It’s not very often that political issues are brought up in car magazines beyond the Editor’s Page. We’ve reached such a significant point in time, however, when the gloves have come off and we as hot rodders and Americans have no choice but to look Washington in the eye and not blink.
The cold fact is, the Bonneville Salt Flats (BSF) are vanishing. Not in the “save some endangered microbe” kind of way, but in the “not gonna be around at all in a couple years” kind of way. It’s hard to imagine a place so vast and covered with so much white on the surface as being endangered, but the truth is there’s no more than 3 inches of salt crust left on the surface and most of the racing area is less than an inch thick.
For nearly a century, every...
For nearly a century, every possible variation of powered vehicle has made its way down the Salt. Individuals and groups of friends spend years and thousands of dollars preparing for their rookie run. This ultraclean Nash Comp Coupe had a crowd around it during tech and the team was more than excited about their 261-mph record run during the week.
The good news is, as this article goes to press, the racing community, through the Save the Salt Coalition is working with the mine owner, Intrepid Potash Wendover, to save BSF. The details are still being finalized, but the parties have pledged to join forces to permanently reinstate a salt replenishment program. Salt removed from Bonneville to obtain potash will be replaced in the same amount, or more.
The history of land speed racing at Bonneville goes back almost 100 years to 1914 when Teddy Tezlaff set the first land speed record there driving a Blitzen Benz to a speed of 141.73 mph. The Flats proved to be the perfect place for land speed trials, and by 1949 the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) organized the first Speed Week as an annual gathering of those looking to push the boundaries of automotive and motorcycle performance.
Legends like Mickey Thompson, Art Arfons, and Craig Breedlove staked their claims in the history books there, and more than 600 have added their names to the famed 200-mph club roster. It is the rarest of places where, in the two-mile-long pit area, a rookie with a 130-mph banger can be pitted next to a multimillion-dollar entry, borrow tools or parts back and forth, share water and snacks, and have the time of their life without any class snobbery. It is truly the last and best form of amateur racing where the only prize is a piece of paper or a red hat. That rare place is now disappearing.
This crust sample from the...
This crust sample from the pit area at 1 inch thick is actually thicker than the salt at the mid- and long-course shutdown areas. Push trucks retrieving their race cars from the far end of the course have to be careful to tread carefully or risk getting stuck in the deep mud beneath. Course 4 was actually shut down after the second day of racing as the conditions were so poor.
The BSF is part of an ancient lake basin which is filled with salt deposits. Much of the land, including the BSF, is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In the early 20th century, the racing community discovered that the salt surface was perfect for setting land speed records. Mining companies also discovered that salt from the BSF and other areas of the basin could be processed to remove potash and other valuable minerals—which only amount to about 2.7 percent of the total salt. The two activities worked in harmony for generations until it was observed that salt from the BSF was being depleted.
During the recently completed Speed Week, PHR had a chance to talk with longtime Bonneville racer and Save the Salt Coalition member, Russ Eyres. Eyres has been coming to the land speed mecca for 50 odd years and has personally seen the transformation. “The BLM’s geologists admit that there was a map that shows the zones of thickness, and the main thickness of what we call the Race Surface Playa. At one time, the thickest spot was 6 feet. Then as you went off to the edge, it got down to a foot thick and they didn’t bother to measure anything thinner than that. Now there isn’t a place anywhere where we race that is more than 3 inches thick. Anywhere. The salt that we’re standing on [in the pit area] is only about ¾-inch thick. That salt out there [on the five-mile-long course where a streamliner just passed by at 280 mph] is about 5/8-inch thick and is so chewed up we’ll have to move the course at the end of today.” As the conversation continued, it was clear from the enthusiasm of those in and around Eyres’ pit, this was a very personal and emotional matter.