Classic Profile: Sig Haughdahl sets land-speed record

Sig Haugdahl in the Wisconsin Special speed-record car in a vintage postcard image | Courtesy of the author
Sig Haugdahl in the Wisconsin Special speed-record car in a vintage postcard image | Courtesy of the author

Sigurd Olson Haugdahl’s story begins upon his arrival from Norway to the United States at the age of 19. Making his home with an uncle in Minnesota, he was soon setting speed records on ice with a Indian-powered “motorbike” – more like a motorized tricycle with skis.

By 1915, the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) is formed and J Alex Sloan quickly emerges as the leading licensed promoter. Sloan had an emerging star in Sig Haugdahl, and the two were seen in exhibition races and setting track speed records across the Midwest through the late teens.

It was probably Sloan’s idea to go to Daytona Beach in 1920and challenge Tommy Milton’s record run of 156 mph. Milton had broken Ralph DePalma’s run of 149 mph in the Packard “905” Special the year prior. It seems clear that it was Sig who built the car for the job.

The 1922 speed report in 'Popular Science'
A 1922  report of ‘fastest things’ in Popular Science included Wisconsin Special

The car was named the Wisconsin Special due to its aviation engine built in that state. The engine featured a six-cylinders and roughly 250 horsepower. Motor Age reported on November 20, 1922, that the engine was made of aluminum with magnesium-alloy pistons and dual carburetors, with a displacement of 764 cubic inches, weight of 610 pounds and maximum rpm of 2,667.

Haugdahl was focused on three key factors for his racing special: first, he wanted to reduce drag by streamlining the car and lowering its center of gravity; second, he looked to reduce weigh by doing away with the clutch and transmission – it was direct drive; and finally, he paid great attention to balancing the wheels and tires.

Popular Science of August 1924 said, “The driving strain at the terrific speed the car develops is so great that Haugdahl carries a cigar in his month as a cushion for his teeth. One time the he forgot that his cigar was lighted. When speeding at ‘only’ about 120 miles per hour, he turned his head slightly. The wind blew the cigar into a flame and burned it to his face in an instant, nearly causing him to wreck the car.”

Once in Daytona, it was clear that the American Automobile Association (AAA), a competitive sanctioning body to IMCA, would not sanction the run. However, Sloan and IMCA were prepared and proper observers and timing equipment were at hand. After a couple runs and adjustments, Haugdahl and the Wisconsin Special set a new three-mile-a-minute record of 180.27 mph – covering the mile in 19.97 seconds.

Sloan followed up the event with much press, and the Wisconsin Special was taken on the circuit to fairs and festivals throughout the country. The car survives to this day.

As for Sig Haugdahl, he would go on to create a landmark rocket-powered car and organize the first Daytona Beach stock-car race, inspiring a guy named Bill France to organize a racing series we now call NASCAR.

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