I actually wondered about making this entry and seriously considered deleting the two previous entries for 2005 and 2006 (Update: 2012 event here and the 2011 Bonneville Speed Week here and the 2009 Speed Week is here) after seeing what I saw out on the salt flats this year. I’ve been coming out to the salt flats for Speed Week on and off for about 15 years and I’ve never before seen the level of abuse and disrespect toward the salt and the environment by both spectators and people associated with the actual racing. Historically, the salt flats racers have been vigilant about caring for the surface on which they race. But this year, there were many instances of people doing burnouts on the salt, tearing the surface up and not only damaging it for future generations, but causing potential track issues in future years. I also saw several morons hitting golf balls out onto the salt that they had no intention of ever trying to recover. It was the most amazingly ignorant display I’ve witnessed in years. I talked to one of the SCTA officials about it and he tried to explain it away as spectators doing the damage. This may have been the case, but at least some of the offenders were associated in some way with racers and while I am not going to play the “in my day” card, I will say that in the past there has been more active discussion of the “Save The Salt” campaign with both driver and spectator education. I would rather not advocate restricting access to the salt, but if the SCTA cannot or will not work to protect the environment, perhaps the State of Utah or the Governors Office of Economic Development needs to get involved. In addition to the thoughtless damage to the salt by notably some of the rat rodders on the salt, there were innumerable unsupervised adolescents riding ATVs and motorcycles doing additional damage by deliberately tearing up the salt, holding the front brake and digging the rear tires into the salt. The final insult was all of the garbage, including discarded cigarette cartons, beer cans, plastic water bottles and more that I had hauled off the salt. It was incredibly offensive and very disheartening. Rather than not write this entry and pull the other two entries in an effort to limit some of the attention to the salt, I am choosing to keep the entries and include this additional entry to both show the continued magic of this environment, illustrate why it is historically important to motor sports as well as drawing attention to the problems associated with misuse. In the SCTAs defense, every year they do a sweep of the salt and pick up garbage and generally clean things up.
The two above pictures show the typical damage from some of these burnouts that completely rip the salt from the underlying ground. Remember that in many places, the salt is only a fraction of an inch thick and damage such as this may take years to resolve. If we do not care for the salt flats, racing may simply not be possible in the future. Like any resource, the salt is vulnerable to overuse and in the last few years there have been an increasing number of spectators and attention paid to Speed Week on the salt flats. I expect that we’ll see some additional attention paid to the salt in the form of TLC/Discovery Channels American Hot Rod who was on the salt covering Boyd Coddington‘s team (photos below).
That unpleasantness aside, we can move on to images of some of the participants of Speed Week. I’ve talked about the setting in the previous 2005 and 2006 entries, but it really is an unconventional place to have a race with a barren appearance that could easily be thought of as the surface of some unknown planet.
The Bonneville Salt Flats are so flat, you can see the curvature of the earth and if there is any water in the form of rain, there is no real place for it to go, so it pools in the areas that are fractions of an inch deeper than other areas. In some years, this results in cancellation of the races as one might expect, running on wet salt does not provide for the possibility of world record setting speed runs.
Getting out to the salt flats means typically driving West out of Salt Lake City or East along I-80 from Nevada. Driving West from Salt Lake will bring you upon this unusual structure, Metaphor: The Tree of Utah in the middle of the desert floor, approximately 25 miles East of Wendover, Utah.
Once out there, for Speed Week, you will find that you have to either check in as a racer/pit crew or press or if a visitor/spectator, pay the pit pass fees that fund the SCTA. The unusual aspect of this motorsport is the unusual degree of access that you have to the racers themselves, as even spectators are allowed to walk around the pit area to see the automobiles and crews preparing for their world record speed runs. Racing starts at sunrise and goes all day unless weather interferes. Speaking of weather, if you are going to visit, ensure that you bring plenty of water, sunscreen and provide your own shelter. The sun is bright and combined with the high albedo of the surface, you can dehydrate and burn in spots you’ve never before thought of. For instance, sunburns on the shins of your clothed legs are not unheard of as the sun reflects off the surface of the salt and up your pant legs. There is an ambulance out on the salt for the racers typically, but it is also not unheard of for a spectator or participant to suffer from heat exhaustion or worse, heat stroke. Several years ago, I had to initiate care for a woman who collapsed from heat stroke. It took about 30 minutes for the ambulance to respond as they had been taking care of another case, so to prevent this sort of thing be prepared.
For those that know me, I am as part of being a fan of all things automotive, and a fellow appreciator of unabashed gearhead gnarlyness a big fan of Studebakers given my history of involvement with the brand. Studebaker has a long history on the salt going back to the record runs by Andy Granatelli of 168.15 MPH in a Studebaker Avanti in 1962.
In addition to the Studebakers of course, there are about as many brands of automobile represented on the salt as you can imagine, often including highly modified automobiles or automobile designs from the early 20th century and many of the rat rods you will see out on the salt are racing, many more belong to those who are simply out on the salt to watch.
Hot rods are also well represented in the actual racing with designs as diverse as you might imagine with often beautiful engineering that goes into not only the design, but also the detail.
Dragster based designs also get into the action.
While not exceptional in terms of its overall form, the roadster by Boyd Coddington with Jo Coddington driving and co-sponsored by Amsoil exhibited beautiful engineering underneath the skin. The detail work was exquisite with thoughtful placement of each necessary component and very little wasted space. Given the engineering that went into this Bonneville racer, I’d love to have Boyd build or modify a 53 Studebaker body to see what he could do with it in terms of updating the overall form to ride on a modernized chassis.
My guess is that if you watch TV and are a fan of The Learning Channels American Hot Rod, you will see more pictures and video of this effort in the upcoming months as there was a huge film crew out there documenting Boyd’s run complete with a helicopter.
To my knowledge, while Boyd Coddington is a newcomer to Boneville Speed Week, there have been teams I’ve been watching for years. This Darth Vader looking hot rod has been running out at Bonneville for quite a while. Most teams do not have the kind of financial support or backing that Boyd appeared to have, yet they come back year after year to participate in the scene that is salt flats racing.
Of course the classic Bonneville racer is the streamliner of which there are many typically represented out on the salt. The origins of the streamliner often go back to fuel tanks for WWII airplanes that had been modified into high speed automobiles, such as the beautiful streamliner that Coop was running. I loved the detailing on it, befitting the streamliner of an artist and wished I had more time out on the salt to photograph it.
Motorcycles are also present on the salt driven by both spectators and racers alike. You will find all kinds of bikes of all vintages from the very earliest frames to British bikes such as the BSAs and Triumphs of all vintages and the modern Suzuki Hayabusa, one of the world’s fastest motorcycles that are often seen running alongside Buell motorcycles. BMW motorcycles are also often present in all vintages including the beautiful BMW K1200S that I would dearly love to ride.
Present this year was also an effort by the owner of Fine Art Models a company dedicated to building some of the finest scale models of historically significant cars, trains, ships and airplanes. Their work is stunning and I wish that I had the resources to collect some of them. The Fine Art Model effort was being made on gorgeous Aprilia motorcycles and was being documented by Diane Weiss of the Detroit Free Press.
Factory teams are also present in one form or another every year. This year, Ford came out to the salt to run a hydrogen powered Ford Fusion along with Ohio State Universities Center for Automotive Research, Ballard Power Systems and Roush Racing that set a record of 207.297 MPH. The team had an extensive pit this year that included their own truck hauling compressed gas that sat off, away from the pits just in case…
Planes are also a staple of Bonneville Speed Week, either belonging to racers that can afford them, spectators that fly out or people simply flying past that want to buzz the speedway.
I also pick a favorite ride out on the salt every year and my 2007 pick was a racer that hand-built his ride to resemble an old Indy racer. He built it with two seats and regularly road races it out at Lime Rock in Connecticut. It was a beautifully constructed ride with nice detail and represented both the spirit, the art and the mechanical aptitude that makes Bonneville Speed Week so special.
That’s it for Speed Week 2007. See you out there next year.
Content in this entry has appeared in the following publications:
The Smithsonian Museum: The Smithsonian Ocean, Our Water, Our World book companion website