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.
Looking down the long course I spotted a pinhead-sized dot with a faint rooster tail behind it; but heard nothing. The dot got bigger, the rooster tail dissipated and a hum emerged from the background noise. The dot began to resemble a wheeled vehicle and the hum became a growl. Then the car snapped into full focus and full volume as it screamed past in a huff and a puff short of warp speed. Then it dawned on me, in the span of less than 30 seconds that vehicle traveled three miles. Further, I was a quarter mile away from the racing surface and it was a still blur as it passed by. I never tired of watching this triple-digit drama unfold and could soon recognize what a 'fast' run looked like compared to a 'slow' run.
Moving to the staging grid I could sense the rise of anticipation and jittery nerves in the drivers and crew as they got closer to the starting line. While out on the course the allure was the technological prowess of the cars and their blinding speed. In the staging area it was much more emotional, seeing the drivers strap in reinforced the fact that real people were inside those blurs. I also noted that the field is dominated by ballsy old guys, many making the "pilgrimage of salt" for decades-some chasing an adrenaline rush, others chasing a record, many, like me, just feeding off the residual buzz. Some racers were very ritualistic and deliberate in their actions, others were boisterous and carefree but they all knew the danger and heart-thumping excitement that awaited them once the helmet visor dropped and their car lurched toward the first mile marker.
Having finally made the pilgrimage myself I can say I have walked away enlightened. Seeing the salt start to glow as the sun peers above peaks named for famous Bonneville racers is pure magic. Just as one settles into the serenity of the place, the calm is shattered by revving engines and turning wrenches as hundreds of racers prepare to assault a common foe-the clock.
As wildly interesting as the cars were it was the people I found most fascinating-they were generous with their time, open about their cars and insisted you pull up a chair, crack open a beer and sit a while. And the yarns they spun, each a slice of automotive history, were well worth the price of admission. The beauty of Bonneville is if you can dream it and build it you can run it on the salt; where else is a car made from a bomber's belly fuel tank considered a normal mode of transportation?