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Cancellation renews fears of shrinking salt flats

WENDOVER, Utah — A small city of tents, trailers and thousands of visitors appears almost every August in the Utah desert to watch cars, motorcycles and anything with wheels rocket across gleaming white sheets of salt at speeds that can top 400 mph.

But wet weather has forced the cancellation of Speed Week for the second straight year and revived a debate about whether nearby mining is depleting the Bonneville Salt Flats of their precious resource.

Racers say they have worried for decades that mining is draining an aquifer that helps replenish the flats each year, leaving smaller amounts of the smooth, hard salt that makes for a nearly glass-like surface for cars hurtling across the landscape.

Federal land managers who oversee the flats say they don't have any evidence that the salt is being depleted and point to the anomaly of heavy rains around the time of the event this year and last year.

"The main international racetrack used to be 13 miles in length," said Stuart Gosswein with Save the Salt, a group of race aficionados that has raised the alarm. "Now we can't even find 7 miles."

The white, treeless landscape rimmed by purple mountains has served as a backdrop for films like "Independence Day," countless car commercials, TV shows and photo shoots. The flats, composed almost entirely of common table salt, have also attracted racers for more than 100 years with the hope that the hard, smooth track will help them beat the clock.

It's where David Abbott "Ab" Jenkins set an endurance record in 1940 with his vehicle, the "Mormon Meteor." It's also where New Zealand racer Burt Munro set speed records on his modified bike, including a 1967 record of 183.58 mph, which still stands today. The feat was later depicted in the 2005 Anthony Hopkins movie, "The World's Fastest Indian" — also filmed at the flats.

The annual Speed Week race in late summer is the largest annual racing event, drawing hundreds of teams and filling restaurants and hotel rooms in the nearby border cities of Wendover, Utah, and West Wendover, Nevada, with spectators and pit crews.