Marc Gewertz and Speed Demon Media
The Bonneville Salt Flats is a place for the farsighted. Near Wendover, Utah, its intimidating landscape can only be crossed by those with enough vision to imagine founding a city on the other side of a seemingly endless expanse of white salt—and land speed racers who can see a record nine miles away.
Bonneville Speed Week 2021, which kicked off last Saturday and ends Friday, began with more of a stumble than a triumphant stride. Winds lifted clouds of the soft gray silt that lines the outer banks of the salt flats and turned the entire lake bed into a giant, hazy, stinging blasting cabinet. Port-a-potties tumbled. Tarps and awnings went airborne. Even the slim orange flags that mark the boundaries of racetrack and pits bent to the ground in supplication. Then came the fires. Not on the flats themselves—there’s nothing there to burn—but nearby in the dry mountains. Smoke filled the valley, filtering the clean desert light into the greasy orange of a chili-dog wrapper and hiding not just the horizon but even the cones a few feet out from the starting line in a smudge of ash. These weren’t record-setting conditions for the nearly 500 racers who made the trip this year, but Bonneville revels in unpredictability.
By Saturday afternoon the smoke had cleared, and by the end of the day there had been 220 passes down the track, and 29 vehicles went fast enough to set records. Come Sunday, they’d make a backup run and see if they’d make it official. Setting an official Southern California Timing Association record isn’t as simple as just going fast once. After a run that qualifies as faster than an existing record, the car goes to an impound yard and must make a second run the next day. The two runs are averaged, and the result, if it’s fast enough, is the new record. It sounds easy enough, but there were also crashes—three on Sunday serious enough to send drivers to the hospital. Chasing records remains a dangerous pursuit.
Spend some time watching the live feed, and you’ll see everything from former stock cars and vintage roadsters to Mercedes Gullwings and elongated superbikes. Land speed racing encourages mutations and evolutions in both powerplant and chassis. This year, there are multiple teams running electric vehicles and hunting for a chance to put their names in the record books. There’s also a snowmobile team running a long, tracked machine powered by a Yamaha R1 engine that’s force-fed by two inline superchargers. Yeah, it’s wild.
Bonneville racing is so strange. It seems to pop out of the salt fully formed, like some sort of fuel-hungry fungus. Of course, it doesn’t. Bill Lattin, chairman of the SCTA Bonneville Nationals, told us the SCTA crew and volunteers had been out there for more than a week before the start of the competition, setting up tech inspection and the impound yard for the record-setters, as well as dragging and preparing the race courses. “After the wind flattened everything, even friends were here picking stuff up,” he said. “So, that was unexpected, but mostly we’re excited because the salt is so smooth. It hasn’t been this way in a long time, and if Mother Nature cooperates with us, we’re going to see some records fall.”
That salt surface is a delicate thing. Too wet and it clumps and sticks to the tires, turning an attempt at a record into saline mud bogging. Some years it gets brittle and sharp. It cracks and heaves and makes an uneven track, hardly what you want when you’re setting out in a rocket nosecone on a 400-mph run. Weather and mining have taken a toll on the flats, and a few years ago there were real concerns that racing at Bonneville might not continue. Lattin was delighted to share the news that recent dry winters in Utah, plus a change in mining practices, seem to have contributed to a much improved salt plain. “It’s still thin,” he said, “but it’s strong.”
Certainly Danny Thompson—son of one of the most famous land speed racers of all time, racing’s jack-of-all-trades, Mickey Thompson—has no complaints about this year’s salt. He’s driving a nitro-burning B/fuel streamliner and just squeaked it into a record on Sunday morning. There are more classes at Bonneville than there are grains of salt, but the letter designation gives a hint at the engine size. For Thompson’s car, a 421-cubic-inch Hemi, fuel means nitro as in a top-fuel dragster, and streamliner should have you picturing a sleek missile with a tiny compartment just big enough for a brave (maybe crazy) pilot.
Thompson is no stranger to a streamliner. He set a 448.75-mph record in 2018 in the Challenger II, a pursuit his father started and was never able to complete. This year, Thompson is part of another family legacy. His ride is the red and white scalloped Ferguson liner, a well-known record-setter. “Normally, Don Ferguson II drives it,” Thompson said. “But they like to get different people in, get them licensed, or get them records. Bonneville racing is like that. Generous.” Thompson returned his hosts’s generosity by nabbing them a new record. The previous high mark for the class was 349 mph. Thompson ran 377 mph to qualify, but then had an engine issue in the last timed mile on the return run. Records must be backed up in the same mile that they qualify in. Even so, the two runs of 349 mph and 351 mph were enough for a new 350.5-mph record that just squeaks in above the existing one. While Thompson is hoping to reset it a little closer to 400 mph, he’s delighted that the 350-mph run fills an empty spot on his hat rack. When you set a record, you get a hat to commemorate it. Red hats are for records of more than 200 mph, blue for 300, and black for 400. “I had a red and a black,” said Thompson, “but I needed a blue.”
What color hat do you get for more than 500 mph? That’s the goal for George Poteet, the king of the salt flats. Poteet’s Speed Demon streamliner already holds the record for fastest piston-driven car, but he’d like to claim fastest wheel-driven, currently held by the turbine-powered Turbinator at 483 mph. If he could reset it at 501 mph, that would work nicely.
So far, however, this week hasn’t been quite what the Speed Demon team wanted, what with the wind squashing their pits, two major crashes (by other racers) slowing the run schedule, and a minor fire Sunday morning, but crew chief Steve Watt says spirits are high. “We learned from a fire last year,” he said, “so this year the car has much more protection around the wires and electronics. What took us a day and a half to repair before is less than half a day now. We’re already ready to run again. Bonneville is always about getting over the first hump. We’ll be charging down there tomorrow [Monday].” There is still a week of racing to go, and it looks like it will be plenty speedy.
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