For more than a century, racers have flocked to a slab of salt in the middle of nowhere only to go fast. By the looks of it, there's no end in sight.
If you had a time machine that would take you to the very roots of our industry, it wouldn't take you to a '50s drag strip. It wouldn't take you to 1916 to watch cars scramble up Pike's Peak. It wouldn't even take you to 1914 to watch them turn left at Indianapolis. No, if you really wanted to get back to where it all started, you'd have to go all the way back to 1896 to a dead lake in the middle of practically nowhere. You'd go to the Bonneville Salt Flats.
In the 103 years since racers started making their pilgrimage, Bonneville has taken on a mythical status. First off, it's otherworldly. Salt ground up and in a shaker is one thing, but when it's a slab that covers 30,000 acres it's something else. It's so incredibly flat that many claim to see the curvature of the earth. Due to an optical phenomenon, the mountains that border it seem to float. The place is entirely devoid of any discernable life.
But for a few weeks a year, this white patch of BLM land comes alive. Like salmon called to spawn, racers drop everything to congregate on this alien surface. To outsiders, they're crazy. It's said that land-speed racing is the last purely amateur sport; to wit, the organization that hosts it, the Bonneville Nationals Inc., doesn't dispense any prizes or sweepstakes. All that any competitor gets for triumphing over 60 years worth of the organization's fallen records is a trophy that says so much. At that the glory is fleeting; a record can fall-as it has in the past-within a matter of minutes of being set.
Yet racers still come, hell-bent on beating nothing more than a clock. Some say it's because Bonneville is a never-ending frontier for pioneering spirits. Though it's in the same place every year, each one brings with it new grounds to break. It's a testbed for every manner of vehicle powered by pistons, turbines, or rockets. If you think an electric car is a half-cooked remedy for economy cars, a trip to the Salt is well overdue. If it has wheels, moves under its own power, and more than one loose nut says his or hers can go faster than anyone else's, there's probably a class for it at Bonneville. For example, you can race a barstool there, provided it fits one of the three class definitions.
The two rookies standing by the veteran
Though land-speed racing is so abstract, so foreign to modern society's profit-based risk/reward system, it seems the list of people clamoring to be among its ranks has no end.
The Bonneville ExperienceView From The Seat Of A Rookie-Dr. Mark Van Buskirk
A little history is needed here for the proper perspective. The little '29 Ford roadster that you see on these pages actually ran Bonneville in 1954 and it turned 178 miles per hour with a 331ci Chrysler Hemi. It was not a record-setting run, as other competitors ran faster, but it was one of the fastest roadsters at that early meet.
When Dr. Mark Van Buskirk bought the car from me, it had an Art Chrisman Flathead in it and was set up for the drags. Mark decided to attempt to go all out and create the previous Bonneville experience. He had me build the Hemi and install it.
Since the car was used for drag racing for many years we needed to make lots of changes, mostly for safety, and add ballast to make it stable at high speed. The goal was to go fast enough to get a Class B license (over 150 mph) and find out how competent the car was at that speed. After all, some time had passed (54 years) since it ran there.
Mark, his father-in-law Tom Babbs, his best friend Jim Rogan and I all had the time of our lives. Here is how Dr. Mark saw it in his own words:
As I cinch down the belts, I give Dr. Mark my support and encouragement
"From my home town of Crown Point, Indiana, the Salt was always a fantasy for me, and I wanted to go to Bonneville and go fast. I have done some hill climbing competition and other local events, but I have never gone really fast and I was a little apprehensive. I didn't want to fail. I also wanted to duplicate, to a degree, the car's previous performance at the Salt in 1954, so I bought a 331 Chrysler from a friend and shipped it to California to be built and installed. I was kept abreast of the progress via emails and it helped build the anticipation.
"When we got to Bonneville we had a little trouble passing tech (they didn't like the seat, so we had to order one from Jeg's in Ohio and have it sent out) and it cost us two days, but we got it done, got it through tech, and made ready for the first run. I had no idea what to expect so we decided that I would just drive it out and go through the gears to get a feel for what the car was going to do. Understand, I had never driven the car before and I didn't want to spin and make a fool of myself. Well, I just drove it like I would on the highway and when I got into high gear I squeezed it a bit, drove it through the three mile, and shut it off."
"When the crew told me I turned 138 mph I was flabbergasted. It felt like just over a hundred.
"After another tune-up run, I gained confidence and was ready to stand on it. I tried to leave without spinning the tires and I legged it in second and high gear. At the two mile mark it was really pulling, the wind was tugging up on my helmet and the vibration was greater that the other runs. I was worried about putting too much steering input, so as I drifted near the edge of the course, I shut it off and coasted through the three mile. I pulled off the parked and waited for the push car. When they told me I went 150.116 I was shocked and ecstatic. I knew it went faster, but not that fast. I was thrilled and I got my Class B license. Mission accomplished.
"One thing I learned from the whole deal is this: If you are going to build a car and go to Bonneville, be prepared to have difficulty getting through tech. Read every word in the rule book and if you are in doubt that a rule applies to your class of vehicle, then assume it will. This will help you through the safety check.
Plugs are a little difficult to remove when the engine is set back 25 percent
"I suppose you could say that I got the Bonneville bug, as I plan to return next year and I hope to exceed 175 and get my Class A license. That will allow me to run the long course. I really would like to run full throttle for five miles and once I do that, I'm not sure...maybe try to go 200. That would be something else."
Considering that neither of us had run anything at the Salt, I came away quite satisfied that we accomplished what we set out to do. The fact that the 331 cid engine had a hydraulic cam and three tiny carburetors, I think it performed to its potential. The plan now is to increase the cam and add some more carburetion and gear it for 175 mph.
All the things I had been told about running on the Salt prove to be true. It is a great place to visit and I recommend that every hot rodder make the trek at least once, if only as a spectator. It is the last bastion of hot rodding as it should be.