Monday, February 18, 2008

The Lure of the Salt

Sometimes we have the pleasure to share a real insight into what someone else is thinking. Yesterday, two years after it's first release, I watched a wonderful film called “The World's Fastest Indian.” I'm sure that at least 90% of the people who watched it at the time thought they were about to see a bio-pic of Jim Thorpe, the talented football and track star, who played for the Carlisle Indian School. They would, alas, have missed a great story if they'd left at the beginning of the movie, aware that it was a different Indian altogether. The film was, rather, about an Indian Motorcycle, a brand popular in the early 20th century, and more particularly, about a guy who owned one: Bert Munro, an elderly New Zealand racer, who, at the age of 67, brought his Indian for the first time to the Bonneville Salt Flats to see, flat out, what it could do. The film is wonderful, Anthony Hopkins capturing the good humored spirit of Munro to a tee. The adventure in merely getting the bike to Utah was worthy of a film, but there are a few moments which for me, were extremely personal. As a child of Zion (in Utah we referred to that state as “the Land of Zion”, assured that no matter what our religion was, we were in some kind of holy place) I spent many summers bumming around the Salt Flats.
It’s hard, perhaps, to imagine it now, but at the age of 16, when I had a few days off of my job working as a stockboy at the camera store or snapping pictures for the neighborhood weekly paper, I took my car, a venerable 1956 Ford, and drove it west for two hours into the barren plains of Utah which encompass the Salt Flats. I’d sleep in the car, whacking my ears at 3 in the morning in a vain attempt to derail the desert mosquitos whose deep-throated buzzing sounded not unlike the roar of the massive engines in the race cars during the day. My ears grew quite pink. Growing up in Salt Lake, the Flats were part of the local lore, and a visit to the state capitol building, de rigeur for every 9th grade civics class, always included a walk around the “Mormon Meteor”,

a car in which Ab Jenkins, a local speedster, had set dozens of world long distance speed records (i.e. the best time for 100 miles, 500 miles.. etc.) The car was a red and cream colored streamliner, with a seat designed for comfort for sitting in hour after hour, and the mere sight and touch of it helped fire dreams of what it might be like to actually see a car at speed on the Flats.

In 1960, my uncle Jack, the local Newsweek and New York Times stringer (a gig he had for thirty+ years) drove his son and myself out to Wendover (the town on the Utah-Nevada border with the only serviceable motels, and therefore THE jumping off point for all racers) to see the Bluebird turbine car. Bluebird was owned by Donald Campbell, the English racer whose father Malcolm had pioneered high speed racing on the Salt Flats. Donald was trying to carry on the family tradition with a sleek, elegant gas-turbine powered car, and a retinue of 30 Land Rovers, whose presence added an air of gravity which the California speedsters (a truck, a trailer and a race car, usually) never quite reached.

Donald Campbell with Bluebird
Like many of his erstwhile competitors, Campbell ended up crashing Bluebird at 365mph, though he was unhurt in the mishap. Malcolm Campbell, the first man to go 250 mph, the first man to go 300 mph, had run for years along the beaches at Daytona. But eventually he needed more room and in the mid 1930s moved his operation to the Salt Flats where he set a number of records. Curiously, as in many things of that era, the Brits were tops. After Campbell, came fellow Pommys (a wonderful Aussie term for the English) George Eyston and John Cobb. They lifted the record into the mid and high 300s, and at one point had a virtual duel on the salt, each running and breaking a record, only to see the record erased by the other the following day. The Salt Flats became legendary in their ability to providc a very forgiving 12 to 15 miles of smooth, cool surface on which to run. And by the beginning of WW2, Cobb had the record at about 370 mph. Even by New York standards, that’s damned fast. In 1947 Cobb returned with his fabulous Railton Mobil Special, powered by a Rolls-Royce Napier engine, all 3000 horsepower of it, and set a record of 394.196 mph (an average of two runs, the higher of which was 403mph) which stood until 1964.

The Railton Mobil Special
In that summer of ’60 when I made my brief visit to see the Bluebird, sitting quietly like a purring blue tiger in a hangar, I became enraptured with the cars, the course, and that long black line on the salt, stretching straight as an arrow as far as the eye could see. I clipped the newspapers, read everything I could, and as some kids would follow baseball, I became enveloped in the quest to set the World Land Speed Record, the LSR.

We all have stories about what happened after we moved out and went to college, the stuff we lost: the baseball cards, the notes from grammar school, and in my case the carefully clipped articles, grouped by driver, of those few years of racing on the salt. As it happened 1960 was an amazing year for LSR attempts. Dr. Nathan Ostich’s jet car the Flying Cadeuceus, Art Arfons’ Green Monster, and Mickey Thompson, whose Challenger One eventually did run 406 mph one way, setting an unofficial record. One local driver, a good Mormon boy named Athol Graham who owned a garage, had built his own car, a sleek red beast, powered by an Allison aircraft engine (from a P-51). His car, the City of Salt Lake, had run the previous December and reached 344 mph, and he felt that with a bit more power, and a little more design work, he could reach that magic 400 number which in the summer of 1960 no one but Cobb had done. In a bit of mischief, as stupid 13 year old kids will do, my cousin and I crank-called him one night – I suppose we thought his name, Athol, was funny enough in itself to warrant a call – and I can still remember his voice .. “this is Athol…” followed by something stupid which I said, followed quickly by a hanging up of the phone. I’m sorry now, 48 years later, that in that one moment I wasn’t able to think of something smart, and engaging, but I can still hear his voice. Later that summer, on a hot August morning, I took a break from mowing the lawn to listen to the radio and find out what was happening on his attempt to break the record. I will never forget the voice of Florian Weinreiter, the news reader as he announced “and as reported first on KALL Action Central News, Salt Lake race driver Athol Graham was killed this morning in a high speed crash at Western Utah’s famed Bonneville Salt Flats.” Those words hit me like a pile of bricks, and as I returned to the lawn mower, I could barely see the lines in the cut grass through the tears.

But somehow, Bonneville became a part of me for those years. I went to Speed Week (the annual 7 days of racing sponsored by the California racers: bring what ya got, see how fast it will go..) for several years, and once I’d started taking pictures, took my cameras with me. In fact there is a picture in a 1964 Car Craft magazine layout on Bonneville where, standing next to a beautiful race car is a skinny little nerd with shades, a camera bag, and a pith helmet – Me! In 1963 when Athol’s wife rebuilt her car, and made another attempt at the record, my pal Jim Warburton and I became part of their crew, even being charged with spending the night on the salt with the car – just the two of us, both 17, to keep away aliens and other foes. And of course the one thing they tell you is, never drift far from the camper at night when you need to take a leak. All the salt looks the same, and more than once, lost racers have been found the next morning wandering half-mad, miles from where they started. The second attempt by the City of Salt Lake fared only slightly better than the first. The car entered the measured mile at over 300 mph, but half way through got squirrelly, flipped, and crossed the second timing lights upside down. The driver, Harry Muhlbach, was unscathed, crawling out from the car, without even a scratch. Later that summer, Craig Breedlove driving the Spirit of America jet car averaged 407mph (with a one way of 428) and broke the record, finally, which had stood for 17 years. I was one of the first people to get to the car after his run, and have some pretty good pictures considering I was still a very unformed photographer. And I still have a print, signed by Breedlove from what was the first time I learned that if you send someone two prints, they’ll usually send you back one, signed.

During those summer weeks at Speed Week, I also met and photographed Bert Munro, the subject of the film. A crusty New Zealander who was disinclined to take unwarranted guff, he brought his streamlined motorcycle (the “Indian”) and raced it for several years, even reaching 200 mph when that was quite a feat. And being a generation older than most of the racers, he became a wonderful beloved figure, the embodiment of what all the 20 and 30 somethings hoped to be when they were 67. But what I suppose really struck me about the movie was the wonderful scene where Munro, after a harrowing combination of freighter trip from Auckland to Long Beach, and towing his bike in an old beat up Chevy from California to Wendover, finally gets to that point off highway 80 where the big billboard announces The Bonneville Salt Flats: “The Fastest Race Course in the World.” Painted on the sign is a blurry, evocative rendition of Cobb’s Railton at speed, a blur of paint as it was in real life. And there, Munro shares with a young man who has hitched a ride with him, the joy of finally being on the salt. “I have dreamt of this for 25 years, to be at Bonneville. It’s where Campbell, Eyston, Cobb all came and raced for the record. Yes, it’s truly hallowed ground.” In that moment I felt the power of memory. The blanket of age. The power of knowing how, even across generations, across distance, there can be shared feelings. I remembered that twinge in my gut, everytime I slowed my Ford down to make the turn off the blacktop highway, and onto the salt, hoping at once not to become mired in a soft spot, and to be one of Speed’s special family for that brief time, to see a car moving across a horizon far ahead of its own sound. To share as a witness or a helper, the joy in seeing something special, for just that minute an amazing combination of the power of a heart’s determination, and the assurance of a humming engine’s roar beating its tires against time and against the salt itself. At four hundred miles per hour, a mile goes by in about 8 seconds. But those 8 seconds stay with you forever. We’re just sayin….David

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great flick. Saw it for the first time last year. Anthony H was perfect for the role.

8 seconds

The same length of time one sits on a bucking bull in a rodeo. It's over quick, but I can imagine when on the animal's back time stands still.

"Mormon Meteor"

Sounds like a good name for a prize bucking bull, too.

W, but my tractor is slow.

Anonymous said...

I was 5 years old in 1960 living in Pico Rivera, CA. its a suburb of Los Angeles. The kids on my street got to play race car driver at Burt LeSages House. He had a Car that he Drove at the Salt Flats at over 200mph.
He gave us decals to stick on our red wagons and we pretended we were racecar drivers too!!!
I have not thought about that for years. It was a great time to be a kid.
richard

Iris and David said...

Richard: What a small world! In fact, the car I was standing next to, in all my teen age nerdidom, was the Lakester of Burke Lesage (it's a great name, easy to remember). I only knew him as a slightly crusty Lakester driver (Lakesters were cars that started life as Fuel Tanks from P-51 Mustangs, were cut in half, and big engine, transmission and cockpits dropped in) but he went something like 270 the summer of '64. Wouldn't you love to have some of those decals today?
David B

Anonymous said...

Athol's son Butch (Daryl) still has the car. His dream of restoring it is nearly reality but taking a bit longer than the original build.

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Dennis Lawrence said...

My daughter saw your story and shared it with me. Athol Graham was my Uncle. I remember seeing his car in their garage on 33rd South. It was pretty impressive for a young man like myself. I remember that fateful day when my mother got a phone call saying that they were flying his body in a small plane to Salt Lake. There was hope. But he was dead when they arrived. He had prepared so much for the event. All racers went to great costs to have the personnel and timers set up. And then the weather/winds were always a risk. What many don't know is that sponsors are also important. Athol had Firestone as a sponsor that day and there was an error in the size of the tires sent. But he determined the risk was one he could live with, sadly he didn't.

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