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How Belly Tank Racers Work


Belly Tank Racer Design
United States, 1955 – Early mock-up of a Bonneville lakester land speed record car fashioned from the wartime surplus aircraft belly tank.
United States, 1955 – Early mock-up of a Bonneville lakester land speed record car fashioned from the wartime surplus aircraft belly tank.
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If you're driving around in an old gas tank, you shouldn't expect a lot of creature comforts, which is good, because belly tank racers don't provide any. In a belly tank racer, the driver sits in a tiny compartment about midway in the tank. Slight holes are cut in the tanks for drivers to poke their heads out. Some belly tank racers have bubbles or cages that go over the driver's head, but many don't. Lakesters also usually don't have windshields, so pack your racing goggles and be prepared to get a lot of sand in your teeth [source: Wise].

The first belly tank racers used a front engine design, where the engine sat in front of the driver. They used this setup mainly because the first belly tanks they used were 165-gallon (625-liter) tanks from P-51 Mustangs. When racers made the switch to larger 315-gallon (1,192-liter) tanks taken from P-38 Lightning planes, there was room to put the engine behind the driver, and that's how most belly tankers and lakesters were laid out from then on. The type of engine varies, but for most belly racers, the bigger the engine, the better. Classic belly tank racers had American-made engines because of their availability to hot rodders at the time. Record-setting engines for belly tank racers include Ford, Mercury and Chrysler V-8s [source: Wilkinson].

Because of the tight confines of a belly tank racer, the wheels aren't under the body of the car. Rather, they stick out to the sides in the front and rear. While it may look a little goofy, it gives the racer more stability than affixing the wheels under the car's very narrow body. Stability is important, because unlike modern race cars, belly tank racers don't have spoilers [source: Wilkinson]. In engineering, spoilers aren't just what you see on message boards (i.e., "spoiler alert: Snape kills Dumbledore"), they're wings on the backs of cars. When a car is driven at high speeds, it will start to lift slightly off the ground. A spoiler forces the car back down to firm contact with the ground. Belly tank racers don't have spoilers, and because of the speed at which they travel, plus their light weight, a bad bump or cross breeze could send them airborne.

Got a spare fuel tank and an itch to build a fast car? Keep reading — today's lakesters have some big shoes to fill.


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