LINCOLN, Neb. -- Dave "Hayseed" Thomssen is 79 years old, a retired geologist, who, thanks to recent back surgery, walks with a cane.
He's also one of Lincoln's fastest men.
But unless you're an aficionado of land speed racing or have lived in his north Lincoln neighborhood, where he routinely parked his incredibly fast cars outside his house, you may not know or have heard of him.
His skills at building powerful engines and driving fast cars have made him one of his sport's most respected and well known. And last fall, it landed him in the Nebraska Auto Racing Hall of Fame.
His cars have set nearly 30 land speed records at Utah's famed Bonneville Salt Flats, including one by legendary drag racer "Big Daddy" Don Garlits.
Using $20,000 Garlits gave him, Thomssen designed the rat-shaped black speedster to "go around" a Ford engine Thomssen "threw together out of spare parts," including old cast pistons and a crankshaft he pulled out of a junkyard. Lincoln auto racing great and 2007 Nebraska Hall of Fame inductee Jim Schuman built the car.
In 1988 Garlits drove the "Swamp Rat" into Bonneville's prestigious 200 mph club.
"(That engine) did indeed get Garlits into the 200-mile-per-hour club, and that's how I got famous," Thomssen told the Lincoln Journal Star (http://bit.ly/1jgTv9d ).
He's been interested in going fast ever since his father, Bill, used to take him to circle track races when he was a kid growing up in Aurora.
Married in 1958, Thomssen spent his honeymoon at drag races in Grand Island.
Not long after that, he and his college buddy Arly Asch built a drag racer of their own. The "Hayseed Special" came together in a hog shed on Asch's farm near Pilger.
The body was a 1923 Ford roadster that Thomssen's father used to drive. Asch had an old Ford engine.
Thomssen admitted they had no clue as to what they were doing.
""We read the rule book and followed the rules," he said. "That was the extent of what we knew. But we did know something about the engine. Arly had already been driving it as a street roadster, a classic hot rod. We knew it went fast."
They rebuilt the engine in the basement of Thomssen's apartment.
The car enjoyed its test run in 1961 at a national championship in Indianapolis. The duo worked on it right up to its first race.
"Our first pass was against the national record holder, and, lo and behold, we beat him," Thomssen said. "We came out of it the champion."
The trophy still sits in Thomssen's living room.
"We started out calling the car the Hog Shed Special," Thomssen recalled. "But the more we thought about it, well, we were just a couple of hayseeds and nobody had ever heard of us. Nobody had ever seen us. We decided we'll just call it the Hayseed Special. It represented more of the Nebraska flavor. We were just hayseeds."
"The whole epitome of racing in the early days when I was in college was to set a land speed record in Bonneville," Thomssen said. "Car magazines always featured all these Bonneville cars. That was a big deal. By the early '60s, drag racing became more prominent, but Bonneville was still there."
In 1978 Thomssen's car called the "Goldenrod" ran more than 186 mph at Bonneville, resulting in the first of Thomssen's 29 Bonneville records. All but one has been broken since.
In 1991 Thomssen gave it a go in his car called "Swamp Rat," but it flipped and rolled at 210 mph. He walked away from the crash with just a broken finger.
"It was not my day," he said. "I was accelerating, the salt was loose, and I got a side wind — a sudden side wind."
SpeedWeek 2014 is Aug. 9-15 in Bonneville, and Thomssen will be there crewing for his grandson-in-law, Ryan Krejci, who now drives the Hayseed Special, that first car Thomssen raced until 1967 before parking it in a field of weeds. Thomssen brought it out of retirement in 1997, using the chassis of the old car as a base for the new one, and has raced it since.
"I knew he was a car guy," Krejci said in a phone interview, recalling when his wife first introduced Ryan to her grandfather. Krejci lives in Minnesota with the Hayseed Special.
Krejci said he gets a kick out of how Thomssen outperforms others by spending considerably less.
"We're always talking strategy, about how we can make it go faster," said Krejci, whose father, Jeff, played football at Nebraska and is a part of the Hayseed Special team. "He's always trying to make it more efficient."
Thomssen gave up driving three years ago, but has no plans to stop tinkering anytime soon with engines.
"It's something that I can do," Thomssen said. "Most anybody who is successful at something will tell you that."
Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com
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