flog to tear it down, repair the failed cam bearing, and reassemble the engine, John and his crew were back the next morning, not even looking tired. The Camaro promptly averaged 216 mph in two perfect passes—good for a solid second-place finish in the field of six. It was the first time we witnessed John's infectious grin. As we came to know John, we realized that he burned with an internal fire that could only be harnessed by intense competition. A drag racer since 1968, in the '70s he won 11 NHRA National events in his class. Compared with rebuilding engines between runs at a pro drag meet, having a full night to rework an ailing Camaro must have seemed luxurious. In 1989, we sampled a couple of John's massaged Corvettes. The 5.7-liter version put out about 320 horsepower—this was in the days when a stock Vette developed 245—while another had been punched out to 6.3 liters and developed about 350 horsepower. Both cars not only proved John's power claims but also drove smoothly and reliably. Many hotted-up cars we drove in the late '80s hesitated and hiccupped at less than full power. In contrast, John's Vette even accepted full throttle at 750 rpm in sixth gear during our 30-to-50-mph test—and turned a quicker time than a stock Vette. And unlike many tuned cars that require constant ministrations to keep running, John dropped off his cars and left them for a week, confident they wouldn't spew parts and fluids the instant he turned his back. They didn't. One reason was that John was more than just another talented wrench twister. After earning a degree in mechanical technology from Penn State in 1965, he spent eight years at International Harvester's engine department before striking out on his own. When the switch from carburetors to fuel injection in the '80s confounded many tuners, John took full advantage of the new technology because he understood that the more precise control of the air-fuel ratio provided by fuel injection would simultaneously promote both power and refinement. John kept up on the competition as well. Whenever a hot new BMW, Ferrari, or Porsche appeared, John would be on the horn digging for details and angling for a test ride. When the Corvette ZR-1 appeared, John got his chance to work his magic on four-valve DOHC engines. Shortly after the ZR-1's introduction, he found 80 additional horsepower in the motor and delivered a car to us for a test. It ran to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds and stopped the quarter-mile clocks in 12.3 seconds, about a second quicker than a stocker. John was delighted, but not surprised. That's because he never sent us a car he hadn't tested beforehand. John also made sure we got the best out of his cars by occasionally tagging along on our test sessions and trying a pass or two himself. Sure enough, my experience testing 1000 or so street cars was no match for his NHRA-honed ability to launch a powerful traction-limited car, and he'd always slice a 10th of a second from my best time. John never rubbed it in, but from the grin on his face when we compared times, I knew he had internally chalked up another win. When it came to high speeds, he was absolutely fearless. He was present when we measured the top speed of his ZR-1 Corvette at Firestone's high-speed oval in Fort Stockton, Texas. At 190 mph, with no guardrails and only a single banked lane, that track felt plenty exciting to me from behind the wheel. You couldn't have paid me enough to sit in the passenger seat for those laps. Yet John insisted on riding with me during the 191-mph top-speed runs to monitor the oil temperature—and, I suspect, to ensure that I extracted every last possible mph from his car. It's not well-known, but John was behind the wheel of Reeves Callaway's Sledgehammer when that tricked-out Corvette went 255 mph at TRC in 1989. John's shop had also assembled the Sledgehammer's engine. That same year, he built a 1400-hp twin-turbo Pontiac Firebird and took it to Bonneville, intending to break 300 mph in a stock-bodied car. He didn't make it, but he achieved a best one-way run of 298. In 1998, John returned to drag racing, competing in the then-new Pro Stock Truck class. When that class was eliminated in 2000, he switched to the Summit Sport Compact class, driving a turbocharged four-cylinder Chevy Cavalier with nearly 1000 horsepower. On October 27, 2002, John lost control of this car at the Pomona, California, event and hit the retaining wall at some 190 mph. He was hospitalized there with critical injuries to his head, spine, and internal organs. After several surgeries, he regained consciousness and recovered sufficiently to be flown home to Indiana. At Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, doctors concluded he needed additional surgery. During preparations for this procedure, John had a bad reaction to a drug he received and went into a coma. He never recovered, and this past Christmas day, he died. Whenever John would show up with his latest machine, we'd ask him what it would do. He rarely said more than, "It runs pretty good." Then the car would take our breath away with its performance. You ran pretty good too, John. You blew us away with your ability, your energy, and your unbridled passion for speed. Rest in peace, my friend.