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Land Speed Racing America History

    1944 Racing began at El Mirage
    1947 SCTA formed
    1949 First SCTA Speed Week at Bonneville
    1952 SCTA at El Mirage

Racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats

The Bonneville Salt Flats did not start out as a racing venue. The Native Americans avoided the area because there was no water and nothing would grow there. Emigrant trains like the Donner-Reed Party learned how difficult it was to travel across the thin salt. Bill Rishel, later president of the Utah Automobile Association, introduced the concept of automobile racing on the salt flats. He first crossed the salt on a bicycle in 1896 as part of a nationwide contest. That crossing was slow, but Rishel recognized the potential for automobiles. In 1907, he and two Salt Lake City businessmen tested the area with a Pierce-Arrow. Encouraged, Rishel convinced a barnstorming driver, Teddy Tezlaff, to test his "Blitzen Benz" there. He drove faster than drivers at Daytona Beach, but the automobile community did not recognize his achievement. Rishel claimed that Ab Jenkins brought fame to the salt. When the salt flats portion of a cross country highway was completed in 1927, Jenkins drove a car and beat the celebrity train from Salt Lake City to Wendover, a distance of 125 miles (Jenkins and Ashton 29, 34-35).

Jenkins continued to use the salt flats for racing. In 1932, he set an unofficial record for driving twenty-four hours nonstop (112.94 mph), but even the local newspapers refused to carry the story for a week. "Bigwigs of the automobile concern" told him it was foolish to take "a wild ride on a sea of salt somewhere in the middle of the Utah desert" (Jenkins and Ashton 17, 34-36). Those opinions changed, however, when the most prominent land speed driver of the time, Britain's Sir Malcolm Campbell gave up trying to break the 300 mph barrier at Daytona Beach and accomplished his goal at the salt flats in 1935 (Embry and Shook 165-166).

From 1935 to 1970, the Bonneville Salt Flats was the place to set the Land Speed Record. During the 1930s, British drivers George Eyston and John Cobb brought their carefully designed cars to the flats and challenged each other for the fastest mile record. In 1938, they each set a new record within a month of each other. They also exchanged twelve and twenty-four hour records with Ab Jenkins. World War II stopped the racing, but in 1947 Cobb returned and drove 394.2 mph, a record that stood for fifteen years. During the 1960s, American amateur drivers such as Mickey Thompson and the Summers brothers--Bob and Bill--and British professional driver, Donald Campbell, the son of Malcolm, drove faster than Cobb in conventional cars. But it took jet cars to set extremely fast records. Americans such as Craig Breedlove, Art Arfons, and his brother Walter Arfons brought their home-made designed cars and broke each others' records, sometimes within a week of each other. In 1970, Gary Gabelich broke the record for the last time on the salt flats at a speed of 630.39 mph (Embry and Shook 166-71).


The land speed records were set in cars especially designed for that purpose. But ever since the automobile was invented, men have tried to see how fast they could go. At first, they drove cars designed to be driven on roads; then they supercharged them to go even faster. In the United States, this racing included driving on open roads, hills, deserts, and oval tracks. But the drivers started looking for better places to go fast. 

In 1931, the Gilmore Oil Company sponsored speed trials for the first time at the El Muroc Dry Lakes in California. But those driving on the dry lake beds there often had poor driving conditions that led to crashes and injuries, sometimes even death. As a result, car clubs had poor press. To counteract that, several formed the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) in 1937 and started to look for better sites to race (Noeth 41).

The Bonneville Salt Flats with its Land Speed Record history seemed like a logical place to the SCTA since it was a flat, open place which had already shown that cars could drive fast there. So ten years after their organization, members of SCTA examined the salt flats and then wrote to the American Automobile Association asking to use the flats to establish hot rod records. The AAA refused the request, arguing that it was "highly unlikely a 'hot rod' could ever achieve the speed of 203 miles an hour," the existing record for that category of cars. Car classes are determined by the style and size of engine. Many hot rods fit in the C Class (Parks).

But the amateurs did not give up. At the time, the Salt Lake City Bonneville Speedway Association, a Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce committee, scheduled the salt flats. A group of Southern California men representing SCTA and Hot Rod magazine drove to Salt Lake to visit with Gus Backman, the chamber's secretary. After studying the situation, Backman agreed to let the SCTA use the salt. With that permission, SCTA formed a Board of Management. Otto Crocker, the American Power Boat Association chief timer, agreed to time events. Union Oil, Hot Rod, Grant Piston Rings, and Service Sales of Texas all agreed to be sponsors. Lee Ryan, the publicity manager, told Firestone's racing director, that the event would become "the biggest thing in this country in the way of time trials” (Noeth 42, 44-45).

SCTA scheduled the first event for 1949. By mid-August 200, roadsters, lakesters, streamliners, coupes, sports and racing cars from eleven states had signed up. Eventually only sixty showed up. Three divisions of cars--roadsters, lakesters, and streamliners--using four sizes of engines drove on the salt flats the first year. According to Ak Miller, "The people who went, loved it. We could race flat out and the cars would disappear over the horizon, taking their exhaust note with them, on this beautiful, hard, smooth surface. We saw right away the salt was a rolling dynamometer, you just followed the black line up and over the peak power curve" (Noeth, 50-53). The racers established ten new records. The Salt Lake Tribune reported in 1949 that "these boys" agreed "there's no place like it for real speed." SCTA lost three hundred dollars on the first meet, but they got enough positive feedback that they decided to return, and the Bonneville Speedway group agreed to let them (“Bonneville Flats Offers” 20).

The next year, ninety cars showed up and completed 1,307 runs. Mickey Thompson, a hot rodder who went on to set speed records, worked at a garage and could not miss work the first year. But he took vacation time to come in 1950. He later said, "The whole show was the dream of a lifetime come true, of pinch-penny kids turned loose on the world's greatest race course" (Noeth 50, 55-56). In 1953, the AAA came for the first time and the hot rodders created the 200 Club to recognize those who drove over 200 mph and set a record on the salt. In 1971, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) sanctioned the meet, providing insurance. That was the first year that the international French organization recognized the event so that Land Speed Records could be set (Bonneville Speed Week Program, 1971).

Over the years, Speed Week continued to grow. The 1952 program reported, "There is no racing. Rather, competition is between the machine and time." In 1953, Life explained, "The glistening salt flats of Bonneville, Utah were overrun this month by some of the oddest shapes the motor age has produced” (“Speaking of Pictures” 17). The Speed Week program that year agreed, but added while not all hot rod designs had practical application in car production, they focused on design, engineering, and construction. For those involved, hot rodding was a "fascinating hobby." The program concluded, "We do not strive to outguess the engineers. We deeply hope to make their best efforts more interesting, and in the long run, more usable" (Bonneville Speed Week Program, 1952). For many, there were no winners or losers; Speed Week, like the Olympics, was "an experience more than a contest” (Bonneville Speed Week Program, 1953).

Each year was similar: cars broke records, drivers joined the 200 mph club, a few drivers went over 300 mph, and some had accidents. There were even a few fatalities although not very many. In response to each accident or possible problem, SCTA added safety rules. In 1957, a driver put the first parachute to a car. That year, Ray Leslie set a new American record of 266.204 mph. It was the second time he had broken the record in three day (“German Cyclists” 6). In 1966, Bob Herds and Bob McGrath had two way runs of 301 mph in their B-Class Streamliners. The wide open space helped those who had accidents survive. A Lakester rolled at 220 mph, but the driver walked away without any injuries (“Two Cars” 8). Nolan White had neck and back injuries when his modified sportster rolled at 230 mph, not bad considering the car rolled four times and was completely demolished (Colbath 86).

In August 2001, Don Vesco drove his brother Rick's car, named the Turbinator, and set a record for that class at 458 mph (“Vesco Brothers”). At the same time, Nolan White set the record for a piston/wheel driven automobile on the salt flats at 413 mph. Seventy-two-year-old White averaged 420 mph in the last measured mile and had a top speed of 434 mph. He blew his right tire at 430 mph, and his main parachute ripped off the 5,000 pound car. Thanks to White's forty-five years of experience at the salt flats, he turned into an open area with little salt. He wore out his braking system, but the car stopped when he sank into the mud. He was not as lucky two months later. A shortened racetrack meant White had only five timed miles, and he planned to decelerate after the fourth mile, allowing room to stop. His first run was perfect, reaching a 422 mph four mile average speed. However, his first parachute ripped off, and the other two also failed. White attempted to steer off the course as he had in August, but as he turned to avoid the highway, the car slid and then flipped. Sadly, he died from internal injuries (“Tribute to Nolan White”).

Over the years, there were a few similar accidents, but they were the exceptions. Most of the time drivers were protected because of the wide open spaces and the way the tires held to the salt. The annual articles in Hot Rodmagazine from 1949 to 1976 described the August event as a friendly, family event where drivers and families came each year to drive as fast as they could and renew friendships. They rarely mentioned the discomforts of the salt flats: the heat, the unpredictable weather, the concerns about less salt, spinouts, and accidents. In fact, the magazine pointed out, and racers continue to explain, that there are very few accidents, and those who do suffer everything from broken bones to death are doing what they love. Current racers mourn the loss of friends, but, interestingly enough, they would like to go the same way.

According to Louise Noeth, the "Golden Age" for the SCTA ended in 1969. She explained, "It was certainly the period of greatest change, engines, techniques, body styles, and, of course, an explosion of new faces" (109). Since then, the track has been unpredictable, but even without a "golden age," the racers continued to come. The fiftieth anniversary of Speed Week in 1998 was a celebration; forty-two of the original forty-nine racers returned. SCTA honored Bob Higbee, known as Mr. Salt, for his continuous attendance and role as safety inspector. But many who had been faithful attendees had passed on, and Speed Week was dedicated to them (Noeth 127-28). In 1987, for example, Mrs. Hospitality, Vera Aldrich, who had greeted the racers for fifteen years, died. For Aldrich, "the racers [are] my family. I just love being a part of it all" (Noeth150).

For a quarter of a century, SCTA sponsored the only amateur event at Bonneville. In 1976, racers in Utah formed the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association. Several factors led to the creation of the new organization. By then, control of the salt flats had shifted from the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce to the state of Utah then to the Bureau of Land Management. While the Southern California racers complained that the salt flats and their race track were disappearing, the government said it was difficult to respond to these complaints from an out-of-state organization that only used the salt flats for a week a year. Another concern came from Utah racers who wanted another time other than Speed Week to use their cars. While the SCTA members could use the dry lakes in California, the Utah racers did not have another place to go. For a while, they took their cars to the dry lakes, but that was a long way to go for testing. So Utahns started testing on the salt flats (Potter; Wilkinson).

When insurance issues made just having a timing event too expensive, USFRA started its own event on the salt flats, World of Speed in September. The organization planned its first World of Speed in 1985. The scheduling was bad; that year there was so much water that rivers flowed down the main streets of Salt Lake City, and the Utah state government put pumps in the Great Salt Lake to control the overflow. It took a couple of years for the salt flats to dry out so the Utah group did not sponsor its first event until 1987. According to theSalt Lake Tribune, "The salt will come alive for the second time in 45 days following the annual 'Speed Week' in August. It is sanctioned by the Federation Internationale Automobile in Paris so they can go for official Land Speed Records. The event is an attempt to focus more attention on the world-famous salt flats, which have been used only sporadically for high-speed runs since the early '70s" (Rosetta 7). For a while, USFRA members also sponsored a Land Speed Opener in July, but, like the year I went in 1994, the salt was often too wet. In addition, the volunteers did not have vacation time or resources to run both (Potter; Wilkinson). SCTA added the World Finals in October 1990 to use the salt more.

As with all new organizations, some members of the SCTA resisted the Utah group. For years, they had controlled amateur racing at the salt flats, and they did not want to share. Others saw increased exposure to racing at the salt flats as positive. The more people who understood the successes and the problems, the more the government might work to improve the salt. Members of both organizations acknowledge that personality conflicts and territory claims created tensions, but they insist that over the years the two organizations have developed a good working relationship. There are still some Californians who do not like sharing with Utah; there are Utahns who dislike Californians taking over part of their state. But their voices are muted as most see the overwhelming benefits.
Over time, the two organizations created their own place and learned to support each other. The salt flats became a negotiated space rather than a contested space. Speed Week attracts 200-300 entries each year. To make sure everyone has a chance to run, SCTA adopts very strict rules, and cars must meet the requirements. The organization refers those who do not have cars that meet their rules to the more relaxed World of Speed event. Since the event is much smaller, USFRA is not as strict. It has also added its unique events. For example, it created the 130 mph club where, with a few modifications, drivers can test how fast their street cars can go. USFRA even has an electric bar stool competition (Wilkinson).

In 2003, most see advantages for both organizations. According to Jack Underwood, the SCTA historian, the USFRA has given more political pull to the racers and their attempts to force Reilly Industries, a mining company to return salt to the racetrack. USFRA members formed "Save the Salt," a nonprofit organization that publicizes the disappearing salt and works with the federal and state government and Reilly to improve the track. Utahns and even the BLM listen to those who live in the same state as the salt flats. They are reluctant to respond to out-of-staters--especially Californians--who only come to the state twice a year. In addition, SCTA and USFRA share inspectors at their meets. USFRA maintains the trucks used to mark the track and lay the timing wires, so SCTA does not need to bring them from California each year. Both organizations recognize records set at all events. (Potter; Wilkinson). Phil Freudiger, an SCTA member, summarized the values of most about the new organization, "The USFRA is the greatest. They really work hard on saving the salt.”

The Last Amateur Sport: Automobile Racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats
Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2003, Volume 2, Issue 2