Speed Demon

Los Angeles Business Journal April 23-29, 2007

by Amanda Becker

Speed Demon Puts Pedal to Metal on Alternative Fuel

Gale Banks always had the need for speed.

Whether hurtling 200 mph across the Bonneville Salt Flats in a test car or starting for Team Donahue 2005 in the Baja 1000, improving engine performance is always high on the agenda of the president and fonder of Gale Banks Engineering in Azusa.

“Since high school I wanted to have the fastest car in town, then the country, then the world,” Banks said.

But now Banks wants to help improve engine performance – with alternative fuels. Banks sits on the rules committee of the Automotive X Prize this year and set guidelines for engineers to invent affordable, safe, four-passenger cars that run on alternative fuel.

“I’m a futurist,” Banks said. “It’s all about what’s coming and that’s where I live.”

Serving on the committee is the ideal way to mark the 50th anniversary of his business next year. “If I’ve got some part of improving transportation worldwide for yeas to come, that’s a hell of an end to a career.”

And a long and legendary career it’s been.

Banks started his business in 1958 as a high school junior, when he sold his first engine for $1,100 to a friend for a 1932 Plymouth coupe.

“I never thought he’d buy it,” Banks recalled. “That was a stunning amount of money.”

Banks built engines for the remainder of high school. The revenue from his custom engine business in Lynwood paid his tuition at Cal Poly Pomona, where he graduated with degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering.

After leaving Cal Poly, he sold his prized 1963 Corvette coupe. “It was emotional, very hard,” Banks said.

But he used the money to open a new, larger speed shop on San Gabriel Boulevard. He began selling auto parts, too, and he soon became a boat dealer.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Banks said. “I just had to wing it.”

But by the 1970s, Banks’ turbocharged boat engines were setting water speed records in New Zealand, Mexico and Italy. He continued to win endurance boat racing championships for the next 20 years.

Banks worked with name-brand auto manufacturers to improve product performance. In 1980, for example, he helped build a Sundowner Corvette that traveled 240 mph and held the record as the world’s fastest passenger car. Seven years later, a Banks twin-turbo Trans Am clocked in at 283 mph and held the record for more than a decade.

One turning point came after the Arab oil embargo in 1973: the sale of high-performance boat engines declined, along with many other non-essential items. “It was horrific in general, but for people in the marine industry it was doom,” Banks said.

But where one door closed, another opened.

The popular automotive magazine Motor Trend asked Banks if engines could be modified to increase fuel economy. The result was PowerPack, an air-intake, tuner, torque and exhaust system that improves engine performance. It is one of his best-known products; he calls it “the option the factory doesn’t offer.”

About that time Banks consulted on a Ford Foundation-funded research team that built a hydrogen-powered engine that same year. The project stimulated a personal interest in alternative fuel.

“Diesel wasn’t chosen, but in the process I became interested because diesel is inherently efficient,” Banks said.

Diesel is also inherently dirty. Much of Banks’ work since the 1980s has focused on ways to make diesel cleaner, more efficient and socially acceptable.

The fuel of the future, Banks says, will come from a renewable, non-food resource, have low environmental impact and will be priced without subsidy.

“Diesel meets most of these qualifications,” Banks said. “That’s my message, that the fuel of the future is just a matured diesel.”

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