It's close to midnight. As far as we know, nothing evil’s lurking in the dark. But photographer Andrew Yeadon and I have been speculating. Out here, in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, on a cold and spectacularly starry October night, it would be foolish not to. Between us, we’ve spotted five streaking meteorites of various hues, and a diamond-shaped alien invasion fleet advancing on our position from the low horizon in the east that turned out to be a slowly ascending constellation difficult to identify without having Patrick Moore on speed-dial.
But then it’s easy to lose perspective and talk nonsense in the pitch black, 4300 feet above sea level, zippers tucked under chins, summoning the will to sip from the almost-too-cold-to-hold cans of Rolling Rock we’ve brought along for our night shift in the closest approximation of nowhere I’ve ever been. Andrew needs a barely believable four salt-kicking hours to execute his signature ‘star trail’ night shot. Naturally, we spend a lot of time with hands in pockets, looking up. Initially I’m distracted by what seems to be a band of light cloud cover directly overhead that, curiously, doesn’t move or change shape. Then it dawns on me that I’m being a weather-fixated twit. The arc of ‘clouds’ is actually billions of stars that you’d never see in Blighty but which are visible to the naked eye in Utah’s thin, clean air. Our galaxy. The Milky Way. It’s awesome. For about half an hour.
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One hundred and eighty of the longest imaginable minutes later, with boredom and cold attempting a death-hold pincer movement, I’m testing how far I can walk into the inky blackness and still make out the tiny red LED on the back of Andrew’s monotonously auto-clicking Canon before giving in to the urge to turn back. About 120 paces. I do this a dozen times, daring myself to go further, but I feel scarily alone when the little red eye winks out. It gets more bizarre: the subject of the camera’s time-lapsed celestial backdrop is a £225,900 Bentley Mulsanne, an unlikely visitor to the spiritual home of the land speed record and possibly the last car on earth you’d want to spatter with salt. So, two guys at the dead of night standing on 42 square miles of sodium chloride at the site of an ancient lake taking a 360-exposure photo of a once pristine two-and-a-half-ton limo. How did that happen?
Rewind 72 hours. We’re drinking coffee in the foyer of Salt Lake City’s downtown Hilton, waiting for the Bentley to arrive from Los Angeles. Neither of us is sure exactly where this story will take us other than the ambitiously named Montego Bay Casino Resort in the small ‘city’ (we’d call it a town) of West Wendover in Nevada, just the other side of the Utah border and hundreds of miles from anywhere – except one of the few places on earth from which you can see its curvature at ground level.
It’s a gentle, low-impact drive during which the steering wheel hardly moves at all. Having nothing much to dodge over the 120 miles between SLC’s arrestingly turquoise Great Salt Lake and Wendover, Interstate 80 – which in its entirety stretches nearly 3000 miles across the US from San Francisco to New Jersey – bisects the barren desert in a series of dead-straight lines that lead to fixed vanishing points on distant, mountain-fringed horizons that appear to wobble in the heat haze. The Mulsanne loves this road, loping along so serenely at the 75mph state speed limit that we can hear ourselves blink, which we do quite a lot. For the final ten minutes before the Speedway exit, I-80 hugs Bonneville’s edge. The glare of sun on snowy-white salt to our right is dazzling. The more I see of Utah’s bleached desert landscape, the more beautifully strange it becomes.
As pretexts for visiting the Bonneville International Speedway go, travelling by Bentley’s plushest motor to catch the last meeting of the year for hard-riding, speed-seeking hot rods, door-slammers and streamliners at the world’s fastest, flattest motorsport venue – the so-called World Finals – has a nice, off-kilter vibe. But we’re also pencilled in to hook up with land speed record holder Andy Green who, in collaboration with Bentley, is making a film evangelising the need for speed in a post-Concorde age, a personal quest in which he will attempt to drive Bloodhound SSC at 1000mph in 2014. It’s hard to imagine that maxing a Mulsanne at Bonneville (not our tastefully muted blue example; Andy’s is a punchy metallic red) will form any kind of serious warm-up for outrunning a bullet fired from a .357 Magnum, but the encounter between the 752lb ft of torque developed by the Mulsanne’s ancient 6.75-litre twin-turbo V8 and the slithery salt that has undone so many record chasers should prove illuminating.
Confession: we nearly miss the only game in town that doesn’t require plastic gambling chips or a tower of coins. Whether it’s the jet lag, the effort of eating gargantuan omelettes for breakfast in Salt Lake City, the jangling din of the Montego Bay’s Vegas-calibre slot machines or plain stupidity, we assume that The World Finals (despite the grand name, actually a scaled-down version of Speed Week, which is held in August) will occupy the weekend and, content to rough-out a plan of attack over a couple of beers, we let the rest of Friday melt hazily into another heavy-duty, high-ambient-noise meal and welcome early night.
The following morning, sticking to the plan, we decide to recce the surrounding area for decent driving roads before moseying down to the Flats in the afternoon. But a chance encounter outside the Family Dollar store with a cheery, bewhiskered, old-time biker on his way home to Canada towing a trailer carrying a fully streamlined but broken 1950s thumper informs us it will be all over bar the shouting by noon. I get the feeling he wants to tell us about how he witnessed the filming of The World’s Fastest Indian a few years back – the biopic of New Zealander Burt Munro (played by Anthony Hopkins) who set a new land speed record on his 1920 Indian motorcycle at Bonneville in 1967. But we explain we have our own record to set: the one between the Dollar store and the famously bullet-riddled sign that announces the entrance to the Bonneville International Speedway eight miles down the road. There’s one parting piece of advice from our saviour that could have been cut from the same Hollywood cloth as the Munro movie. ‘Look out for the old Triumph Spitfire,’ he says. ‘It’s been going a hell of a speed. You’ll see.’ The old guy’s obviously spent too much time under the sun or feasting on high-octane petrol fumes.
‘We will,’ we wave, maybe a little too patronisingly, as we slip back inside the Bentley’s cosseting leather cocoon. ‘Have a good journey.’ Sooner than expected, perhaps, we have a legitimate reason to do an illegitimate speed in the Mulsanne. Thankfully, there can be few cars that surge more stealthily. The thrust just seems to well up from some fathomless reservoir of ‘dark energy’, accompanied only by the faintest rumble from the low-revving V8 ahead. That the Mulsanne is so miraculously quiet only adds to the doubtless false impression that no-one can see us doing 110 on the first leg of the spur road that heads for the Salt Flats. Or that, after a 90-degree right-hander signed at 20mph that the Bentley breezes at 70, we’re equally invisible on the longer second leg at 120mph. OK, 505bhp developed at a modest 4200rpm only just holds its own with the car’s 2.6-ton bulk, giving a modest-sounding 198bhp/ton. But torque is the answer: 752lb ft allows the big car to dismiss its huge weight so nonchalantly. It amasses speed without any apparent effort, the only signifier being the two or three inches by which the prow of the bonnet rises and the compression of flesh against cushioned leather.
Slowing to a more decorous speed before we reach the straggle of caravans that mark the point of entry to the vast plain of ultra-bright salt, we’re relieved to see signs of life and activity in the far distance. Though at this range, were it not for the faint but golden sound of horsepower, it could be mistaken for the encampments of rival survey teams at the North Pole. There’s a lumpy ramp from the road down onto the salt surface and several slushy brown patches that look best avoided before rolling onto the relatively smooth, solid stuff and suddenly experiencing a profound simplification of reality: 50 per cent blue sky, 50 per cent white ground – like two enormous, horizontally arranged sheets of paper.
We’re aiming for the tiny black shapes embedded in the latter an indeterminate distance away. Curious to discover what our luxurious and amply shod leviathan makes of its new traction interface, I wait until we’re a few hundred metres out and flatten the go pedal (‘loud’ pedal simply isn’t appropriate in this car). An urgent flurry of clicks, ticks and whirs from the traction control suggests the not unexpected punch-up between Saxa and Dunlop is being treated to some kind of electronic arbitration. The rear end slews, checks and sulks while the eight-speed auto transmission short-shifts through first and second. Then, with a bassy grumble from the V8, everything hooks up and we’re hurtling towards what we assume is the pits with maximum force, which seems only right given our location.
Some 15,000 years ago, the Bonneville Salt Flats were at the bottom of ancient Lake Bonneville, a vast expanse of water covering a third of Utah and extending all the way back to what today is that Great Salt Lake. The first recorded crossing of what eventually became white desert was made in 1845 by Captain John C Fremont and a survey party. Some ambitious souls successfully retraced his steps, but others who tried didn’t make it. It wasn’t until 1910 that the first permanent crossing of the region was completed when the Southern Pacific Railroad connected Salt Lake City with San Francisco.
Even now, a shallow layer of standing water floods the surface of the salt flats each winter. During spring and summer, the water slowly evaporates while winds smooth the surface into a vast, almost perfectly flat plain. Further grading makes it smooth enough to set speed records on.
It’s no great surprise that the first was an unofficial one. A man called Teddy Tetzlaff, apparently a daredevil, drove a Blitzen Benz to an amazing 141.73mph in 1914. The ‘father’ of Bonneville as a land speed record Mecca, however, was Utah local David Abbott Jenkins, who set the first official record of 135mph in 1935 driving a bright red Duesenberg named the ‘Mormon Meteor’. Jenkins lured British racer Sir Malcolm Campbell, among others, to compete with him for speed records on the salt surface and perhaps wished he hadn’t as, just a few months later, the leather-capped and begoggled Brit pitched up with Bluebird and did 301.13mph.
By the ’50s, Bonneville had become synonymous with speed, Triumph built a motorcycle to cash in on the name and, over the next decade, the 400, 500 and 600mph barriers were broken, culminating with the 622.41mph recorded in 1970 by Gary Gabelich’s rocket car Blue Flame.
Unsurprisingly, Andy Green, probably packing his bags for the flight to Salt Lake City as we speed comfortably across the salt, has form here too. In 2006 he took time off from his day job as a fighter pilot and world’s fastest man on wheels (763.04mph, set in ThrustSSC in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in 1997) to drive the JCB Dieselmax streamliner here, posting a two-way average of 350.09mph to beat the previous diesel car record by 115mph. For meetings like today’s World Finals, organised by the Southern California Timing Association, the two runs are in the same direction to keep the action bubbling for spectators and reduce the pressure on teams.
It seems to have done the trick. As we pull up to the freestyle gathering of trailers, motorhomes, caravans, transporters, gazebos and marquees, there’s a relaxed atmosphere – all designer sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats, Bermuda shorts and deckchairs. There’s something serious happening on the long, seven-mile course, though. A miniscule red streak barely visible through the rippling heat haze and rooster tail of salt is going at ‘a hell of a speed’, past the six-mile marker, a tangled mess of parachutes flapping in its slipstream. It isn’t slowing down. It looks as if it’s heading for the end of the world.
What’s that? ‘Some kind of British sports car,’ an old boy who looks as if he’s seen it all replies. ‘A Triumph, I think. Fastest thing I ever seen. Fastest car here today. Faster than the streamliners. Faster than everything.’ The red dot reaches what we reckon to be the end of the track beyond the seven-mile marker and then disappears out of sight completely.
A few hours later with the rest of the teams heading for home, Keith Copeland, the 48-year-old driver/owner of the miniscule red streak, takes Andrew and me out to where the car eventually came to rest, brakes on fire, almost two-thirds of a mile off the end of the measured course. Here the salt layer is thinner and has been pushed up into crusty mounds by the soil below. Confirming its proud Triumph heritage, and characteristic dislike of bumpy surfaces, it dumped a cupful of oil to mark the spot.
But by then car number 1768, entered by Black Salt Racing from Tucson, Arizona – not a Spitfire but a 1971 GT6 competing in the Modified Sports class – had already left an indelible mark on the meeting. Wondering about the ‘modified’ bit? You wouldn’t fancy a modified GT6’s chances of besting the 240mph class record set by a ‘race-modified’ twin-turbo Ferrari Enzo at Speed Week in 2010 would you? Of course not. And, as things turned out, it was embarrassing, the top speed differential between the record holder and the challenger being a laughable 150mph. In the Triumph’s favour. Let me put it this way – on a run that began with the engine almost conking out between mile 1 and 2 (we’ll come to the engine in a moment), the GT6 exited the mile 5 marker, just prior to the unsuccessful deployment of its two parachutes, travelling at almost 390mph – faster than the Enzo, faster than Burt Munro’s Indian, faster than a diesel-powered Andy Green, faster than Bluebird.
The world’s fastest Triumph. Good name for a film. Keith’s back story is more than remarkable. In 2008, his previous Bonneville record chaser, an open-top ‘Bocar’, nearly killed him when it flipped at over 200mph, dug in, subjected his crash helmet to 12G (beyond its design limits) and burst into flames. ‘We thought we’d lost him,’ recalls Keith’s partner and team race support Donna Wagner. ‘He was in a coma, suffered eye damage and a stroke and was so seriously injured it took him 18 months to recuperate. When he was back on his feet, the first thing he said to his friend Mark Hanson, who owns a custom fabrication company, was “build me a 400mph car”.’
Back at team base, Mark walks me round the GT6, which takes a while as, at 22 feet tip to stern, it’s nearly 4ft longer than the Bentley. ‘It ran about 1800bhp on the dyno a while back,’ he says, ‘but I think it’s got more than that now – maybe 2000 – all going to the front wheels via a Mendola transaxle transmission. The engine’s a methanol-burning 5.9-litre Chevy V8 prepared by Moran Motorsports, with twin turbochargers boosting at up to 30psi and ice-water intercooling. I guess people are surprised it’s front-wheel-drive, but that’s good for traction and high-speed stability. You want the weight out front and the car to be pulled rather than pushed. If you throw a dart back-end first, it immediately swivels round. Same principle here.’
Keith wanders up to the car. It’s just as well he’s a slim 5ft 10in as he has to climb into the claustrophobic cockpit through the sunroof because a truly massive roll cage blocks ingress through the doors, despite the fact that the rules state that they have to open. It’s becoming clear that the man who, a couple of hours ago, had what for most of us would have been a life-changing ‘moment’ seems to have his own ice-fed internal intercooler. ‘He can be a bit like Kimi Räikkönen on tranquilisers,’ says Donna. When Keith chimes in with: ‘I wanted a hard-top because I wrecked an open-top car out here once. If you’re going to be upside down, have a hard-top car,’ we’re left in no doubt.
THE Next day we go sightseeing and get to know the Mulsanne a little better. We find a road that spears off left from the ‘20mph’ right-hander on the way to the Salt Flats that twists and climbs to over 5000ft above sea level, affording stunning views of the Flats when you look back. As south Utah hosts some of America’s most spectacular scenery, including the jaw-dropping Monument Valley, this north-west corner of the state tends to get something of a bum rap when it comes to tourist attractions. This seems a little unfair for a place that frequently looks like another planet, boasts a quality of light that, even by US desert standards, seems an order of magnitude brighter on cloudless days, and has skies so big that all man-made things – mega-trucks, gold mines, even Bentley Mulsannes – look like toys.
Our Mulsanne becomes more beguiling by the mile, not least because its velvety thrust is teamed with a surprisingly talented chassis. It isn’t simply a matter of efficiently transmitting the V8’s mammoth outputs to the road; the Mulsanne also disguises its mass brilliantly, steering with delicacy and precision and, thanks to the Dynamic mode laced into the ESP that allows more wheel slip at higher speeds than before, adjusting its cornering attitude in response to throttle inputs.
Yes, it will waft along on the softest of its damper settings in pampering comfort and still cover the ground at a more than respectable lick. But set the suspension to Sport and nudge the auto ’box to select ‘S’ and the Mulsanne knuckles down in a remarkable fashion with brakes that just never give in. For a 2.6-ton car that squeezes bends so much closer together, its general composure, body control and damping border on the magnificent.
None of which is lost on Andy Green as Monday morning’s brilliant sun finally kills the bone-deep shivers of our starry, starry night and, with the video cameras rolling, he delivers a lucid commentary on the art of driving flat-out at Bonneville and the hardly revelatory news that a Mulsanne really will top 180mph on salt with absolutely no drama whatsoever.
Just two and a half miles into the run and we’re doing 175. Green seems to be genuinely impressed. ‘This car is just eating the track,’ he says, maybe injecting just a little hype for the hell of it. ‘The car’s drifting ever so slighty but that’s perfectly normal at these sorts of speeds. And here we are: 180mph in a Bentley Mulsanne. Three miles a minute on the most famous racetrack in the world, the Bonneville Speedway.’
It was never in doubt. If the calculations work, few things are for Andy Green, including the aim to hit 1000mph in the jet- and rocket-powered Bloodhound SSC on South Africa’s Hakskeen Pan in 2014. By then, if things work out for Keith Copeland and Mark Hanson, there’ll be a 1971 Triumph GT6 ripping across the Bonneville Salt Flats at over 400mph.
For some reason, I can’t help thinking theirs will be the greater adventure.