The Race Car Driver Who Powered a Bike Speed Record
Shea Holbrook helped carry cyclist Denise Mueller-Korenek to 183 miles per hour last month
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In September, cyclist Denise Mueller-Korenek and professional race car driver Shea Holbrook arrived at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to break the world record for bicycle land speed. While Mueller-Korenek now officially holds the world record of 183.91 miles per hour, she repeatedly attributes its success to her team, particularly the connection she has with her driver, Shea Holbrook. This is Holbrook’s account of the day.
A few times a year, dozens of motorsport enthusiasts of all different persuasions show up to the Bonneville Salt Flats to see how fast they can drive. You can count on anything with a motor to show up—two wheels, four wheels—going speeds from 100 to 500 miles per hour and everything in between.
Today, Denise and I stick out like a sore thumb. First of all, rather than two or four wheels, we have six: I’m in a refurbished 23-year-old dragster, and she’s on a custom carbon-fiber bike built for 100-plus mile per hour speeds. Second of all, we’re women. There aren’t many women in motorsports, let alone two as a team. Most important, we’re here to set an all-time speed world record.
Using a refurbished dragster from 1995 (the same vehicle that captained the last record of the same vintage, held by Fred Rompelberg), I will create a slipstream within which Denise can cycle behind me. She’ll start connected to the inside of a cage behind my vehicle. Once we’ve reached a speed high enough for her custom gears, she’ll detach and bike under her own power, surfing my draft. The record speed will be recorded as average speed from mile four to five. It goes without saying that cycling at more than 100 miles per hour is dangerous, but Denise has little more than a leather suit and helmet to protect her should a human mistake or the forces of nature and physics take her down. Additionally, we must average more than 167 miles per hour in the final mile to break the record.
But before the start, I almost walk away.
Two years ago, Denise and I set the women’s land speed record of 147 miles per hour, here at the same venue. When Denise decided to pursue the record, she wanted a female driver to captain her draft vehicle. The pool wasn’t very deep, but when we met, it felt fated that we work on this project together. When we executed our first few “rebel runs”—unsanctioned blasts across the salt—we connected seamlessly through the ride. While former record holders used radios to talk to each other, we used cameras so I could read her physical cues without her needing to speak. With this technology, I can tell when she’s feeling the draft, if she’s experiencing turbulence, has good energy, or can push harder. I’m doing all this while also keeping us on a straight course, monitoring my speed, and calculating risk. In 2016, we went into the experience completely blind and were shocked by how good we were. After we set the women’s record, a few vehicle mechanical mishaps and bad weather kept us from being able to attempt the overall record of 167 miles per hour. We had left speed on the salt, and there’s nothing more agonizing than that. We knew we’d be coming back.
This time around, almost everything feels different. When you already hold a record, you don’t have the luxury of naivety. We’ve already been here, we’ve already succeeded and failed, and we’ve become more intimate with the risk we’re taking. Since 2016, I got married, bought a house, and have a dog. Every day that I drive, I have a greater sense of what I could lose. All that, plus the knowledge that a miniscule mistake on the course could kill Denise—history-making, exuberant mother Denise. I feel a sense of protectiveness that I don’t have the chance to express. I’m too busy defending myself in the face of the mounting pressure.
Everything about this attempt feels rushed. In just three months, the dragster from Rompelberg’s record has been mostly refurbished for the feat. It took several last-minute part searches and a breakdown just to get the dragster here, and when I slip into the car, many of the most important safety measures for both Denise and me don’t appear to have been set up yet. Unlike 2016, there will be no rebel runs this year. We’ll have no chances to work out the kinks. Instead, we will take just two runs on day one. The tension builds as members of the crew yell at volunteers and check in with me to make sure I know how to drive this thing. Yes, I do understand the risk of all that’s involved here. It’s been taunting me for weeks. This isn’t some cavalier attempt at raising the bar. It’s about a vision of putting two women into the record books of human achievement.
The Bonneville Salt Flats are a blinding place. The barren white landscape reflects off itself to scream at your retinas from all directions. I would describe it as Area 51, but it’s more galactic than that. Covered in safety and sun protective gear, people here look like astronauts walking on the moon. Excited by the prospect of speed, they’re practically levitating. And the noise. Motors rev from dawn until dusk as hundreds of vehicles line up to race. It doesn’t matter what category or field you are. Motorcycles, race cars, two women trying to set a bicycling record—you all get in the same line. Racer after racer speeds down the five-mile stretch, releasing blasts of sound with each countdown.
But if you’re us, you wait an hour to take a not-quite-good-enough run and then get stalled at the second start. Anyone who has ever stood at a start line knows the mix of emotions that comes with the countdown clock. Time suspends itself there, seconds feel like minutes, and you become aware of your every breath, every movement in anticipation of the start. After our first run, and the jumble thereafter, it took us several hours to get turned around and back into line. When we finally make it to the line, people start gathering to watch us go. They’ve heard of the woman on the bike trying for a record, and they won’t miss it. We roll up, time starts to slow, and my heart rate begins to rise—and then we’re informed that the timing system is broken.
This isn’t some cavalier attempt at raising the bar. It’s about a vision of putting two women into the record books of human achievement.
We wait. The sun continues to beat down. By midafternoon, nervous mumbling fills the crowd. The longer we sit on the line, the more anxious Denise becomes. I feel her anticipation; I see it in her posture. At this point, the heat penetrates her protective suit, so she sits down and gets fanned to stay comfortable. I stay in the car. As the minutes tick by, my frustration grows. I wonder if this was some sign that we aren’t supposed to be here. Just moments before we go, I know we’re going to get the record. I know we’ll smash it. Despite all the mechanics and shouting and waiting, I just know. I realize this is bigger than me. My team is counting on me.
When we get the green light, we fire up the engine and wait for Denise to tether to my rear fairing. The noise returns as the engine, the wind, and the rattling 23-year-old metal body of the dragster rumble against each other. The sound is as deafening as the sun is blinding, and I can see the energy in the crowd rise as I watch Denise and wait for her signal that she is attached and ready to go. I get the signal. My world goes silent.
I pull her off the line faster than ever before. As long as she’s connected to me, her speed and safety are 100 percent in my hands, and we are not going to lose this record because of me. I don’t know if I actually hear it, but I feel her breathing, and I feel my eyes dilating, focusing on her body language and the path in front of me. We’re here alone, on a strip of salt with no vehicle within a half-mile on either side of us. Finally, after so many hours of navigating the whims of other people, it’s just Denise, the salt, and me. At this point, there is no room for error. Knowing that we will be recorded from miles four to five, it’s my job to control our speed, monitor course conditions, and let her know when we’re moving fast enough for her to disconnect and self-propel. At a mile and half, I give her the signal, and she disconnects. Denise is now under her own power, having left my nest. I have to pave the path for us to succeed and hope to hell that she doesn’t waver even a millimeter in the wrong direction and hit the turbulence of my slipstream.
By mile four, we’re going over 170 miles per hour and pushing safety regulations of my vehicle. But Denise can go faster—I can see it in her stance—so I’m willing to take the heat and push the dragster. In a real way, we’re on another rebel run, and I’m all that stands between Denise and history. I’ve never driven like this, with someone’s life threading behind me. The impact of the speed grows exponentially with each acceleration. Denise stays tucked in her small safe space while fanatically pedaling to match her acceleration to mine. She stays in the safety of my slipstream, and I manage to push the dragster beyond its ability. Before we know it, we’re riding a death wave, pushing our luck and skill without crossing the line.
After the fifth mile and about 90 seconds, we’re officially done, but now the real exposure begins. They always say the most dangerous part of mountain climbing is the descent. Just like Denise needed me to bring her up to speed, I have to now slow her back down. She pulls gently back into my draft cage and reconnects, and then I have about a mile to slow down to under 100 miles per hour before it’s safe for her to drift out into the dry, salty air and slow to a stop. For the first time, I can see chase vehicles come into view behind us. People all across the salt are celebrating, and we’re still out here trying not to die.
After she releases, I have a mile by myself to slow to a stop. For the first time in two years, I can breathe. I have a moment alone where I don’t know whether to cry or pray. I pray that was the run. I pray that we broke the record. Because I can’t go again. We left everything on the salt today and I have nothing more to give.
A couple weeks after the record, I call Denise and ask her if she thinks we could have done better. Without hesitating, she says no. Maybe she’s protecting me the way that I strive to protect her, but she doesn’t acknowledge a desire to return. I feel grateful for that space, for the chance to finally celebrate what we accomplished.
—As told to Annie Pokorny.