Salt. Since the earliest days of recorded history, salt has in one form or another shaped the course of human history. In the early days of human civilization, some club-wielding, wife-dragging genius discovered that sprinkling a little of this white, powdery substance on your flame-broiled yak steak made it almost palatable. As this culinary discovery spread, salt became in such demand that it began functioning not just as a commodity, but as a currency in many areas of the world. From gastronomy to mythology, salt enriched the lives of early mankind. In today’s society, we tend to take it for granted. The abundant presence of it everywhere from kitchen cupboards to fast food counters has all but eliminated its significance anyplace in our lives. Anyplace that is, save one. One last outpost where salt still shapes the destiny of men and women and leaves its indelible imprint on the history books… Bonneville.
In Bonneville, Utah, the presence of several hundred square miles of billiard-table smooth salt still exerts its profound influence on human and more importantly racing history each August with the coming of the Bonneville Speed Week. If you’ve been reading this column of late, you will have heard me speak of what I like to call the “Automotive Wonders of the World,” those events which every self-respecting speed junky has to see – at least once – before registering for that big enduro in the sky. For me, that list includes events like Le Mans, the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500 and now the Bonneville Speed Week.
If you’re not familiar with what goes on at Bonneville, let me let you in on a little known secret… it’s probably one of the world’s largest and wildest vintage race events. No joke. Recently, Ed McDonough, our European Editor, came over from England for a visit. In addition to making the pilgrimage to the Monterey Historics, we decided that we’d rent a car with unlimited mileage, stock it with Cheetos, Gatorade and other “brain food” and make a banzai 12-hour drive out to Bonneville to see what all the whoopla was about. In short, we were stunned.
First off, the scenery is positively “other-worldly.” Picture, if you will, an immense desert valley that looks like a gigantic glacier. Mile after mile of gleaming, white salt. Regardless of where you live, you’ve never seen anything quite like this before.
Once you arrive in the paddock, it’s really like stepping back into time. Everywhere you look are old hot rods, old tow vehicles, old motorcycles… even old legends like Ak Miller. As we strolled the paddock in the “retina charring” bright sunshine, we were amazed to learn that the vast majority of cars were, in essence, vintage racecars. Everything from Crosleys and Hudson’s to Flat-Head roadsters and belly-tank speedsters. After talking with a number of the owners, Ed and I came to the realization that most of the cars competing at Bonneville have been doing so, year in and year out, for anywhere from 20-50 years! Remarkable.
For those not familiar, the Speed Week program is simple. For seven days the salt is open for record attempts from dawn to dusk. There are two courses to run on, a short course (3 miles long) and the long course (5 miles long). But in order to run on the long course you have to have posted a time on the short course faster than 175 mph. For about $300, you make as many runs as you can in a day and you can do that every day for seven days. Now that’s old-school racing value!
Surprisingly, a great many of the cars are the same as those that you would see at a vintage road race. This year we watched a very stock-looking 1500 cc Porsche 356 Pre-A attempting to break its standing class record of 142 mph, as well as a Mini Cooper, a Ferrari and even an Allard, all attempting to set new class records.
The more I think back on our experiences on the salt flats, the more I’m struck by this overriding sense of stepping back in time. In many respects Bonneville is like the “Land That Time Forgot.” Perhaps, it’s the rugged surroundings or the isolation, but I can’t help but feel that for one long weekend I experienced a slice of racing in the exact same way that legends like Dean Batchelor experienced it. And if you’re a fan of racing history… that’s priceless.
As we pulled our Taurus “Slush O’Matic” back onto the highway for the long trip home, we began to plan how we could return next year and stake our claim in the Bonneville history books. What do you suppose the Land Speed Record is for a normally aspirated Citroen 2CV?