A Brief History
The Bonneville Salt Flats are an expansive, usually desolate, 159 square miles of salt left by the recession of an ancient lake. As far as motorsports go, organized time trials were held here as early as 1914. But the founding father of Bonneville Speedway has to be Ab Jenkins a long-time salt racer who challenged then land speed icon Sir Malcolm Campbell to come across the pond in 1935 and compete head-to-head for the title of fastest man on wheels. Up until this time Daytona Beach, Fla. was the major land speed outlet in America. On March 25, Campbell triumphantly set the bar at 276.820 mph. He returned in September and manhandled his Rolls Royce V12-powered car to the first-ever 300-mph run (301.129). The rest is history as the 400-, 500-, 600- and 700-mph barriers were all breeched at Bonneville, which has dominated land speed racing ever since.
Bonneville is the ultimate run-what-you-brung party offering about 75 categories for everything from hamster-powered motorcycles to rocket-powered streamliners to vintage roadsters and everything in between. Both automotive present and automotive past can be seen at full throttle in three-dimensional bliss. The pits are a 24/7 car show that spills over to campsites on the salt and nearby Wendover after dark. The extravaganza never ends.
Turbo magazine has been going to the salt since the late '80s. Our 1991 Bonneville coverage was showcased in the "Classic Turbo" section of the 20th Anniversary issue (July, 2005). In fact, about the time the July issue was shipping I got an e-mail invitation from GM to check out the festivities at the 57th annual Speed Week. Bonneville has always been one of those "Mecca-esque" destinations so I jumped at the chance. GM and So-Cal Speed Shop have teamed up to set the salt afire with Ecotec four-cylinder engines. I would call the So-Cal pits home for two days as I explored the salt and took in the ambiance that is Speed Week.
On The Salt
Up before the sun and on the salt at first-light, the immensity of the flats challenges one's sense of spatial relationship. From the So-Cal pits at the 4-mile marker you can see the 3x4-foot orange markers three miles away-in each direction. The pits were crawling with cars of every conceivable shape and size; some otherworldly; I saw one I swear was in the "Mammoth Car" episode of "Speed Racer." Hand-built streamliners to stock-bodied production cars; it's anything goes.
I quickly learned an open mind is needed when I tracked down a 240SX only to find myself face-to-face with a '50s-era flathead Ford V8 when the hood was popped open. Approach it the right way and the diversity of vehicles and the common goal of pure speed makes the Bonneville pits a true time capsule of American automotive ingenuity. Only impending heat stroke forced me back to the So-Cal pit area.