Wandering the West
September 15, 2009
This is so not me, but I gotta tell you: A day on the Bonneville Salt Flats watching monstrously overpowered race cars burning more fossil fuel in a 10-mile run than I do in a week is, you could say, a gas. This week it’s the World of Speed on the flats. On October 7-10, it’s the Bonneville Nationals.
The Salt Flats are one of those weird "only in Utah" places. You drive west on I-80 across thinly vegetated empty valleys populated only by the toxic-waste incinerator, the radioactive waste dump, and the hazardous-waste landfill. That’s the scenic part.
Then you come over a rise and see nothing but bright white, blistering, hot, flat land and suddenly the rest of Tooele County looks like the Garden of Eden. This is the patch of ground the Donner Party bogged down in, putting them behind schedule and leading them to ruin in the Sierras because they missed the pass by a day.
The road’s a lot better now. Take the Bonneville Speedway exit for a look, stopping first at the rest stop with its tower providing a little high angle on the flat surface.
It is exactly because the Salt Flats are, well, flat, that racers have flocked here for decades. Long, long ago this was lakebed for the Great Salt Lake, back when it was really great, spanning from the Arizona line into Idaho. As the lake receded, the flats were left behind. The salt dries in late summer to a hard flat surface that stretches to the northern horizon. Somewhere along the line, hot rodders discovered it and the rest is history.
Most of the year the flats are deceptive. It looks like you could take off and floor it anytime. But look at the tracks that leave the interstate. They only go a few hundred yards before they stop. Then you see a big wallow of brown mud where the tow truck hooked on to pull the fool out. Each time Wendover tow-truck operators see this scenario, they also see at least $200. The mud under the salt crust doesn’t dry out until late summer. That’s why all the racing events are getting underway about now, although one week of racing, Speed Week, is already over.
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Right now it’s the USFRA World of Speed week, each day now through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. From the rest area, take the two-lane blacktop road five miles, where someone at the control gate will spell out the rules and collect $10. Follow the pylons across the salt to the racing pits and take a walk through rows of shiny motors and sweaty mechanics.
There’s no money in this kind of racing. These racers do it for the pure love of speed. Several are multiple generations of one family. Others are from clubs that tinker all year on their jointly owned speedsters. There are actually only a few serious Utah racing families, like the Nishes and the Vescos. Most come out of Southern California, where the car culture is alive and well.
From the pits to the starting line, it’s the roar of the engines and the smell of the exotic fuels they burn. Bring binoculars. The cars don’t stay in view for long.
A few years back I was out there and met Craig Breedlove, who was back to try to regain the world land-speed record he once held back in the ’60s. Those of a certain age will remember Breedlove from his ride in a rocket on wheels and from the song about him written and sung by the Beach Boys. He was getting a neck massage from a beautiful young lady while mechanics worked feverishly to get his ride ready. I asked him, "What’s it like to have the Beach Boys write a song just about you?"
"It’s nice," he smiled. "Real nice."
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
THE VITALS: Park City to Bonneville — 117 miles
Insider tip: You must have sunglasses, sunscreen, a sun hat, and lots of water. And be prepared to drop lots of quarters at the car wash getting the salt off, especially from underneath.