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The Salt People August 2009

The Salt People August 2009



The Salt People
Ronald Kregoski

Remember when growing up how the first question anyone asked when they saw you had a new car was “what will this baby will do?” as they inspected the speedometer for a clue? My dad was too conservative to say it, but I suspected he thought it. Our natural curiosity for how fast things can go and we can go in them is the basic expression of our primordial need for speed. But the people who take to the salt have more than a ‘need for speed’, they have a need for ‘ever increasing speed’. And it goes beyond that which most of us street challengers experience; it is a need that crosses over the line into being an obsession. And the place where those so obsessed have traditionally sought satisfaction are the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Named after a frontier military Captain who actually never saw them, the Bonneville Salt Flats lie along the western edge of the Nevada and Utah border. A glistening white plain that was over a 100,000 years in the making. It was formed in the last throws of the Ice Age when an uplifting of the land mass trapped sea water and produced a 1000 foot deep, 3,000 square mile inland sea 120 by 325 miles which rivaled my Lake Michigan. Centuries of climate change and evaporation, deposited minerals settled into the lowest areas producing a salt bed that ranges from 6 feet deep to a 1/16 crust over a gooey mud base. The only things capable of growing out of its hostile, crystalline surface are mirages.

What makes Bonneville so hot (no pun intended)? Well beside being the world’s biggest racetrack it has an ideal surface for high speed events. The surface is flat to the extent that you can actually see the curvature of the earth. And it is so hard it requires a cement drill to make tent stake holes. This hardness is conducive to high speed racing as it keeps tires from digging in during a slide and causing a car to roll which would happen in anything softer. The vast flatness makes for a safe place if one should find him/herself in a spinout or beginning to veer off track.

The vastness is most appreciated by those whose chute failed to open at 600+ mph. And even though the air temperature often reaches upwards of 100 degrees, the surface remains cool and a little moist to the touch helping tires run cooler and making them less likely to blow at 700 mph. The cycle of Fall rains and Summer heat maintain a race ready surface. The rains turn the flats into a soupy lake that dissolves away the irregularities and the summer heat converts it back to cement while strong winds polish its surface as smooth as any hockey rink machinery.

The first wheeled crossing of the flats were the pioneering, cow-powered wagons heading west which simply found the flats in their way. Next came a local, William Rishel, who in 1896, along with another bicyclist, pedaled across them in 22 hours. Why so long? They attempted it at night and got stuck in the same mud that was to plague racers decades later. The first known person to drive across the flats was ‘Ab’ Jenkins, a young carpenter, who in 1907 rode his Yale motorcycle on the railroad tracks because he was in a hurry to get to Reno and see a prize fight. The bumpy ride was, “the biggest thrill I ever got on the salt,” says Jenkins. Jenkins continued to attempt the flats throughout his life and became known as the ‘father of salt racing’.

Next, in 1911 the same, earlier, bicyclist, William Rishel convinced a friend that it might be grand idea to see how fast his Packard could go. They reached nearly 55 mph; a blazing speed for a car at that time. The following year, the earlier Ab Jenkins returned on an Excelsior motorcycle. Jenkins said, “The force of the wind would not permit me to sit up in the saddle, so I grabbed a firm grip on the two handles and spread my body straight out, as though I was driving on a child’s snow sled, stiffened my legs and gave her the works...50...60...70...and finally 80 mph”! And an era, if not a technique, was born.

The ‘Salt people’, as those hardy and determined few who attempt Bonneville are called, are a breed unto themselves. They put it all on the line, literally and figuratively. The line being an slender oil streak that disappears into a vast blinding panorama of whiteness, racing toward distant mountains drivers hope to never reach.

The speeds attained on the flats are greater and last longer than anything produced at Indy or on a drag strip; including those of the jet dragsters.  ‘Landspeed’ Louise says it best in her book, “This is speed baby, not just a few seconds of tromp-your-foot-on-the-throttle and hope-you-don’t-get- arrested speed, but a ragged-edge rapture that only a dedicated few will experience. On the salt you find the limits of your courage, you learn what daring greatly is all about, and why a Bonneville speed record is an internationally respected pedigree.”

The first sanctioning group was the Automobile Association of America, yeh, that’s right, our own AAA. The AAA finally felt that sanctioning speed events was not in keeping with their charter of promoting safe driving and today the SCTA, Southern California Timing Association confirms the honors.

Each year hundreds of people gather at the town of Wendover and the Western Motel during Speed Week. The race season is from August to October; the period between the flat bed drying out and the new rains. What’s left is the heat, blinding sunlight and high winds, which take their toll on man and machine with more than one timing tower being blown down.

First begun as an oval racetrack, Sir Malcolm Campbell was the first to introduce the oil line and the use a measured mile. The straight 5-mile course consists of 2 miles of speed build up, then the ‘measured mile’ followed by 2 miles to slow down. A racer must make a return run within 60 minutes to avoid any discussion of a wind or sun advantage. The average of the two becomes the official speed.

You are suited up and strapped in your car as you wheel to the starting area. An official approaches and pulls your straps so tight you can barely breath and you are asked the traditional, “Do you know where you are going?” The line stretches out beckoning you. Soon you are hurtling down the salt, feeling your body compress and seeing the world only as a blur.

Why do they do it? It’s ‘salt fever’ they say.  The preparation for a land speed run can be longer and more involved than preparing for a NASCAR or Grand Prix event and there are no grandstands holding thousands of people to cheer the outcome and no big purse to the winner.  It is undertaken for the raw emotional rush speed gives rise to and the challenge to cross another line in human history. Many have marginalized family, job, money and other things thought important by those of us who have not been so bitten. The salt’s siren call is very seducing.

Besides the honor of breaking records, the salt people have some special distinctions. One is the ‘200 mph Club’ known as the ‘2 Club’. Members include anyone who can make a two way combined run that exceeds 200 mph. The first honor went to Willie Young, a young rodder who in 1952 did it in his Streamliner. Others include such luminaries as A.J. Foyt, Unser, and Grannatelli. Then there is the even more exclusive ‘Spinout Club’ for those few who...well, I think you get it.

Over the years the speeds have increased with technology.  Names like Teague, Campbell, Shelby, Paxton, Breedlove, Edelbrock, Iskenderian and the So-Cal Speed Shop have all left their imprints on Bonnneville. Nathan Ostich in the ‘Flying Caducesus’ and Art Afrons with the ‘Green Monster’ powered by a 17 stage J79 jet engine, ushered in the jet age causing speeds to climb dramatically. Bonneville has seen everything from flatheads to rockets and electric motors, some of the latter having reached in excess of 300 mph..

If you want to learn more about the Bonneville Salt Flats and the hardy souls who roll on it, you’ll find it in the book of the same name by Louise Ann Noeth and published by MBI Publishing. Another is the very sexist, Man Against The Salt by Harvey Shipiro. You can acquire them on and they make for both a great read and colorful coffee table reference.  Better still, visit the salt during Speed Week.

Think a good thought and don’t forget to put off puttin’ off.