Bonneville Salt Flats: White noise

Bryn Musselwhite
18 Oct 2006

We take a walk on the salt at the 30th annual World of Speed week

You’ve got salt fever.’ He’s right. It shows in the intensity of my stare. I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me, but right now we’re sharing space on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Stood in the fire-up lane, where competitors queue to take their place on the start line, we’re watching a huddled crew of misfits fettling a row of carbs on a classic 'streamliner'. Once happy, they lower the canopy, fire-up the engine and start the pick-up truck that will push it sedately up to a rolling speed that suits its tall gearing. Then it’ll be away, a long, low drone echoing back across the salt.

We’re on the edge of Utah. If so-equipped, you could fire a mortar shell from where we're standing and hit Nevada, its neon-lit casinos winking at us from across the town-centre state-line in nearby Wendover. But the glitz and pseudo glamour of the casinos might as well be a thousand miles from here. Straw hat tilted to ward off the fierce sun, you can taste the serenity. Even surrounded by a few hundred competitors and no small number of world record holders, it’s still surreally peaceful.

Unlike circuit or drag racing, there’s no explosion of noise and movement. Vehicles roll steadily off the start line, sometimes eased into motion by support vehicles equipped with crude wooden push bars on their front bumpers. The real action happens three miles away – results fed back through CB radios around the pits are our only link, a crackled ‘201.78mph’ here, a ‘chute opened’ there.

This is the 30th annual Utah Salt Flats Racing Association World of Speed week. Smaller than the better-known 'Bonneville Speed Week' (organised by the Southern California Timing Association), this event is less formal and more varied. From flat-twin-equipped streamliners that weigh less than a pushchair, to '50s Americana, geared and tuned to triple their original top speed intentions. It’s all here. There’s even a stripped-out motorhome…

Instead of attracting mainly Southern Californians, there are crews from all around the continent, the great, straight highways of North America carrying them on their regular pilgrimage from farms, workshops, dealerships and wherever rocket scientists work.

As the saying goes, if you have to ask why, you’ll never understand. Racers prefer this event because they don’t have to queue for six hours to run, and there’s more of a pioneering spirit in the air. We’ve seen a record-breaking four-cylinder engine devoid of two pistons and with a cam ground clean on two sets of valves so that its original two-litre capacity is cut in half. Another class conquered. There’s even a flat-six Porsche engine converted to run only three cylinders on one side, with counterweights to equal out the rotating masses.

Our attention is caught by a blue Beetle with a Shelby-style stripe and a 356-style decklid grille. Tom Bruch owns the 1200cc turbocharged 'type 1' engine; his old friend Burly Burlile owns the car. Between them they have over 80 years experience of the salt. Alas, this year they won't be adding to their fund of stories. After two days of racing out of a potential four, the rain comes down.  

The salt has a texture similar to concrete, so the water simply sits and gets blown around by the wind. Most know this is the end of their week's racing. We slosh around in an inch of water, talking and taking pictures for a while, before begrudgingly heading back to the Speed Café, just off the highway, for burritos and chips, and to say goodbye to new friends.

The strange thing is, Bonneville isn’t even a place. There are a couple of signs that tell you when to turn off the highway, and one informing you of a little history, but that’s it. But then if you were faced with millions of square metres of salt, mountains which float on a reflected horizon tens of miles away and skies so large there’s enough here for the world, what would you build? Exactly. It’s already here.

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