When I was a kid, newly of the licensed driver variety – and this would be 1962/63 – I was enthralled with that amazing place west of Salt Lake City a hundred miles known as the Bonneville Salt Flats. They were usually referred to on the radio reports, which were substantial in those years, as “western Utah’s famed Bonneville Salt Flats.” It was THE place to race fast cars in a straight line. In the 30s, as automobiles started to actually put some horsepower and speed into their wheels, the racing folks ran out of space. The sands at Daytona Beach were used for years. Sir Malcolm Campbell, the first of the truly modern drivers, ran his Bluebird streamliner nearly 300 mph there. But eventually the beach just wasn’t long enough to afford the necessary acceleration and more importantly, deceleration, with speeds over 300. Local driver Ab Jenkins, whose car, the Mormon Meteor still stands at the Utah state capitol, set a number of records in the 30s for long distances on a giant oval course. It was only when Malcolm Campbell ran the first 300 mph run in 1935 that the world started to pay attention. Within a couple of years, two other Brits, George E.T. Eyston (don’t you love people with two middle names?) and John Cobb brought big, hunking beautiful cars to the flats, and essentially dueled with each other for the record. By the beginning of the war, Cobb was the record holder with 368 mph. After the war, with a revamped “Railton Mobil Special” powered by two aircraft engines, he became the first man to drive over 400mph, and set a two way record of 394.2 mph. As anyone racing today can tell you that is FAST, especially when you are doing it on four wheels. The record stood till 1963 when Craig Breedlove averaged 407mph in the Spirit of America jet car. One driver, Mickey Thompson, ran 406mph in 1960 but was unable to make a return run, that being the recognized requirement to lessen the chance of someone getting a wind assist. Various racers upped the records (there was one for wheel driven cars, and one for jet/rockets) over the years, till a dozen years ago the British came back with a twin turbo jet car which ran over the speed of sound. The Brits have prided themselves for decades on holding the records, always able to point to British engineering and design.
Americans have been fond of speed too, not surprisingly. Our own home spun versions have taken a slightly different approach. Our guys tend to be real gear-heads, in love not only with the speed, but the mechanics, and mechanical beauty of it all. In the late forties, a group from southern California began coming to the Salt Flats in August every year, holding what would become “Speed Week.” The Southern California Timing Association was a group of racers and folks with clipboards who kept coming up with the most amazing classes of cars… from Streamliners (obvious) to Lakesters (originally designed as open-wheeled cars who started out life as P-51 fighter belly tanks, engines and wheels added) and roadsters (think “Hot Rods”) of all varieties. Literally hundreds of folks seal off those days in August each year, knowing there is no where else on the earth they would rather be. The Flats are a harsh environment: long (15 to 20 miles), desolate (nothing grows there), and hot. During the day the heat can easily reach 110 degrees, and there isn’t a helluva lot of shade to enjoy. Bring your own.
I usually think of racing as a young man’s game. If you look at Nascar, most of the drivers are in their 20s and 30s, with a few older, but largely in that age group. On the Salt it’s a different story. Perhaps it’s because they just know of nothing else to do, or maybe it’s because being a gearhead is just something you never tire of, but an surprisingly large number of the folks this year were within 6 or 8 years of my own age. The salt may be white, but the folks on the salt are grey and silver. More than once I noticed a Social Security zip code. I didn’t poll the group, but I suspect the number of Vietnam vets is inordinately high, as well. Most of these guys had that look of having spent time in a foreign land as some point, courtesy of Uncle Sam. (I don’t know exactly what that look IS, but I think I know it when I see it.) The camaraderie and friendship is deep and wide. Unless you’re planning on stealing someone’s secret plans for their rear-end gear box, you’re welcome in all the pits. All the racers love to share stories about their work, their cars, and their lives. I keep wondering if there is anything in my life which attracts the same numbers of alte kachers as Speed Week. I hadn’t actually attended Speed Week for four decades, though I have been to the Flats to see some Land Speed Record attempts, the last of which was the Budweiser Rocket Car some 30 years ago. It did seem like just yesterday that I was bouncing around Wendover, the oddly schizoid border town nearest the Flats. In the mid 1960s, before ax murders were as popular as they are now, I’d drive to Wendover, spend a day on the salt getting a horrible sunburn, and sleep in my car, the venerable 1960 Plymouth, swatting mosquitos away from my ears in what was probably the least comfy sleep of my youth.
The Enola Gay hangar at Wendover Air Field
I took refuge away from the tiny crowds at what was the old Wendover Air Force Base. During WWII, this was the place where the heavy bomber crews trained, and in particular, the crews of Bockscar and Enola Gay, which dropped the first nuclear bombs. Then, even more than now, Wendover was a place where you might actually be able to keep secrets in tact. Nothing around for a hundred miles.
Now, when you drive onto the Salt it is a place to behold. As far as you can see a mottled white surface, writ hard and crusty from days of baking in the nearly tropical sun. Once dragged by a big heavy metallic net behind a State of Utah dumptruck, the pathway is marked by orange mile markers. When it’s a true LSR (Land Speed Record) run they usually run a single black line straight down the track for 10 miles. It’s so far that when you are at mile 4 or 5, you hear the car coming before you see it. The curvature of the earth combines with a mirage effect to make it very hard to see until it’s just a couple of miles away. The cars are built low to the ground, generally, and minimize their air resistance. It remains a site to behold, and the sharp crackle of engines starting at the Start line is a sound you won’t soon forget.
One of the cars on display this year was the newly redone, for the third time in 50 years, City of Salt Lake. Originally designed and built by a Salt Lake garage mechanic, Athol Graham, the car ran upwards of 344mph in Dec. of 1959. He figured a local boy had as good a chance at owning that record as someone from Pomland. A year later, at the beginning of a big year of record attempts, Graham drove the car again, this time a victim of instability at 300+ mph. He crashed and was killed on the spot. His wife Zeldine rebuilt the car, and it was run again in 1963. I was a part of the pit crew. (They were clearly hard up.) Again the car crashed at some 300+mph, but this time the driver, Harry Muhlbach, walked away unscathed.
The Spectre, nudging the 400mph barrier, but not quite there
Nothing beats the heat like two-flavor Hawaiian shaveIce: $6 for a large, worth every penny
The wreckage sat in a field in Nevada for years, only to be recovered by Athol’s son Butch, a house painter in Salt Lake. Though Butch had only been 2 when his dad was killed, he was imbued with a sense of what the car was about, and what it meant. Working in his garage the last couple of years, he’s put it back together, lacking for now, only the Allison Aircraft engine, to power it. Somehow, even fifty years later, the City of Salt Lake looks like an aerodynamic dream machine, its red rippling across the Salt.
The lasting impression I have of this year’s trip to the Salt is that so many of my contemporaries are still in it. Once a Gearhead, always a Gearhead it seems. I love these old guys, and I love listening to the roar of their cars as they drive into the edge of the horizon. And to the edge of the horizon they go. We’re just sayin’….David