2006 event here.
2007 event here.
2009 event here.
2011 event here.
2012 event here.
Last Sunday the 14th, I took a trip out to the Bonneville Salt Flats for the first time in over a decade to see Speed Week. The two images above come pretty close to summing up the experience, but it is really so much more than cool cars and salt. It’s an otherworldly experience combined with a approachability unmatched in motorsports. I figured that my good friends Robert and Ann might enjoy the experience and they decided to join me to take pictures and partake of the absolutely unique atmosphere that the salt flats provide.
There is a remarkable history of the salt flats. The origin of this speedway begins with the desiccation of the the last basin of a prehistoric lake, Lake Bonneville that left salt deposits several inches thick in some areas. Several millennia later, the first world speed record was set back in 1914 with Teddy Tezlaff in his Blitzen Benz at 141.73 MPH. However, it was not until the first Speed Week happened back in 1949 that Bonneville became the standard for world land speed racing. Since then the race has been sponsored by the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), and has gathered crews from all over the world with drivers from this week traveling from England, Australia, Canada, Japan, Finland, Italy and more.
Depending upon the weather conditions and the amount of water received over the winter and spring, the salt flats can present with an absolutely rock hard surface where you can actually burn rubber. Speaking of weather, often at the time of year the races are held, the sky is blue and weather is perfect for racing. Because of the high albedo of the surface, the highest SPF sun-screen you can obtain is critical. People get sunburned in places that you would not normally think of, like your shins even if you wear long pants from the light reflecting off the surface of the salt. The heat can roast you in your shoes, so hydration is also important as I once had to call out an ambulance for a woman who suffered a heat stroke. Finally since I am a vision scientist, I have to also say that high quality sunglasses with UV protection are an absolute necessity for both short term and long term retinal damage reasons.
The salt flats are remote. The closest place for food and housing in Wendover, a town ten miles away that straddles the Utah/Nevada border. Wendover is a gambling town with little else to support the economy and also the place where the atomic bomb crews were stationed in 1944 to practice dropping the atomic bomb. Some of their bomb targets (from conventional bombs) were hot springs about fifty miles to the south which make for a decent place to teach scuba diving in the winter as they are a natural hot springs. Wendover is also where most of the race crews stay during Speed Week.
The racecourse on the salt flats is organized with two tracks. One track is seven miles long and the other is five miles long. The longer course is designed for the faster vehicles. The diversity of cars that you will see there are amazing. You will see anything from vintage roadsters and hotrods of all flavors to motorcycles from a number of vintages to jet-powered streamliners. A number of makes are ubiquitous at Speed Week including my favorite, the Studebakers. The types of engines that power these vehicles are equally as diverse. You will find old Ford Model A engines racing next to Ford Flathead V-8s, Chevy V-8s and inline six engines and of course the Chrysler Hemi engines. There are also Studebaker engines, diesel engines that run semi trucks, battery powered vehicles and hybrid vehicles from private individuals and manufacturers such as Toyota and General Motors. You will also see vehicles powered by turbines, jet-engines and even on occasion, rockets.
Motorcycles are also present with old Indians and flathead Harleys, the modern Japanese rocket bikes, exotic Italian motorcycles and even bikes made by Triumph, Norton and BSA.
One of the wonderful things about this type of racing is the intimacy of the experience for fans and racers. For fans, there are very few types of racing where you can talk with the drivers and pit crews with the degree of access that you have here. For the racers and those individuals that support them, the atmosphere is amazingly intimate. Most racers have been coming out for years and the racers get to know one another well. It is not an understatement to say that the atmosphere is like a family. There are those that describe NASCAR as a family, but this is different. Most racers out here despite being avowed gear-heads are also acutely aware of the environment. This racing experience is completely different from a NASCAR race as these racers are exquisitely sensitive to the condition and preservation of the salt and as such, there is no garbage left on the flats, there is no spilled oil or fuel and the salt is left as untouched as possible when the racers leave. The SCTA works along with the BLM to ensure that racers can come back year after year to as pristine an environment as possible. Hang around a NASCAR race and you will understand what I am talking about in comparison Speed Week.
This year I was surprised to see a 1963 Avanti with the number 1963 on its side. This number and car combination have a number of meanings to me. First off it was the year of first production of the Avanti, but it was also a car that I restored at one time. More importantly however, was that this number on a 1963 Avanti was the racing number of a friend of ours, Ron Hall who raced his 1963 Avanti out at the Salt Flats a dozen or so years ago. We got to know Ron the very first year he came out to race and built up a friendship with him, his wife and the crew of folks that were helping him achieve a world record that was initially set in 1962 by Andy Granatelli in a factory prepared Studebaker Avanti. Ron died of a long illness in 1996, but got to see his vision of setting a new world record of over 200 MPH in his Avanti. So this year when I saw the number on the side of a car, I had to get a closer look. As I got closer, I saw the script underneath the number that said “In memory of Ron Hall”. “Excellent” I thought. At that point, the driver walked up to me and started a conversation. His name is David Bloomberg, a.k.a. “The Avanti Kid”. David knew of Ron’s efforts and took his number in honor of Ron and his car. David, like Ron was most pleasant and I wished him the best of luck. David, if you read this, send me an email and I can forward you a number of other photographs.
David Bloomberg in his 1963 Avanti.
A Swedish driver, Kjell Holgersson driving this DeTomaso Pantera.
A classic Bonneville hot rod with suicide doors.
A 1955 Mercedes Benz 300sl, one of the more exotic cars on the salt.
I loved this image.
A later model Alpha Romeo spider also made an appearance.
An Infiniti FX on the salt. I would love to pick one of these up in silver for my wife, H.
Our Toyota 4Runners out on the salt.
Now, this was an Audi I would love to drive. I could find nobody around to talk to about it, but from the appearance, this was one fast ride. I think it had Quattro, and yes, those are Porsche brakes behind those wheels and a parachute on the back.
The So-Cal Speedshop had this streamliner with GMs 2.0 Liter Ecotec engine in it get to 189.205 MPH. The car was driven by Automobile Magazine’s technical editor Don Sherman. There are a couple of reasons there is a truck behind the streamliner. First, many of these cars have very high gear ratios, so starting off the line under their own power is difficult and would end up burning out clutches if performed without a “push”. Second, the support vehicles help bring the race car back down the seven mile long course to either the start line or the pits.
A classic hot rod with finned drum brakes and a flat black paint job. Very cool.
A flamin Chevy coupe.
You see all types of cars out on the salt. This one was likely a spectator from SLC, but I have seen Ferrari’s racing on the salt in the past. A dozen years ago, Bob Norwood brought out a Ferrari GTO with a couple of different engines. The aerodynamics of the 288 GTO body were not great, but the 8.2 Liter engine that they dropped into it was enough to deliver 250 MPH.
A classic hot rod coupe with flames and white-wall tires.
More realistic flames on this one.
A happy Ann.
This was one of my favorite cars out on the salt as it was so punk. It was covered in surface rust, but appeared to be a strong runner. My favorite part of this car was the gear shift shown in the picture below.
The dashboard and gearshift of a most excellent roadster.
To give you some idea of what it was like, I also am including this small video. This car was traveling at approximately 240MPH.
Finally, I have to mention that unfortunately, racing of just about any sort is dangerous and this year John Beckett was killed as his “Hondaliner” crashed right in front of me at about 206 MPH just after travelling through the five mile marker. Emergency vehicles were on the scene incredibly quickly, but John died of his injuries soon after. John Beckett had been racing at Bonneville for a number of years and had joined the 200MPH club in 1992. He will be missed by a great number of Bonneville racers.
UPDATE: Speed Week 2006 photos can be seen here.