The Machines Of Nowhere
How the emptiest expanse of nothing in America—the Bonneville Salt Flats—became the world capital for the technological enthusiasts who pursue ultimate speed
In the early 1830s the Rocky Mountain fur trade was in trouble. Trappers had decimated the once-teeming beaver streams of the West. Veteran mountain men felt the end was at hand. But Capt. Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, a newcomer to the trade, disagreed. Born in Paris, Bonneville had come to America as a child and graduated from West Point in 1815 at the age of nineteen. In 1832 he outfitted 110 trappers and headed into the wilderness. His men returned to their rendezvous almost empty-handed, but he wouldn’t give up. He ordered his chief lieutenant, Joseph Reddeford Walker, to take a party and search the lands beyond the Great Salt Lake. Walker skirted the lake and crossed the salt flats to its west. Eventually he climbed the Sierras and reconnoitered California, but he found no undiscovered hunting grounds. Captain Bonneville made his exit from the West in 1835, taking very few furs and leaving nothing behind but his name on one of the places his man Joe Walker had visited.
The Bonneville Salt Flats, an area of millions of tons of snow-white salt, were formed when a lake withdrew around 15,000 B.C. They lie a hundred miles west of Salt Lake City at an elevation of 4,214 feet. Devoid of wildlife and blazing hot most of the year, they are nonetheless glorious, with the Newfoundland Mountains shimmering like a distant mirage and sunrises like no place else on earth. When you stand and look toward the horizon, the salt appears to go on forever, and the earth’s curvature seems clearly evident. Bonneville was not surveyed until 1926, nearly a century after the area was first seen by Jedediah Smith, another trapper-explorer like Joe Walker. Geologists estimate that the salt flats originally covered 96,000 acres. By 1976 the acreage was down to 25,600. The stratified layers of salt and mud were still several feet thick in places, but there was much less salt than earlier, and the attrition was estimated at about one percent a year. At that rate, in a hundred years there would be little left but mud.
Beginning at the turn of the century, Bonneville was mined for halite—that is, sodium chloride, or common table salt. After foreign supplies of potassium were cut off during World War I, the Solvay Process Company dug ditches across the salt and began refining potassium from the brine that accumulated during the rainy season. The Solvay plant shut down in 1921 but was reopened in 1938 by the Bonneville Limited Company, which in turn sold out to Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical in 1963. Kaiser was interested in magnesium and particularly in potash, the oxide of potassium used for making fertilizer. It substantially increased the extent of previous operations, pumping salt-laden groundwater (about two-thirds from land it owned, the rest from government land) into evaporating ponds and extracting some 85,000 tons of minerals annually by the mid-1980s.
In Utah the salt flats are considered a unique wonder of nature, and for many years there has been concern about shrinkage and the appearance of holes, fissures, and pressure ridges as the surface layer has thinned out and weakened. The finger of blame has mainly been pointed at the potash operation, which was purchased in the late 1980s by Reilly Industries, an Indianapolis firm. Reilly, like Kaiser before it, has denied there is any “clear scientific evidence” to show it is responsible for what is happening. The cause, it says, could be natural climatic change.
Environmentalists treasure the salt flats for their own reasons, but for many years the banner to “Save the Salt” has mainly been carried by people who are ordinarily indifferent, if not openly hostile, to environmentalism, those enthusiasts for automotive speed called hot rodders. When the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) formed a coalition of parties concerned about the problem, key participants included the National Hot Rod Association and the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade organization for firms in the automotive “aftermarket.” Environmental concerns have long been known for making strange bedfellows, but the Bonneville situation entails more than the usual ironies.
If the Bonneville Salt Flats have meant one thing to nature lovers and another to outfits like Reilly Industries, to enthusiasts for speed their meaning has been something else again. There has been no finer natural speedway on earth, or at least none so readily accessible (the old transcontinental Lincoln Highway passed right through the flats). The water table, generally about a foot down, rises to the surface during the rainy season, and water collects to a depth of a foot or more. This water is gently swirled around by the wind, and by the time it evaporates, the surface is left smooth, level, and almost as hard as concrete.
Automotive enthusiasts discovered the salt even before the salt miners did. W. D. Rishel raced a car across Bonneville in 1900, and in 1914 Teddy Tetzlaff clocked an unofficial 141 miles per hour. A few years later Ab Jenkins, a Salt Lake City carpenter who was a friend of Rishel, circled a 10-mile course for twenty-four hours, covering some 2,700 miles at an average speed of 112 mph. Jenkins’s Mormon Meteor was one of many machines that set endurance records on the salt until the 1960s. But there were other sites for that sort of thing, whereas there was no place like Bonneville for allout speed. A straightaway course that stretched as far as 14 miles could be laid out there.
The men who first chased after the glories of speed had done so at various places in France, at Brooklands and Southport Beach in England, on the Pendine Sands of South Wales, and even on a frozen lake in Michigan (Henry Ford set a record on Lake St. Clair in December 1904, going 91 mph). There were potential sites in Africa, Russia, and the Near East, but for their inaccessibility they might as well have been on the moon. The preferred venue early in the century was the beach at Ormond and Daytona in Florida, where William K. Vanderbilt broke Ford’s record two weeks after he had set it and men like Barney Oldfield, Ralph De Palma, and Tommy Milton subsequently built their popular reputations.
Ultimately, in 1934, an Englishman named Malcolm Campbell went 276 at Daytona. Beach sands were smooth and flat but by nature inconstant, and an ocean beach was certainly not a safe place for speeds like that. Campbell knew his machine had still more in it, however, so the next year he made the trek to Bonneville. Campbell promptly went 25 mph faster than ever before, and since that day the salt has been used more or less continuously for the pursuit of speed records.
For many years, the ultimate—the land speed record (LSR)—was the private domain of wealthy Britons driving leviathans powered by British aircraft engines, Rolls-Royces or Napier Lions, sometimes two together. The LSR could be the road to knighthood; Sir Malcolm Campbell was the archetype. George E. T. Eyston and John Rhodes Cobb traded the record back and forth until 1939, when Cobb got up to 367. Two years after the war he returned to Bonneville with backing from Mobil Oil and went 394. Afterward Cobb turned his enthusiasm to waterborne speed (he lost his life on Loch Ness in 1952), so there the record stood.
In 1949 an organization called the Southern California Timing Associa- tion made arrangements to stage time trials at Bonneville over seven days in August. The deal for an annual BLM special-land-use permit was negotiated by the SCTA’s executive secretary, Wally Parks, in concert with Robert Petersen, whose magazine Hot Rod was emerging as a phenomenal journalistic success in only its second year of publication. Parks would soon leave the SCTA for the editorship of Hot Rod , and he later played the key role in founding the National Hot Rod Association. His primary aim was to improve the popular image of hot rodding, which was taking a battering in the media because of the dangerous exploits of street racers.
The SCTA had begun sanctioning events on California dry lakes in the 1930s—first at Muroc, then, after that had been swallowed up by a huge government facility later named Edwards Air Force Base, at a place called El Mirage. El Mirage was handy to the Los Angeles area, but its size allowed only slightly more than a mile to get up speed, and after a few dozen runs the dirt surface could become dangerously loose. To people like Wally Parks, staging time trials on the site of the official land speed record meant cachet. To the racers at El Mirage, the announcement of an annual Speed Week at Bonneville was a godsend.
Hot rodding was a hobby. Most hot rodders competed on budgets that were a pittance compared with the bank-rolls that a very few men like John Cobb could command. Typically they used stripped-down roadsters, the best of which were capable of about 150 mph. There were a few “lakesters,” vehicles fitted with bodies made from aircraft drop-tanks, and even a handful of streamliners that mimicked the lines of the British pacesetters, but at first the very fastest of these was less than half as fast as Cobb’s. The hot rodders’ favorite engines were Fords, especially the Ford flathead V-8, introduced in 1932. These were factory-rated at between 60 and 100 horsepower but could be hopped up to 200 hp or, by digging deep down into their bag of tricks, even 300. Not bad, but certainly nothing compared with the twin turbocharged 12-cylinder Napier Lions— each rated at 1,250 hp—that Cobb had under his hood in 1947. At the second of the SCTA’s Bonneville meets, in 1950, a streamliner from Denver with two Ford engines broke 200 mph, and by 1957, with three Ford engines, the same machine had run 270. The hot rodders were starting to warm up.
If three auto engines, why not more? In 1959 Marion Lee (“Mickey”) Thompson clocked 360 in his Challenger with four Pontiac V-8s. The next year he returned with superchargers and broke 400 one way, but he never managed the run “back up” the course that would have permitted him to break Cobb’s record. (The recognized governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile [FIA], stipulated that record times must be a two-way average, to compensate for possible tail winds.) This was a great disappointment to everyone pulling to see the LSR in American hands—the quest was taking on strong patriotic overtones—but it turned out that the fun at Bonneville was just beginning.
Several competitors added a new twist, power from jet aircraft engines, which were becoming available fairly cheaply as surplus. The FIA rules stipulated that LSR machines had to have four wheels and be driven through at least two of them, so the jets were ineligible for international records. They attracted a lot of attention nevertheless. The first Bonneville jet, the Flying Caduceus , designed by a Los Angeles physician, Nathan Ostich, fell short of expectations, and another jet crashed in 1962. But in 1964 and 1965 Art Arfons and CraigBreedlove traded the top speed mark back and forth several times, with Breedlove finally clocking 600 and Arfons 576.
Vietnam seemed to put a damper on such adventures for several years, but in 1970 Gary Gabelich went 622, this time with rocket power. Like Breedlove, Gabelich was a classic product of the Southern California hot-rod culture who had managed to hook up with wealthy sponsors. To this day his 622 remains the fastest mark ever recorded on the salt.
Subsequently another rocket car purportedly broke the speed of sound, and a jet went 633, but neither effort took place at Bonneville. The rocket was timed in a private session at Edwards Air Force Base, and a lot of people were skeptical of what was claimed for it. Over the years there have been rumors of other rocket-car projects, but none have materialized, and most hot rodders view such efforts as mere stunts in the interest of commercial ballyhoo; almost every rocket and jet machine has had large-scale corporate backing. Essentially these are nothing but aircraft without wings, and nobody would doubt that a projectile with more than 40,000 hp could break the speed of sound; all that seems crucial is tailoring the aerodynamics so the vehicle won’t take off and fly.
Besides, such machines have generally been thought to transgress some traditional canon rooted in hot rodding’s humble origins. For purists the lavish funding, the hype, the squads of engineers and technicians in attendance (not to say the aircraft power plants) are reminiscent of the efforts of those British playboys of yesteryear like John Cobb. Even Art Arfons and his brother Walt, whose low-budget cast of mind and keen pragmatism were in the finest tradition of hot rodding, enjoyed support in six figures from Firestone and Goodyear respectively. Nevertheless, not counting jetters and rocketers (and a 403 mark by Malcolm Campbell’s son Donald in Australia, with power from a BristolSidderley Proteus 705 turbine such as powered the Britannia airliner), Cobb’s 1947 record of 394 mph remained intact into the mid-1960s.
Enter the ultimate heroes for a whole generation of Bonneville purists, Bill and Bob Summers, brothers from Arcadia, California, who, unlike Art and Walt Arfons, always worked in concert. They had the purist’s fundamental passion for finding out what is possible from souped-up automobile engines. In 1959 Bob Summers flipped their roadster at 224; they repaired it and came back to run 236 later that same week. Next, they built a streamliner called the Pollywog , which topped 300. Finally, taking a cue from Mickey Thompson, they designed a four-engine machine. Unlike the Challenger , which had two side-by-side pairs, they configured their Goldenrod with four Chrysler engines in tandem. It had only nine square feet of frontal area, with a coefficient of drag (Cd) of .117, far less than any previous LSR machine. Hot rodders were learning something about finesse.
Goldenrod was trailered to Bonneville in September 1965 for shakedowns. On November 12—it was late in the season, and the course was damp—Bob Summers hit 417, then made a successful return run for an average of 409.277—15 mph faster than John Cobb’s 1947 mark and 6 mph better than Donald Campbell’s in Australia.
Nobody even came close to that 409 for almost a quarter-century. Then Elwin (“Al”) Teague of Santa Fe Springs, California, began creeping up on it, clocking 378 in 1988 and 390 in 1989. In 1990 both Teague and Nolan White of San Diego peeked just beyond 400 mph. Each did it with just one supercharged engine—an aluminum Chrysler in league’s case, a Chevrolet in White’s—in a machine with a very low Cd. In August 1991 Teague clocked a two-way average of 409.986, fractionally better than the Summers brother’s mark of 409.277. There are bureaucratic questions about whether Teague now holds the international record; FIA rules stipulate that a new mark has to be one percent faster than the old one, and his vehicle may not even be in the same class as the Summers brothers’. But Al Teague’s exploits certainly lent excitement to the Bonneville scene as the hot rodders commenced their fifth decade of convening on the salt each summer.
Just as exciting was the range and variety of machinery to be seen during the SCTA’s Speed Week (or, now, the smaller events staged by a local organization as well, the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association). The quest for the ultimate, the LSR, has never been all there was to the lure of Bonneville. Far from it.
Speed Week 1989 attracted twenty times as many entrants as at the first Bonneville meet in 1949. The rule book is unequivocal about jets and rockets—they “are prohibited, except during exclusive meets”—but in 1991 even that rule was bent for the venerable Art Arfons, who showed up, at age sixty-five, with a home-built jet machine. Within the realm of internal combustion, there has grown up an elaborate system of classes to accommodate hundreds of enthusiasts with all sorts of different vehicles. The category Special Construction comprises streamliners and lakesters (lakesters must have open wheels but can be fully faired otherwise). Each of these is subdivided into classes for pump gasoline and classes permitting any sort of fuel and then further subdivided by engine displacement into eleven more classes, from 489 cubic inches (8 liters) down to 30.5 cubic inches (.5 liter) and under. The same system of subclasses carries into the other basic categories: Modified (for coupes, sedans, and pickups, with and without alterations to the body), Production (for “typical transportation vehicles”), and Vintage (whose primary constraint is fidelity to “the American Hot Rod flavor”).
All told, there are nearly three hundred separate and distinct records for four-wheeled vehicles, two hundred more for two-wheelers, and even one for three-wheelers. There are classes for steam, electric, and diesel power. (A steam-powered streamliner went 145 mph in 1985.) Antique oval-track cars have gone nearly 170; stock-bodied late-model Detroit iron has clocked close to 300. One may see a Ferrari GTO or a 1966 Lincoln Continental with the driver in the back seat and the engine where the front seat used to be. In addition there are streamliners of all sizes and shapes, running against records that start at around 175 mph.
All this is an explicit concession that, coveted though the LSR may be, some ultimate mark is not what really matters at all. If it were, as Nolan White puts it, “the government would hold the record.” What counts is the speed that can be attained in the context of an elaborate set of technological choices. And the choices invariably reflect private enthusiasms. Every record is regarded with great respect, that for the streamliner that pushes 200 mph on gasoline with only 45 cubic inches as well as that for the one that tops 400 on an exotic blend of nitromethane in an engine ten times as large.
What most veterans like best about Bonneville is its pervasive spirit of amateurism. There is scarcely a hint of the commercial racket that saturates other forms of automotive competition, from stock-car racing to Grand Prix. At Bonneville it costs a few dollars to get in, but spectators are expected to provide their own seating. Nobody hands out samples of tobacco products. There are trophies but no purses. Al Teague figured that he had spent not only “thousands of manhours” but also “about $10,000 in outof-pocket money every year for fifteen years” in realizing his 409. As the rule book puts it, Bonneville is simply a place tor enthusiasts to gather during the hottest time of the year to set up their own city in the middle of nothingness and commune with others in the pursuit of speed.”
The men and women for whom Bonneville is Mecca fancy themselves as custodians of such traditional values as rugged individualism and self-reliance—values central to the existence of, say, Jed Smith and Joe Walker, who first saw the salt flats. They are temperamentally disinclined toward anything they perceive as undue interference by “the government.” One irony, then, lies in their alliance with environmentalists, for whom governmental activism is fundamental.
At this point the ultimate fate of their Mecca is anybody’s guess. “Save the Salt” campaigners are attempting to get the BLM to order Reilly Industries to stop pumping brine or at least to commence “reverse pumping,” to put back the residue that accumulates after evaporation. There are a lot of questions about that. Some people say that Reilly has indicated a willingness to share the cost of this, but a company representative insists that Reilly has made no commitment. Residents of the nearby town of Wendover, for whom Reilly means jobs, have been intensely factionalized. Beyond that, even if reverse pumping is initiated, there is a question of whether the salt will cohere properly with some of its constituents removed. But for those concerned with the great natural speedway, there is no question that saving the salt is more important than upholding the right of private enterprise to pursue its own interest without interference by outsiders. “The salt flats are a unique gift of God to mankind,” said Gary Gabelich in 1977.
A second irony lies in the contrast with another breed of automotive enthusiasts attracted to arid lands, the so-called off-road racers who have wrecked fragile ecosystems throughout the Southwest. The denizens of the salt flats do no harm. They have long since learned to be careful when changing oil, and even the lines they paint to mark the course are washed away during the rainy season.
For several years the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association has been orchestrating a grass-roots campaign on behalf of Bonneville, enlisting involvement on the part of those who go there to test their mechanical ingenuity as well as others who merely “travel across this vast Salt Desert and marvel at God’s work.” The ultimate success of this campaign may be problematic, but when the USFRA spokesperson Mary West tells us that “the future of the Bonneville Salt Flats remains in the hands and hearts of those of us who care,” one has absolute certainty that she is speaking from the heart.