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Sandia National Laboratories’ Joel Wirth, left, and his father and labs retiree Jack Wirth stand next to their dismantled roadster in Joel Wirth’s home garage. Between racing seasons, the car undergoes extensive repairs.
Sandia National Laboratories’ Joel Wirth, left, and his father and labs retiree Jack Wirth stand next to their dismantled roadster in Joel Wirth’s home garage. Between racing seasons, the car undergoes extensive repairs.

Being part of the Nuclear Security Enterprise takes skill, smarts, and determination. From research scientists developing innovative new technologies to administrative professionals organizing day-to-day operations, it’s no surprise that our workforce is filled with impressive people. What some members of the NNSA family accomplish in their spare time, however, is truly unexpected.

Sandia National Laboratories manager Joel Wirth is a mechanical engineer who does research and development at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

What is your hidden talent?

For the past eight years I’ve been working after hours in my home garage with my “crew chief” to build one of the fastest 1927 Model T roadsters in the world. My crew chief just also happens to be my father, Jack Wirth, a retired electrical engineer from Sandia.

How did you get into that hobby?

The first day my dad and I ever watched races together at the Bonneville Salt Flats, nine years ago, it wasn’t the speed that grabbed our interest. We ended up talking about aerodynamics, thermodynamics, downforce, weight and balance. We philosophized about engine design, debated about tire management and at the end of the meet, I turned to my dad and said, “I think I want to do this.” It initially took us 1 ½ years, working almost daily, to dismantle a derelict racecar and rebuild it into working condition.

The Wirths’ fully assembled racecar sits parked at the Bonneville Salt Flats racetrack in Utah, where they compete each year to set land-speed records in their vintage car class.
The Wirths’ fully assembled racecar sits parked at the Bonneville Salt Flats racetrack in Utah, where they compete each year to set land-speed records in their vintage car class.

How does your talent relate to your day job?

While working on the car, I immerse myself in the kinds of challenges my team at Sandia deals with every day designing national security technologies. Collecting data, analyzing it for problems, and making improvements are tools I also use on the job. For example, when the car needed more traction, we mounted a wing behind the cockpit to push down on the rear wheels. When we noticed the car fishtailing at high speeds, we built a vertical fin to keep it straight.

How did happen that you set a new land speed record?

After coming up just shy of setting the speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats for his car class in 2018, my dad and I returned to Bonneville in September 2019 for the “World of Speed” event. I knew before I had even finished the race that I had qualified for a new record. This time the car worked perfectly. I hit 274 mph, smashing the previous record by 17 mph. This was a startling jump in a community that normally sees records set by smaller margins, especially when they’re set by people working out of a home garage. Officials checked the car for compliance, and the next day we made a second run. The car went even faster: 278 mph. The record observed by the Southern California Timing Association is the average of both runs, 276.7 mph.

What do you get out of your talent?

To me, the more significant accomplishment is what my father and I have made together. It’s been a great opportunity to build a special relationship with my dad.

I fell in love with land-speed racing at Bonneville because, for me personally, it was all about beating a standard — the clock — through the best design I could create.

Joel Wirth
Manager, Sandia National Laboratories