DragRaceCanada’s latest off season feature to our Lucas Oil Hotzone comes from the outer fringes of drag racing…..

It’s often a love or hate relationship with some fans in drag racing — but there is no denying that exhibition jet-powered vehicles do present event promotors within our sport with some shock and awe entertainment for the masses.

While exhibition Jet-powered vehicles have been around drag racing for quite a while, it really was not very long ago that Canada had none or at best just a very few participants.  But that history seems to be evolving and now the Canadian scene includes not one but two — jet-powered trucks — courtesy of a couple of Ontario-based team owners.

While we won’t be jumping into the mindset as to why individuals would choose to consciously spend huge amounts of cash to then harness themselves into and run over 200 mph in a fire belching and over weight truck (yikes!) — let’s just say there are many fans that are glad they do.  And maybe surprisingly, a reality is there is a practical purpose to doing it.   While the vast majority of drag racers out there spend far more money on their cars and team then they will ever hope to win back — that is often not the case for exhibition Jets.   While the initial investment can be pretty massive — after that — with a proper tuneup and avoiding breakage— they can be pretty reliable and relatively cheaper to operate (certainly compared to say a fuel car).  For the most part pre-arranged booking fees are more then compensatory.  A drag racer making a profit? — I mean really how absurd is that notion?

So we commend the efforts of both Rick Kopp (Burlington) and now Russ Lethbridge (Fisherville) who are now both diving deep into the fray.

Rick “Hollywood” Kopp has been around Southern Ontario’s drag racing scene for at least a couple of decades.  A graduate of Sportsman level racing, his career also includes stints in a Top Dragster and also a Nitro Nostalgia Funny Car.

But a couple years ago, Rick had somewhat of an epiphany and decided to shift his focus into the show business side of the sport — running exhibitions only and earning a return on his investment.   After selling off his nitro burning nostalgia Funny Car operation he replaced that in 2015 with a jet-powered semi truck which was dubbed “Pyro”.  Then Kopp went on tour with that machine racing all over Canada and the USA.  It was while doing that tour and towards the tail end of 2017, Kopp decided he wanted a bigger and faster vehicle to wow the crowds.

Rick “Hollywood” Kopp

Kopp’s “go big or go home” philosophy became reality.  After some six months of intense rebuilding of the truck, performed by Dan Pirisi (Grassie ON), the only item not replaced was the driver’s cab. “We doubled the size of everything,” Kopp said. “I wanted it to be the King of the Castle.”

So a new frame was fabricated, now some 28 feet in length, three feet longer than originally. The original Westinghouse J34 jet engine was replaced with one of the most powerful in the business, a J79 General Electric unit (used in military aircraft such as the F-104 Starfighter). The truck was then equipped with six disc brakes, coil over suspension, and 10.5 racing slicks on the drive wheels. 

The new reborn truck, now called “Boneshaker,” weighs about 6800 lbs and the engine provides about 18,000 horsepower or 13,000 pounds of thrust. By comparison, the previous jet engine produced 10,000 horsepower or 6,000 pounds of thrust.

“I’m allowed to run 220 (mph) by the NHRA,” Rick winked, “But the truck will surpass that any time — when I run at air shows (on landing strips) it’s capable of 300-mph — the power is limitless.”

During the off-season Rick and his partner Chrisine Palmer do focus on marketing and lining up various appearances at drag strips and air shows across both Canada and the U.S.  But prior to hitting the road for all that this year, they are planning a special pre-season Canadian appearance as a featured part of the giant Motorama Custom Car & Motorsports Expo in Mississauga this coming March 8-10th.

Canada’s newest jet racer is Russ Lethbridge who owns and operates (rather appropriately) an independent and successful trucking business, which is based literally within sonic distance of Cayuga Dragway at Toronto Motorsport Park.

Russ Lethbridge

Russ’s emergence came mostly last year after he acquired what was previously the “Xtreme Machine” Freightliner campaigned by Florida’s Joe “Pepi” Urban in the fall of 2017, a reputed and proven machine that was first built in 2003 by Fred Sibley Jr.

Lethbridge’s monster, which also features a J-79 engine program (18,000 lbs of thrust) is also a serious momentum maker at speed — as it tips the scales at 7500 lbs!

When asked “why?” — Russ Lethbridge pointed his finger directly at fellow Jet car racer and TMP Track Manager Neale Armstrong.

“Neale Armstrong was the influence and the main reason I got into this,” Russ stated.  “I became first fascinated by his jet dragster in 2014 (Northern Warrior) while helping him a bit with that build.  That got me looking — and I saw this truck was for sale — after some negotiation, the rest is history.  But Neale has been beside me all though it all — I couldn’t have done this without him.”

Russ then rewrapped the truck and christened it a new name — now dubbed “Hell Fire”.  His racing operation is a family run affair that includes his wife Jenn as well as his two daughters Hannah (12) and Alyssa (9) and his main man and crew chief Alex Shaw.   Russ also cites valued support from friends Rob Hancock, Dave Robinson and Gary Roswell. 

During 2018 Russ Lethbridge did make about 20 runs down the track in Hell Fire and had a best time of 7.63 secs at 220.15 mph.  He plans to use that as a stepping stone for more local event appearances this coming season.

“This season will be about promoting the team, establishing some merchandising and gaining the driver some experience,” he added.  “Then in 2020 I hope to be able to run a more extensive schedule and go out on tour.”  

Posted with files by Bruce Biegler (& Tim Miller)

Photos by Bruce Biegler, Brennan Shortall and Darwin Kent