Via Magazine Travel Essay: Utah's Bonneville Flats
"It's all about using your head to try to squeeze another mile an hour or two out of your engine," explains Mary West, a 73-year-old great-grandmother from Utah, who also answers to the title Mom of the Bonneville Salt Flats. For years she's acted as spokesperson, cheerleader, mechanic's assistant, driver psychotherapist, and anything else necessary to pull off Speed Week, an event with nearly 400 cars and thousands of spectators.
Of course, she also knows a thing or two about racing. Recalling her first run here, she gushes about putting the pedal to the metal and holding tight to a vibrating steering wheel: "The adrenaline rush nearly knocks you out. After you've driven on the salt, all you can think about for days is the crunching of tires on the salt, acceleration that pins you against your seat, and the banging of the car's side panels. You never forget your first ride on the Flats."
While the Mom of the Salt Flats looms large in modern drag racing, the star of the show is the vast expanse of salt itself. Located in western Utah along I-80 near the Nevada border, it consists of sodium chloride—table salt—and gypsum. And has existed since Lake Bonneville dried up some 13,000 years ago. Each winter the Flats flood, and as the water evaporates, wind helps smooth the salt. For nearly a century now, since Terrible Teddy Tetzlaff drove the Blitzen Benz 141 mph here in 1914, professionals and amateurs—many of them otherwise regular Janes and Joes—have run both major-league and home-baked cars as fast as they dared on this hard, smooth surface with its traction-boosting salt granules. And there's so much of it (30,000 acres), there is little danger of bumping into anything.
Selected land speed records
1898, 39.24 mph, Gaston de Chasseloup- Laubat, Jeantaud Duc, Achères, France
1904, 91.37 mph, Henry Ford, Ford Arrow, Lake St. Clair, Mich.
1906, 121.57 mph, Fred Marriott, Stanley Rocket, Ormond Beach, Fla.
1907, 136.27 mph, Glenn Curtiss, Curtiss V-8 motorcycle, Ormond Beach, Fla.
1919, 149.87 mph, Ralph DePalma, Packard V-12, Daytona Beach, Fla.
1927, 203.79 mph, Henry Segrave, Sunbeam Slug, Daytona Beach, Fla.
1935, 301.30 mph, Malcolm Campbell, Bluebird, Bonneville
1938, 357.49 mph, George Eyston, Thunderbolt, Bonneville
1947, 394.19 mph, John Cobb, Railton Mobil Special, Bonneville
1963, 407.44 mph, Craig Breedlove, Spirit of America, Bonneville
1964, 536.71 mph, Art Arfons, Green Monster, Bonneville
1965, 600.601 mph, Craig Breedlove, Spirit of America Sonic I, Bonneville
1970, 622.407 mph, Gary Gabelich, Blue Flame, Bonneville
1983, 633.468 mph, Richard Noble, Thrust II, Black Rock Desert, Nev.
1997, 763.035 mph, Andy Green, ThrustSSC, Black Rock Desert, Nev.
Bonneville sees several major gatherings each year, including Speed Week, the granddaddy of the events, in August. The World of Speed follows in September, and the World Finals wraps things up in October. For most of those three months you can usually count on the Flats to be reasonably dry. By August, hundreds of heavy-footed enthusiasts and their cars line the course—itself a minimalist artwork with only a starting area and biodegradable painted lines that run for several miles. If you saw the 2005 movie The World's Fastest Indian, you got a taste of Salt Flats racing. Anthony Hopkins, as motorcycle racer Burt Munro, is obsessed with making his 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle go faster than anybody has ever gone on such a machine. The film climaxes with Hopkins zipping across the Flats, squinting through blowing salt. You can almost feel the grit striking your face. He takes a fall at the finish—but not before setting his speed record.
So I traveled 800 miles to see the 2005 World Finals—but the movie was the closest I got to watching a real race. Water on the track made racing impossible, as sometimes happens. I was disappointed until I got a good look at the flooded Flats: The blue-gray expanse was a mirror, an almost mystical vision stretching toward the horizon. It reminded me that I'd dreamed about coming to this place since sixth grade, when I'd read about the Flats and speed freak Craig Breedlove, in his jet-powered car Spirit of America Sonic I, setting a land speed record 0f 600.601 mph in 1965.
I was a long time getting here—but not nearly as long as it took cars to reach speeds like Breedlove's, even with the scorching start Tetzlaff provided. Perhaps most famous among early drivers was Ab Jenkins, a Mormon building contractor from Salt Lake City who in 1925 raced a Studebaker against a train across the desert and won handily. Jenkins later triumphed many times, especially with his sci-fi–looking Mormon Meteorracers.
Bonneville became still better known when the Southern California Timing Association, which had been racing on the Mojave's El Mirage, discovered the Flats and began holding Speed Week here in 1949. Hundreds of drivers now take their high-speed runs, often competing against themselves to go faster than they did the year before.
Some, like California's Duane McKinney, have been at Bonneville since that first Speed Week. It took him 13 years of trying, but in '79 he quali-fied for the prestigious 200 mph club, driving a Corvette. Last year, he proved age hasn't slowed him, hitting 287 mph in a four-wheel-drive roadster. When I spoke with McKinney, he seemed a little bothered that I didn't know the key to racing success. "You've got to get into high gear as fast as you can," he said. "If you do that, you'll gain speed with each passing mile."
Bonneville remains the place to go if you're an amateur with a souped-up car, but it no longer has a lock on the land speed record: In 1983, Thrust IIwent 633.468 mph at Nevada's Black Rock Desert, another dry lakebed. And in 1997 Andy Green drove ThrustSSC 763.035 mph at Black Rock. The one-upmanship doesn't bother Mary West. "Bonneville is the people's racecourse," she says. "It's home for the great American amateur. It may not be very pretty, but drivers and fans think it's beautiful."