History of Bonneville Salt Flats Racing and it’s Speedway

In Wendover, Utah, there exists a natural phenomenon that has allowed racing enthusiasts to push the limits of their vehicles for over one hundred years.  We’re talking about the Bonneville Salt Flats, also known as the “Bonneville Speedway”, an open expanse of virtually flat, densely packed saltpan, a remnant of the Prehistoric Lake Bonneville. This natural race track is perfectly suited for automobile and motorcycle speed trials.  It is almost perfectly flat and it’s salty soil provides a naturally stable surface for reaching high speeds. Historically, the speedway was marked out by the Utah Department of Transportation to mark the start of each summer. The “Bonneville Speedway” isn’t your typical racetrack.  Instead of a circular track like those used in Nascar, there is no side-by-side competition. Instead, vehicles take turns racing on two distinct courses in order to reach their vehicles maximum speed, and in the process, surpass the competition’s final times.   Over the years, racers have pushed the limits of land speed records on this unique raceway, doing so in a variety of vehicles.  Here are a few of the most famous drivers and the crafts that propelled them.

The Beginning-  It was Bill Rishel and two of his business associates who first drove a Pierce-Arrow across the salt in 1907.  After this initial test drive, word got out about this ultimate speedway, and the first land speed record was set there by American racecar driver Teddy Tetzlaff in 1914.  Due to the unique and foreign nature of the speedway, promoters were wary to stray from traditional race venues and set up shop in Bonneville.  It was a local Utah man by the name of Ab Jenkins who showed the world the viability of the track, using his Pierce-Arrow to race a Union Pacific Railroad train across the flats, winning the race and beating the train by almost five minutes.  After word of Jenkins exploits spread, the world took notice.  British speed freak  Captain George Eyston, used two Rolls-Royce “R” Schneider Trophy aircraft engines to propel his “Thunderbolt” custom car to a land speed record of 345.49 MPH in 1938, only to be surpassed by his fellow British rival, John Cobb in 1938.  Cobb broke the 350 MPH barrier in his custom hot rod he named the Railton Special, which boasted two supercharged Napier Lion V11 aircraft engines.

Era of the Hot Rods and Roadsters-  By the turn of the 1950’s, custom, home-built hot rods began to take over, and the Bonneville Speedway began a hot spot for racing these slick vehicles.  In 1949 the Southern California Timing Association began holding land speed events at the salty speedway and marked a shift from big budget streamliners.  Along with the Hot Rod’s, Roadster’s were given their own class in this expansion of the types of vehicles setting records at the Speedway.

Rise of the Jets-  During the 1960’s, a new class of vehicles were developed in hopes of surpassing Cobb’s previous record.  These vehicles utilized actual jet powered engines, along with refined, aerodynamic and highly technical builds.  This period of experimentation saw a large influx of money into the pursuit of reaching greater and greater land speed records.  Major standouts include Art Afrons and his brother Art, Chuck Yeager, Gordo Cooper and Gus Grissom.  Every time a record was set, this highly competitive group would go back to tinkering with their rides until they could come up with something faster.  The speeds increased until 1970, when Gary Gabelich and his sleek “Blue Flame” broke the 600MPH barrier and set the fastest record in Bonneville history.

Aside from land speed records, the Bonneville Speedway is home to a number of long running and popular speed trials including-

-Hellfire Rocket Launch,- held August 1-4, Sponsored by the Utah Rocket Club
-Speed Week-held August 10-16, sponsored by the Southern California Timing Association
-BUB International Motorcycle Speed Trials-held August 24-29, sponsored by Speed Trials by BUB.
-Salt Flats Running Company,-held August 31st, sponsored by the Redline Running Company
-World of Speed-held September 7-10, sponsored by the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association
-Cook Motorsports FIA-FIM Speed Trials-held September 12-18, sponsored by Cook Motorsports
-World Finals- held October 1-4, sponsored by the Southern California Timing Association

This post was contributed by Joe Webster, who works for http://www.a1autotransport.com

Images: Daniele Testa

The History of Bonneville Salt Flats and it's Speedway

The History of Bonneville Salt Flats and it's Speedway

The History of Bonneville Salt Flats and it's Speedway