The story of the Bonneville Salt Flats

A sacred place for all petrolheads

13w ago
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Today, the famous Bonneville Salt Flats area is endangered by big amounts of water and mud. But, for over a century, this place was Mecca for lovers of speed and it's a place where numerous land speed records were achieved.

The fastest Indian. Burt Monroe and his record-breaking motorcycle

The fastest Indian. Burt Monroe and his record-breaking motorcycle

And the Bonneville Speed Week is something much more than just your casual Sunday drive. It's a spectacle where you only need a car and a stopwatch to join and enjoy. Around ten thousand people come every year and walk around improvised pit lanes talking to about 500 contenders that want to break some records.

John Cobb's 1939 Railton Mobil Special

John Cobb's 1939 Railton Mobil Special

The machines that come to the Speed Week are perfect examples of someone's creativity, diversity, mechanical ingenuity and imagination. For the crowd, this is a magnificent cacophony of visual and audio madness. But, there is also proper order on the Salt Flats, and proper rules to go by. Cars are separated to different classes, there are qualification runs and 3 tracks that can be used.

Credit: Petrolicious

Credit: Petrolicious

And the surface where the event takes place is the former lake Bonneville which, at its peak around 15.000 thousand years ago, used to be 300 meters deep. Over the time, the lake disappeared, giving us an area of about 83.000 square kilometers. Around the central part of the lake, salt layers are 150 cm thick, and about 60 cm on the edges. Experts claim that there are 147 million tons of salt in this area.

Credit: Eugene.Kaspersky.com

Credit: Eugene.Kaspersky.com

The name Bonneville comes from an explorer Benjamin Bonneville, who actually never saw the lake. Instead, in 1890, a geologist Grove Karl Gilbert was exploring this area, and he decided to name the dried lake after the man who studied this region before him-Bonneville.

Pit lanes at Bonneville

Pit lanes at Bonneville

In 1975, the entire area was listed as a National Historic Site. It really deserves the title "historic", since almost all speed records between 1935 and 1970 were set there. But, the first person to recognize its potential for speed thrills was W.D. Rishel in 1896. He was preparing a bicycle race from New York to San Francisco when he discovered the lake and realized that it can be used to defy the gods of speed.

Ab Jenkin's Mormon Meteor

Ab Jenkin's Mormon Meteor

He returned to the Salt Flats in 1907 with his Pierce-Arrow and proved that the ground is perfect for speed runs. When the word spread out, people went crazy. In 1914, Teddy Tetzlaff took his Blitzen-Benz II to the salt flats and reached 229,91 km/h, setting the very first land speed record.

Teddy Tetzlaff (with his arms crossed) and his Blitzen-Benz II

Teddy Tetzlaff (with his arms crossed) and his Blitzen-Benz II

One of the best Bonneville Salt Flats promotions happened in 1932 when Ab Jenkins decided to show the reliability of his V12 Pierce-Arrow by driving it on the flats for 24 hours straight (only stopping a few times to refuel it). His average speed was 180 km/h and after that, Bonneville was introduced to a bunch of British men who wanted to break some records-John Cobb, Malcolm Campbell and George Eyston were able to set the record bar all the way up to 592,09 km/h.

Ab Jenkins and his Pierce Arrow

Ab Jenkins and his Pierce Arrow

After the Second World War, things didn't change much. The passion for speed and big egos were still there, but Bonneville was also introduced to a new age-the age of rock'n'roll and hot rods. In 1949, the very first Speed Week was held and in 1952, 36 square kilometers was reserved only for races and testing cars. In the next 2 decades, a new era was starting to rise, and jet-powered cars came to Bonneville to show others how it was done. In 1970, Gary Gabelich set the world record in his Blue Flame, reaching the speed of 1014,51 km/h.

Blue Flame

Blue Flame

The record was broken in 1983, when Richard Noble took his Thrust2 to 1019,47 km/h. This record wasn't broken until 1997, when Andy Green broke the sound barrier with the Thrust SSC and reached 1223,65 km/h.

Thrust SSC

Thrust SSC

True speed freaks respect the history of this lake. This salty surface is also trying to be preserved for the future generations of speed seekers. There is a foundation called Save the Salt, whose main role is to promote its legacy and restore as much as they can. To preserve the flats, around 10 million tons of salt are brought every year, and experts are always watching the condition of the Bonneville lake. So, I think that means that the coexistence of nature and adrenaline will continue, and hopefully records will continue to be broken here.

Credit: canyonparkutah.com

Credit: canyonparkutah.com

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Comments (4)

  • Nice article with some good history. Hopefully I will make it out there sometime. Even if no records are being broken then. Just to see the vast area of the former lake

      2 months ago
  • I hung out at the starting line years ago. Kept thinking someone was going to hand me a fire extinguisher when they were firing up fuel cars. I have never had better access to a racing event. A truly great day.

      2 months ago
  • I live pretty close to the salt flats. I went to speed week last year. Fastest car I saw was 411 mph. Such a cool place

      2 months ago
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