The Buckeye Bullet driver on risk, records, grace under pressure and the quest for 400 mph

The Buckeye Bullet driver on risk, records, grace under pressure and the quest for 400 mph

Not much scaresRoger Schroer. Good thing, too, because steering a rocket on wheels upwards of 300 mph can be harrowing stuff.

"At a place like Bonneville, anything can happen," he says. He is talking about Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, a vast white surface left over from an ancient lake, a favorite proving ground for high-speed vehicles. It's also the place where the gray-haired, steely-eyed driver piloted Ohio State University's Buckeye Bullet to another land-speed record for an electric vehicle in September.

To appreciate what Schroer does, imagine you're in the driver's seat. You put on a thick fire suit and a helmet and then climb into a cramped cockpit, lying down on just enough of an incline to see out a narrow window. The Bullet is 37 feet long and 3 feet wide, shaped like, well, a bullet. The steering wheel is about the size of a shoe and resembles a video-game controller. You wait in the Utah sun while engineers and other team members outside the car make final adjustments. It might only be a few minutes, but the sweat is gathering, and you can feel the heat of your breath on the inside of your helmet.

Next is the hard part. The electric motors come to life. You ramp up to full throttle in a few seconds. You hit 100 mph, and the G-force pushes your body into the seat. The motors get louder, like a jet at takeoff. Then the tires hit a rough stretch of salt. The whole car shakes. Your head feels scrambled. The speed hits 200 mph, and the vibration continues. You can feel the back tires drifting from side to side. You make slight adjustments to the wheel to stay straight. However, at any moment, you are ready to push the button for the emergency parachute. You hit 300 mph, and you're still accelerating.

That's what it was like this September, when the Bullet made about a dozen runs and set a new record with an average two-way speed of 341.4 mph. Now, months later, Schroer says it wasn't the intense vibrations that worried him so much as the rear-wheel drifting. It was enough to cause him to consider firing the chute and aborting the run. Almost. "Those are, um, kind of moments that we don't want to see happen," he says.

It is not normal, of course, for a human to go so fast. And when it happens at Bonneville, the body gets confused. "The sensation of speed, which is largely a visual, is reduced in this setting," Schroer says. Looking out the front window at an expanse of the densely packed white salt pan, there are almost no landmarks to indicate speed. "The analogy I like to use is being in an airline at 30,000 feet where you're going 500 mph but you don't feel it." In fact, he says, the sensation of speed is stronger when he's driving on I-270 than when he's going more than 300 mph in the Bullet. Except for the shaking. And the drifting.

Video of Schroer's runs at Bonneville shows him steadily making small adjustments to the wheel to keep the back end from swinging. The key, he says, is to react to the environment-but not overreact. How does he know this? Because he has spent decades teaching people how to operate vehicles under extreme conditions-and he has seen it all.

"Roger is, let's say, a tough cookie to crack when you first meet him," says David Cooke, a senior member of the Buckeye Bullet team leader. "He is very quiet, very reserved, very calm. When I met him, I thought he was the most serious man in the world, and all he cares about is doing his job and doing it right. He's just quiet, but there's a lot going on."

Schroer, 66, grew up among the farms of Hardin County, the son of a Lutheran minister. He graduated from high school during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and enrolled at Ohio State, staying for one year before enlisting in the U.S. Marine reserves. To this day, he views his basic training in Parris Island, South Carolina, as the toughest thing he's ever had to do.

He never went back to his studies. Instead, he got a job at City National Bank in Columbus, wearing a tie every day. He got married and had two daughters, who are now grown and have children of their own. On the side, he liked to tinker with machinery and drove in amateur car races. Suffice it to say, he was horrendously miscast as a banker.

When he was 27, he was driving down U.S. 33 in East Liberty and noticed a new test track that had recently been constructed. He pulled up to the guard house and asked if there were any jobs available. It turned out that the newly opened testing facility, called the Transportation Research Center, was hiring motorcycle test riders. He applied and got the job. Soon after, he switched from motorcycles to cars. Then he started serving as a teacher for test drivers, the role he's now held for as long as just about anyone can remember. He lives a few miles from the track and commutes in a 2001 Ford F-150 pickup.

The research center was a state-financed project that was built to help lure a vehicle manufacturer to the region. That manufacturer turned out to be Honda, which later opened a plant in Marysville and has grown to become one of the largest private-sector employers in Central Ohio. The center is now run by a nonprofit company controlled by Ohio State. So, when the Buckeye Bullet organizers needed a driver in 2004, Schroer was a natural choice-though the quiet, cool man in his 50s was far removed from the stereotype of a young hotshot.

The Buckeye Bullet program is a partnership between Ohio State and Venturi, a boutique carmaker based in Monaco. The project has two main goals: to train young engineers and to explore ways to improve on electric vehicle technology.

Team members have developed several versions of their distinctive vehicle and repeatedly broken their own land-speed record for an all-electric car. The current model has two 1,500-horsepower electric motors tied to 1.5 tons of lithium-ion batteries, for a ridiculous amount of power.

Schroer stands out among the on-site crew, a group of mostly young engineers and students. They talk about him like he is a cross between John Wayne and Stephen Hawking. "We gather three gigabytes of data over the course of a run, but Roger is far more accurate and faster" at detecting problems, says Michael Johanni, another senior team member. "He'll get out of a car after a run and say, 'You should look at mile three. I felt a slight tremor.' It baffles me because the car is so different from a normal race car or a normal car that he's used to driving, but he's so in tune with what's going on with the vehicle. He can pick up the slightest, most minute deviations in the car."

In between runs, he often remains strapped into the vehicle while the crew makes adjustments. It would take too long for him to get out and stretch his legs, so he just waits. This underscores the special role of the driver, who is the most important person there during the few minutes the car is running, but spends most of the time anticipating that moment. When he's not in the car, he thinks of himself as just another member of the team, helping out alongside the junior assistants. "He is the only driver I've ever seen who's there the day the semi arrives and is putting on work gloves and is pounding stakes with a sledgehammer," says Cooke. "If we get to the point where there's nothing he can do to help, he's over there grilling hamburgers."

In media coverage of Buckeye Bullet, Schroer often defers to others, such as Cooke or Giorgio Rizzoni, the director of Ohio State's Center for Automotive Research. After my interview with him, Schoer followed up with this email: "The Buckeye Bullet effort is most importantly a student project focused on giving OSU engineering students a chance to be part of a very challenging program, which ultimately results in them being much better prepared for the real engineering world," he wrote. "The project has consistently helped develop focused, enthusiastic, hard-working, knowledgeable young men and women, and their experiences on the teams [have] assisted them in securing very good jobs in their fields. I have considered it a privilege to be part of the various Bullet teams. I've met many dedicated OSU staff members and developed what I am sure will be lifelong friendships."

He is in impeccable physical condition and could pass for 10 years his junior. His day job keeps his mind in shape for high-pressure situations, teaching drivers to handle high speeds. "I've been at the test track now for 40 years, and I've never stopped driving," he says.

The project's major goal is to crack the 400-mph threshold.To hit that mark, team leaders say they need to tweak and tune the motor and look at ways to deal with the poor conditions on the salt surface. With good weather, a smooth surface and the right modifications to the vehicle, the team says 400 mph is within reach in 2017.

Schroer wants to be there for the achievement. Asked how long he plans to drive the car, Schroer responds, "As long as they'll let me."