Engineering Student Modifies Hot Rod, Fulfills Dream of Racing at Bonneville

January 2011 By

OXFORD, Miss. - Jeffrey Ferguson never thought he would race on the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

He also never thought he would set a land speed record at the 62nd Bonneville Salt Flats Speed Week late this summer, but that's what the 23-year-old Olive Branch native did.

"It was the most surreal experience in my life. I felt like I was in a movie," said Ferguson, a junior mechanical engineering major at the University of Mississippi.

Ferguson has been salvaging and modifying old cars since he was a young child.

"I've been around them since I was a baby," said Ferguson, the son of Jeff and Lori Ferguson of Olive Branch. "My dad restores hot rods, and I discovered I had an interest and passion for them, too. I love to modify and build engines with my hands."

Ferguson started welding at age 12 and moved quickly to building and later racing hot rods.

After seeing "The World's Fastest Indian," a 2005 film based on Burt Munro's quest to race his modified Indian Scout motorcycle in the Bonneville Speedway, Ferguson was determined to have one of his modified cars featured at Bonneville, too. Munro, a motorcycle racer from New Zealand, eventually won numerous land speed records in the 1950s and '60s, many of which have not been broken.

Ferguson said he admired Munro's tenacity and drive to accomplish his ultimate goal.

"I remember thinking, 'That's the person I want to be,'" he said. "At the time, going to college did not factor into my plans."

Immediately after high school, Ferguson started working at a fabrication company, but he quickly grew bored, moved to modifying computers and later switched to airplanes.

But, at age 20, Ferguson found himself reconsidering college when a friend transferred to Ole Miss to study engineering. Ferguson got excited and also decided to give Ole Miss a try.

He said his decision paid off.

"My desire to build hot rods is why I decided to study mechanical engineering. It seemed like the perfect match," Ferguson said. "But, I've gotten so much more from being here. Studying engineering has shown me how cars and engines work. Before, I just knew what I knew. I would build it, and it worked. But now I understand the cause and effect of what I build."

Ferguson's new understanding of aerodynamics, statics, graphics and other core engineering subjects, as well as his innate ability, led him to the Bonneville Speedway in August with friend George "Bucky" Gallimore, a radiologist in Memphis and former drag car racer.

Gallimore recently had purchased a 1979 Trans Am on eBay and gave Ferguson an all-access pass to work his magic.

"I've been racing for 30 years, and going to Bonneville is a dream of all racers," Gallimore said. "Jeffrey is a good kid and really talented. He did the roll cage and rear suspension for the racer, and I swapped the motor."

It took the duo a year to modify the racer, and in May 2010, the "Buckwheat Racing Team" was ready for its first race in Maxon, N.C. By August, the two traveled 32 hours nonstop to Booneville Speedway in Wendover, Utah.

"That was a long drive. We asked ourselves at several points, 'Are we having fun yet?'" Ferguson said.

In Utah, Ferguson and Gallimore worked their way up to an AA license, which meant they could race up to 300 miles per hour. After making a record backup run at 249 miles per hour, they were named official members of the Bonneville 200 MPH Club.

"We were blown away when we received our red caps after joining the club. It's an honor. There are more people who have climbed Mount Everest than who are in the 200 MPH Club," Ferguson said.

So, what's next for Ferguson?

The Ole Miss student is trying to get a scholarship from the Southern California Timing Association. He found out about the scholarship during the race.

"I'm determined to finish my engineering degree," Ferguson said. "I'm so proud I decided to come here. I have a new understanding of so much. I'm thinking more about my future now. Before coming to Ole Miss, I just wanted a job. Now, I'm thinking of starting my own business-JF Hotrods. Yeah, that sounds great."