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The Open Road: Racing the Bonneville Salt Flats

For those of you who've always had the urge to drive really fast...listen up. Many of us have a little grand prix racer in us...but we're also law-abiding citizens who don't want to tempt fate too much. We're about to tell you about a place where there is no speed limit...a place which dares you to drive as fast as you can...they'll even clock you if you can scare up a crash helmet, an entry fee of $75 and a number on the side of your car. It's the Bonneville Salt flats....just off Interstate 80 near the Utah/Nevada border town of Wendover. Hal Cannon and his wife Teresa Jordan of the Open Road take us there.

Read all about the Open Road series

The Open Road: Racing the Bonneville Salt Flats
by Hal Cannon and Teresa Jordon
Photographs by Hal Cannon
Illustration by Teresa Jordon

Listen with RealAudio: Bonneville Salt Flats

People have descended on the Bonneville Salt Flats to drive everything from rocket-ships-on-wheels to rental cars. We're in the pits where three long lines of canopies make a temporary village where drivers, spectators and crews hang-out to talk cars, occasionally firing up these babies to warm the oil and fine tune 'em. This is an event called The World of Speed ...one of three race trials that takes place at the Bonneville Speedway between August and October each year. People come from all over to see the flats, break world speed records, or top their personal best, like Bob Powers from Tucson, Arizona.

Bob and the others are bound by a love for the scent of high octane fuel, by the blur of mileposts whizzing by, and by a reverence for this place. People here treat each other like family... and nowhere is the embrace more complete than with Mary West. Anyone who comes here to race registers with Mary. She was first drawn to the flats in 1951 and Bonneville has become her second home.

Mary: It's even been compared to being a holy place.

Hal: What is it about this landscape that makes it a holy place?

Mary: I have a story about Art Arfonse.

Hal: Art Arfonse has raced at the flats for years.

Mary: He crashed the last time he was here. When he came back we sat in a chair much as we're doing today and we were looking at those mountains to the west and I said, "Oh, Art, you really scared me..." And he said, "Mary, Don't you know that the lord won't let the salt flats kill me."

Hal: Before the racing begins on this day, the drivers gather outside the officials tent and one steps forward to lead us in prayer. Then we hear a brief sermon on the rules of the track. They tell us that the track is wet and unstable and that the delicate crust must be groomed and closely supervised ...or there will be no race this week. I look around for my wife Teresa who left the pits a while ago, journal in hand, to explore.

Teresa: The mind tries to grasp a hold of this landscape, make sense of it, liken it to something familiar, and it seems Arctic, a vast plain of snow endlessly flat and endlessly white, but the blue mountains that float in the distance are bare. Perhaps another planet exists somewhere that looks like this, glistening under an alien sun, or maybe I'm in heaven above the gauzy clouds. However I describe it, I feel adrift.

Earlier today, when we first parked near the course, I opened my door and reached down to touch the ground. It looked smooth but it was rough and crusty. I put my finger in my mouth to taste it and then caught myself. I've never in my life parked my car in order to taste the ground. I was embarrassed until I saw another spectator arrive and do the same thing. Now I wonder if he shared my secret, if he, too, felt nervous at first, driving across the flats. I have come for speed, but I find myself loath to accelerate, afraid to spin out. My intellect knows I am driving on salt, a surface with so much traction that people go faster here than anywhere else on earth, but my gut keeps screaming about snow.

Hal: The Salt Flats is the dried-out bed of Lake Bonneville, a prehistoric inland sea. Natives and pioneers alike avoided the place until this century. That is, until 1925 when a race car driver named Ab Jenkins bet he could make it from Salt Lake City, across the flats to the border town of Wendover... faster than a steam locomotive... which did the run on a nearby track. Ab won like a gasoline fueled John Henry...and from that time forward he became the champion of the flats...promoting it as the perfect place for testing driving endurance and speed. In the 20's and 30's, no one set more world records on the scorching salt, than Ab himself.

Hal: On many of his endurance runs Ab Jenkins saw mirages. Shadows seemed to rise up right in front of him like concrete walls; a beacon on a distant hill appeared to move every time he looked at it. Other drivers have imagined runaway freight trains...or a phantom car coming right at them. Many racers simply lose their bearings veering off the track onto a course of their own imagining. Teresa had some thoughts on that.

Teresa: I think I figured out why it's so easy to get disoriented here...nothing to judge distances by...you get lost.

Hal: But despite the shimmering salt, drivers continue to find their way to test their limits. Al Teague drove 409 mph here in 1991. Sam Wheeler flew 301 mph on a motorcycle in 1997... and Dutch cyclist Fred Rompelberg recently peddled a bicycle 167 mph. But beyond all the records set here, this place celebrates something that has defined America, garage ingenuity.

It's a 53 Studebaker coupe with a 305 Chevrolet in it. Puts out about 650 horsepower...

'86 Firebird TransAm ...302V8 gas aspirated

We basically sat down on the floor took our body measurements and built the car around us

This is a 1927 Model T modified roadster....

This is soon to be the world's fastest barstool. I think it's gonna run about 30mph..faster than I want to drive it.

It has a Shinook helicopter engine in it...and at this level it will produce about 3800 horsepower. [I want it to go] 500 miles an hour.

Hal: We drive to the starting line here at Bonneville where dozens of cars wait for their turn to blast off. After an unexpected rainstorm earlier today...the officials have finally cleared a short 2 1/2 mile straightaway.

Looking down the row of waiting cars we catch the gleam of a purple arrow hovering over the salt on tiny wheels. Its 23 feet long, a hunched-shoulder-width wide... and it stands all of 32 inches off the ground. It's called a streamliner, and this is the class of automobile that sets the fastest records. As we get closer we recognize the driver, now outfitted in a test pilots protective suit. This must be mistake. What is a grandfatherly 72 year-old doing in a racing suit?

We had first met Allan Strassberg at dawn this morning to enjoy the sunrise together...and to watch his team warm up the engine of this rolling rocket, number 444.

Allen- the cars with a lot of hp... early in the morning... you can feel it and you love engines.. Oh that's our business.. all our lives.. there's nothing like a well tuned engine and something with a lot of HP.

Hal: The Strasbourg family motto might be... "the family that races together, stays together," for Allen's wife, his 4 sons, 4 daughters, 6 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren have all turned out to cheer him on.

Allen's one of those guys who gives and gives -- building the engines that win races-- and through the years he has helped each of his sons break speed records so they can be part of an elite club out here at Bonneville. Now his family and friends want to see him join this prestigious brotherhood of speed demons. That's why Allen is trying to set a new record of 232 mph today.

Hal: It's painful to watch this giant of a man being crammed into this long metal cigar. He's now lying almost flat with his head propped up so he can see out of this slit of windshield. I'd be going nuts with claustrophobia, but Allen is still smiling.

Hal: The moment has arrived. The pit crew pushes him up to the starting line. The last thing I see is his shaky-veined hand as it disappears into the cockpit. The race official gives him last minute instructions.

Official: How ya doin,

Allen: I'm still alive

Official: It's still quite wet at the 2 1/2 so you need to get your parachute out and turn off.

Hal: Allen probably won't have enough track to break the record today, but that hardly dampens anyones spirits; they're just excited to see how fast he can go.

Hal: The are no words for the pure power and adrenaline of man and machine... as we listen-in through a portable microphone in Allen's helmet while the 444 speeds out of sight over the curvature of the earth.

Hal: We hop in our car and circle around to the end of the course to see how Allen has fared.

Hal: May I congratulate you? Allen: Not bad for an old guy, and I mean old...

Hal: We've been initiated into an other worldly landscape here on the Bonneville Salt Flats...and we've met people who have taken us into their world of camaraderie and dreams. As Teresa and I turn to leave we realize this place has grown-on us in three days. The drastic openness that seemed threatening at first now shouts an emphatic message of possibility.

Teresa: But you know what? Hal: What? Teresa: It makes me really want to go fast. Hal: Let's go fast (doors close). I don't know if this car will take it.

Teresa: OK we're up to 20 mph Hal: You watch the road, I'll watch the speed-o-meter Hal: Your going 40-55- god 60-70-80-85-95 see if you can make a hundred. Teresa: Who yeah.. 100 miles

Hal: On the ultimate Open Road, The Bonneville Salt Flats.... I'm Hal Cannon with Teresa Jordan for the Savvy Traveler

Note from Rudy: By the Way, don't just pull off the interstate onto the salt -- chances are it's soggy and you'll find yourself up to your axles in mush -- which will make the tow truck drivers a little richer. I'd recommend coming to one of the speed trials, stay at one of a half dozen inexpensive casinos in nearby Wendover and by all means...stay on the marked course.

Want more information?

Bonneville Racing News
P.O. Box 730
Hemet, California 92546

Bonneville Nationals: 805-256-1805

Utah Salt Flats Racing Association: 810-785-5364

Generally, there are 3 annual races at the Flats:

  • Bonneville Speed Week (2nd week of August)
  • World of Speed (3rd week of September)
  • Bonneville World Finals (2nd week of October)

Please visit Hal and Teresa's Web site at: theopenroad.org


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