Cars We Remember: Bonneville Salt Flats — a short history and a ‘Save the Salt’ campaign
Q: Greg, I’m from California and would love to know more about the Bonneville Salt Flats, one of motorsports fastest yet lesser known and covered divisions.
I remember all the stars of Bonneville, including Mickey Thompson. Can you write about the Bonneville Salt Flat history and how things are going now? I see they just cancelled the big event for October. Edward L. and I see your columns in the Desert Dispatch in Barstow.
A: Sure thing, Ed. To answer your question, I contacted Dennis Sullivan who is the President of the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association (USFRA). As for how things are going now, Sullivan informed us that the Bonneville World Finals, scheduled for this October, has been cancelled due to more rain than expected this season and other salt flat surface factors.
As for history, performance fanatics acknowledge that Bonneville, neat Salt Lake City in Utah and Muroc and El Mirage dry beds out your way were directly responsible for the birth of the high performance industry. Names like Ak Miller, Alex Xydis, Wally Parks, Ed Winfield and Vic Edelbrock Sr. and other early day (and many current) manufacturers like Chuck Potvin, Ed Iskenderian, Summers Brothers, Fred Carrillo, and Harman & Collins (to name but a few) are responsible for igniting today’s American-based billion dollar performance industry.
Sullivan was quick to point out that salt flat racing pre-dates the popularity of the post WWII Midget races and sanctioned drag racing. He noted that last year was the 100th anniversary of Bonneville, which dates all the way back to 1914. Back then, one big name made worldwide headlines: “Terrible” Teddy Tetzlaff, driving a 300-horse “Blitzen Benz- 2” which was before Mercedes and Benz got together. Tetzlaff had previously finished second at the Indy 500 in 1912.
Notable was getting to the salt flats back then. Since Bonneville did not have any road access, racers had to take their vehicles to the flats on a train as there was a rail line established that ran east to west. The teams unloaded their vehicles at Bonneville, raced, and then had to reload them back on trains to get back to the closest highway. As for “Terrible Teddy,” he ran 142.8 mph in his successful attempt to set a new world’s record. From that day on 101 years ago, it was literally full speed ahead.
Sullivan also said that official sanctioning occurred in 1937, thanks to the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). Not surprisingly, one of the big driving forces behind the organization as it moved into the post war era was none other than the late Wally Parks, founder of the NHRA.
“Wally moved forward with his ideas because the dry lakes at Muroc and El Mirage were limited on distance, so he and his crew needed a place that offered more room to go faster,” said Sullivan. “The Bonneville Salt Flats allowed racers to run a good 10 miles if they had to, so Wally worked with the state of Utah, which always prepped the salt for the land speed events and explained the SCTA organization benefits. He was successful.”
With current events attracting upward of 500 cars in hundreds of classes, Bonneville is one of the sport’s most popular attractions for auto racing fans. Currently, six land speed events are held yearly, including four USFRA sanctioned events and two SCTA events. Unlike other forms of motorsport, there is no prize money awarded at any of the land speed events.
“What is unique about the salt is that there is literally every form of vehicle out there that you can imagine, from 350-mph streamliners to a Firebird Trans-Am,” Sullivan continued. “But in the end, it’s the camaraderie of the teams as money doesn’t get in the way. It’s truly the purest form of going fast, be it a car or a motorcycle.”
To this scribe, Bonneville offers pure passion for speed mixed with a heavy dose of adrenalin, science and mechanical ingenuity. And speaking of motorcycles, I recommend watching the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian,” starring Anthony Hopkins, which highlights the true story of New Zealander Burt Munro on his quest for Bonneville motorcycle land speed immortality.
Although the racing and car attendance is very strong, there is one area that needs constant care: the surface of salt flat beds. Other race events had to be postponed or curtailed this year due to questionable surface conditions and/or weather related situations, all which harm the delicate race surface.
Said Sullivan, “every year, the salt turns into a mud substance because millions of tons of salt are removed as planned. This salt is then sold as potash fertilizer, and I need to credit the current mine owners (Intrepid Potash) for working with us. They get the potash following the winter when the flats are covered with water. They pump the water off, put it in drying beds and potash is the result.”
Sullivan explained that after they liquefy the salt, they pump it all back on the race surface during the next early winter for another round of potash production.
“Unfortunately, you lose a little of the salt surface every year, so everyone needs to keep an eye on the procedures. We’re working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and with the mine on the recovery of salt, which is our main objective now.”
To better bring awareness, a “Save the Salt” organization is up and running with attorney Russ Deane, General Counsel of the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA), doing daily work on Bonneville’s behalf in Washington D.C. (See www.savethesalt.org for more).
“We’re bullish that all will turn out well for 2016 and beyond, and I want to thank SEMA for partnering with us to protect one of the nation’s oldest racing venues. But the surface is a serious concern as we need to make sure it is renewed properly every year, or one day we won’t have a surface to run on,” Sullivan concluded.
Thanks for your letter, Ed, and for Dennis Sullivan’s time and excellent input. Let’s hope all goes well in 2016 at Bonneville.
Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now, BestRide.com and other GateHouse Media publications. He welcomes reader input on collector cars, old-time racing and auto nostalgia at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.