Bonneville Salt Flats: Automotive heaven
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We found a place where the automobile is king and speed is the one true god. It’s a piece of land shaped roughly like a frying pan—flat and hot—bordered by mountains, and crusted in fine white granules of salt.
To get there, drive west for about an hour and a half from Salt Lake City, Utah on the I-80 towards Reno. Drive past the vast pools of sulfur, where there’s no escaping the smell of rotten eggs. Take exit No.4 and keep going until the road ends. You’ll feel a bump as the wheels of your car drop off the edge of the pavement and then start rolling across the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Welcome to gearhead heaven.
Françoise Perron of Quebec straps her husband André Moreau into their 1953 Studebaker. He’s attempting to touch the far side of 200 mph (320 kph) in this home-built hotrod with the early Hemi V8. She reaches through the tangled web of metal bars that form the roll-cage—the structure that will keep him safe if the worst happens—and cinches his racing harness down hard.
Moreau looks out the front window at a seven-mile long strip of salt that stretches way over the horizon. Perron will loose sight of her husband as he pushes himself and this machine as far and as fast as he dares.
“It start when I was very young, my dad had a garage,” Moreau mumbles through his fireproof balaclava. “Most of the customers used to forget their hotrod magazine in the garage. I kept looking at them and you know, everything, the dream. Finally, after 50 years, we finally are on the salt.”
He and his wife drove more than 3,700 kilometres to be here at Bonneville Speed Week.
Over seven days, 168 world land speeds records will be set here by amateurs in more than 500 hotrods, streamliners and motorcycles. But you’ll likely never hear about these record-setters. The outright land speed record is 1,228 km/h or Mach 1.02. RAF Wing Commander (ie: hot-shot fighter pilot) Andy Green broke through the sound barrier on the way to setting the record in a vehicle named ThrustSSC.
It was powered by a pair of afterburning Rolls-Royce turbojet engines, together producing as much thrust as 145 Formula One racecars. It does 0-1,000 km/h in an estimated 16 seconds. (That’s not a typo.) So you can see why these amateurs at Bonneville, however brave and skilled, will never make headline news. No, these land speed racers risk their lives for something else, although what that is, is hard to say.
“It took three years to build [the Studebaker] and we've been racing it for four years,” says Moreau. “This year is the best year, we went twice 200 mph and the third run we run 205 and we hope to make this run 210.” All land speed racers, even those from Quebec, talk in miles-per-hour, not kilometres.
“The first year we had an issue with learning the altitude of this place to make the motor work. The second year we had issue with high-speed unstable. And the third year we get better aerodynamic on the car. This year everything seems to work well,” says Moreau.
By “high-speed unstable” he means the car would dance from side to side across the salt, fishtailing at 100-plus mph (160 kph). “You have to concentrate to keep the car straight and just let your mind go with it, and everything will go well. Because it’s not on concrete, this is salt. And the car will do weird things sometimes when you shift gears… you never know what this thing will do to you.”
Soon after, Moreau lets the Hemi roar and disappears over the horizon, off on another run. On their last day on the salt, he set a new personal record: 210 mph. Perron sent us an e-mail with pictures of Moreau's Class A license. He's now a member of the 200 MPH Club.
At least 10 people have died at Bonneville chasing speed records. And for what? For a little receipt with numbers on it? To join the ranks of the “200 MPH Club” or 300, or 400. (There are only 14 members in the 400 MPH Club.)
No, for many it’s like climbing Everest—doing something to see if you can, to see what it’s like, to go where very few have gone before. For others, it’s the mechanical challenge of building a machine. Going fast is as much as a test of bravery as it is of engineering ability. There’s real creativity there.
That's a really fast Studebaker! Motivated by an early HEMI, too!