Racer lives life at full throttle

“I’ve had a life that I never saw coming.” — Tanis Hammond

By Leah Etling

There aren’t many grandmothers who drive custom race cars at 314 miles an hour, fly helicopters for fun or plan to go snowmobiling in Alaska to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

And there is only one Tanis Hammond.

There aren’t many grandmothers who drive custom race cars 314 miles an hour, but Tanis Hammond of Santa Barbara does.

Businesswoman, speed demon, pilot, scuba diver, wife, mother and grandma – the 68-year-old Hammond wears many hats, and helmets too. In the last several years, she has started sharing her stories of adventure and accomplishment as a motivational speaker. Surprisingly, she says getting up to talk at a luncheon is more challenging for her than setting a land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

“When you give people the idea that you would do anything, they think you are not afraid. But I had to give myself a lot of positive self-talk just to be able to get up and speak,” Hammond says. She worked with a local public speaking coach and has distilled her message into several essential themes.

“I’ve had a life that I never saw coming. I’ve done more things than I ever thought possible. And I never thought I would have the confidence that I have now,” she says.

Say yes to opportunities, she urges. You never know when they might come along again. If you lack self-confidence, take on a challenge. Achievement will boost your confidence. And take the trails already blazed for you.

“If I can do it, anyone can do it,” she says.

Noted Local Family

In December, Hammond will have been married for 50 years to her high school sweetheart, Seth Hammond of Montecito. Seth’s father, George, was one of six children of Ellen Fiske Hammond, an East Coast heiress who purchased the oceanfront Bonnymeade estate in 1912.

Seth grew up flying airplanes with his dad, a pilot and aircraft designer who named his part of the family estate “Flaps Down.” For many years, George flew supplies and mail to the Lester family, longtime residents of San Miguel Island. He knew Charles Lindbergh, and the famous American aviator even dropped his friend George a postcard from one of his trips. (“We just find stuff like this lying around the house,” Tanis says of the postcard with Lindbergh’s sprawling script.)

When Seth was drafted into the Army during Vietnam, George would fly Tanis to see him at Fort Ord near Monterey Bay during his basic training. Her father-in-law was a formal man, never without a suit jacket and tie, but Tanis recalls a playful side, including one day where he responded to an impromptu challenge to race his 1940 pickup truck while turning onto Highway 101 – and won the street race handily.

When she met Seth, Tanis was a senior at Santa Barbara High, and she knew quickly that she’d found her match.

“I’ve always loved cars, and he is my favorite car guy,” she says lovingly. The couple have three grown children, Tegan, Channing, and Colin, and they were young when she set her first Bonneville record in 1987.

“At first I thought, ‘What the heck am I doing? I have little kids.’,” she recalled. “But then I told myself, ‘What the heck am I doing? I’m having the time of my life.’ I was quickly hooked.”

Seth had been racing cars at Bonneville since the mid-1970s. More than 10 years after she started tagging along, it was time for Tanis to try a hand at the wheel.

Success at the Salt Flats

Land speed records have been set on the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah since 1914. Tanis was only the second female to go over 200 miles per hour on the salt, following in the tire tracks of her friend Marcia (Holley) Vesco, who cracked “the 200 club” in 1978.

Hammond was never too concerned with being a pioneering female on the salt. But she was concerned with being taken seriously by other racers, and her focus and fast times helped her achieve that respect. Seth’s custom designed and lovingly maintained cars didn’t hurt the effort, either.

Photos contributed
The family of record-setters at Bonneville includes, left to right, Tanis Hammond (323 mph) Channing Hammond (316 mph), Tegan Hammond (302 mph), Colin Hammond, and Seth Hammond (304 mph). Their records have been set in various classes of engine and fuel types.

Over 30 years, Tanis moved the speedometer from 251 miles per hour to her current record of 314, set in a beautiful custom car known as the Gas Lakester, No. 77, designed by her son Channing. “Tanis Hammond, Driver” is painted next to the driver’s cockpit, which is equipped with a roll cage and myriad other safety features.

Tanis drives with her hands strapped to the steering wheel (to prevent loss of appendages during an accident) and in a fire-repellant suit. Going over 200 miles an hour is no joke, especially because she never hits the brakes. A parachute deploys and slows the car down after the 5-mile-mark, which is the end of the time-trial run. It takes a mile and a half to slow the car to a stop.

What’s it like to go so fast?

Imagine the fastest you’ve ever traveled, Hammond suggests. Perhaps while downhill skiing.

“There is a point where you say, wow, I’m going really fast and this is really fun, but this could get ugly really quick. That’s exactly what it feels like to go any speeds out there,” she says.

Historically, the hard-packed salt has allowed drivers to record such fast times because it creates the ideal traction conditions for racing aerodynamic cars with zero tire tread. But in recent years, the salt pack is thinner and not ideal for racing.

Speed Week was canceled in 2014 and 2015 because the track was not in good enough shape. This August, the Hammonds decided Tanis would not make another attempt at her current record because the salt was too thin. At such extreme speeds, running on dirt can destroy tires and cause deadly accidents. Seth crashed their previous car while going over 300 mph in 2003, but was unhurt.

“It’s really unknown whether we will be able to race there effectively again. That’s the disappointing thing. I was running out there about three years ago with really good salt, and the car was handling beautifully,” Hammond said sadly. She knows there’s another record left for her to break in No. 77, which she calls “the serious car” — it should top 323 mph, a speed she has marked but not officially recorded over the required distance.

In the meantime, she’s looking for new challenges. Ocean kayaking in Washington, where she and Seth have a second home, and a solo overnight campout are both on her list. And then there’s that anniversary trip the couple has planned to Bettles, Alaska, 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

“I asked if we could go snowmobiling, and they said OK, but only if it is minus-30 degrees or warmer,” she said. “I was asking my doctor about this, and he said that at minus-40 degrees, your mucus membranes start to freeze.”

Scuba diving with Seth was what originally inspired her hunger for daring adventure.

“We were looking to do something together. We found that with business and small kids, we weren’t playing or having fun. You just get into the grind of the everyday.  We wanted to pick something that neither of us knew anything about. It was so much fun for us, and we got to travel and do crazy things.”