Levin man Struan Robertson is living a petrolhead's dream.

He is part of Cook Motor Racing team that has been setting landspeed world records on the salt flats in Bonneville, United States, for the past few years.

This past northern summer the team achieved speeds of more than 480km/h and they plan to repeat that next year.

After that they'll be aiming for 644km/h.

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Robertson has been racing cars since he was 20 years old. "I've done rallying, circuit racing and even a bit of speedway," he said.

Cook Motor Racing's Streamliner.
Cook Motor Racing's Streamliner.

He describes himself as a mechanic by experience. "I've fiddled with cars all my life and found I was reasonably good at it. Good enough for people, including Reg Cook, to ask me to come work for them."

He got involved with the landspeed racing team almost three years ago. "They just put out a call for helpers and when I responded they put me through what I can only describe as a rigorous interrogation."

Robertson often spends a weekend in Auckland working on the team's two cars and has travelled to the Bonneville Salt Flats in the US twice now. It's an experience he thoroughly enjoyed.

"It is a kind of 'the Kiwis stick it to the rest of the world' sort of thing."

The team are famous on the salt and attract a lot of attention in the US.

Both cars, a streamliner and a heavily modified Nissan Sunny, set their own records.

Robertson said the streamliner was designed in New Zealand, the gearbox came from the US and the engine from England.

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Robertson has lived in Palmerston North for decades, but hails from the Kāpiti Coast and still works there in property management. With retirement in sight he and his wife decided to move back but found that houses were more affordable in Levin, the town they now call home.

Reg Cook, 72, from Auckland, is the driving force behind the team that bear his name.

"He is well known in racing circles and he has all the ideas," said Robertson. "He brainstorms his ideas with the team and makes good use of design and construction experts, such as experts in aerodynamics from a London university."

CMR have been breaking records for the past five years in Bonneville. They finished this year achieving just a bit over 480km/h. Sadly for them the fourth and final week of racing was called off this year, so their record remains unofficial.

In order to make the grade in record-breaking they need to achieve a similar speed twice and they did not get that chance this year. So they'll try next year or they may go straight for the 644km/h.

Cookie is ready to roll.
Cookie is ready to roll.

The team's ultimate plan is to reach the magic 800km/h by 2021.

Being on the salt or in the US requires a bit of adjusting, Robertson said. "They use inches and miles rather than centimetres and kilometres.

"Salt is very damp and crunches under your feet. And it sticks to you. You are constantly scraping your boots. Sunglasses are essential there. The salt flats are a lake bed that dries up in the summer but the water is about a foot below the surface and the water has an effect on the salt."

It takes the team two hours each day to prep their cars for racing. They get A grade 105-octane fuel supplied by the organisers, but everything else is brought over from home.

"We have to get up early to be in the front of the queue each day. Water, oil and engine need to be warmed up prior to racing. So we got up earlier and earlier each day."

Racing takes place over four weeks but there is big gaps between race weeks. The time is usually in the US from August through to November. "This year we started with a record of 296m/h [476km/h] and in the third week achieved 312m/h [502km/h]."

Only 12 of the 35-man team go to the US each year and much of the work is done in Auckland during the year. Their next big job will be cleaning both cars before the salt rusts them away. Then the prep for next year begins.

"We're not sure whether we'll go for another 300m/h-plus [480km/h-plus] record or whether we will go for 400m/h [644km/h]. Each speed has its own requirements and it is best to prep at home," Robertson said.

"Making major changes while on the salt is fraught with danger as you may not be able to get the parts you need."